§ 8.40 p.m.
§ Lord Belhaven and Stenton rose to ask Her Majesty's Government whether they will now abolish the visa requirement for Polish citizens visiting the United Kingdom.
§ The noble Lord said: My Lords, your Lordships will know that I have raised the matter of visas for Polish citizens on many occasions over the past two years, as have other Members of the House; notably, my noble friend Lady Cox, who unfortunately cannot be present this evening, and my noble friend Lord Bethel. My noble friend is also unable to be present but he has tabled a Motion which is still on the "No Day Named" list in the Minutes of Proceedings. He has asked me to say on his behalf that he very much hopes for a favourable reply from Her Majesty's Government so that he will be able to withdraw his Motion from the list.
§ During the past two years or so visas for Polish citizens have been abolished for all European countries except, I understand, Albania and Turkey. We keep strange company in the matter. Before I proceed any further, I must say, with all the emphasis that I can command, that the Polish community in Britain is deeply upset by the situation which has been going on for far too long. The continuation of that situation is having—and I am not exaggerating —a devastating effect on our relations with Poland. Even if it is ended, a great deal of damage has already been done. It should be ended now.
§ What are the reasons given for the continuing insistence on visas? First, it is said that a very large number of Poles continue to wish to come to this country. I must ask Her Majesty's Government and my noble friend the Minister: do they really find that so surprising? The Polish community in this country is computed as a minimum of 150,000 people of Polish blood who hold British citizenship. To those one must add the large number of people who are of mixed Polish and British parentage and those who, like myself, are British but married to Poles. Beyond those immediate categories of people, I must add that Polish people have not been living in a kind of vacuum or ghetto for the past 45 years. They have made a large number of British friends.
§ That large group of people—that is, Poles and those connected with them—do not only have friends and relations here and in Britain; they have families in Poland. I should have thought that it was the least surprising thing in the world to say that members of those families want to come here and visit. There are families living on both sides of what we used to call the Iron Curtain. Of course, the communists in the heyday 356 of their power thought it unreasonable that families should wish to get together. I am quite sure that my noble friend the Minister does not take that view. But I have to say that appearances are against Her Majesty's Government on the matter.
§ I hesitated very much before coming to the question of our consulate in Warsaw. I realise that there are people working there who have a most arduous and disagreeable job to do. However, I have to say that the stories of harassment of Polish people, whose only crime is to wish to come here to visit their families and friends, are too numerous to be ignored. I can only suppose that it is the rules themselves which give rise to that harassment. I know personally of a mother who was refused a visa to come to visit her daughter for two weeks at Christmas. There are other stories too numerous to repeat.
§ I can sum up by telling your Lordships of a comment of a Polish lady who applied for a visa. She said that she had been interrogated by the Gestapo and the KGB but that she had never been reduced to tears except at the British Consulate in Warsaw. I ask your Lordships: what are we doing in this business? The fact that such stories are going the rounds—I can assure noble Lords that they are—is something that I believe Her Majesty's Government should take a great deal more seriously than they appear to have done so far.
§ I should like to comment on two further reasons given by the Home Office for the continuation of the visa regime. The first is that many visas are refused, or applications withdrawn, because in most cases visa officers suspect that the applicants intended to take or seek employment. The second reason, which follows on from that, is that if those applicants were to travel all the way here and then be turned back and deported home, it would be a great deal worse for all concerned.
§ My perception is—and I am not alone in this—that far fewer Poles are coming here to earn hard currency than was the case four or five years ago. There are two reasons for that. First, it was always the most enterprising people who came here to work, but those people now have more to occupy them at home; they can make money there. Secondly, Germany, France, Denmark and the other countries of the EC are much easier to reach. People can travel there freely. Therefore, why go through all the hassle and expense of air tickets, ship fares, and so on—not to speak of visas—when they can just get into the car and drive to their destination?
§ Again, from personal experience, I must tell your Lordships that anyone who is determined to come here to work will succeed, while people visiting their relations may not do so. That is so because of the very nature of bureaucratic inquiry. Often people are refused visas to see their families for what normal people would consider to be silly reasons; for example, that they have forgotten to bring their bank statements with them, they do not have a bank account—well, we all have aunts and grandmothers who can do that—or they have got into a muddle and given the wrong address over here. That is more easy to do than some people may think, given how different the Polish and English languages are from each other. 357 However, those who are determined to work will make sure that they have everything in order. Addresses, references and bank accounts will present no problem to them. They are much tidier and much easier for officials to process. That type of thing will always happen; it is part of life.
§ As for the convenience of ensuring that people are processed in Poland before their journeys, all I can say is that I personally know of two cases where Polish men were stopped at Heathrow—visas and all. One happened to be my father-in-law. He is a 70 year-old gentleman and a veteran of the Polish Home Army. He was stopped and held for two hours while an interpreter who could speak Polish was found. That happened despite his visa and an invitation that I had signed. He was coming to stay with my wife and myself for 10 days in order to attend his granddaughter's christening.
§ Incidentally, with the number of Poles coming into Heathrow I cannot understand why it should take two hours to find an interpreter. There must be a large number of people in Britain who are bilingual in Polish and English who could be employed as interpreters at Heathrow and other airports where a large number of Poles come into the country. Moreover, I have to say from personal knowledge that anyone less likely to be coming here to work on a building site or as a waiter at Macdonalds than my father-in-law would be hard to imagine. So why was he stopped?
