I beg to move,
That this House
has considered artist visas.
As always, Mr Gray, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairship.
In Edinburgh, we have the best festivals in the world; not even Donald Trump could claim to have better festivals. They include the world’s biggest arts festival, the Edinburgh festival fringe, and the wonderful book festival, which takes place in my own constituency of Edinburgh North and Leith, as well as the international festival, the film festival, the storytelling festival, the science festival, the jazz and blues festival, the art festival, the children’s festival, the Hogmanay winter festival and, of course, the Edinburgh Tattoo. There is also the festival of politics, but that is not allowed to join the cool gang of festivals—not yet, anyway.
Those festivals grew out of a desire to rebuild international cultural co-operation after the second world war. Conceived in 1945 by Rudolf Bing, an Austrian who had fled the Nazis, the first festival was in 1947 and it reunited Bruno Walter with the Vienna Philharmonic. So much for the official festival. However, the spirit of rebellion that marks Edinburgh in August started in the same year, when six Scottish theatre companies and two English ones rocked up to stage their own shows and began what became the fringe. They were not alone. Forsyth Hardy and John Grierson added the film festival, too, showing 75 films from 18 countries in the Cameo cinema, which was not a bad result in 1947. All three festivals still run in Scotland’s capital city and they have been joined by quite a few others, many of which I have already noted.
Figures for this year’s festivals are not yet finalised, but the initial trawl suggests that the August festivals alone had more than 5,000 international participants. The actual number is closer to 5,500, according to figures provided by the festivals. Of course, that is only the performers. Many tens of thousands of international visitors also flock to Edinburgh every year. Of those international performers, 1,500—some 28%—were European economic area nationals, people who currently need no visa to travel to the UK. Just over half were non-EEA nationals who did not need visas. However, one in five were non-EEA nationals who required visas. Next year, we may have a whole different category of performers who will need visas and a whole set of hoops for the festivals to jump through to get them to Edinburgh to perform.
I have a fairly regular stream of immigration cases, as I know other Members do, but I also have an additional task every year, as the festivals find themselves struggling to get visas for their headline performers and ask for a bit of help. These are performers at the peak of their profession who are world-renowned and very successful. They are being refused visas because they do not match up to a flowchart somewhere in the Home Office, or because some poor decision maker with a massive workload has to make very quick decisions on very complicated cases, which is one way to end up with poor decisions. Other Members representing Edinburgh and other areas that receive visiting artists may have similar stories.
I would like to take a moment to pay tribute to the civil servants in the UK Visas and Immigration team who answer the calls and emails from my office. They are professional and helpful, and they do what they can to help with these as well as many other cases. They are a credit to the service. However, they operate within a broken system and the fault for that lies with politicians.
The decisions made in government create the systems that the civil servants have to work in and they are the decisions that create the ethos of the Departments. It is the political decisions that create the problems and it will be political decisions that can construct the solutions.
We need those solutions, because the damage done to the festivals and to our reputation is not limited to the individual performer thinking that it is a bit of a pain getting to Edinburgh in a particular year. The bigger damage comes from the impression being formed that it is a hassle getting to Edinburgh to appear in the festivals, and when performers start thinking that it might be too much hassle getting to Edinburgh. The damage comes when that consideration becomes part of the consideration that weighs in the balance against coming to Edinburgh, and when those considerations outweigh the considerations of benefits that might accrue from performing at the festivals.
When authors think, “The Edinburgh book festival would be good to appear at, but Cork would be okay, too, and there’s less hassle getting to west Cork,” we have a problem. The same would go for the Hay festival, the Cheltenham festival or the Beyond the Border festival. By the way, I have nothing against Cork. I could easily have mentioned instead Parisot or Charroux in France; the three festivals that take place in Barcelona; Fitzroy, Fremantle, Sydney, Alice Springs, Adelaide or several others in Australia; or Calgary, Vancouver or even New Westminster in Canada. There is no imperative for authors to come to the UK, and if we put barriers in their way we reduce the appeal of our festivals.
I would like Edinburgh to compete on a level playing field; it is the only way in which we will stay ahead of the competition. Of course, the same goes for arts festivals such as the international festival and the fringe. There are other festivals all around the world and the prestige of Edinburgh will not keep us ahead of them if the disincentives begin to outnumber the positives. That possible reluctance on the part of performers to come to Edinburgh might be mirrored by festival organisers deciding that the effort they have to put in to get performers to the stage is becoming burdensome. When they have so much to do to put the shows on in the first place, any extra burden becomes a serious consideration.
