HC Deb 20 January 1981 vol 997 cc236-42

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.[Mr. Le Marchant.]

9.57 pm
Mr. Michael Spicer (Worcestershire, South)

I am very grateful for this opportunity to raise the one-sided arrangement which exists between the United States and this country on the question of visas. I do so as someone who is firmly committed to a belief in the vital importance of the continuation of the present excellent relationships between the United States and this country.

The arrangements by which United Kingdom citizens wishing to visit the United States are required to have their passports stamped with a visa by the United States consular authorities in this country date back 50 years. For those United Kingdom citizens who are short-term visitors, this has always been a non-reciprocal and therefore unfair arrangement.

It could have been argued in the past that, when there were relatively small numbers of people travelling between this country and the United States, the visa requirement was a trivial inconvenience, in that the consular officials in London particularly—and, indeed, at other consulates—were able to deal with the demand for visas without delay. Passports sent to the embassy were returned almost immediately and the applicant who was in a great hurry could obtain a visa on the spot if he presented himself at the consulate.

With the arrival of cheap travel, the abolition of exchange controls and the relative decline of the dollar, the number of United Kingdom citizens wishing to take holidays or to do short-term business trips to the United States has exploded. Last year there were 875,000—nearly 1 million—visa applications from the United Kingdom alone. That is not the same as the number of those travelling from the United Kingdom to the United States. That figure would be considerably higher. I am also informed that this year the number of visa applications—

It being Ten o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Le Marchant.]

Mr. Spicer

This year the number of applications for visas from United Kingdom citizens for travel to the United States is expected to show an increase on last year's figure of about 20 per cent., or one-fifth. There will be more than 1 million applications despite the fact that in a recession one would not expect much foreign travel. I stress that that figure is lower than the figure for the number of people who will travel.

The enormous increase in the number of people requiring visas has put the issue into a new context both because it affects a very large number of our citizens and because of the inevitable delays, frustrations and, in some cases, great inconveniences that are caused.

At the end of last year, I visited the visa department at the United States embassy in London. The officials who showed me round could not have been more courteous or helpful. I do not think that I am misinterpreting their position when I say that they would warmly welcome the abolition of the visa requirement. The visa department of the United States embassy in London now takes up most of the ground floor. Recently a computer has been installed whose sole purpose is to process visa applications. In the high season, visa work takes up the time of about 60 full-time staff. No amount of computers could overcome the mammoth problem of processing and storing up to 4,400 passports a day between the months of March and September.

In addition, in the eyes of United States consular officials, the whole exercise is pretty fruitless, because—this may not be generally appreciated—the visa is not the key determinant of whether a visitor to the United States will be permitted entry. Nor is it the key determinant of the length of time that he will be allowed to stay there. That is determined by the immigration and naturalisation services of the Department of Justice. Officials from the Department of Justice man all the ports of entry into the United States and for them the visa stamp is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for allowing a visitor to enter the United States.

The visa factory—that is what the department should be called—operates about as efficiently as possible. A British citizen who presents himself at the embassy is allowed to deposit his passport in a box on the understanding that it will be returned to him within three to four hours. Understandably, many people—especially those who have travelled long distance to London—are unwilling to hand over their passports when they are uncertain whether they will be returned with a visa. They therefore, typically, enter a waiting room so that the passport can be directly stamped. Even out of season, during the winter months, when I have visited it, the waiting room is Bedlam. Out of season, the wait for the visa stamp can be relatively short.

However, during the summer months and the high season which we shall enter in two or three months there is an unbearable crush in the waiting room. I am told that the conditons in it are quite unacceptable, and can be suffered by British citizens for a whole day while they wait for their visas to be stamped.

The alternative to presenting one's passport at the consular office is to send it through the post. Leaving aside the eccentricities of the British postal services, every effort is made by the United States consular officials to return the passport, if it is sent through the post, within three weeks.

Even with computerisation, and even if one assumes that the three-week period is maintained, there are several days after the passport has been posted and has arrived at the United States embassy when it is in effect lost to the world, when waiting to be processed. That period has been reduced to four or five days, but the passport is lost during that time. During that period, anyone who wishes to have his passport for emergency purposes cannot have it. I know several cases in which people have had to go to Petty France to be given an emergency temporary passport.

The document for a visa is not complicated, but it has to be filled in properly. After three weeks, if the applicant has failed to fill in the documentation properly, the passport will naturally be returned to him without a visa. I know of at least one example in my constituency during the past year where that as has happened. One of my constituents, who is a solicitor, had booked a summer holiday for his family in the United States, but nearly had to cancel it despite having started the process of obtaining a visa in the spring of that year. He received the visa two-and-half months after his first application.

I do not mention such examples in order to criticise the United States consular authorities in London. When I visited them, I found them extremely sympathetic. They were determined to do the best possible job, given the difficulties under which they were working. What is at issue is not the efficiency with which the consular authorities carry out their job, but the policy itself.

As regards the policy, I believe that there is a good deal of sympathy in Washington for British citizens who wish to visit the United States. I feel that that sympathy is now coalescing into strong support for a change in the visa laws as the United States economy becomes more and more dependent on foreign exchange earnings from tourism. There is evidence that the State Department, the Foreign Relations Committees of the Senate and the House of Representatives have been pressing for some time to put the visa requirements with countries such as the United Kingdom on a reciprocal, and therefore fair, basis.

I understand that the main opposition in Washington has come from the immigration interests, both in the Government and in Congress. I have seen one letter written by a former chairman of the House of Representatives Judiciary Committee in which he justifies the visa requirement on the basis that, once a person enters the United States, movements are not monitored as, in his words, a United States citizen's are if he stays in hotels in many European countries.