§ Another person that I know came here for a short holiday to see London armed with £800, a visa and a hotel booking. I know for a fact that he did not intend to seek work; he just came here for a holiday. He gave officials the wrong reference and was imprisoned at Heathrow for 36 hours. After that, he went back to Poland in disgust before they could deport him.
§ The fact is that people are stopped and put through the third degree at Heathrow and, I presume, elsewhere. So I cannot understand why it is said that a visa is enough and that possession of one will guarantee, or nearly guarantee, entry. Anyone who has seen the queues at Heathrow, and at other large airports, could not imagine for one moment that a visa by itself is anything like enough.
§ When I look at the map of Europe, I cannot see a country which has closer ties with Britain than Poland. The fact that those ties are comparatively recent makes them stronger if anything. I believe that we have more potential good will in that country than in any of our EC partners. At present we are stretching good will to the limit and risk losing what is probably one of the only real friends that we have in Europe.
§ There is also a market of 40 million people to consider. British traders ought to be and are entering the Polish market, but contact between businesses is made difficult by the visa regime which restricts the ease with which Polish businessmen can travel here. When I was in Poland last September, I noticed goods and services from almost every country in Western Europe, but practically nothing from Britain. I suggest that the visa regime has everything to do with that.358
§ I understand that Poland has been an associate member of the EC since January. I do not know whether my noble friend can comment on that and on whether Poland is or is about to become an associate member, but I presume that freedom and ease of travel would be the least condition to attach to such associate membership if it is to come about.
§ I am a bit concerned that the question of visitors visas becomes confused at times with the question of immigration. The Asylum Bill is currently being considered by your Lordships' House, and I would like to make the point that that has nothing to do with Poland. I am not asking Her Majesty's Government in this Question that Poles should be allowed to immigrate or have a right of abode here, merely that they should be allowed freely to visit this country for family and business purposes. While I am talking about immigration, perhaps I may mention the fact that, to my knowledge, many Poles are now returning to Poland, and I should think that they number many more than the Polish people who are seeking to live in this country, although statistics on this point would obviously be impossible to obtain.
§ When the Baltic states obtained their independence last August, their naturals were given immediate visa-free entry to Britain. I was in Poland at that time. Can your Lordships imagine how I felt, as a British subject, completely surrounded by my wife's Polish family? They were very nice to me about it. Citizens of every country in Europe, apart from the Balkans and the former Soviet Union, but including Yugoslavia, have the right to visa-free travel to Britain—every country that is, except Poland.
§ It is utterly repugnant that we should treat that brave and intelligent nation in that way. I also find it incomprehensible. So many British people, including members of your Lordships' House, recognise the debt that we owe to Poland and have given selfless service to organisations such as Medical Aid to Poland, and in many other ways. What Her Majesty's Government are doing seems to indicate a meanness of spirit. It is sickening to see so much good work being negated by a heartless and, I believe, stupid and unnecessary policy.
§ I do not wish to anticipate my noble friend's's reply, which I still hope will be favourable, but word gets around and I understand that there is an intention to wait until the summer to assess the experience of our EC partners which have abolished visas for Polish citizens. I very much hope that that is not the reply that I shall receive. In this context, I should like to quote the late Professor Parkinson's law which states that "Delay is the deadliest form of denial". I hope that the Home Office is not playing that game. It would be shameful and unworthy of the traditions of this great country if our bureaucracy were to be allowed to do that and to treat the citizens of a country that stood by us in the greatest trial of our whole history in such an underhand way.
§ As I have said, I hope that that is not what Her Majesty's Government are up to. I do not think they should wait any longer than they have already. It may not be a direct analogy, but the Polish divisions did not wait at Monte Cassino to see whether someone 359 else would cross the minefields. They did not wait to see whether someone else would fly the Spitfires and Hurricanes in the Battle of Britain.
§ We ought to know the Poles by now. We should not be sitting on our hands waiting to see what the French or Germans think of them. We should end this situation now before the intransigence of the Home Office does irreparable damage to our relations with a great, brave and friendly nation.
§ 8.54 p.m
§ Lord Whaddon
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Belhaven and Stenton, for his initiative in raising this important topic. I sympathise with him in the information that he has given us and in his struggle on behalf of the Polish people.
In speaking to this subject, I must begin by expressing my own interest. I am chairman of two Polish companies and have been engaged in Anglo-Polish trade for some 30 years. There is something almost unreal about our need to discuss the ending of visas for Poles wishing to visit Britain. Surely we all remember that, at a time when Nazi bombs were burning out the other end of this building, Polish pilots were giving their lives above us in the skies of London in defence of our liberty. We would not be here to debate these matters if they had not fought so hard for us. The appalling thing now is that if the pilots who survived that battle live in Poland and wish to visit this country along with their families—a country that they helped to save—they have to queue up and wait for weeks to obtain permission to come here, whereas the people they fought can walk in without a visa. That is quite monstrous.