The statistics, too, seem to suggest there is a problem. Four years ago, more than one third of international performers at the fringe were visa nationals; this year, the figure was down to one quarter. In this year’s book festival, four authors’ events were put at risk by visa problems, and in the international festival a renowned choreographer and his dance troupe had major inconveniences. Some of Serge Aimé Coulibaly’s dancers had to travel from Burkina Faso to Ghana for their visa appointments—a 32-hour round trip—and then they had to pay for a courier service to get their passports back, to avoid having to repeat the journey. One of them, who is resident in Germany, had to return to Berlin from Burkina Faso to pick up his visa within the allotted timescale when it was granted more quickly than expected. The troupe had already performed at the Barbican in May and they will come back to the UK in November—if they get visas.
These people tour the world performing. Applying for visas through an appointment system, leaving their passports and returning to the visa centre to collect visas is, as we would say in Scotland, a right pain in the bahookey for them. From what I have heard from other areas around the world, these difficulties would appear to be easily surmountable with the right political will, and I imagine that they are difficulties faced by other would-be visitors as well.
I am grateful to Festivals Edinburgh for providing me with much of the information for this debate. It tells me that this dance troupe’s difficulties are indicative of the kinds of problems faced by performers regularly; these are not exceptional circumstances. Freelance performers face problems in demonstrating income and reserves in cash terms, because the nature of their work means that their income comes in bursts. Then we have the slow decisions that endanger appearances; the refusals that are overturned on appeal, often with an MP’s help; and the sheer uncertainty that the whole thing creates.
As I have said, these are political problems and political solutions can be found. I have to say that the festivals were cheered somewhat by the engagement of the previous Immigration Minister, Caroline Nokes, and I am sure that the current Minister—the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, Seema Kennedy—has a record of that engagement. May I tell her, though, that the festivals are heartened by some of the actions taken, in particular the UKVI guidance for creative event managers, published in March, and the direct named contacts at UKVI and the Home Office? The festivals appear to be as impressed as I am with the civil servants.
That is a start, but we have to move far more quickly to get ahead of the game. In a couple of months, EEA citizens could be required to have visas to travel, adding a huge number of festival performers to the processes—if they still want to come. None of that takes account of the international visitors coming to watch events at the festivals or to see other things while they are here. There is also the parallel issue in the other direction, with the probability that the EU will require additional efforts from UK artists heading there.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this important debate. Is it not the case that in the music industry, for example, many UK touring artists are not very wealthy? Often they are, in effect, a one-person band, travelling on budget airlines and taking their own instruments to their fan base around the European Union. Is there not a real danger that those people’s livelihoods will be directly affected if we do not do something before Brexit?
I absolutely agree with the hon. Gentleman. As former performers, he and I know exactly how precarious that lifestyle can be. I met the chief executive officer of the Incorporated Society of Musicians yesterday. She indicated that she already knows of performers who have gigs in November and December in Europe that are already being called into question. They cannot get insurance to cover those gigs if they need to cancel. As the hon. Gentleman has pointed out, the probability that the EU will require additional efforts from UK artists heading there could limit our artists’ ability to make a living.
Equity tells me that actors are regularly employed across the EU, often because they are English speakers, and that employment could be under threat after Brexit. Dancers are already seeing auditions for European companies drying up. These artists need freedom of movement so they can keep getting work. As the hon. Gentleman pointed out, musicians currently tour across the visa-free area in a way that will simply be impossible if freedom of movement ends without some sort of deal.
I will give the Minister a series of quotes that I have been given by a variety of organisations that deal with this matter. The Royal African Society—I know my hon. Friend Patrick Grady will speak later about African visitor issues—has told me that it is
“increasingly coming across writers and filmmakers who have decided to boycott the UK, rather than go through the dehumanising process of applying for a visa”.
Literary Europe Live said that
“the time-consuming and humiliating visa application process damages UK’s reputation and ultimately results in more and more artists turning down invitations to the UK”.
The Shambala festival said:
“If we do not change this system and make it more welcoming, Britain risks becoming increasingly culturally barren”.
English PEN said that writers have told it that
“they would not return to the UK with the current visa system”.
The Index on Censorship said that granting visas helps to address oppression and persecution. The British arts council said that problems with the visa process
“have the potential to have significant impact on our soft power standing and the ability to showcase a diverse range of international work in the UK”.
The Africa Centre said, rather pointedly:
“We grow as a society because of the development of culture and if we do not allow artists to share their stories with us, how do we grow?”
I pay tribute to the Shubbak festival, and to Nick Barley at the Edinburgh book festival and Julia Amour, the director of the Festivals Edinburgh group, for all their hard work. The Shubbak festival said:
“The Home Office’s temporary visa application process is so administratively burdensome that it has become a deterrent, denying the British public access to some of the world’s most compelling artists, performers, writers, musicians and thinkers.”
StAnza poetry festival spoke of poets missing festivals here and elsewhere in the EU because their passports had been lost by the Home Office or retained for far longer than expected. Tandem Collective and Oxford Contemporary Music said:
“Restrictions on artist visas undermine the efficacy of our work, severely reducing the diversity of cultures represented in our exchange programme, Ethno England.”
