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Chamber and committees

Meeting of the Parliament

Meeting date: Thursday, May 30, 2019


Edinburgh Festivals (Effect of Immigration Policy)

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Linda Fabiani)

The next item of business is a members’ business debate on motion S5M-15707, in the name of Gordon MacDonald, on the impact of hard-line visa controls on the Edinburgh festivals. The debate will be concluded without any question being put.

Motion debated,

That the Parliament notes with concern the growing impact of what it sees as the UK Government’s hostile immigration policy on the ability of the Edinburgh’s festivals to attract international guests; understands that acclaimed international writers, actors and musicians have been forced to cancel trips to the capital’s festivals in recent years after what it sees as hard-line visa controls were introduced; believes that the situation can only worsen after Brexit; notes the calls on the UK Government to seek a more streamlined approach, in light of festival programmes reportedly being hit by visa refusals, errors and delays; appreciates the work of Deidre Brock MP, who has continually supported the festivals and artists, and has recently made an urgent request to meet the UK immigration minister to discuss the matter; considers that the Edinburgh festivals are essential to cultural and social life in the city, and believes that the reputation of Edinburgh as a global gathering place is being put at risk by what it sees as narrow-minded, xenophobic policies.


Gordon MacDonald (Edinburgh Pentlands) (SNP)

The Edinburgh festivals make up the world’s largest arts festival, and Edinburgh is well recognised as the world’s leading festival city. However, our reputation is being damaged and our international position is being put at risk because of the United Kingdom Government’s hostile immigration policy. Artists face a humiliating application process and are having their visas refused. Due to the UK Government’s inaction in resolving such issues, artists are being deterred from coming to Edinburgh. Performers not only entertain us but educate us about other cultures, and, as a result, our society is enriched.

The visa issue is damaging not only to our culture but to our economy. During the course of a year, the Edinburgh festivals attract audiences that total a staggering 4.7 million people. They include people from all over the world, who generate an economic impact of £280 million in Edinburgh and a total of £313 million across Scotland. Although the Scottish Government, the arts industry and artists themselves are trying to improve, grow and develop our festivals, the UK Government’s hostile environment immigration system poses a risk to the future of the Edinburgh festivals.

In its briefing, Amnesty International stated that, if their nationality requires them to get a UK visa, participants in the Edinburgh festival fringe and the international festival, which are defined as permit-free festivals, are required to undergo an application process that is identical to that for a standard visitor visa. Amnesty described the overall picture as “grim”, with visa issues posing

“a serious challenge for those involved in organizing the ... Edinburgh Festivals. Two thirds of respondents said that performers they were working with had experienced visa refusals”.

We need everyone to come together on the issue and look at developing something similar to cultural passports for individuals participating in festivals around the country in order to address the particular issues that festivals are facing: onerous visitor visa evidence requirements; long periods of passport retention; costs to UK festivals of sponsorships; short duration visitor visas; restrictive salary conditions; and the inability for festivals to invite young or emerging artists.

I will highlight a few examples that show how the problem is affecting the industry, but I want to make it clear that there are many more.

Last year, at the international book festival, about a dozen individuals went through the extremely difficult process of trying to obtain a visa. They were from the middle east and African countries. Those artists all had their applications refused at least once and several of the applications were outstanding less than a week before they were due to appear at the festival.

One artist was told that he had too much money and that it looked suspicious for a short trip. Another was told she did not have enough money, so she transferred £500 into her account and was then told that the £500 looked suspicious. Artists are being asked to provide three years’ worth of bank statements to demonstrate financial independence, despite festivals such as the book festival paying the artists to participate and guaranteeing to cover their costs while in the UK.

Nick Barley, the director of the book festival, described how

“One author had to give his birth certificate, marriage certificate, his daughter’s birth certificate and then go for biometric testing.”

The artist “wanted to back out” of his participation in the festival at that point because “he couldn’t bear it”. Nick Barley said that the festival’s relationship with authors is being damaged because the system is completely unfit for purpose and he described the process as “humiliating” and “Kafkaesque”.