Following the Second World War came several decades of communism. Her Majesty's Government were foremost among those who condemned the restrictions of communist regimes, such as those which restricted their people from travelling. There were rebellions in communist countries. In 1953 the East Germans rebelled and were quashed. In 1956 the Hungarians rose and were suppressed. I was present in Prague in 1968 when the Prague Spring was crushed by Soviet tanks. Eventually, it was the Poles—those irrepressible people—who pulled the rug out from under the communist system and brought a great wave of freedom to the countries of Eastern and Central Europe. What, however, has been the result of delivering so many people from serfdom? The East Germans can now come here without visas, as can the Hungarians, the Czechoslovak people and the Lithuanians, but the Polish people, who brought about that freedom, have to queue for permission to come here. That is most distasteful. I sincerely hope that the Minister has something constructive to tell us this evening.
I turn now to a topic that was mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Belhaven and Stenton. I refer to business visas. The Government are proud of the fact that they introduced a fast-track system for Polish business people wishing to visit Britain, but it is very much a half measure. There is a special window and, with the right documents, Polish business visitors can 360 obtain a visa to come here in a day—if they are lucky. Real life, however, tends to be very different from what the bureaucrats imagine. A business visit of any significance tends to involve between four and six people travelling in one delegation. There is usually a commercial director, a finance director, a couple of engineers and experts and perhaps a lawyer. Each one will have to travel from perhaps 200 miles outside Warsaw to the British Embassy to obtain the visa application form. Each person must bring with him his passport documents to show that he has a genuine business reason for wishing to come to the United Kingdom. Each must fill in the form and return it for validation. It may well take only one day in theory, but I know from experience that, in practice, Polish delegations wishing to come here need to set aside a week to prepare the visas for the group wishing to come here.
Your Lordships may remember that a member of Her Majesty's Government in another place recently urged businessmen going abroad to take their wives with them because that is good for families and for business. She was correct, but it is quite impossible for Polish businessmen coming here to do that. Although the businessman himself may get his visa in a week, his wife would have to queue for many weeks to obtain her visa, so it is impossible.
Let us consider our competitors in Germany. A German entrepreneur merely picks up the telephone and speaks to his opposite number in Warsaw. He says, "Why don't you come over for the weekend? Bring your wife with you, we will put you up in one of our hotels. The rest of your delegation can come on Monday morning and we will tie the whole thing up in one day". A Polish businessman can set out from Warsaw by car and easily be in Berlin the same evening. That is no level playing field. It puts British business at a distinct disadvantage. I trust that Her Majesty's Government realise that they have a great deal to answer for by imposing the unfair burden from which all Anglo-Polish business suffers.
I shall mention a related topic: the bureaucracy imposed on Polish businessmen working here who legally hold work permits which are normally issued for three or four years. Those permits must be revalidated every year. The applicant must send in his passport and visas. It takes six to eight weeks to process that revalidation. During that time, the authorities retain the passport and visas. That means that, effectively, eight weeks out of every year are sterilised for those businessmen. They cannot travel. That is a monstrous imposition. Surely the Government could devise a system to return the passport immediately, having seen it and, if necessary, taken a photocopy. Anything else is pure obstructionism.
The advent of the Common Market, as the noble Lord, Lord Belhaven and Stenton, pointed out, changes the rules. As Poland enters the Common Market, Poles must be given permission to come here without visas. The door is opening, so why are the Government resisting it? We should make a virtue out of necessity, at the very least, and open the door immediately instead of incurring the ill will of our 361 Polish friends. It was the Poles who released the great tide of freedom across East and Central Europe, but Her Majesty's Government have donned King Canute's garb, bidding the tide of freedom to go back. It will not. It is time for the Government to abandon their undignified posture and to hold out the hand of friendship and welcome to our Polish friends.
§ 9.2 p.m.
§ Baroness Park of Monmouth
My Lords, I too am grateful to my noble friend Lord Belhaven and Stenton for reopening this important issue. Noble Lords have once more put the cogent case which surely exists for a change in the Government's policy on visas for Polish citizens. It is, I believe, vital for that sterile approach to those who fought so bravely at our side to be reviewed. I declare that my only interest in this matter is that I had the privilege of fighting side by side with some of them during the war.
I had hoped that, when my right honourable friend the Prime Minister (speaking in another place on his return from the NATO summit last year) spoke of NATO reaching out to the countries of Eastern Europe to help provide stability and a sense of security, adding that Britain would have a central part in that task, a more positive approach to the issue of visas would be an obvious step to take to provide that support.
I do not advocate a change in the visa regulations on grounds of the just deserts of the Poles alone. I argue strongly that it is in our own national interest to demonstrate our belief in them and in the struggle through which they are going to disentangle themselves from the Soviet command economy, and to operate as a free democracy. The Select Committee of this House on the European agreement with Poland, Hungary and the Czech and Slovak Federal Republic said in its admirable eighth report that, while the rebuilding of those three economies would be an enormous and daunting task, political stability would be put under strain during the economic transition period. Thus the quicker the economic reform is completed, the less the political strain will be.
