Deidre Brock (Edinburgh North and Leith) (SNP)
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, the right hon. Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes), and I am sure that the current Minister—the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for South Ribble (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.