Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Lord Cope of Berkeley: If it is not a problem, perhaps I should have tabled an amendment to delete

19 Jul 1999 : Column 684

subsection (9)(b), which catches taxis. If they are not a problem, we do not need that paragraph. However, that is a debate for another occasion. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 32 agreed to.

Clause 33 [Visas for transit passengers]:

Lord Cope of Berkeley moved Amendment No. 63:

Page 24, line 9, at end insert ("unless they hold valid travel documents for entry into another country").

The noble Lord said: It will also be helpful to discuss Amendment No. 63A, which deals with the same point, but with, I hope, rather more refined drafting.

The subject of the clause is passengers in transit. Nationals of several countries currently require a direct airside transit visa to make a connection at a UK airport. For example, if they fly into this country from Peking and are going to change immediately to another flight, they require a visa even though they remain outside immigration control and technically outside the country, on the airside of Heathrow or Manchester or wherever it is.

The clause permits such transit visas to be still required. I understand that they are not required in Germany. As a result British Airways and other long-distance carriers are losing business to Lufthansa and other airlines that fly into Germany. The decision of someone who is planning to fly through one of the hub airports in Europe will be affected by the fact that they need a special visa just to stay in the transit lounge at London or Manchester, whereas if they go via Frankfurt or some other places they do not.

That is an issue of some importance. I am told that British Airways estimates an annual loss in revenue of £10 million as a result of the requirement for transit visas. It is unlikely that many people slip into the country out of the transit lounge. If many are thought to have done so, perhaps such provision is required, but if not and if they have proper documentation to continue their journey, it seems unnecessary to require such visas. I should be grateful for the Minister's comments. I beg to move.

4.45 p.m.

Earl Russell: I hope that the amendment will not draw the same answer as the previous one, because it addresses a real mischief. I should like to tell the Minister a story that was told in this House by my noble friend Lord Harris of Greenwich. It is a story about carriers' liability that occurred before he was in this House.

There was a plane flying from Toronto to Copenhagen with passengers correctly documented for Copenhagen and with no plans for a stop in the United Kingdom. There was an onset of particularly severe weather and the pilot was warned that it would be unsafe to continue the flight. He was required to land at Glasgow. He waited for several hours and was advised that Glasgow would not clear him for take-off because the weather was still worsening. The passengers were

19 Jul 1999 : Column 685

put up in a hotel in Glasgow overnight and continued their journey the next day. The airline was fined £2,000 under carriers' liability. That was a deterrent to air safety. Today of all days we might take some account of that.

As well as the air safety argument, there is also the effect on British trade, which the noble Lord, Lord Cope of Berkeley, has mentioned. Transit passengers are a paying business for this country. They are a vital and growing part of the economy. We should not discourage them or penalise passengers who can have had no thought of making an illegal entry into this country because there was no prospect of their plane stopping here. The case that I have mentioned was legally in order under carriers' liability legislation. Care should be taken to ensure that the problem does not arise again.

Lord Renton: For the reasons given by the noble Earl, Lord Russell, and my noble friend Lord Cope of Berkeley, I hope the Government think again about the clause. Subsection (1) says that:

    "The Secretary of State may by order require transit passengers to hold a transit visa".

However, we are not told what will happen to the transit passenger if he does not hold a transit visa. It seems extraordinary to try to stop any transit passenger from moving away from this country and it is a great interference with their freedom. With the deepest respect, the clause will not do. However, my noble friend has driven some sense into it with his two amendments.

Lord Cadman: The amendments are desirable and I support them. They would remove much of the bureaucracy relating to transit passengers at airports and would remove much of the immigration service's need for special facilities and extra manpower. The consequences of our insistence on protecting ourselves from uninvited people and, perhaps, of the lack of attention to the issue by others must be borne to some extent by the taxpayer and not wholly by affected businesses. Provided that airports can segregate transit passengers properly and keep them airside, why should such passengers need visas?

Viscount Brentford: I also support the amendments. I do not understand why Clause 33 is in a Bill on immigration and asylum. No doubt the reason will become apparent in the supplementary regulations to be made under the clause.

Many people who have to pay for a transit visa feel aggrieved and regard it as a fine for passing through this country. The provision brings a lot of opprobrium on this country. I have encountered similar provision in other countries. I do not like it and I am sure that nobody else does. The amendments would help to improve the situation.

Lord Williams of Mostyn: In answer to the specific question put by the noble Lord, Lord Renton, the clause simply repeats Section 1(1)(a) of the Immigration (Carriers' Liability) Act 1987, which was introduced by

19 Jul 1999 : Column 686

our predecessors in the Asylum and Immigration Appeals Act 1993. I recognise that the fact that our predecessors did something is not necessarily a knock-out blow in the context of argument. Indeed, the noble Baroness might think it is a knock-out blow the other way.

There is a point to the measure and I shall develop it because serious issues have been raised. If Amendment No. 63 were passed, it would disentitle the Secretary of State from imposing the requirement to obtain a transit visa on transit passengers--I stress, on transit passengers--who hold valid travel documents which allow them entry into another country. That means that there would be an end to the UK system of direct airside transit visa regimes and it would significantly affect our immigration control powers.

The United Kingdom visa requirements cover 106 countries. All but five of those are countries on which all EU member states impose a visa regime. The vast majority of visa nationals do not require a visa to transit the United Kingdom and benefit from a concession, known as a "transit without visa concession". It is an important concession for reasons that I shall develop, but it enables nationals to enter and transit the United Kingdom without obtaining a visa provided that transit is by air throughout; that they have an onward booking by the next available flight within 24 hours; and that they have the necessary documentation for their destination. That is a concession which we give and which has proved effective in practice in terms of the management of business, not overlooking our commercial interests which are extremely important.

In answer specifically to the concern raised by the noble Lord, Lord Renton, that concession is withheld from nationals of just 16 countries. That is because the concessions have been abused in the past. The countries are Afghanistan, China, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (Zaire), Eritrea, Ethiopia, the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, Ghana, Iran, Iraq, Libya, Nigeria, the Slovak Republic, Somalia, Sri Lanka, Turkey, Uganda and holders of documents issued by the so-called "Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus" and the former Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. Therefore, there is a small list of countries about which we have been sufficiently concerned to make that requirement. The overwhelming majority of countries and their nationals have that concession.

However, given the UK's importance as a transit hub, we seek only to impose a direct airside transit visa regime where we have found there to be no other solution. It is used as a last resort only, and only where we have had evidence of extensive sustained abuse of control.

The effect of Amendment No. 63A would be that the Secretary of State would have to exempt holders of either an entry permit to reside in, or a visa to enter, a state of the EU from a requirement to obtain a transit visa. As I have explained on a number of occasions, we have no objection in principle to a system of exemptions from the direct airside transit visa requirement. However, we need to be sure that such a system would

19 Jul 1999 : Column 687

not be open to abuse. There are some permits from EU member states which are easy to forge. In our judgment, they are not sufficiently secure to safeguard our legitimate rights.

I hope that I have been able to indicate in particular to the noble Lord, Lord Renton, that his fears are misplaced. It is a continuation only of the existing system. The visa requirements cover 106 countries and we found abuse in only 16 countries. I am pleased to have been able to explain the situation at some length and I believe that we are right to seek to continue these measures. It is a fact that countries change and it is necessary to keep a list up to date, sometimes by deletions and sometimes by additions.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page