It may be relevant here therefore to quote a CBI resolution carried unanimously at the CBI conference in, I believe, early 1991. It read:This Conference believes that British business is missing out on important opportunities in Central and Eastern Europe and urges CBI Members to lose no time in developing strategies or investing in the new Europe".Witnesses speaking to the Select Committee to which I have referred recognised that Poland has made the most progress towards economic reform by abandoning the old state-controlled economy. The report adds:It is already clear that there are serious rifts occurring between those who came to power on a wave of popular discontent with the economic misery and oppressive politics, and the masses who brought them to power, but now have to bear the burden of the austerity programmes introduced".In Poland, that was evident during the last election, and, indeed, President Walesa recently gave a clear warning to the West that there was serious discontent which could lead to a political backlash. The "big bang" in Poland has been carried out at great political 362 risk and the backlash could, alas, include a sharp move to the Right, something which should worry us deeply.
The situation in the former Soviet Union becomes more and more unstable and unpredictable (particularly given the potential instability of, for instance, the Polish/Ukranian border) and, if we are to secure any lasting and stable future for Europe, it therefore becomes more and more vital to do everything we can to stabilise, in particular, countries such as Poland.
The Poles are a proud people. The invidious nature of our present visa policy has a political and moral impact there which cannot be overstated. To accord them the same standing as the Hungarians and the East Germans (now, with reunification, members of the Community) both former enemies, would be not a generous but a wise and just gesture. That is especially true at a time when NATO has just associated Poland and the former oppressors of Poland (the CIS states) with the treaty on conventional forces.
Britain is making a positive and valuable contribution to the restoration of Poland's infrastructure, and to its economic health, through the Know-How scheme. Why are we wasting the beneficent effects of that investment, as we are undoubtedly doing, by maintaining a visa policy which the Poles (and no doubt their neighbours) perceive as deeply unfriendly and, in its application, not seldom insulting? I hope very much that my noble friend the Minister will be able to secure a change in visa policy. I believe that it is a matter of honour for us to discharge the debt we owe. I share the strong feelings of my noble friend Lord Belhaven and Stenton in the dishonour that it does us to continue to behave as we have.
§ 9.8 p.m.
§ Lord Hacking
My Lords, although I do not have the privilege of having a Polish wife like the noble Lord, Lord Belhaven and Stenton, I, like him, have been to Poland. I, like him, have been to Warsaw and have walked through the streets to the old city square that has been so splendidly restored after the devastation of the last war. I have talked to citizens in Warsaw, young and old. I have strolled through the underpasses under the main roads where almost every other street vendor sells books, especially books of instruction in the English language.
My firm, too, has been actively involved in Poland for the past two years. One of my senior colleagues is now in Warsaw full-time. Out of this knowledge I have to state that Her Majesty's Government's visa policy continues to cause great resentment among Polish citizens and great embarrassment among those of us who are playing our part now in Warsaw and in the re-creation of its economy.
It has been a little time since I was last in Warsaw, so yesterday I telephoned my colleague and asked her what was the current opinion on the visa policy. She said, "The feeling is still very strong". There are now no visas for Germany, Austria, Italy and France. As the noble Lord recorded, just about every member state now has a policy of no visas for Polish people who wish to visit their countries. My colleague went 363 on to say that the feeling was strong not just because of the queues and the delays. In that respect, she cited a young Polish surgeon, a colleague of hers whom I have met. This young surgeon attempted to get her visa but the queue was long and she could not stay there all day waiting. Only after three weeks was she able to find time to get into the queue to obtain her visa. Even for her, the cost was quite high: 400,000 zlotys, which may sound a lot of money but for a young Polish surgeon earning only 1,300,000 zlotys per month it represents almost a third of her monthly income.
As my colleague pointed out, there are also the personal questions about family finances, bank accounts, status of boyfriends. Recently an official of the Polish embassy visited my offices in London. He took it upon himself to talk to me about our visa policy towards Poland. I asked whether he could show me what the visa form was like. Unfortunately, I was not able to find it to bring to the House to present to the Minister. But I am more than willing to show it to him and also the details of the questionnaire which causes this embarrassment among those who have to complete its details.
The difficulties of ordinary Polish citizens have been well chronicled by the noble Lord, Lord Bethell, and the noble Lord, Lord Belhaven and Stenton, who asked the Question. I do not apologise to your Lordships, in chronicling the matter further, for mentioning the man who was not allowed to accompany his pregnant wife to England for the birth of their child or the scientist who was asked for proof of ownership of her home. I mention also Professor Roman Zelazny, director of the Polish National Atomic Energy Agency who was not allowed to attend an important conference here in Berkshire, and the Warsaw electronics lecturer, Piotr Sokolowski, who had to make an emergency visit to London for cancer treatment and who was painfully delayed.
The best, or perhaps the worst, example is of the two young Poles who won tickets from British Airways to fly free for a weekend in London. They then attempted to get their visas and were told that the issue of a visa could not be considered until they could prove that they had hotel vouchers of £150 each, payable in advance and non-refundable. At that, they returned the gift to British Airways.
As has already been identified in this short debate, the Government's anxiety is apparently over economic migration. Let us be rational. Let Her Majesty's Government be rational. What are the numbers involved? Last year I believe that 60,000 visitors came here, many as yet limited in their command of the English language. Will they flood our labour market? What about the 5 million Poles who visited Germany last year? Did they stay behind to flood the German labour market? Did they disturb the German employment figures? During the same period, more Germans visited Poland than vice versa.
If we are talking about economic migration, what about the potential invasion of 320 million citizens of the EC, all of whom have the right to work here? For in this short debate we are considering not work 364 permits but merely visitors' visas for Polish citizens who just want to come to see our country, visit relatives and friends of long ago and, above all, to learn or improve their skills in the English language.
