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

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 3:24 pm on 27th January 2015.

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Photo of Karen Bradley Karen Bradley The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department 3:24 pm, 27th January 2015

I assure my hon. Friend that we in the Home Office take seriously all comments and feedback from fellow Members of Parliament on all aspects of our work. He makes an important point about ensuring that we take seriously our colleagues’ feedback when their constituents experience new systems, because that feedback gives us on-the-ground evidence about what is happening and how it is working. I welcome comments from all Members about how the system affects their constituents and those constituents’ families. I have said that all the changes are working, and I hope that we have proved that they are. They provide greater flexibility and choice, and we know that they have been welcomed by many travellers and tour operators.

On longer stays, the UK views the Commonwealth as an important partner in helping the UK to grow. A number of routes are open to Commonwealth citizens who want to work in the UK. There are further provisions specifically for Commonwealth citizens, such as the UK ancestry route. My hon. Friend said that the Commonwealth was a family, and he is right. When I visited Pakistan last year, it was extraordinary how familiar it looked, given how Pakistani culture has become so commonplace within UK culture. The furnishings, the look and the things that we talked about—cricket, for instance—are common across the Commonwealth. In fact, during my visit to Islamabad, I do not think I met anybody who did not have family in Britain.

The UK ancestry route is for Commonwealth citizens with a UK-born grandparent who intend to work in the UK. Applicants do not need to come for a specific job and are not restricted to graduate-level occupations. They may be accompanied by dependants and can apply for indefinite leave to remain after five years’ residence. In 2013, a total of 4,100 UK ancestry visas were issued, including 1,600 to Australians, 500 to Canadians, 1,000 to New Zealanders and 870 to South Africans.

My hon. Friend the Member for Romford mentioned the UK’s youth mobility scheme which, as he rightly said, operates in eight countries, three of which are Commonwealth countries: Australia, Canada and New Zealand. It enables young people to come to the UK for up to two years to experience UK culture. The UK is happy to engage in discussions with any country meeting the YMS eligibility criteria, which include presenting a low immigration risk to the UK, having satisfactory returns arrangements and offering a reciprocal arrangement for young UK nationals. My message to those countries is, “Please come forward and talk to us.” We are open to talking to countries that want to be part of the arrangement to see whether the eligibility requirements and reciprocal arrangements can be put in place to enable young people from the UK and Commonwealth countries to enjoy each other’s culture by living in each other’s countries.

The right hon. Member for Delyn wanted to remove students from the immigration target. That might seem like a quick fix for reducing immigration levels, but it is important that we understand how many students are here in Britain and ensure that they are leaving, as we will be able to do much more effectively when exit checks are introduced this spring, because we know that the student visa route was being exploited. This Government have clamped down on nearly 800 bogus colleges, slashed 45,000 visas from the further education route and cut family visas by nearly one third since we came to power. Our reforms have reduced net migration from outside the EU and, importantly, ensured that our higher and further education systems are not being abused. I caution the right hon. Gentleman against removing student numbers from the net migration figures. Although that might give a short-term boost to the figures, it would not enable the Government to manage the situation, thus leaving the potential for that important route to be abused, as has been the case in the past.

We have an excellent offer for students to stay in the UK after their studies. In April 2012 we closed the old tier 1 post-study work route, which gave two years’ unconditional access to the UK labour market, allowing many students to stay on in low-skilled work. We have replaced it with a more selective system. Graduates who get a graduate job that pays a graduate-level salary can stay in the UK, and there is no limit on their numbers. Also, we have created a scheme for graduate entrepreneurs and doubled the number of places on it to 2,000, as well as creating a new visa for graduates wishing to undertake a corporate internship or professional training related to their degree.

We are continuing to ensure that the scheme for the exceptionally talented attracts those who are already internationally recognised at the highest level as world leaders in their particular field, or who have already demonstrated exceptional promise. We wish to encourage more take-up of that route, and we are working with the endorsing bodies to do so, but the number of places available—1,000—is a limit, not a target. We wish to attract exceptional talent, wherever it comes from.

On 1 December 2014, the UK introduced new “transit without a visa” provisions that make it easier and clearer to transit through the UK. Commonwealth citizens who hold valid exemption documents, including visas for Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the US, which is a close partner, although it is not in the Commonwealth, can transit through the UK without a visa, regardless of where they are travelling. The UK has also reduced the cost of the direct airside transit visa to £30, making it cheaper than the Schengen alternative for the citizens of the 21 Commonwealth countries who need to apply for one.

Also, after a successful pilot, on 17 November last year we launched our new registered traveller scheme. The scheme permits approved members who undergo advanced security checks access to our e-passport gates at Heathrow and Gatwick, or the option to use the EEA queue at Heathrow or a special RT lane at Gatwick, expediting their clearance through the border. The scheme is open only to a select number of countries but, crucially, travellers from Canada, Australia and New Zealand who are aged 18 or over, meet the criteria for the scheme and travel to the UK at least four times a year are eligible to apply. Applicants pay an average membership fee of £50, and since the scheme’s formal launch in November, more than 5,000 regular travellers, almost a quarter of whom come from Canada, Australia and

New Zealand, have been approved to join it. Keeping the UK’s borders secure is our priority but, at the same time, we want to welcome legitimate visitors and trade that contribute to the UK economy and to show that we value our links with other countries. Using the latest technology helps us to do both, and the scheme is proving popular with regular travellers.

My hon. Friends the Members for North West Norfolk and for Romford talked about separate entry as a possibility for Commonwealth citizens, or for citizens of those Commonwealth realm countries for which Her Majesty the Queen is Head of State. Any policy or operational decision to create an additional line for Commonwealth nationals at ports must be taken with due regard to the wider operational impact—the likelihood of placing an additional burden on port operators—and the impact on other passengers. That is key to ensuring that any benefits to a limited number of individuals are not outweighed by a negative impact on border security operations more generally by constraining UK Border Force’s flexibility to respond dynamically to fluctuations in passenger flow.

Having visited UK Border Force and seen its work, I can say that there is very careful management of the lines at the borders. We have a registered traveller scheme that enables people who have gone through pre-clearance to go through e-gates, which is the quickest and easiest way to access the UK, and such people include those from Australia, Canada and New Zealand. However, having a separate route for those travellers from Commonwealth countries who do not have registered traveller status would, in many cases, hamper UK Border Force’s ability to deal with fluctuations in arrival flows.

Let me give an example of that. If a flight arrives from Jamaica, it would be highly likely that many of its passengers will be UK nationals who have visited Jamaica, but many other passengers would be Jamaican nationals. Due to the prevalence of foreign national offenders from Jamaica, we need to check those people and ensure that they go through the proper immigration and border gates, as would be the case for people coming from places such as Albania, or perhaps south-east Asia. We want to ensure that those travellers have the right security checks at the border. It would create a problem if we had a separate Commonwealth gate when all the passengers being dealt with had arrived from Commonwealth countries, meaning that there was only a limited number of gates through which those passengers could pass although there were many other gates available for passengers whose flights had not yet arrived.

To give UK Border Force the flexibility it needs, if it felt that it would be appropriate to have specific gates in operation to help its staff, that would be entirely down to the Border Force itself. However, we should not try to restrict it, given how its staff have to manage flows of arriving passengers. It does not want to keep people waiting for longer than the 40-minute target that we have set.