The Poetry Translation Centre team said that the visa system
“weakens the potential of the UK arts as artists here miss out on the opportunity to meet, experience, interact and collaborate with their counterparts around the world”.
Finally, the London international festival of theatre said:
“Countless artists are telling festivals and venues they are reluctant to accept invitations to come to the UK due to draconian visa process”.
I thank Parliament’s digital engagement team for gathering those opinions and the organisations for sharing their expertise and knowledge.
I am more than willing to share the full comments and quotations from those experts, and I certainly hope the Minister will listen to them. I will be following up on the issues with her, and the representatives of the artists and festivals have a range of things they want to talk about, but the visa system needs to be reviewed. In a digital information age, there should be far less necessity for applicants to travel hundreds of miles and surrender their passports for weeks or months at a time, especially when they are making repeated visits and have a record of obeying the conditions of their visas. We know that the passport pass-back service works in some centres, and it must be possible to roll that out. It must also be possible to extend the permit-free festivals route and the permitted paid engagement route. Surely we can reduce the costs, particularly for repeat travellers.
The festivals have a list of requests that they will be making of Ministers, and I am happy to speak to the Minister about any aspects. I would be delighted to facilitate a meeting for her with the festivals, Equity, UK Music and other interested parties that have been lobbying me, if that would be of help. I will do whatever I can to assist. I hope she will take me up on that. I urge her to act now and to act quickly. The damage may already be being done to Edinburgh’s festivals and to the reputation of our creatives around the world. Their prestige may be getting undermined through no fault of their own.
There is only one east end, Mr Gray. I start by paying tribute to my hon. Friend Deidre Brock, who secured this debate and has for quite some time been pursuing this issue, which is clearly significant for Edinburgh, where the festival has just finished.
On a cross-party note, I congratulate the Minister on taking up her new role. Since I came to this place in 2017, I have always found her to be incredibly helpful in my dealings with her. It is encouraging to have someone in the Home Office who we can hopefully work with, because for many Members, including those from Scotland, immigration makes up a huge part of our case load. It is clear that there are ideological problems in the Home Office in how that policy is pursued, but a lot of it seems to be cock-ups. It is good to have the Minister in her role, and I look forward to hearing what she has to say.
Once again we find ourselves in the frustrating position of coming to Westminster Hall to discuss visas and how cumbersome they are. Only a couple of months ago I led a debate about religious worker visas, and during the recess I spoke to a lot of Catholic priests in my constituency who are incredibly frustrated by the UK Government’s approach to religious worker visas. I appreciate that that is another issue for another day, but I certainly hope that the Minister will be able to look at that again.
One of the things that is incredibly frustrating about the situation with artist visas is that it is just another manifestation of the hostile environment from the UK Government. That is particularly frustrating for us in Scotland, because we do not view immigration policy as somehow being a negative issue. Our problem has never been immigration; our problem has been emigration. I get incredibly frustrated that we have a UK Government who are pursuing this ideological policy of pulling up the drawbridge, shutting off the border and stopping people from coming here.
There is an economic problem with that, and my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh North and Leith outlined some of that. The Scottish Government in particular have problems with the policy. The Cabinet Secretary for Culture, Tourism and External Affairs, Fiona Hyslop, said:
“The Scottish Government has long-standing concerns about how easily artists and performers can come to Scotland for the Edinburgh international festivals, and about the problems that delayed visa processes...and refusals that are then overturned— on appeal—
“can cause organisers of festivals of all sizes.”
My hon. Friend outlined the difficulty with the number of people who decide not to come, which is clearly distressing. As I would expect her to do, she talked about the situation in Edinburgh, which is of course Scotland’s lesser city. I will turn now to Glasgow.
Glasgow is already an innovative creative leader in Europe. With artists travelling on a visa, it allows art and talent to come and be shared with us in Glasgow. If anybody here has not taken part in or not come along to see Celtic Connections, I encourage them to do so. Celtic Connections is one of Scotland’s biggest creative events. It attracts and has hosted 2,000 artists from 25 countries taking part on 35 stages across the city. To give an idea of how economically significant that is, in Scotland we have more than 15,000 businesses employing more than 70,000 people, contributing more than £5 billion to the Scottish economy. I get frustrated because we clearly have initiatives to try to get people to come to Scotland—homecoming, Celtic Connections, the Edinburgh festival—but the Scottish Government have one hand tied behind their back because of the ridiculous visa problems that emanate from the UK Government.
There are two solutions. Unionists thinking slightly more longer term might say, “Let us have a form of regional immigration policy where aspects of the policy can be devolved and decided by the Scottish Government. We can tailor that to our needs”, as has been outlined by my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh North and Leith. If the UK Government are so intransigent and do not want to look at regional immigration policy and devolving certain immigration powers—for example, for visas—the only solution left is to go on our own path towards independence. It is telling that last night there was a poll in The Times that showed that if a general election takes place, which we in the SNP would certainly relish, we will find that not only do we have a hostile environment from the Home Office, but ultimately Scotland will be a hostile environment for Tory policies that have a negative and devastating impact on our economy. I very much look forward to the day when we can have that general election and indeed independence to sort out these issues for ourselves.
