Thursday, 6 March 2008

Visa fee hits arts festivals

The Times, March 6, 2008

Organisers of the Edinburgh International Festival and fringe, the Promenade concerts and many of Britain’s best-loved and most celebrated arts festivals are staring into a financial black hole because of changes in immigration rules which are being brought in by the Home Office.

Under the government proposals which are due to take effect this autumn, many international performers will be required for the first time to purchase a visa, at an estimated cost of £99 each. Orchestras, ballet and theatre companies, travelling from countries outside Europe, such as the USA and Australia will be hit by charges which could amount to thousands of pounds.

The proposals have provoked outrage from leading figures in the arts, who accused the government of precipitating a financial crisis and in failing in its own agenda to promote multiculturalism.

“This is like a massive, unbudgeted tax on internationalism in the arts. It’s crazy,” said Graham Sheffield, the artistic director of the Barbican in London. “Take an orchestra like the Los Angeles Philharmonic – you are talking about thousands of pounds on your budget. The potential for catastrophe, for it being very much more expensive and bureaucratic, is high.”

Paul Hughes, the general manager for the BBC Symphony Orchestra, warned that the changes would take their toll on events such as the Proms.

“It is likely to bring fewer artists to the country. For people bringing in whole orchestras, it will have an enormous impact. Other than as a pure money-making exercise for whoever owns the department of visas, I can’t imagine what the benefit is to anybody,” he said.

Under the current rules, visiting performers from “non visa national” countries such as the USA, Canada, New Zealand and Australia who play at festivals designated as “permit free” do not require a visa to enter the United Kingdom. Costs are also held in check for visiting orchestras, ballets and theatres who are able to tour under a work permit which costs just £190 and applies to the whole group.

A Home Office consultation on the arts ends on March 10, but under “Tier 5” of the new points-based rules for immigration, costs are expected to rise exponentially. As well as visa expenses, it has been propsed that each organisation will require a “certificate of sponsorship”, effectively a guarantee of good behaviour from its British promoter.

Though the cost of this is likely to be set at just £400 per company, each member of a touring party will require a certificate. The amount of bureaucracy that this might entail was mind-boggling, said Mr Sheffield.

“We are already having to row extremely hard not to go backwards. This is going to be a nightmare. They will have to employ several thousand civil servants just to process everything,” he said.

The Home Office changes are being made as part of a five-tier points-based immigration system which came into effect at the end of last month and effects all incomers from outside the European Union. Based on the Australian immigration model it is designed to ensure that “only those with skills the country needs can come to work and study,” according to Jacqui Smith, the home secretary.

However, arts organisations accuse the government of including the arts and entertainment industry only as an afterthought. The changes to the immigration system were a huge and important exercise for the counry, said Chloe Reddaway of the National Campaign for the Arts, but “the arts didn’t fit the model” she said.

“Instead of providing an arts and entertainment category that was specially set up, we are being squeezed into boxes that were never made for the arts sector. Everyone has been trying very hard to make that work but everyone keeps coming up with the fact that this is the wrong shape for the arts and entertainment. The sector is not generic, it rests on individual cases, and that is what the new system doesn’t accomodate,” said Ms Reddaway.

The Edinburgh Festival and fringe are vulnerable to the changes. The International Festival commissions work from a wide range of non-EU based companies and will be hit by a huge rise in costs under the proposals. Organisers of the Fringe, which last year hosted more than 2000 shows from all over the world, can expect a massive rise in bureaucracy – if performers are prepared to come to Scotland after costs go up.

A spokesman for the International Festival said the festival was “taking part in the consultation and taking a close interest in this issue."

What has bemused arts promoters is the government’s apparent abandonment of its ideal as Britain as a cultural hub.

Ms Reddaway said: “Think of the government’s creative industry policy, the Olympics, their interest in international trade and transferable skills, and the their diversity agenda. This policy runs completely contrary to all of that.”

The first changes to performer regulations were introduced last year and saw a rise in the cost of visas for countries including Russia, China, Cuba and India which have “visa national” status. Last night the Home Office said that no decision had been taken about whether to replace blanket visa covering groups such as orchestras with a system under which every group member must have a visa.

* Joint by-line with Dalya Alberge

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