The UK Border Agency processed almost two million applications for visitor visas last year, Home Secretary Theresa May has said.
The Agency exceeded their public commitment to process 90% of cases within 15 working days, Ms. May told the House of Commons.
Replying to Mr. Peter Aldous, MP for Waveney who sought to know what steps the Home Office was taking through the visa system to enable business and tourist visitors contribute to UK’s economic growth, Ms. May said: “The UK Border Agency supports economic growth through delivering an effective visa service.”
She said that they take their economic responsibilities seriously, adding that the UK Border Agency “is constantly looking to improve the service it offers.”
Ms. May said the UK Border Agency has amongst other measures, “launched priority services, such as providing a five-day visa service, premium lounges for high-value customers and out-of-hours appointments at visa application centres.”
Chinese visitors, Ms. May said, are “an important market for the UK.”
She said there has been “a strong growth in the number of Chinese visitors to the UK for both business and tourism.”
“It is one of our priority markets, so we have undertaken a number of changes to our system,” Ms. May said. “Half our Chinese business customers, for example, now benefit from access to a priority scheme. We have opened new expanded visa application centres in a number of cities, but we will continue to look at what we do to ensure that our clear message is that Britain is open for business and has a functioning visa system that ensures that those whom we wish to welcome to the UK can come.”
Mr. Gisela Stuart, MP for Birmingham, however, challenged the Home Secretary’s claims that the UK was open for business. “It is no good saying that we are open for business when the perception out there is that we are not. Will the Home Secretary consider meeting admission tutors from the Russell group and representatives of chambers of commerce to familiarise herself with what is happening on the ground? The perception is that we are not open for business and that access is not as quick as it should be,” Mr. Stuart said.
In her response, Ms. May said many people claim that the UK is not open for business because of its visa system. “The former and current Immigration Ministers and I have met people from the universities, the CBI and other business sectors to talk to them about the issue. It is not just for the Government to go out and say that Britain is open for business—business organisations and universities should give out that message,” Ms. May said.
She cited UCAS figures showing that the number of applications from non-EU overseas students to UK’s universities has gone up. “The universities should stop claiming that there is a problem and go out and say that they are open for business,” the Home Secretary said.