Order. The hon. Gentleman might be at risk of misleading the House inadvertently. I was in fact born in Rottenrow, which is in Dennistoun in the east end of Glasgow.
This is not of direct relevance to the debate, but just for clarity I was born and brought up in Dennistoun in the east end of Glasgow. When I was four years old, I moved to Great Western Road in the west end of Glasgow. I went to school and university there.
There we are. It has been established. I apologise for inadvertently misleading the House, Mr Gray, but I am glad that I now have the privilege of representing an area where, once upon a time, you bestrode the streets of the west end of Glasgow, which is of course the site of much of Glasgow’s creative industry and vibrant cultural scene, which is why the issue of artists’ visas is so important.
I congratulate my hon. Friend Deidre Brock on securing the debate. This is not the first time that difficulties with the visa system have been raised in Westminster Hall, and it will not be the last. It might not be the last time that the Minister has to respond to debates on such topics, although we live in turbulent times. I welcome her to her post. She will have quite a heavy in-tray in the coming weeks and months, but the issue of visas will dominate it, and the speeches and contributions that we have heard from Members explain why.
I want to look briefly at the importance of the creative sector to the UK and Scotland’s economy. The reports that we have heard about illustrate a massive contradiction in Government policy. I want to dwell a little on the specifics of artists travelling from Africa because I have a personal interest and some experience there, and it speaks to the broader policy issue in general. I also want to look at the question of Brexit and its consequences for travel across the European Union.
The creative sector is, as we have heard, hugely important to the economy of the UK as a whole. We are just coming to the end of the festival season. Great cultural festivals include the Edinburgh festival, which is hugely significant and well appreciated and enjoyed. I am happy to continue the rivalry between whether bigger is necessarily better when we consider what Glasgow has on offer compared with Edinburgh. There are other festivals across the UK such as Womad and the festivals that my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh North and Leith cited. I pay tribute to the digital engagement team for the way in which it reached out to other organisations and allowed their voices to be heard. I thoroughly recommend that all of the statements be made available to Members, perhaps through the Library, and that the Minister pays particular attention. My hon. Friend quoted from most of them, but I will draw the House’s attention to one or two comments from the various people that contributed.
The music director of the Shambala festival, an international festival of music and art, talked about the multi-faceted nature of the issues and the costs:
“We are often seeking performances from acts that may only have one or two shows in the UK. The costs for Visas for a large band are...spread over very few shows...Secondly, the application is a bureaucratic nightmare that takes a very long time to process and...includes the applicants having to hand over their passports for weeks”,
which, as was suggested in interventions, makes it difficult for the artists to do their jobs anywhere else. The artistic director of the Shubbak festival said:
“The current visa system is unsustainable for the artists we work with. Shubbak’s producers spent a significant amount of time, effort and costs to support artists in their process of visa applications. The forms are overlong and advice is often contradictory.”
Shubbak is one of the largest celebrations of Arab culture that takes place in the UK, particularly here in London.
It appears from the briefing that the quotes from the London international festival of theatre have been endorsed by a significant number of other people from the creative industries. As my hon. Friend said, countless artists are telling festivals and venues that they are reluctant even to accept invitations to come because of the draconian visa process, but they also suggest solutions:
“While we recognise the need for scrutiny...we suggest a number of key developments which...will help alleviate this situation.”
They include reducing the costs, faster processes, clearer information to applicants and opening more application centres. I will come back to that, but it is certainly true of the findings of the all-party groups on Africa, migration and Malawi.
My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow East spoke about Celtic Connections, a festival very close to my heart. I have taken part in its events for many years and I have good friends who perform in it almost every year. At this time last year, the director of the festival, Donald Shaw, a highly regarded musician and creative talent in Scotland and a real driving force behind the festival, expressed his frustration about artists who are not even willing to consider coming to the festival now because they know of the barriers that will face them. He said:
“These are top-class musicians who have been travelling around the world for over 20 years. Britain now has a very solidly-locked gate, certainly in terms of African visas. The whole thing undermines us as a Scottish festival with an international outlook.”
That is the contradiction: the United Kingdom says it is open for business—that that is the great thing about Brexit, which will take us back on to the world stage. They spend millions, if not tens and hundreds of millions of pounds on “Britain is GREAT” posters, which we see all over the place. Whenever we go overseas and visit UK embassies or see adverts taken out in aircraft brochures, we see “Britain is GREAT”, “Britain is open for business”, but then as soon as somebody applies to come here they are told Britain is not open for business; it is closed. There is a massive contradiction in policy and it is a huge act of self-harm to the economy, society and culture.
