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

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 2:57 pm on 27th January 2015.

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Photo of Jeremy Lefroy Jeremy Lefroy Conservative, Stafford 2:57 pm, 27th January 2015

I congratulate my hon. Friend Andrew Rosindell on his powerful speech and on bringing the subject before the House. I shall make a few remarks on visas, starting with visitors visas, but want to preface that by underlining the importance of the Commonwealth, which my hon. Friend and other contributors have rightly emphasised.

The population of the Commonwealth far outweighs that of the EU and one Commonwealth nation alone, India, has a bigger population than the countries of the EU put together. Economic development in Commonwealth countries—not only the fantastic growth in India, but the substantial growth in many countries in sub-Saharan Africa and in Asia—has shown that the Commonwealth is, as my hon. Friend said, the place of the future. That is why countries have been queuing up to join. I am talking about countries that did not have a particular historical connection with the United Kingdom, such as Rwanda and Mozambique, which are already part of it, and Cameroon. Part of that country was under British administration, part under German, and at one time, after the first world war, part was under French administration. Burundi is also seeking to join the Commonwealth, and I believe that other countries have expressed interest.

It is therefore vital that we maintain, and indeed enhance, the links with Commonwealth countries. That is not only about history; it is about business opportunities. For instance, in Tanzania—I refer Members to my business interests in Tanzania, which are in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests—the United Kingdom is the single biggest investor and trading partner. These days, we tend to think that China has taken over everywhere in Africa, but that is not the case at all. In many countries, the United Kingdom is still a major trading partner and investor, and it is, indeed, growing in importance in those countries.

On the issue of visitor visas, a few months ago, a Tanzanian lady, Rhodi Samwell, was invited to the United Kingdom on an extremely important mission. She works for the Anglican diocese of Mara on female genital mutilation, and she is building a safe house in the area for women and girls who do not wish to be subjected to that practice. The House has debated this issue many times in the past year, and I know the Minister is keenly concerned about it.

At my invitation, Rhodi Samwell was coming to this country, and indeed to the House, to talk to the all-party group on Tanzania about her work, but she could not get a visa. Her application, which was processed in Pretoria, was refused. Only after a large number of Members of the House and the other place wrote to those involved and pressed her case was she finally able to come here on a visa.

This lady was in full-time, secure employment with the Anglican diocese of Mara. She had the backing of the Tanzania Development Trust, the Britain-Tanzania Society and many other reputable organisations, which bore witness to the fact that she would be supported while she was here and that she was planning to return. Indeed, the very reason she was coming here was to help to enable her to return home to fulfil her dream of setting up a safe house for women and girls. However, the United Kingdom was unable to issue her with a visa without pressure from Members of Parliament and without volunteers across the country putting in a great deal of time and effort. That does the United Kingdom’s reputation no good.

I am glad to say that, ultimately, Rhodi Samwell was able to come here, and she gave an excellent talk in the House of Commons, alongside my right hon. Friend Lynne Featherstone, who was then an International Development Minister. We were delighted to see her. She gave talks all across the country. As a result of her visit, the remaining money needed to build the safe house was collected— indeed, school children in my constituency also contributed. The safe house is now in operation, and more than 100 girls and women have found help there.

That is just one instance, but I have heard of many others from right hon. and hon. Members in both Houses. People are doing fantastic work for non-governmental organisations or charities, and we want to hear from them first hand. They are invited here, and they will be fully provided for, but the only obstacle is a visa. Most of the time, these are people from Commonwealth countries.

The second issue I want to bring up is business visas. It is vital that visas are made available quickly and easily for those with whom we wish to do business. Before coming to this place, I travelled to Tanzania and other countries fairly frequently on business. As a British citizen, I could send my passport, together with the necessary documents, to the Tanzanian high commission in London, and sometimes I would receive my business visa back within three days. However, Tanzanian business people, who are often running businesses that are far bigger and of far more significance to the United Kingdom economy than that which I ran, sometimes find it incredibly difficult to get visas. That cannot help our trade with Tanzania or, indeed, with other countries.

Finally, there is the issue of family. The Commonwealth of nations is a family of nations, but it also contains family members of people in pretty much every constituency in the House. Surely it is important that we facilitate family visits that are done in the proper way—where it is clearly shown that these are not visits to seek long-term admission to the country, but family visits to see nephews, nieces, grandparents or grandchildren. That is all about humanity.

In those three areas—visits from charities and non-governmental organisations, visits for businesses and visits for family—it is surely possible to organise things in such a way that the cost is reasonable and that applications are dealt with in a matter of days or weeks, rather than the months we sometimes hear about.

I want to give a final example from my own experience to show what things can be like. My son was born in Nairobi about 25 years ago this month. We took the birth certificate and one or two other documents to the British high commission there, and we were issued with a British passport pretty much over the counter. A constituent, whose grandchild was born in Kenya last year, went through the same process, albeit with one or two complications. However, those complications should not have resulted in it taking several months for that child to be issued with a passport. Surely, things should have gone forwards after 25 years, not backwards, particularly with the access we now have to technology, but it seems that things were a lot easier 25 years ago.