The question has to be asked: what on earth are Her Majesty's Government doing? They are showing some sense concerning some countries of Eastern Europe with lesser populations such as Czechoslovakia, Hungary and East Germany. All of those countries have been freed from the visa requirement, but the Government are refusing to do so for our oldest ally in Central Europe; the ally who led the countries of the East to throw off the yoke of communism. Does that make any sense at all?
§ 9.14 p.m.
§ Lord Bonham-Carter
My Lords, I too should like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Belhaven and Stenton, for introducing this important and very topical debate. I should like to express my sympathy to the noble Viscount, Lord Astor, who has to answer the devastating case which has been made against the policy which Her Majesty's Government has pursued through thick and thin with no signs of a positive response. I only hope that this debate, which may be like water dripping on a stone, makes a slight dent in that determination and that the noble Viscount has been granted the opportunity to show some give, some imagination, and to develop a policy which is acceptable to our friends and in the interests of our country.
We have heard a speech from my noble friend Lord Whaddon, from the depth of his experience as a businessman. He raised a point which I do not think has been raised before, to which I hope the noble Viscount will pay attention, about the complication of the revalidation of work permits for businessmen. That is a very important point and one which should be considered.
We have heard from the noble Baroness, Lady Park of Monmouth, on the wider implications in terms of our general policy towards Central and Eastern Europe which are very relevant. She made the point which cannot be made too often, which I have tried to make in the past, that, in advising those countries to embark on radical policies of economic reform, we are putting a very grave strain on the democratic reforms which we are asking them to undertake simultaneously. We should be aware of that and do what we can to help them in the painful task of introducing a market economy to countries which have none of the infrastructure which a market economy requires and none of the experience which a market economy demands.
We have heard from the noble Lord, Lord Hacking, of his own experience, and certain individual horror stories, if I may say so, which are demonstrations of extraordinary ill manners, if of nothing else, to people who have been our brave, loyal friends and co-belligerents in a great struggle.
I speak as one who has been going to Poland since the early 1960s and who has been chairman for many years of the Anglo-Polish Round Table conference, which was the first East-West conference on the lines 365 of KÖnigswinter which was ever started—started characteristically on the initiative of a Polish communist government.
All I can do in the next few moments is to repeat in simple and rather stark terms what has already been said in the course of this debate. What are the facts? As a succession of those who have participated in the debate have repeated, the facts are that visas are offered to Czechs and to Slovaks. No visas are required of them, or of Hungarians or Lithuanians. As many noble Lords have mentioned, no visas are required of Germans, ex-citizens of the GDR, ex-members of Stasi, as the noble Lord, Lord Whaddon, pointed out. But in the case of Poles, our allies and friends, despite their links with this country—perhaps because of the 150,000 Poles who live in this country—visas are required. In these circumstances, this appears to them—can you blame them?—as positively insulting. It is another example of bad international manners.
The only other Euro-countries, as has also been said, which demand a visa of Poles are Ireland, Greece, Turkey and Albania. As the noble Lord, Lord Belhaven, said, what funny company we keep. A Pole can travel without a visa to Germany, France, Belgium, Holland, Italy, Austria and Sweden.
As a small consequence of this policy, all British people who go to Poland must have visas, which is very boring. If we lifted the visa requirement, we should not have to have visas ourselves. That provision would disappear tomorrow.
As other noble Lords have said, there is fear of a flood of Poles coming into this country. In my view not only is it untrue and irrational, as the noble Lord, Lord Hacking, said, but worse things can happen than a flood of Polish visitors to this country. I do not believe that that would be a pollution to our national life. I should rather like it.
The fact of the matter is that over the past two years the number of Poles travelling abroad has diminished by more than 20 per cent. According to figures at my disposal, in 1990 14.2 million Poles travelled in and out of Poland; in 1991 the figure was 10.4 million. In 1990 57,000 Polish visas were issued by this country; in 1991 47,000 visas were issued. In 1991 2,300 visas were refused. Those figures are also reflected in the Schengen group, where no visas are required. There has been the same drop in travel as to this country.
Nor are the Poles the largest group of Eastern Central European groups to come to this country. More Yugoslavs came last year than Poles, and they do not need visas. Some 36,000 Yugoslavs came here in 1990; 908 were turned away at the places of entry. That did not totally disrupt immigration control, which is one of the arguments which is used for insisting on visas for Poles.
I need not elaborate on the reasons for the drop in the numbers visiting this country, but Poles no longer receive six months' unpaid leave to work abroad and air fares have risen to Western levels. In addition, according to a recent opinion poll, most Poles do not want to leave Poland. At the most 11 per cent. have expressed some intention of leaving at some time. However, if they did so this country would not be top 366 of the pops. It is rather low down on the list. According to the poll, the preferences are for North America, Germany, Australia, Italy, France and Scandinavia before this country. Indeed, only 7 per cent. put England as their first preference. If one takes 89 per cent. as the number who want to stay at home and approximately 10 per cent. as the number who might leave the country, that is 3,500,00 people, the Polish population being as it is. If, like me, you cannot do mathematics, you make that 7 per cent. 10 per cent.; then, according to my calculation, that is a total of 3,500 people. That is the number of people for which this huge operation of visa controls has been devised. We could put them all in the Albert Hall. We could squeeze them into this Chamber if we wanted to.