What the hon. Gentleman says is absolutely right. Is it not also the case that not only are the restrictions draconian, but the Home Office deliberately runs its visa programme as a money-making racket? That is what it is.
Absolutely. It is particularly important to the creative sector when the operating margin for visas is so small. Most people go into the creative sector out of a love for their art, and to contribute to society and culture as much as to the economy, but if they are successful the margins can have a positive economic input as well. Yet the visa policy is driving that down and making it more difficult for people to make that economic, as well as cultural and social, contribution.
I am reminded of testimony from a very senior official in the African Union—a trade commissioner who came to speak to us at an event in the House of Lords. He was invited by the Lord Mayor of London, yet had to jump through hoops. He was asked for his wedding licence and for proof of his income, despite being effectively a diplomat. To be fair, he got his visa and managed to get here, which is better than some. He says that every time he flies out of Addis, he sees business class sections of planes going into Brussels that are full and business class sections of planes going into London that are half empty. That is a pretty stark demonstration of the visa policy’s impact.
I saw the impact myself recently, when I was in Malawi with the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association and we visited the UK high commission. The first thing that we saw when we came in was a great pop-up banner saying, “Come to the UK and study on the Chevening scholarship.” Yet the night before, when we had met with local stakeholders, campaign groups and so on, we had heard stories of people who had applied for—and been granted—Chevening scholarships but were not getting visas, were being made to jump through hoops, or found that the visas were far too expensive.
Such stories are borne out by the joint report from the all-party parliamentary group on Malawi, the APPG for Africa and the APPG on diasporas, development and migration, which found that
“September 2018 Home Office quarterly statistics show that while 12% of all visit visa applications made between September 2016 and September 2018 were refused, the refusal rate for African visitors was over double this, at 27% of applications.”
There is therefore a particular challenge regarding visas for African musicians, business people, religious ministers and so on, much of which is down to the system, to the creation of a hub and spoke model, and to the attempt to outsource the applications to private companies and then to drive the decision making progress on to some kind of online, algorithm-based system, often based here in the United Kingdom.
Another story emerged from the same visit. The Information Minister from the Malawian Government could not get his fast-track visa approved in time; he was supposed to be in the UK while we were in Malawi. His visit was cancelled in the end because his visa did not come through in time, even though presumably the Malawian Government and Malawian taxpayers—or, indeed, Department for International Development money that helps to support the Malawian Government—financed his fast-track visa application, which was no such thing. Such incidents cause nothing but embarrassment for officials in the high commissions and embassies, who cannot do anything because the left hand seemingly does not know what the right hand is doing, and all the decisions are outsourced to Pretoria. At the same time, I echo the comments that my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh North and Leith made about the incredibly hard-working staff both in the embassies and high commissions and in the visa inquiry teams, who are massively overburdened. That simply increases the expense, bureaucracy and contradiction.
Ultimately, if we want the visas, we have to make inquiries or get up and ask questions of Ministers, and the House of Commons Chamber becomes a kind of court of appeal for visas that should simply have been granted in the first place. None of these artists are coming here to abscond or so that they can live on the British welfare state or get jobs as Uber drivers. They are world-class musicians. They are travelling all around the world and are welcomed to other countries with open arms. Only in the United Kingdom—only in “Britain is GREAT” and “Britain is open for business”—are they told that they cannot come.
A number of us have been pursuing this matter for some time. It is interesting that every time we have asked Ministers to set out how many folk in the creative industries who have come to the UK have absconded, they cannot answer. I think the last time, they suggested that it would take too much time, and money perhaps, to find that information, but if the Government are so worried that people will abscond, why do they not know exactly how many people have absconded in the past?
Exactly—that is part of the issue. Perhaps the Minister can answer that question. People are counted into the country but very rarely counted out, so the statistics do not exist, but all the anecdotal evidence suggests that such people go back. It is pretty easy to tell whether a musician has absconded because if they do not turn up to their next gig in Germany, France or wherever they were going next on their tour, it is pretty obvious.
I suppose that brings us to the consequences of Brexit and the specific issue of visas for travel in Europe. At the moment, freedom of movement means that artists from anywhere in the European Union can travel to anywhere else in the EU without any hassle. That makes it cheaper, easier and better for reasons that we have already discussed, but if freedom of movement comes to an end—and especially if it comes crashing to an end on
It is very important that the Government are working on that issue. A lot of organisations—we heard about the Musicians’ Union and the Incorporated Society of Musicians—have done a significant amount of work on both identifying what the challenges will be and suggesting some solutions. The ISM, for example, said clearly that
It also said that
“the music workforce relies on UK-EU mechanisms to support and enable them to work” and travel, and that already
“the impact of Brexit on musicians’
work has been widespread and negative”.
