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Commonwealth Immigration and Visas — [Mr Peter Bone in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 2:30 pm on 27th January 2015.

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Photo of Andrew Rosindell Andrew Rosindell Conservative, Romford 2:30 pm, 27th January 2015

My hon. Friend makes an important point. We have all heard of concerns in that respect. The creation of hubs in various parts of the world, which are not as accessible for people, has clearly been a cost-cutting measure by the FCO, but the system makes life very difficult for people who need to get visas quickly so that they can come to our country. I hope that the Home Office, together with the FCO, will try to find a more efficient way of dealing with the problems that we are speaking about.

The question of business visas is equally important. Commonwealth countries often share our language and have a similar business culture, with similar legal systems based on the common law. The Commonwealth has key developed and emerging economies, so it makes economic and political sense to place a high value on business visits through a Commonwealth concession. That is another idea for the Minister to take back to her Department.

I draw hon. Members’ attention to the United Kingdom Borders Bill, which I introduced in the House in 2012. Although the Bill did not progress to Second Reading, there was enormous support for the principles contained in it. The idea that there should be more accessibility for citizens from Her Majesty’s realms received widespread support from several political parties. Following the Bill’s presentation, I received many messages of support from across the UK and the wider Commonwealth. I sincerely believe that we must not fall into the trap of underestimating the significance of such a relatively simple change. It is a travesty that citizens from Australia, Canada, New Zealand and Jamaica, together with those from all Her Majesty’s realms, have to queue up in the foreign nationals channel at London Heathrow airport and other points of entry into the United Kingdom while citizens from EU countries that have never had any historical connection to the Crown or the United Kingdom are allowed to enter alongside British citizens simply by virtue of their EU membership.

Since introducing my Bill, I have become aware of the SmartGate scheme in Australia and New Zealand, which allows for a separate queue for nationals from Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, the UK and the US. That shows that a similar procedure could be adopted in the UK in the context of the Commonwealth realm, thus illustrating powerfully the renewed value of being a subject of Her Majesty’s realms. Interestingly, a citizen of the UK, as a realm, would also have the chance to choose which airport queue they wanted to go through. It could be the EU/EEA/Switzerland queue, or one for Commonwealth realms. It would be nice to have that choice because we are, of course, part of both. I might be pre-empting the Minister by saying that the UK has made it easier for Australians, New Zealanders and Canadians to visit the UK through the registered traveller scheme, but although that policy is welcome, its scope is too limited, and we could and should do better.

If the Government wanted to be bolder, they could consider the London Mayor’s proposals for bilateral mobility zones between economically developed Commonwealth nations—they are now dubbed “Boris bilaterals”. Commonwealth Exchange has found that that could work on a similar premise as the trans-Tasman travel arrangement, which exists between Australia and New Zealand. That might prove difficult, but I am aware that such a proposal has support from the New Zealand Prime Minster and the tacit backing of Tony Abbott’s Government in Australia. The UK holds the key to advance such a policy, so will the Minister undertake to examine the proposition and make a statement?

I would like the Minister to answer several key questions. Will she meet me and a delegation from Commonwealth Exchange to discuss Commonwealth immigration and visas in greater detail? What assessment has been made of the tier 5 youth mobility visa, and which nations is her Department looking at adding? Will she update the House on visa developments with Jamaica and South Africa, as those nations have had tourist visa restrictions for 11 and five years respectively? Will her Department consider ways to create a Commonwealth concession for the tourist and business visitor visas? Will she conduct a feasibility study for a pilot of a Commonwealth realm airport queue or smart gate at Heathrow and Gatwick? Has she made an assessment of the London Mayor’s labour mobility zone between Australia and New Zealand, and will she make a statement?

I believe that Britain has focused for far too long on the European Union, which I believe is distracting us from the rest of the world and the opportunities that lie beyond the shores of Europe. In 1973, we in this country turned our back on our Commonwealth cousins, which was the most short-sighted act carried out by any British Government in my lifetime. Let us begin to end that cold shoulder treatment in 2015. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will be the one to lead that change of direction.

In 2010, the Government said that they were putting the “C” back into the FCO, but only with a concerted effort across Departments, and particularly the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and the Home Office, will the UK be able to state proudly that it has Commonwealth policies fit for the 21st century. We must remove ourselves from the unhelpful and unfounded mindset that association with the Commonwealth is nothing more than reminiscing about Britain’s colonial past and instead recognise that there are huge economic, cultural and diplomatic opportunities that are today being missed. That short-sightedness has done nothing to help our country or the countries of the Commonwealth, and we must move on from it once and for all. Let us begin today.