Is it really for that purpose that we have those procedures and that we are gathering such ill will? I find that very difficult to credit, particularly if one considers the expense involved, which is very substantial. As I understand it, we have eight immigration officers in Poland all the year round. From March to September there are another five. The cost of the whole of the diplomatic operation in Poland is £2.6 million. The cost of the immigration operation in Poland is £1.1 million—almost one half. That is the cost of the operation to stop a few people who may possibly want to come to settle here. Is that really worth while?
Is it worth while gathering so much ill will? Is it worth while to undo the good work of the embassy by spending half as much again on making people angry, being rude to our friends and gathering odium? I find it extraordinary. I can only ascribe it to a lack of imagination which afflicts the Home Office from time to time. The Foreign Office should stand up to the Home Office because it is the Foreign Office which carries the can. I have known most of our ambassadors to Poland since the 1960s and I do not know one who, after he had retired, would not say that that was one of the crosses he had to bear. They should be relieved of that burden and of the need to spend £1 million gathering ill will. They should be allowed to spend that money doing something positive for the Poles who, as the noble Baroness, Lady Park, pointed out, are a crucial element in ensuring the stability of Central Europe and therefore the stability and peace of this continent.
§ 9.25 p.m.
§ Baroness Mallalieu
My Lords, this House has tonight heard a number of powerful and moving speeches from many different sides, urging Her Majesty's Government to concede that the visa requirement in respect of Polish citizens who wish to come to this country as visitors should go. We on these Benches too are grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Belhaven and Stenton, for raising this timely Question again.
The Polish people are historically our friends and allies. Our wartime debt to Poland and the Poles who lost their lives fighting must never be forgotten. The 150,000-plus strong Polish community in this country is a model of all that an immigrant community should be; hard-working, law-abiding and making an 367 important contribution to the life of its adopted nation. In recent years Poland has led the way to democracy in Eastern Europe and must now have our support, friendship and help in the difficult economic times which it faces in the immediate future.
Whenever this matter has been raised—as it has been with increasing frequency and force within the past two years—Her Majesty's Government have maintained in effect that it is precisely because of that background and our particularly close links with Poland that visa restraints are necessary, even though we have abolished them for other Eastern European countries with whom our ties are looser. The Government have gone on to argue that if they were removed for Poles, a flood of visitors would arrive at our ports, many only to be turned back because they did not meet the requirements of the rules, which would lead in turn to a souring of our relations with Poland, congestion at the ports and inconvenience and delay for other passengers.
The justification given for maintaining the restrictions contains also the suspicion that if they were removed, substantial numbers of Polish citizens would seek to work here illegally. Those propositions now need to be re-examined urgently. Developments in Poland and throughout Eastern Europe and the recent experience of our European partners who have dropped their visa requirements call for a fresh examination of Poland's position as a matter of urgency. As I understand it and as the noble Lord, Lord Bonham-Carter, said, in 1991 the number of Polish citizens travelling abroad dropped by just under 30 per cent., partly as a result of higher travel costs but also because, notwithstanding Polish unemployment, students who previously came to the West to take holiday work can now earn realistic wages in the growing Polish private sector.
There has been a downturn too in the number of Polish citizens visiting the Schengen group of countries where visas have been abolished. It is clearly highly relevant to future government policy to know whether there appears to be a similar downturn in numbers applying to come to the United Kingdom. On 22nd July last year the noble Viscount told this House that in 1990 57,000 Polish citizens were admitted on visas to this country, 2,000 were refused visas and 20,000 withdrew their application. I ask him today to say whether he is satisfied that those figures are correct. If they are, let me put them in context. Out of some 18 million tourists who visited Britain in 1990, 0.31 per cent. came from Poland. Will he also be kind enough to tell us in his reply how many visa applications were made by Polish citizens in 1991? Can he give an indication of the numbers that were granted, those refused and those that were withdrawn last year?
Can he also tell us whether the experience of Germany with over 1 million citizens of Polish origin, or those of France, Belgium, Italy, Holland, Austria, Sweden and Switzerland, all of which have removed the visa requirement, are giving support to the concerns which underlie Her Majesty's Government's present policy? As the noble Lord, Lord Hacking, 368 asked: has there been an opening of the floodgates, trouble at the borders or an unacceptable level of over-stayers or those illegally employed in those countries? Will the noble Viscount give an indication of the number of Polish citizens who were deported from Britain in 1991 for staying or working illegally in this country?
It is disquieting to hear from the East European Trade Council that the visa restraints between the two countries are the biggest single obstacle to British trade and investment with Poland. It is alarming to learn from the CBI survey of 3,500 British businesses engaged in Eastern Europe that some 40 per cent. of them have found real problems in obtaining visas for Polish employees to travel to the United Kingdom for work or staff training, putting them at a disadvantage with businesses based in other Western European nations where there are no restraints, despite the fast track about which the noble Lord, Lord Whaddon, spoke.
It is also profoundly distressing to hear of the personal anguish and difficulties of those who wish to visit relatives, such as those about whom the noble Lord, Lord Belhaven and Stenton, spoke, or those who wish to come to this country for training or treatment and who are denied visas or face long delay, inconvenience, hardship and expense in obtaining them.