It therefore made a series of recommendations about what can be done. One of the most significant is:
“If freedom of movement rights cease, the Government must introduce a two-year, cheap and admin-light, multi-entry touring visa” so that musicians, and indeed their musical instruments, can get in and out of the country as freely as possible, and the creative industry’s important contribution can continue.
As I said at the start, the Minister will have to get used to such debates. Many Members feel passionately about this matter, because our constituents and economies are affected, and in many cases we have personal connections to people who are affected as well. The visa policies and the experiences of artists, creatives and those in wider parts of society completely contradict the Government’s rhetoric on global Britain. In fact, what we are seeing, as my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow East said, is a continuation of the hostile environment.
It is all well and good for the Government to say, “We’ve changed. The hostile environment is a thing of the past.” The lived daily experience of people who want to come to this country and share their creative talents and passions is that the hostile environment is still in place. That will change only when the policy starts to change and the administrative burdens are changed. That means easier processing, cheaper visas and a much more straightforward way of people applying and having their sponsors taken seriously. We hope the appointment of the new Minister will lead to some change, and we look forward to hearing what she has to say.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I thank Deidre Brock for securing the debate and all those who have contributed to it.
There is no doubt that the UK’s thriving creative sector is of huge economic and cultural importance. Taken together, the creative industries contribute more than £100 billion to the economy and account for one in 10 jobs across the UK. Last year, an estimated 29.1 million people attended festivals and concerts across the country. Beyond the statistics, the creative industry is also an essential part of our national identity and a crucial instrument of the UK’s soft power on the world stage.
The temporary movement of talent across borders is crucial to the continued economic success of this world-leading sector. Within the music industry, 13% of the workforce are European nationals and, with a disastrous no-deal Brexit looming, they are understandably concerned for their future. This prosperous industry is able to flourish thanks to the diverse, global talent that contributes to all its sectors. It is therefore vital that that talent does not become yet another victim of the Government’s shambolic handling of Brexit.
Back in 2017, Labour made it clear that we were committed to putting the needs of the creative sector at the heart of any Brexit negotiation, but instead of listening to our call the Government have run down the clock on our negotiating time and unashamedly ignored the needs of the creative sector. A large proportion of artists’ income is reliant on their ability to freelance and tour cheaply and easily. Doing so also allows them to reach new audiences across borders and cultures. Does the Minister recognise that many artists will not meet the £30,000 income threshold due to the nature of their work, and that this will further limit access to new creative talent in the UK?
Today’s debate has raised three interconnected problems. The first is that as a result of this Government’s chaotic Brexit strategy and the increasing likelihood of a no-deal Brexit, UK artists have an uncertain future in the EU. Movement across European borders is vital for the continued success of the UK’s creative sector. Currently, artists from across the EU do not need permission to perform in venues across the UK, and vice-versa. That means that an artist can perform in Amsterdam one night and Manchester the next without incurring any associated costs or red tape. Changes to that ease of movement will affect all those involved in the music industry, from large orchestras to up-and-coming musicians touring on a bootstrap.
As we look set to leave the EU, European artists will also now have to consider their ability to travel and tour in the UK. European artists due to perform in the UK in the coming months are now facing grave uncertainty, thanks to the situation that this Government have created as we head towards exit day. What is the Minister doing to reassure British and European artists that they will be able to continue to contribute to the creative sector in a post-Brexit world?
I will put Brexit aside for a moment to touch on the issue of non-EEA artists who come and tour here in the UK. As it stands, those artists are eligible for tier 5 temporary creative worker visas, permitted paid engagement visas and standard visitor visas. Big festivals and events such as the Edinburgh international festival and the Manchester international festival use those routes to bring thousands of foreign artists to the UK each year. In Edinburgh alone, the participation of those artists helps to attract an audience of 4.7 million to the city each year and generates over £300 million in cultural tourism.
Sadly, however, those artists are too often being turned away by the Home Office due to delays and poor decisions. Just last year, the prominent Palestinian writer Nayrouz Qarmout was refused entry three times before the Home Office eventually relented. In a similar case, the first showcase of Arab artists at the Edinburgh fringe festival was forced to cancel several of its productions after nearly a quarter of visas for performers were refused. From my own experience in Manchester, an internationally renowned artist who was due to perform at the festival was refused a visa and faced long delays in dealing with the Home Office. As a result of those issues, my team and I stepped in at the last minute and worked to ensure that artist was able to perform at the festival. Those artists are vital to the cultural enrichment of British society and should be welcomed by the Home Office, not turned away. Has the Minister considered the impact of the Government’s hostile environment on the creative sector, and will she engage with the industry to consider reforming the tier 5 visa application?
As we are all too aware, the hostile environment policies pursued by the Government have had an untold effect on migrants travelling to, working in, and creating a home in the UK. It is high time that the Government put an end to those policies. Labour has committed to dismantling this Government’s immigration regime and building a new system that is fair, open and welcoming.
