New Labour’s Iron Curtain for artists

Ludicrously strict visa rules for artists and academics from overseas are strangling cultural life in the UK.

Manick Govinda

Topics Politics

The UK Borders Agency (UKBA) sent a clear message at the end of 2009 to all foreigners: visiting Britain will not be a straightforward affair. In a season’s greetings card sent to, among others, lawyers and charities working with asylum seekers and refugees, the UKBA outlined, in text shaped as a Christmas tree, its achievements. This included the introduction of electronic fingerprinting for visa applicants and ID cards for foreign nationals, as well as stricter action against those ‘who don’t play by the rules’. Not quite a message of goodwill to all men or a wish for peace and joy in the world.

Thankfully, instead of putting the fear of the state into people’s souls, most campaigners were either outraged or bemused by the ‘clever’ Christmas card and it prompted some pretty funny parodies. However, when considering the realities of the UK government’s points-based system (PBS) for immigration, the temporary unintended moment of comic relief offered by the card quickly dissipates.

Introduced in late November 2008, the PBS is having a devastating impact on international collaborations and is severely restricting the entry of non-EU artists, academics and others into the UK. In February 2009, the Manifesto Club launched a campaign against the draconian measures with a petition that has attracted over 10,000 signatures from renowned artists, writers, musicians and academics. It has also been enthusiastically endorsed by community arts groups involved in everything from teaching tango to playing sacred music and salsa and belly dancing.

Although the UK’s minister of state for borders and immigration, Phil Woolas, takes every opportunity to state that the government’s immigration rules are ‘firm but fair’, the case studies in the Manifesto Club report Deported: Artists and Academics Barred from the UK paint a very different story. They reveal the alarming and nightmarish scenarios that invited artists and host organisations now have to endure: refused visas, deportations, and in some cases the imposition of a 10-year ban on respected and reputable artists.

Woolas has said that the PBS was designed ‘to strengthen immigration control by requiring employers and education providers to obtain a sponsor licence’, but the case studies prove that the PBS is not fit for purpose: it breeds mistrust and suspicion, stifles cultural relations and diminishes the UK’s reputation for meaningful and trusting collaborations in artistic exchange, knowledge and understanding.

The minor concessions on the part of UKBA, such as granting a tiny number of festivals PBS exemptions and multiple entry certificates for successful rock bands, have only propounded a cultural elitism. The Home Office and the UKBA have been turned into unwelcome arbiters of culture, dictating and controlling our international artistic relationships. The fact that such piecemeal concessions were seen as painstakingly hard-won victories for common sense over bureaucracy for major arts and entertainment promoters and agencies only shows how ludicrously strict the current situation is.

But are these concessions really victories at all? Wilf Sullivan, an officer with the Trades Union Congress (TUC) who is actively campaigning against the PBS, is a big fan of the World of Music and Dance Festival (WOMAD) – the event in the UK for rare concerts by artists from Africa and Asia. However, last year he observed that all the African performers were the superstar acts who perform regularly in the UK anyway, rather than the new and unusual artists who make WOMAD such a unique experience.

While some major artists have been granted multiple entry certificates, which allow them to enter and leave the country in between concert dates during a UK tour, lesser known acts become tethered to their sponsor. Paula Chateauneuf, a renowned exponent of early music groups, told me that an invited overseas musician who required a certificate of sponsorship to perform in the UK was issued a visa and temporary worker permit with the Southbank Centre in London as his sponsor. However, he had first to agree to rehearse and perform only at the Southbank Centre premises while in London as the centre would be in breach of its sponsorship requirements otherwise.

The PBS is costly, bureaucratic, chaotic and confusing. As Chateauneuf says, ‘The system is so fantastically complicated that even UK Border Agency officials cannot understand it; I have often been given totally conflicting information from one officer to the next.’ For instance, one official told her that each performance venue would have to apply to be a sponsor in order to allow her guest musician to perform while another official said that a single sponsor could cover a UK tour.

Worse, the Home Office and the UKBA have created an environment of fear and suspicion, compelling promoters and venues to cover their backs, to self-police and to keep their invited artists under surveillance. While I fail to see how the UKBA could possibly prosecute Southbank Centre should a visiting sponsored musician decide to do a bit of moonlighting at some lesser-known clubs, the UKBA has succeeded in drumming up anxiety, worry, and fear – what if he or she is a suicide bomber or absconds?

The PBS is certainly an income generator for the government, but most chillingly the system instils a system of overzealous self-policing by administrative and personnel departments at cultural and academic institutions who understandingly are advised to cover their backs or risk losing their artists’ sponsorship licence. To that end, UKBA guidance states that organisations should keep copies of sponsored persons’ passport entry stamps and contact details and keep a record of their every movement while they are in the UK. If the visitor’s whereabouts are unknown, the sponsor is compelled to report them to the UKBA.

If hosts decided collectively to refuse to hold such records or to assist in the infringement on the civil liberties of foreigners, this would send a powerful message to the government that cultural and academic institutions are not extensions of the UKBA. True, individual sponsors could get picked off by UKBA officials for not complying with its petty regulations. However, could they really refuse licenses to big and esteemed establishments like the Barbican, Southbank Centre, the Royal Opera House and to hundreds of other agencies, museums, galleries and promoters if we all collectively refused to spy on our artists and musicians?

Unions like the University & College Union (UCU) and the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS) are already openly exploring strategies to fight the PBS. Major unions in the arts and culture sector, like the Musicians Union and Equity, could take inspiration from them and do the same.

The Manifesto Club’s recommendation is simple: we call on the government to undertake a thorough review of the PBS as it is not fit for purpose. The system is insulting to artists, it questions their validity, and it brings the UK into disrepute on the wider international stage. Visa refusals, systematic fleecing of international artists and hosts of money, detaining and deporting artists who ‘don’t play by the rules’ are turning the UK borders into a twenty-first century cultural Iron Curtain.

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.

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Topics Politics


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