That argument does not wash with respect to the United Kingdom. I know of no case in which a visa is required on a short stay or in which a US citizen coming to this country has his movements monitored in any way while he is here.

So much for the United States authorities' position. As for the British Government's attitude, I know from an answer that I received to a question to the Minister of State on 16 July 1980 that it remains the Government's policy to seek the abolition of the visa requirement.

The reason that I have sought this opportunity to raise the matter again tonight and have tabled a parliamentary question on the subject to the Prime Minister for reply on 27 January is that it seems to me that the new Presidency and the change in the political complexion of the Congress make this a highly appropriate day on which to consider pressing the matter again in Washington.

On 4 December I wrote on this matter to the chairmen of the Senate and House of Representatives Foreign Relations Committees. I hope that I shall be receiving a reply in the not too distant future. If necessary, I plan to meet those two chairmen in Washington as soon as I can get over there, preferably in the week of 20 April, when I hope to be there.

However, I should have hoped that this would rapidly become superfluous as the British Government manage to persuade the new American Administration to act. I hope that the Prime Minister will find an opportunity to raise this matter with President Reagan when she meets him on 26 February. In the meantime, I much look forward to what the Minister has to say tonight.

10.13 pm
The Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Richard Luce)

I warmly congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Worcestershire, South (Mr. Spicer) on his well-argued presentation of the problems caused by the imposition of the American visa system on British visitors to the United States. I endorse what my hon. Friend said about the excellent relations that exist between our two countries. He has chosen a most appropriate day, following the inauguration, a few hours ago, of President Reagan, to put forward suggestions as to how we can cement still further the close ties between our two countries. Concrete proof of this has been demonstrated by an upsurge in the number of British visitors to the United States over the past two years.

I listened with great interest and, indeed, sympathy to what my hon. Friend said. I am sure that this represents the views of many hon. Members. It might be useful if I cover a little of the background, as my hon. Friend has already done with great efficiency.

The American visa system is essentially a filter. A visa does not in itself entitle the holder to gain admittance to the United States. As I understand the American position, current legislation, which has existed for many years, requires that all foreigners except Canadians and certain categories of Mexican citizens need to have visas for entry into the United States. Before this visa requirement on the majority of the world can be abolishd, or before it can be abolished in any one particular case, new legislation is apparently necessary. Thus, in American eyes the abolition of the visa requirement for British subjects is complicated by this need for legislation, and by the fact that the British position is, in the American view, enmeshed with that of other countries. Over the years Congressmen have sought to enact legislation to abolish the visa requirement for at least some countries; but, regrettably, it has not so far reached the stage of enactment. I shall be commenting further on this a little later.

My hon. Friend referred to the procedures operated by the American embassy in London to illustrate the effects on visa applicants of the current policy. I can understand the sense of frustration which many applicants must feel. But I am sure that the American embassy takes every possible measure to try to reduce the waiting time for visas. My hon. Friend set out clearly and, as I understand it, accurately, the time that it can take to obtain a visa. At the same time, I am sure that the House will have noted the tribute he paid to the efficiency of the embassy in London.

I turn to the British position. In 1948 Her Majesty's Government abolished the requirement for United States citizens entering this country to be in possession of British visas. It was our hope at the time that the American Government would follow suit and abolish their requirement for visas to which I have referred. When the Americans failed to follow suit, we made representations to them. We have continued to press the Americans to abandon the visa requirement for the United Kingdom. We have made numerous representations, most recently by our embassy at Washington to the American State Department in October last year.

Before going any further I should touch on one suggestion which has been made to us. It is that, as we have been waiting since 1948 for the Americans to reciprocate our gesture and abolish the requirement for visas, we should now achieve reciprocity by reimposing a visa requirement on United States citizens entering this country. I appreciate that my hon. Friend did not suggest that. Such a step would obviously achieve reciprocity. But there are a number of disadvantages to such a course.

There are very practical difficulties. The first relates to expense. In 1979—the last year for which complete statistics are available—some 1,900,000 United States citizens entered this country. Assuming that they would still have come here if they had needed visas, an estimated 275 extra staff at our consulates in the United States would have been required to process applications and issue the visas. The policy of Her Majesty's Government is to reduce the size of the Civil Service, not to increase it.

Quite apart from these huge extra costs, we are in no position to predict whether the imposition of such a visa requirement on United States citizens coming to the United Kingdom would in fact have the effect of inducing the American Government to abolish the requirement for British citizens to obtain American visas. It would, in my view, be just as likely simply to deter American visitors from coming here, with all the undesirable repercussions on our balance of payments which that would have. The various disadvantages of such an Eye for an eye, and tooth for a tooth policy are, in my view, such that we can reject it.

There is little more that I need say in response to my hon. Friend's excellent speech, except that it remains the policy of her Majesty's Government to press the United States Government for the abolition of the visa requirement on United Kingdom citizens. We recognise that this could involve them in legislation, but see absolutely no reason why they should not now urgently address themselves to the task of putting right this anomaly. Her Majesty's Government will naturally take an early opportunity of making representations to President Reagan's Administration on this question. I say that in response to my hon. Friend's suggestion.

This has been a most valuable debate and I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising this subject. I am sure that the United States Government will take note of the interest of the House in the subject. In the meantime, I stress that if my hon. Friend or, for that matter, any other hon. Members has any complaints about individual cases, he may like to consider taking them up with His Excellency the American Ambassador. In addition, I think that it would be right to suggest that my hon. Friend and all hon. Members who feel strongly about the need to see the end of the United States visa requirement might wish to continue to make their views known to the American authorities.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty minutes past Ten o' clock.