Visas — Question

– in the House of Lords at 11:06 am on 18th November 2010.

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Photo of Lord Clement-Jones Lord Clement-Jones Liberal Democrat 11:06 am, 18th November 2010

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether they have reviewed the process of issuing visas for Iraqi nationals and the location where they are issued.

Photo of Earl Attlee Earl Attlee Lords Spokesperson (Department for Transport), Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

The UK Border Agency has reviewed the visa service for Iraqi nationals, in consultation with the FCO and UK Trade and Investment. From early 2011, it will be implementing a limited expansion of the categories of applicant who may apply in Iraq, to include UKTI-sponsored business visitors and students coming to the UK under the Iraqi Prime Minister's scholarship initiative. For ongoing security, financial and logistical reasons, Amman will remain the main decision-making centre.

Photo of Lord Clement-Jones Lord Clement-Jones Liberal Democrat

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply but I must confess that I am not even sure that it is half a loaf. I am pleased for the British businesses that are sponsored by UKTI, which was extremely helpful in the recent trade delegation to Iraq. However, will the Minister ask the Home Office further to review the situation because Amman is not at all convenient for the vast bulk of Iraqi business people who have to wait there for up to two weeks? Will the Home Office and UKBA assist UKTI in its future efforts rather than hinder it?

Photo of Earl Attlee Earl Attlee Lords Spokesperson (Department for Transport), Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

My Lords, in principle my answer is yes to everything. I pay tribute to the noble Lord for his persistence in this area. We would like to do more as it would benefit UK business but the noble Lord, who has looked into this matter, will also understand some of the difficulties involved.

Photo of Baroness Afshar Baroness Afshar Crossbench

My Lords, may I ask the noble Earl why students from the Middle East-that is, Iraq, Kurdistan, Iran and Afghanistan-are facing such difficulties? I declare an interest as somebody who teaches undergraduates and graduates at the University of York. We admit brilliant students who could be our best allies in the Middle East but then they cannot get a visa. Is there any way that we can recognise that we need good minds and allow them to come over?

Photo of Earl Attlee Earl Attlee Lords Spokesperson (Department for Transport), Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

My Lords, the noble Baroness makes an extremely important point. It is obviously in our interests to encourage foreign students to come to the UK to study. Our customer service standards show that in September, 99 per cent of tier 4 student visa applications were processed in Amman within 10 working days. That is well within the service standard to process 90 per cent of such applications within 15 days.

Photo of Lord Kirkwood of Kirkhope Lord Kirkwood of Kirkhope Chair, Information Committee (Lords), Chair, Information Committee (Lords)

My Lords, the Minister's Answer is very welcome as far as it goes, but will he undertake to look at how our commercial competitors compare in visa application issuing arrangements? Is he aware that the United States already has a full and normal visa issuing service, the French and the Germans are pretty much getting there and the Swedes, for heaven's sake-if I can put it that way-are issuing 5,000 visas to Sweden every year, which is at least three times what the United Kingdom is able to do at the moment? As he rightly said, it is not just business but scholarship exchange programmes which are being prejudiced. When can we get a full and normal visa service for all incoming Iraqis to the United Kingdom?

Photo of Earl Attlee Earl Attlee Lords Spokesperson (Department for Transport), Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

My Lords, we will provide a full and normal visa service when the situation in Iraq allows it. It is obviously in our interests to do so. The noble Lord talked about the Germans. Following an expansion of German visa facilities in Iraq, suicide car bombers targeted the German embassy in Baghdad in April this year, killing a security guard. We will not take any unnecessary or avoidable risks with our personnel, whether UK or foreign.

Photo of Lord Hunt of Kings Heath Lord Hunt of Kings Heath Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow Deputy Leader of the House of Lords, Shadow Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

My Lords, this is a problem that does not apply just to Iraq but throughout the Middle East, including Libya. Can the noble Earl say a little more about his department's approach as it applies to other countries in the Middle East?

Photo of Earl Attlee Earl Attlee Lords Spokesperson (Department for Transport), Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

My Lords, unfortunately not. I am briefed about the problems in Iraq, not the rest of the Middle East.

Photo of The Bishop of Exeter The Bishop of Exeter Bishop

My Lords, the Minister will no doubt be aware that following the terrible Baghdad atrocity of last month, al-Qaeda has issued a warning that it intends to turn its fire particularly on Christians and the Christian community. What will be the implications of this for British policies towards Iraq, particularly for those who will feel compelled to flee from such violence directed towards them?

Photo of Earl Attlee Earl Attlee Lords Spokesperson (Department for Transport), Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

My Lords, we are obviously extremely concerned about these developments and we will be monitoring the situation very carefully.

Photo of The Earl of Clancarty The Earl of Clancarty Crossbench

My Lords, will not this Government see fit to make a proper public apology to the great Iranian film maker, Abbas Kiarostami, for the humiliating treatment he received in Tehran last year, when he tried, but failed, to obtain a visa to come here to direct the English National Opera, caught out as he was by immigration rules that are doing enormous cultural damage to this country?

Photo of Earl Attlee Earl Attlee Lords Spokesperson (Department for Transport), Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

My Lords, I believe that this happened under the previous Administration. I am not aware of the case, but I shall write to the noble Earl.

Photo of Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville Conservative

My Lords, does my noble friend, in the context of Amman, recall the exchange in 1918 in a military hospital between a visiting general and a Scottish private? The general asked the private where he had been wounded. The private replied topographically, rather than anatomically: "Three miles the Ardnamurchan side of Baghdad, sir".

Photo of Lord Tebbit Lord Tebbit Conservative

My Lords, will my noble friend ask his colleagues who deal with visa applications more generally, particularly those for students, to look at these applications more carefully? When I advertise for staff to help look after my wife, we frequently get applications from people who are here on student visas and who simply disappear when I advise them that they should not, therefore, be available for full-time work.

Photo of Earl Attlee Earl Attlee Lords Spokesperson (Department for Transport), Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

My Lords, the noble Lord puts his finger on an extremely important point. One of the key roles of UKBA is to ensure that when people apply for a visa, they are genuine applicants and that they carry out the visit in the way that they said they would.