Migration Pulse

House of Lords debate rocks points-based visa restrictions for visiting artists and academics

At a pivotal moment for the campaign against the home office restrictions on non-EU artists and academics Manick Govinda of the Manifesto Club argues that the current system has caused considerable damage to Britain's reputation as a centre for international arts. Following a debate in the House of Lords some peers are saying that there is a pressing need to find a practical solution to the current bureaucratic blockade.
March 25, 2011
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Manick Govinda

Manick Govinda is co-ordinator for the Manifesto Club's Visiting Artists campaign, against the UK Home Office's restrictions on non-EU artists and academics. He is an artists' producer and head of artists advisory services at Artsadmin, having produced and commissioned artists such as Zarina Bhimji, Zineb Sedira, Franko B, Yara El-Sherbini, Peter Liversidge and walkwalkwalk. He is a member of the Mayor of London's Cultural Strategy Group and is a non-executive director of ArtRole, a-n: The Artists' Information Company, and The Showroom Gallery.

On 10 March 2011, The Earl of Clancarty secured an important 90 minute debate to “ask Her Majesty's Government what assessment they have made of the points-based visa system introduced in November 2008 as it affects non-European Union artists, performers, academics and others intending to work in the United Kingdom.” 

This was a pivotal moment for the campaign against the home office restrictions on non-EU artists and academics. The Manifesto Club met with the noble Earl when he found out about our campaign when Lord Clement-Jones had twice raised the issue in 2009 at the House of Lords citing the Manifesto Club’s reports, “which set out an appalling catalogue of the damage done to Britain's reputation as a centre for international arts as a result of the new system.”

The debate was passionate, and both the Earl of Clancarty and Lord Clement-Jones cited numerous cases of shameful visa refusals and deportations of respected and high profile artists and musicians who were invited to contribute their talent to the UKs arts scene. 

“Abbas Kiorastami, despite his being invited in 2009 to Britain to direct ‘Cosi fan Tutte’ at the English National Opera. After twice being fingerprinted, he gave up in disgust, vowing never to visit the UK again, yet saying how much of a real and indeed deserved welcome he receives in other European countries. In November, the cellist Kristin Ostling from the Chicago-based string quartet Carpe Diem, which was invited to play at a music conference in Leeds, was detained at customs before-in the words of the conference organiser, Derek Scott-being, ‘bullied and rudely questioned for eight hours’, and then sent back to America. The reason given was that she was taking work from British musicians, even though her attendance, which would have included three recitals, was unpaid. Her ability as part of this quartet is unique-something that is indeed true of all artists. Perhaps the Minister will note that this single incident has had significant reverberations in America in both the musical and academic spheres.” (read the full transcript of the debate)

Cogent arguments against the points-based system and the immigration cap were also made by Baronness Hooper, Lord Parekh, Baronness Kennedy of the Shaws, Baronness Brinton, Baronness Bakewell and Lord Rosser.

The Earl of Clancarty concluded his introduction to the debate with the following statement:

“A year ago, the Manifesto Club submitted a 10,000-strong petition to the previous Government that highlighted discrimination against artists from developing countries and those with a low income. The petition was signed by many in the arts world, including Antony Gormley, Rachel Whiteread, Sandy Nairne and Nicholas Hytner, as well as by Members of this House. Will the Government respond to the Manifesto Club petition, and will the Minister ponder the strength of feeling and deep concerns about these issues within the arts in Britain?

There might be a solution to some of these problems. The entertainer's visa may be expanded. Perhaps it could be called the artist's visa, and payments of fees to artists be allowed. I understand that there is to be a review of tier 5. I hope very much that we will not see the introduction of more bureaucracy that will only discriminate further, and instead see a move towards a more flexible and progressive system.”

At the end of the debate, Lord Atlee who represented the coalition government gave a defensive and facile response to this robust and intelligent debate citing

“the context of the Government's overarching approach, which, quite simply, is that we will restore public confidence in the immigration system. We have said that we will reduce the number of non-EU migrants to ensure that net migration drops from the unsustainably high levels consistently seen in the past 10 years.”

Piecemeal and ill thought out minor reforms were mentioned, such as the introduction of an entertainers visitor route as viable pathway for artists to visit the UK – provided that they are not paid a fee!

Peers were angry and unconvinced by these minor reforms. As the Earl of Clancarty concluded there is a pressing need to find a practical solution to this bureaucratic blockade of non-EU artists that is more flexible and progressive. The battle is not over.