Will the noble Viscount give an undertaking that he will examine those difficulties and the consequences of maintaining existing government policy on the matter in the light of the new figures and the new information as a matter of urgency? So long as visa requirements are to remain, will the noble Viscount tell the House what steps have been taken and are proposed to be taken to mitigate the considerable problems which Polish citizens were facing when applying for visas and which the noble Baroness, Lady Ryder of Warsaw, and the noble Lord, Lord Bethell, described graphically in this House on 13th November of last year and about which other noble Lords have spoken tonight. Will the noble Viscount tell us what is the average time now taken to process a visa and whether Her Majesty's Government are still seeking new and more spacious premises, as the noble Lord, Lord Brabazon of Tara, indicated in May 1990 would be done but which the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, indicated had not been improved upon by the time that he answered a Question on the matter in November last year?
Will the noble Viscount confirm how many of the consulate staff are engaged in the visa section? Will he confirm the figures given by the noble Lord, Lord Bonham-Carter, as to the annual cost of maintaining the visa requirement for Polish citizens?
A review of government policy, its effects and its underlying reasons is now long overdue. We owe it to our Polish community and to our friends the Polish nation. From these Benches I can say that following a change of government such a review and a reappraisal of the present policy will be carried out without any delay.
§ 9.32 p.m.
My Lords, the interest and concern felt by many of your Lordships over the visa requirement for Polish citizens has been made abundantly clear in the course of this debate. I shall, of course, draw the very deep concern that noble Lords have expressed today to the attention of my right honourable friend the Home Secretary. However, I have to inform my noble friend Lord Belhaven and Stenton that we are not convinced that it would be right to abolish the visa requirement at present. However, I hope that that bitter pill is sweetened somewhat when I add that we shall look again at the need for this regime in the summer when the impact of visa abolition on the Schengen countries may have become more apparent.
The United Kingdom has a visa requirement for nationals of 82 countries or territorial entities including Poland. Visas are a mechanism for enabling immigration and other checks to be carried out before travel. They are expensive to operate and in many respects inconvenient for passengers. For those reasons we have no interest in maintaining them in cases where we believe that they are not necessary either on immigration grounds or for national security reasons.
Each visa regime must be justified on its merits. Your Lordships will be aware that some of our European partners decided last year to remove their own visa requirements for Polish nationals. Partly as a result of that decision we have recently reviewed our own requirement. Our conclusion was that conditions are not yet right for us to do so.
Our concern is the large number of visa applications received by our Embassy in Warsaw from people who do not meet the requirements of the immigration rules. Last year about 2,500 applicants were actually refused a visa. There were 1,318 withdrawals and 17,619 inquiries. I must point out to the noble Baroness, Lady Mallalieu, that the 1990 figures which I gave last year were correct. The difference was that withdrawals and inquiries were recorded together. In 1990 74 Poles were removed, and to 30th November 1991 173 Poles were removed from this country under enforcement powers.
If visas were abolished the first point of contact for Polish citizens wishing to come here would be with immigration officers at ports of entry. Immigration officers have to apply the same criteria as visa officers. From the figures that I have given it will be apparent that last year, if there had been no visa regime, nearly 3,000 Polish citizens may have had to be refused entry at the ports—
§ Lord Bonham-Carter
My Lords, is the number 3,000? I understood that the number of refusals was 2,300. To add 700 to that figure seems to me to exaggerate.
My Lords, I was pointing out that some of those who had withdrawn would probably have come to this country. If one adds together the number of applicants refused a visa and the number of withdrawals the total is 3,800, so I do not believe that 370 I was exaggerating. In 1991 more than 62,000 Polish citizens came to this country, as the noble Lord, Lord Hacking, pointed out. Immigration officers would, of course, have had no way of telling whether a specific person did or did not meet the criteria for admission unless they questioned each Polish citizen. At present that necessary process is carried out when the visa is issued, and immigration officers need only check, if necessary, that circumstances have not changed since then.
I believe that the figures speak for themselves. It is clear that in 1991, if there had been no visa regime, there would have been a high risk of large numbers of Polish citizens who are ineligible for entry seeking entry to the United Kingdom. In order to detect them, all Polish citizens seeking entry would have to be delayed at the ports and questioned. In its turn that would have delayed travellers of other nationalities. That adds up to congestion at the ports, irritation and delay for many bona fide travellers and the refusal of entry and the return to Poland of a large number of Polish citizens. In particular, refusal of entry would be expensive and upsetting for the individuals concerned —much more upsetting than the denial of a visa in Warsaw. For the purpose of comparison I point out that just before we imposed a visa regime upon citizens of Algeria, Morocco and Turkey in 1989, refusal of leave to enter at our ports was running at about 3,000, 2,000 and 2,000 respectively. The serious risk of such high numbers refused admission and the inevitable delay to bona fide Polish visitors would in itself harm the good relations between our two countries.
I acknowledge the cogent arguments for abolishing the present visa regime put forward by many noble Lords. But all the factors that I have mentioned argue strongly in favour of retaining our visa requirement at the present time. In the Government's view the arguments in favour of a visa regime are at present more persuasive than those in favour of removing it.
