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My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. As a vice-chairman of the Conservative party, he does good work with Commonwealth countries, and I commend his enthusiasm. We need to decide for ourselves, as a nation, what we want to do not only with Europe but with the rest of the world. Part of that process should perhaps be to consult our Commonwealth friends on how our relationship can be developed in tandem with a renegotiated arrangement with the European Union. They are two sides of the same coin. We all want trade and co-operation with Europe, and good immigration from Europe as well, but sadly we have gone down that road to the exclusion of developing all those things with our Commonwealth friends. A reconfiguration is well overdue.
The UK has the largest Commonwealth diaspora in the world and many people in all our constituencies come from a Commonwealth background or have Commonwealth ancestry, yet it is much harder for someone to come to the United Kingdom if they are a citizen of the Commonwealth than if they are a citizen of an EU member state. Britain needs a renewed sense of balance, fairness and opportunity in our immigration and visa regime.
The Prime Minister has a difficult task. Having pledged to cut net immigration numbers, he has discovered that although he can reduce immigration from the Commonwealth and wider world, he is unable, under current treaty obligations, to reduce it from the European Union. That means that the only policy lever left open to him is a reduction in immigration from outside the EU—meaning, of course, the Commonwealth. The Minister will understand that that has created unintended consequences for Commonwealth nationals. For that reason, I call on her to lead a significant review of Government immigration policy and to establish a system that works for the United Kingdom, not one that is imposed on us and over which we have no ultimate control.
Apart from the restoration of British control over immigration, which would require a fundamental change in our relationship with the European Union, there are many other things that could be done in the meantime gradually to rebuild our partnership with the Commonwealth and, most especially, Her Majesty’s realms. Here are some ideas to get the Minister started. First, we should look at the UK’s tier 5 youth mobility visa. With over 60% of the Commonwealth population under the age of 30, that visa is of fundamental importance. Before 2008, the UK had a youth visa that included all Commonwealth nations and allowed any young person in the Commonwealth the chance to apply to visit and work in the United Kingdom for two years. After 2008 that visa was reformed and only four nations were granted such access: Australia, Canada, Japan and New Zealand. The scheme has now been extended to Monaco, South Korea, Taiwan and Hong Kong.
I would like the Government to consider a more Commonwealth-oriented view when looking at extending the youth visa. Working towards restoring Commonwealth countries to the visa would make young people see the Commonwealth as something of value rather than an abstraction. Importantly, the youth visa is based on reciprocal quotas—the numbers of young Britons leaving the UK should balance the number of people entering, thereby keeping net migration stable. Equally, the visa’s very nature is transient; it is not a route to remain. The changes that I propose would rejuvenate the UK’s
Commonwealth policy, repair relations and replenish our soft power, so I urge the Minister strongly to consider such a plan.
The second policy proposal is the creation of a Commonwealth concession for tourist and business visitor visas. Citizens of 21 Commonwealth nations need a tourist visa to visit the UK, while citizens of 50 need a business visitor visa. Both visas, which last for six months, cost £83. That fee is perceived as making it more difficult for many Commonwealth citizens to enter the UK for tourism or business. A Commonwealth concession, set at the discretion of the Home Office, would go a long way towards building UK-Commonwealth relations.
Whatever their reason for visiting, Commonwealth tourists are important contributors to the UK economy. Commonwealth Exchange is a think-tank that promotes the trading, educational and strategic potential of the Commonwealth in the UK, and I am proud to serve on its advisory board. It has highlighted that official figures for visitors from a number of Commonwealth nations, and for those visitors’ average spends, nearly match, or else equal or even surpass, the figures for Chinese tourist visitors. There is certainly a strong economic case for increased Commonwealth tourist and business visitor visas, which I hope the Minister will also consider.
However, I put forward that idea against the backdrop of a preoccupation with Chinese tourists, the most recent demonstration of which was the Chancellor’s announcement that the Treasury will refund the first 25,000 visas for Chinese visitors between 2015 and 2017—Chinese visitors, but not Commonwealth ones. That policy is wrong-headed, especially at a time when the Foreign Affairs Committee, of which I am a member, has been refused entry to Hong Kong by China. We should not be awarding China free UK visas when it refuses entry to democratically elected parliamentarians and is not acting in the spirit of the joint declaration. Does the Minister agree that there are Commonwealth nations that are far more deserving of favourable visa policies?
In addition, it has been reported to me that the British Bangladeshi community has experienced unnecessary delays, lack of communication and inefficiency in the processing of visa applications, among other things, since the visa section was transferred from Bangladesh to New Delhi. Two years ago, the Prime Minister and I attended the British curry awards, which were founded by Enam Ali MBE. Some of the guests who were invited to that event could not obtain their visas in time. A similar thing happened at last year’s world travel market event in London, when several business delegates could not attend because of the delay in processing their visa applications at the New Delhi office. I hope that the Minister will look at that matter because Britain is losing business and good people who want to come to our country for legitimate reasons are being preventing from doing so.