I know I have touched on only a few of the issues raised in this debate, but I hope the Minister will provide answers to the questions I and colleagues have raised today. I will finish by saying this: if the Government continue to ignore the needs of the creative sector, they will wreak havoc on the UK’s cultural exports, our international soft power and our economy. It is vital that the UK’s creative sector does not continue to suffer under the Government’s irresponsible Brexit strategy or their hostile environment. The Government need to act now.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I congratulate Deidre Brock on having secured this important debate, and I am grateful to her and to all other hon. Members who have spoken, one of whom has left his place. I also pay tribute to my predecessor, my right hon. Friend Caroline Nokes, for the work she has done on this issue. I have had a meeting with her and discussed it, and I know that she took it very seriously.
The hon. Lady has rightly praised the magnificent Edinburgh festivals; of course, there is a great range of them. I was very lucky to speak at one of the fringe events in 2018. It was an amazing atmosphere, and it is a world-leading festival. The creative sector is a hugely important part of the UK’s economy; as Afzal Khan has touched on, it generates over £100 billion per annum, and those creative industries are growing.
Importantly, as I have said before in this Chamber when speaking from the Back Benches, this exchange of people and ideas is not just an economic issue, but is very important socially and culturally. The Government are committed to that and recognise the role that international collaboration plays in our social, economic and cultural life. I am happy to meet with the hon. Member for Edinburgh North and Leith, the festival organisers or Equity to discuss these matters, and also to hear at more length the contributions that Patrick Grady referred to in his letters. Perhaps he could expand on those.
Under the existing immigration system for non-EEA nationals, there are dedicated arrangements for creative individuals. Hon. Members have raised several points, which I will try to address. Artists, entertainers and musicians who come here as visitors to perform at events, take part in competitions or perhaps have auditions can come for up to six months. There is, of course, the permit-free festival list: several, although not all, of the festivals that have been referred to are on that list. It enables festivals to showcase international artists, entertainers and musicians such as the ones we have heard about. Exceptionally, those visiting performers can come to the UK for up to six months and be paid for their participation without needing formal sponsorship.
Celtic Connections, the Cheltenham festivals, the Edinburgh fringe festival, the Edinburgh international festival, the Edinburgh jazz and blues festival, the Hay festival, the Edinburgh tattoo, and WOMAD are all part of the permit-free festival list, which shows that the Government have listened and things have changed.
I appreciate that many of those festivals are part of that group, but does the Minister acknowledge that the list disadvantages much smaller festivals that do not have the capacity or funds to participate to the same extent as larger ones?
Of course, in all areas of life smaller organisations are always disadvantaged. However, because I am quite new to this role, I am not entirely sure whether an artist going to, for example, Celtic Connections could then go to a smaller festival in the ambit of those six months. Because I am not entirely sure, I will not give an answer; I will clarify by writing to the hon. Lady.
The current tier 5 creative and sporting route can be used by musicians, actors or artists. Some of those nationals can benefit from visa-free travel to the UK for up to three months if they get a certificate of sponsorship, and a 12-month working visa is also available. However, that generous offer must be balanced against the need to keep the country safe and secure.
We have visas for a reason: so that we can see who is coming in and out of the country. Last year, more than 2.3 million visitor visas were granted, which is an 8% increase on the previous year. People came for leisure, study or business visits. The service standard for processing a visit visa is 15 working days, and last year UK Visas and Immigration processed 97% within that target. Over the recess, I had the great pleasure of visiting UKVI and speaking to several colleagues who work there. I, too, pay tribute to them for their work.
The onus of a system of this scale is on the applicant to demonstrate that they satisfy the rules, but we want to carry on working as closely as we can with stakeholders to make sure that we are delivering an excellent service. This debate and the subsequent meetings that we will have are part of that. We need to preserve the integrity of our immigration controls.
I will come to that point later.
Last year, we published new guidance for UK creative event managers that provided an overview of what to consider in terms of planning for visas. We now have dedicated points of UKVI contact for those UK organisations organising UK events, which the hon. Member for Edinburgh North and Leith referred to. I am sure that people organising major creative events or international conferences will be able to take advantage of that. I bear in mind her point about smaller groups.
I am not entirely sure, but I imagine that such things are in the public domain. I am almost positive that they are available, because of our great transparency, but I will not say from the Dispatch Box where they are when I do not actually know. I would never want to mislead the House.
We are working closely with other Government Departments, particularly the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport. Officials have met sector representatives to understand the requirements of the creative sector. We have listened to stakeholders to ensure that our systems strike the right balance in terms of customer use and the integrity of our controls.
We want people to apply for their visas as early as possible. We published guidance for UK event managers that provides an overview of what to consider in terms of planning for visas and we also now have dedicated events. On what the Home Office and UKVI are doing, in May we published new guidance for our decision makers, including escalation procedures, to ensure that when they are assessing and making decisions on visitor visa cases, they consider all the evidence in the round, particularly UK sponsorship.