The noble Lord, Lord Whaddon, mentioned that we have abolished visas for Czechs and Hungarians. However, the background of visa casework for those two nationalities was entirely different. In 1989 our Embassies in Prague and Budapest had refused only 20 visa applications. The noble Lord, Lord Bonham-Carter, mentioned the Baltic states. As I stated earlier, we do not impose visa regimes lightly and each case must be judged on its merits. Since the Baltic states obtained their independence from the Soviet Union, only a handful of their citizens have travelled to this country on Baltic passports. That contrasts sharply with the number of Polish citizens visiting the United Kingdom and explains the difference in visa requirements.
I accept that we must and will take account of the experience of our European partners when reviewing whether to maintain our own visa requirement. However, the full effects of visa abolition by some EC states have yet to become apparent. For example, in some cases periods of leave granted on entry have yet to expire. Thus, it is not easy to establish to what degree Polish nationals have complied with the time limits imposed on entry. For that reason we intend to undertake a further review of the need for a UK visa 371 regime later this year. We hope that by then the impact of visa abolition upon other member states may have become more apparent.
The point has been made strongly that a visa requirement is inappropriate for Poland, given the sacrifices made by her nationals during the Second World War. It is, of course, the case that since the war it has been necessary to impose visa regimes upon several of our Allies. For example, the Nepalese, including the Ghurkas, Indians and Pakistanis all now require visas before coming to the UK. We will always owe a debt of gratitude to the brave men and women who fought for the Allied cause. But the immigration rules must reflect immigration pressures that exist today and must be applied fairly to all nationalities.
The noble Lord, Lord Bonham-Carter, smiles. However, I should point out to him that until very recently the United States of America required British citizens to obtain visas before travelling to America. I do not believe that for the 45 years since the war we in England have regarded it as a slight or a blot on our relationships with the United States because we have had to obtain visas to visit America when they have not had to obtain visas to visit England.
As regards visa issuing in Warsaw, I appreciate that applicants may feel resentful when they have to wait for an interview and are then required to answer questions about their intentions. I should point out to the noble Lord, Lord Hacking, that the visa questionnaire is the same as that used in other countries where visas are required. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office has made strenuous efforts to streamline procedures in order to prevent queues and delays and has provided extra staff to help deal with the annual increase in work during the summer months. A same day service is now provided for most visa applicants. In addition, applicants are encouraged to apply through recognised travel agents —around 40 per cent. of total applications were lodged in this way last summer. In straightforward cases such applications are turned around in 48 hours.
The noble Lord, Lord Whaddon, made a point about businessmen wishing to come to this country. Frequent visitors, including businessmen, can apply for multiple entry visas valid for two years.
Questions about intentions are essential in order to assess a person's admissibility under the immigration rules and therefore maintain an effective immigration control. Hard-pressed staff in Warsaw carry out their tasks as courteously and efficiently as possible. Moreover, I must say to my noble friend Lord Belhaven that they are under strict instructions to treat all applicants with sensitivity and respect. Of course it is inevitable that any refusal decision would be upsetting and unwelcome to the applicant. But there is a right of appeal. Any specific complaints about the visa operation at Warsaw are dealt with speedily by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.
Perhaps I may answer some questions about that. In Warsaw improvements will be made to provide extra reception points and an expanded and covered 372 questions area for the busy summer season. The search for new accommodation for the visa section continues.
As regards the number of personnel, Warsaw has seven permanent entry clearance officers supervised by the consul or the First Secretary and supported by two UK-based and 19 locally engaged staff, of whom 18 are Polish. The staff is increased by five temporary duty UK-based officers and seven locally engaged staff to cover the busy summer period from 1st April to 30th September. The Warsaw embassy received 48,464 firm applications in 1991, of which 99 per cent. were for visit visas.
My noble friend Lord Belhaven mentioned the EC association agreements. The association agreements between Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia and EC member states have been signed but will not come into force until they have been ratified. The agreements will not require EC member states to lift visa regimes where they are in force. We hope that the agreements will come into force by the end of the year, but I should stress that they are basically trade agreements.
I must repeat that the answer to the Question posed by my noble friend is that for the present we intend to impose a visa regime upon Polish citizens. I know that that will disappoint him and other noble Lords who have spoken movingly tonight about the Poles and their relationship with this country. However, I made clear that it is not an answer we have reached lightly. As my noble friend Lady Park of Monmouth pointed out, bilateral relations must be taken into account. It is for that reason as well as immigration concerns that we shall look at the issue again later this year. I hope that promise makes my answer somewhat more palatable to my noble friend.
§ Lord Whaddon
My Lords, before the noble Viscount sits down perhaps he will comment on the withholding of Polish passports and visas during the period of revalidation of working permits.
My Lords, I am afraid that I do not have any information for the noble Lord this evening. However, I shall look into the matter and write to him.
§ Lord Hacking
My Lords, before the noble Viscount sits down for the second time, perhaps he will give consideration to one specific point of relief. I refer to the reduction or abolition of the cost of the visa.
My Lords, the cost for a visa is the same in all countries and the Government believe that the visa operation should be financed through fees paid by those who use the facility rather than the British taxpayer. Visa fees are calculated with that objective in mind. They were made non-refundable in 1988 to help meet that aim, since costs were incurred during the processing of an application. However, withdrawals prior to payment incur no cost to the applicant.