Media April 2011

“Fog over Channel, Continent Cut Off”

Agency Denies Visa Rules Harm Trade, Tourism, Studies

Irate readers deluged the Financial Times in early March with complaints about how difficult it was for business people, students and tourists to get UK visas. But Jonathan Sedgwick, acting chief executive of the UK Border Agency, hit back by saying the letters “paint an inaccurate and outdated picture of the UK Border Agency’s visa processes”.

One writer claimed it takes up to six weeks to get a UK visitor visa but Schengen visas, for entry into 25 European countries (except the UK), took just two days. Another told of the loss of fees to a British university for the failure of his Russian wife to get a visa to study for her MBA. And the director of an Iraqi organisation, who wanted to come to Britain to buy materials for a construction project, was so appalled at the difficulty in getting a visa that he went elsewhere. “This particular fiasco cost British exports the tidy sum of €7mn”.

In another case, 12 engineers had wanted to come to the UK to buy machinery. “The visa delay was too much for them. European visas, available in two days, were a much better bet. They spent almost $80mn in France and Germany”.

The managing director of a London corporate training firm wrote: “If David Cameron and Chancellor George Osborne are really serious about creating ‘an enterprise culture’, they really must get a grip on the UK Border Agency. If the British government cannot escape from the tabloid press mythology about Schengen accession as a mortal threat to British security and sovereignty, how about a policy that is commercially competitive with Schengen?”

Some of the complaints, Sedgewick claimed, were old and missed the service improvements put in place since then. “Visa applications are now issued quickly and efficiently, with waiting times vastly reduced. The UK Border Agency issues 90% of business visitor visa applications it receives, and often with a three- to five-day turnaround time for key countries such as Russia, India and the Gulf states”. UK visas, he said, last six months rather than Schengen’s three months and visit visa applications from Chinese nationals have risen 50% in the past year.

One academic pointed out that the Schengen area had now adopted a visa facilitation policy for most of eastern Europe, with fees cut to €35 for short stays, and to €99 (in the case of France) for long stays. UK visas for these categories are now, at today’s exchange rates, €81 and €245, respectively. That is more than twice the amount to visit just the UK plus Ireland, versus the 25 countries of the Schengen area.

“The ‘Fog over the Channel, Continent Cut Off’ newspaper headline joke is now over. David Cameron is devoting much energy to projecting a fresh image of goodwill and common sense in his world travels”.