Britain’s red light to overseas artists

Manick Govinda attacks government restrictions on the unfettered movement of artists into Britain.

New UK Home Office regulations, which came into effect in November 2008, are severely restricting the ability of British arts organisations to invite artists and academics from non-EU countries to take part in symposia, debates, artistic projects, exhibitions, performances and research. As an arts professional committed to the principles of internationalism and cultural exchange, I am appalled by the UK’s stringent visa controls.

Non-EU visitors now have to submit to a series of arduous and expensive procedures to get a UK visa, including supplying biometric data, electronic fingerprint scans and a digital photograph. They also have to have a British sponsor willing to take financial responsibility for them and to vouch for all their activities while in Britain.

Companies and charities wishing to sponsor a foreign artist or academic will need to complete an online application on the UK Borders Agency website. Small organisations must pay a fee of £400 to become an official sponsor, while larger groups must pay £1,000.

Should you want to invite a skilled person under tier two of the government’s points-based system for non-EU migrant workers (this tier covers skilled workers with a job offer to fill gaps in the UK labour force), this will set you back £170 for each certificate of sponsorship (an obligatory document for would-be migrant workers). To sponsor a temporary worker - people allowed to work in the UK for a limited period of time to satisfy primarily non-economic objectives - under tier five, this will set you back £10.

Now, this may not sound like a lot of money to a large company or charity, although it certainly is a bureaucratic hassle. However, smaller organisations and individuals will feel the pinch and will find it nearly impossible to meet the criteria to be a recognised licensed sponsor by the UK Borders Agency.

More importantly, the 158-page Home Office guidance document which covers the new rules affecting non-EU artists and academic visitors to the UK reveals something far more insidious. It demands from the host sponsor a massive degree of control over non-EU visiting artists and academics, obliging hosts to treat guests with suspicion rather than having a relationship based on trust. It legally obliges the host to police foreign guests’ day-to-day activities.

All licensed sponsors are required to hold photocopies or electronic copies of passport and biometric ID card details. Such documents might be easy for a US or Canadian artist to obtain, but if you’re coming from Russia, Iraq, China, Cameroon or Pakistan, such documents will be beyond the costs for most artists and difficult to obtain due to the lack of the appropriate technology within their country of origin.

However, the problem runs deeper than that. As Nathalie Rothschild has noted previously on spiked: ‘ID cards further diminish our right to be free from officialdom’s gaze; they erode the distinction between public and private where nothing must remain “hidden”’ (see ID Cards: a badge to prove you’re ‘one of us’, by Nathalie Rothschild).

All non-EU invited artists will have to apply for a visa in person and supply biometric data. Tier-2 skilled workers are required to hold a high qualification, have strong professional experience, the ability to speak fluent English (preferably studied in an English-speaking country) and be in demand because of a shortage of local skills in the UK. Tier-5 temporary workers will need to show that they readily have access to a minimum of £800 of personal savings, which have been held for at least three months prior to the date of their application, should their sponsor be unable to afford their maintenance. This may not sound like much money in the UK, but for many visiting artists from developing countries it exceeds their annual salary.

The director of ArtRole, a wonderful organisation promoting exchanges between British and Iraqi artists, informed me that the Kurdish-Iraqi artists whom he intends to invite would have to travel 900km to Beirut in person to apply for such documents and may have to stay there for about three weeks to receive them.

The Barbican Arts Centre and the South Bank Centre, both in London, were forced to cancel concerts by the Russian pianist Grigory Sokolov, described as ‘the greatest pianist alive today’. Sokolov rightfully refused to waste his time travelling 412km (256 miles) from Verona, where he lives, to Rome in order to provide fingerprints for biometric ID. Musicians in certain African countries, say Mali, have to travel huge distances to other countries, say Senegal, to obtain biometric ID and to wait for at least 10 days for the document.

An artist from China had the most Kafkaesque experience when trying to obtain the right document at the Visa Application Centre in Beijing to attend his exhibition launch at a London gallery. Based on past experience with other countries, he applied as a ‘business visitor’. However, the terms of a ‘business visitor’ visa state that the holder may not buy or sell goods while in the UK. The UK authorities rejected his application; they were not satisfied that he was a genuine business visitor accusing him of planning to sell his art works while in London. It seemed that the officials didn’t understand that his London gallery sells the work on the artist’s behalf (1).

Whether one believes in immigration controls or not (I for one believe in complete freedom of movement across states and countries), the arts and creative community seems to agree that the new system is excessively restrictive (2). But what really makes me angry is how the prying state has more or less annulled the convivial spirit of creative and intellectual dialogue and exchange between UK and non-EU individuals. Without the backing of a well-resourced organisation, British artists and intellectuals will be unable to invite their international colleagues over to share creative time and the joys of debate and culture, the value of which is impossible to measure.

The new points-based system is designed to keep certain types of people out. Many small, unincorporated, autonomous arts projects will have a tough job getting the necessary documents to invite non-EU overseas colleagues to the UK. Artists who want to collaborate, support each other and explore collective work will lose their flexibility and freedom to choose who they work with internationally.

The new rules also mean that individuals will lose their autonomy because in order to get things done they will need to be regulated and validated by the likes of the British Council, Visiting Arts, the Design Council and other official bodies of representation.

For the sake of personal and artistic freedom, it is time to scrap these divisive regulations.

Manick Govinda is a member of the Manifesto Club, which is campaigning against the new Home Office regulations. See the campaign page here and sign the petition against the Home Office regulations here. He is head of artists’ advisory services and artist producer at Artsadmin. He is also a member of the London Mayor’s Cultural Strategy Group and a non-executive director and commissioning editor for a-n: The Artists Information Company.

Previously on spiked Tara McCormack thought the focus on trafficking depoliticised the debate around immigration. Nathalie Rothschild said it is too hard for foreign doctors to join the NHS. Elsewhere, she reviewed Jason Riley’s Let Them In - The Case for Open Borders, and explained why we need an open door policy on immigration. Or read more at spiked issue Immigration.

For permission to republish spiked articles, please contact Viv Regan.

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