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I understand my hon. Friend’s point, and he will forgive me if I indicated that I understood it differently. The Government have taken significant steps to address that matter, and if we form the next Government, as I fully intend—I apologise to the right hon. Member for Delyn, but I fully intend to be sitting in this seat in 12 weeks’ time—the excellent measures that the Prime Minister set out in his speech close to my constituency in Staffordshire just before Christmas will enable us to take even further steps to ensure that free movement within the EU comes with responsibilities and that we do not have free movement of criminals, which I particularly care about, or for welfare benefits. There is agreement on both sides of the House that access to welfare payments for non-UK nationals should not come without the responsibility of having contributed to the system.
The immigration system plays a strong part in supporting growth and meeting the needs of UK businesses. Migrant workers can fill skills gaps in our labour market and help to boost our economy. However, as the economic recovery continues, we are clear that employers should look first to recruit people who are already in the UK and are already UK nationals.
The Government are aware of the Commonwealth Exchange report “How to Solve a Problem like a Visa”—I commend the Commonwealth Exchange for its engaging title—and we are working with other Commonwealth countries to consider options to improve migration opportunities within the Commonwealth. Although the UK is happy to work with and consider ideas proposed by Commonwealth partners, the UK maintains that immigration and visa controls are a matter for the UK Government. It is important to remind the House—I know this has been mentioned already—that citizens of the majority of Commonwealth countries, 31 out of 53, do not require a visit visa to come to the UK.
My hon. Friend the Member for Romford made the point that visas are an effective tool for the UK in reducing illegal immigration, tackling organised crime and protecting national security. The visit visa regime is an important tool in reducing the national security threat to the UK, allowing us to intervene in a number of ways before someone arrives in the country. We can prevent someone from coming to the UK by refusing a visa or, where appropriate, we can allow travel while setting up an operational response when someone in whom we are interested arrives in the UK. The information provided in the application process also allows us to identify links about which we would not otherwise have known. The backflow of data can be vital to new investigations, and the security and intelligence agencies require a biometric visa regime for all visa nationals.
Visas have a role to play in reducing crime. We can use the application to check whether someone is known to international partners, and we can check a range of databases to see whether someone has a criminal background here in the UK.
Finally, the process helps to tackle illegal immigration. The visa process enables us to check whether the applicant has a genuine reason for coming to the UK and enough money to support themselves. The use of biometrics enables us to lock an individual securely to their identity so that we know who we are dealing with.
As the Minister with responsibility for serious and organised crime, I know it is incredibly important that we keep in mind the security of British nationals with regard to foreign offenders. Commonwealth countries feature in the top 10 nationalities of foreign national offenders and, sadly, the top two nationalities are Commonwealth countries: Jamaica and Nigeria. We are working closely with those countries to ensure that we have upstream work to deal with foreign national offending so that it does not hit our streets, but I want to ensure that people in Romford, Stafford, Staffordshire Moorlands, Delyn, Tamworth and Wellingborough can walk the streets knowing that foreign national offenders are not coming to the UK without our knowledge. We should all recognise that that is incredibly important.
Economic factors are a big part of the decision on whether to impose a visa on a country, as they can be a big pull factor on illegal migration. Nevertheless, because of the traditional ties that we have with the Commonwealth, the UK is arguably more generous in that regard. Eighteen of the 31 Commonwealth countries with visa-free access to the UK, which is more than half, are classed as developing nations by the World Bank, which shows that there is occasionally a different approach to Commonwealth countries. The EU economies, in contrast, are more on the same economic level as the UK, with the majority being in the world’s 50 richest countries based on gross national income per capita per year. Economic criteria are one area of assessment for countries that want EU membership under the accession criteria.
I always think of immigration as being like the movement of air: it moves from high pressure to low. Wind is created when high pressure moves to fill a low-pressure gap. If we consider that high pressure for immigration is poverty, lack of opportunity and lack of education and that countries such as the UK represent low-pressure areas where there are opportunities, jobs and the potential to achieve wealth, it is understandable why people want to move from one to the other. Our job is to ensure that, when we look at the movement of people, we do not get to the point where, continuing the analogy, the low pressure in the UK becomes the high pressure that means we are overburdened—that is a strange analogy, but I hope it makes sense. I like to perceive immigration as being like the movement of air around the world.
Even within the EU, as the Prime Minister has made clear, disparities in income per head, as well as disparities in labour markets and work opportunities, create incentives for migration—let us remember that in the past four and a half years the UK has created more jobs than the rest of the EU put together. That is why the Government have started a debate within Europe on future accessions, such as linking freedom of movement to relative wealth and, of course, limiting the access of EU nationals to welfare and other services.
Visa regimes for some Commonwealth countries are an effective tool for the UK in reducing illegal immigration, tackling organised crime and protecting national security. The visa process enables us to check whether an applicant has a genuine reason for coming to the UK and enough money to support themselves. We take our duty to protect the public extremely seriously and, where foreign national offenders commit serious crimes in the UK, it is right that they are brought to justice and removed from the UK at the earliest opportunity. Since April 2010, we have removed more than 22,000 foreign national offenders. Where a Commonwealth national commits an offence in the UK, we will pursue deportation, unless they were resident in the UK before the commencement of the Immigration Act 1971. Visa regimes are an important part of the UK’s immigration system, which is fair to British citizens and legitimate migrants, and tough on those who flout the rules.
The UK has a flexible policy for visitors that enables people to come for a range of purposes. Work is under way to streamline the policy further and consolidate the routes that will make the system even more accessible and provide greater flexibility. I acknowledge, however, that obtaining a visit visa for the UK is an inconvenience for some, which is why the UK has invested heavily in ensuring that applying for a UK visa is as easy as possible.
My hon. Friend the Member for Stafford spoke about a specific visa case, although I cannot comment on the individual circumstances of that case. It is important that Members of Parliament always raise such cases because, no matter how good the system, there will always be the odd occasion when something does not quite work as it should. I am glad that the lady in question was able to visit the UK, and that my hon. Friend could help her in that regard.
We have upgraded our entire network of visa application centres to increase capacity. We have made our processes less bureaucratic, and we ensure fast turn-around times and offer appointments out of working hours. We have extended our three-to-five-day priority service, which is now available in more than 100 countries, and we have introduced a passport pass-back service in a number of countries so that customers can retain their passport while their UK visa application is being processed. A new super-priority 24-hour visa service, building on the popularity of the three-to-five-day service, has been introduced in India and China and will be extended to New York, Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Manila, Istanbul, Bangkok and Pretoria by April 2015.
My hon. Friend Mr Bellingham mentioned the hub-and-spoke model for visa applications. We have more than 300 visa application points around the world, connected to a network of decision-making hubs. They are in similar places to the ones I just mentioned: Beijing, Manila, Abu Dhabi, Shanghai, New Delhi, Riyadh, New York, Istanbul, Chennai, Bangkok, Mumbai and Pretoria.
The next generation of the outsourced visa project has delivered the next set of outsourcing contracts for the visa application process, including biometric enrolment, courier services and interviewing facilitation. The new contracts have allowed us to increase the number of application points globally, offer improved customer services including increased access to premium priority services and deliver efficiencies in the visa application process. To increase access to our visa services overseas, we have considered how best to support our operation and our customers, including by extending opening hours in some locations and trialling new “user pays” services in developing markets.