The hon. Member for Cardiff West, who is no longer in his place, referred to fees. I wholeheartedly disagree that they are a racket. The Immigration Act 2014 set out the governing factors that must be given regard to when fee levels are set: they include the cost of administering the service, the benefits likely to accrue to the applicant on a successful outcome, the costs of operating other parts of the immigration system, the promotion of economic growth, the fees charged by or on behalf of the Governments of other countries for comparable functions, and any international agreement. Having said that, we keep all visa, immigration and nationality fees under review.
I apologise for not having been able to be present at the start of the debate.
On the point about fees, I have many cases where people’s visa applications are rejected for minor points, because a document has gone missing or they did not provide something with the right date. If it is rejected, they have no right of appeal, so they have to start all over again, not quite knowing what they did wrong. Would it not be easier if officials could just phone people up and say, “You haven’t sent in a copy of your landlord’s agreement”, or whatever is required? It would save so much money.
Due to the nature and the great volume of visa applications, there are obviously cases where documents go missing at either end or where there is not clarity. If the hon. Lady has specific examples—
My pile of letters is like the magic porridge pot—it never gets to the bottom. I am very happy to look at them.
I am aware of some of the problems experienced by international artists coming to the UK, to which we have heard reference today. There have been some refusals. I realise that delays or errors can have serious personal consequences for the individual, and reputational and economic consequences for the UK organisers of events. As I have said on several occasions, however, I am committed to making the visitor system as simple and straightforward as possible, and to ensuring that decisions are right first time. That is important. We want to continue to deliver an excellent service for our customers.
The hon. Member for Edinburgh North and Leith referred to passports being lost. Everybody has the option to use the “Keep My Passport When Applying” service, but if she writes to me with a specific example of a lost passport, I will happily look into it.
The hon. Member for Glasgow North is a great champion of issues relating to Africa in this place. My predecessor met Chi Onwurah, who is the chair of the all-party parliamentary group for Africa. We are keen to look at that issue. Visa applications from African nationals are at their highest level since 2013. The percentage of African nationals whose applications were granted is up by 4% on 10 years ago. The average issue rate for non-settlement visa applications submitted in the Africa region is consistent with the average issue rate for the last three years, which is 75%. There are problems in some cases, however; the hon. Gentleman referred to the difficulties that some of the people with whom he is engaged in Malawi have encountered with the new hub-and-spoke configuration of the system. I will keep that under review.
David Linden talked about an immigration system with regional variations. We are clear that our future immigration system must work for every nation, region and community in the UK. We remain invested in fully engaging with the devolved Administrations. A regional immigration system is clearly problematic because we do not have internal controls. The Department considers that, given the complexity and scale of the effort, distortions or unintended consequences could result from divergent approaches in the nations of the UK. The Migration Advisory Committee has noted that it does
“not consider that there is a strong economic case for regional differentiation in migration policy”.
On the hon. Gentleman’s point about people who have absconded, I am afraid that we cannot reveal numbers. If an individual claims asylum, we cannot reveal it, because it could have an impact on his or her case. It is also difficult to quantify the number of people who are here illegally and have not brought themselves to the attention of Immigration Enforcement.
I turn to the future. The Prime Minister has been clear that we are leaving the European Union on
I finish by paying tribute to all hon. Members who have spoken today. They take the issue of our cultural life, the free exchange of ideas and the contribution of artists to our economy very seriously, as do the Government. In the Home Office, on visas, we have to balance that against keeping our borders safe and secure. I look forward to engaging with hon. Members on this issue in the future.
This has been an excellent debate. I really appreciate everyone’s contributions, including those of my hon. Friends the Members for Glasgow East (David Linden) and for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady). They gave excellent SNP support for the issue, although we will leave to one side their fantastical belief in the superiority of Scotland’s second city.
I also commend the hon. Members for Bristol West (Thangam Debbonaire), for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy), for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan) and for Manchester, Gorton (Afzal Khan) for their contributions. I welcome the Minister to her place. Her appointment is a relief, as there was a bit of delay between the previous Minister leaving and the present Minister arriving, to the dismay of a number of organisations who are anxiously waiting developments in the brief. I welcome her offer of a meeting, and I will immediately set about co-ordinating that with a variety of the many interested parties straight away.
As the Minister has heard from hon. Members, and from the many comments I mentioned from a wide range of organisations, despite the small amount of movement that we have seen, which is to be welcomed, numerous bodies are continuing to experience considerable difficulties. There must be improvement as soon as possible. I look forward to that meeting. I also very much hope that the Minister will take up the invitation from the Cabinet Secretary for Culture in the Scottish Government to the forthcoming summit on the issue, and particularly on visas for festival performers. I hope she will look out for the invitation in her mailbox. I thank all hon. Members for their contribution; this has been a very useful debate.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House
has considered artist visas.