In 2017, Conchita Wurst, the 2014 Eurovision song contest winner, pulled out of the Edinburgh international festival because her Syrian band members, who had been living in Vienna for three years, were denied visas. Ironically, she had been due to perform at a concert celebrating the importance of immigration in European culture.

In the same year, a third of the people involved in the Arab arts showcase had their visas denied more than once. That included the group’s technical director, who was given the wrong type of visa by the Home Office, two dancers with solo shows and almost the entire marketing team. One of the shows had to be cancelled completely and the group spent around £6,000 on the process.

Has the problem increased in recent years? Is it a long-standing issue, or has it just cropped up more recently? What sense of that can Gordon MacDonald give us from his research?

Gordon MacDonald

My understanding is that the problem is steadily getting worse. Visas for the festival in August are being applied for now, so we will find out in a couple of months’ time whether the circumstances have changed for the better. My gut feeling is that the problem has not improved at all.

Sara Shaarawi, the project manager of the Arab arts showcase, said:

“How the Home Office dealt with us was appalling and the reasons of refusals were flat out lies. We had a crew member that was refused because he'd never been in the UK, when the reality was he had been in the UK with a show in 2009 and 2012. We had a Palestinian artist who applied twice and one of the refusal letters spoke repeatedly about their circumstances in Egypt, when in reality he wasn't based in Egypt. One letter was simply empty, they didn't remember to fill in the ‘reason of refusal’ section.”

Following the visa denials in 2017, Amnesty International in Scotland surveyed Edinburgh festival organisers and companies to find out the impact of the UK visa process on their work. Festival organisers reported multiple visa denials and the knock-on effect of cancelled shows and considerable stress and pressure in organisations. The issue does not just affect artists and festivals in Scotland; it is a UK-wide issue. English PEN has said that the visa process

“is complex and humiliating and presents the UK as a place that has closed its doors to international culture.”

I realise that Gordon MacDonald is focusing on festivals, but does he agree that it is also a problem for conferences and a range of other purposes for which people want to come to this country for a short time?

Gordon MacDonald

I agree with that.

The directors of Britain’s biggest international festivals came together last year to sign an open letter that warned the UK Government of the risk to festivals from Home Office visa application procedures. The letter, which was signed by 25 festival directors from across the UK, said:

“The current visa application process for artists is lengthy, opaque and costly ... The situation has led to artists now telling festivals they are much more reluctant to accept invitations to come to the UK due to the visa process”.

That is unacceptable. Scotland is known as an inclusive and welcoming place but our reputation as a global gathering place is being put at risk by narrow-minded, xenophobic Tory policies. As my Edinburgh colleague Deidre Brock MP has said,

“musicians, writers and performers have become collateral damage, caught up in the”


“hostile approach to immigration”.

Unless things change now, that situation will only get worse as the Tories continue to be hell-bent on a no-deal Brexit.

The Immigration and Social Security Co-ordination (EU Withdrawal) Bill is currently going through the Westminster Parliament. The UK Government should bring in amendments to tackle the issues raised and act now. If it will not, it should devolve immigration and let the Scottish Government get on with building a fair and functional immigration system that is fit for the 21st century.

I call Andy Wightman, who will be followed by Joan McAlpine.


Andy Wightman (Lothian) (Green)

First, I apologise for the fact that I need to leave the chamber at 1.30. I have a commitment to a meeting with a minister, and I know how busy ministers’ diaries are.

I welcome this important debate, which was secured by Gordon MacDonald. I congratulate him on his research and his opening remarks, which spelled out the nature of the problem.

As members are aware, and as Gordon MacDonald said, Edinburgh’s festivals are world famous. They are successful. They are a celebration of much of what is good about the human spirit, they bring together diverse cultures and peoples and they continue to contribute to the founding vision of the Edinburgh international festival that was forged in the aftermath of the horrors of Nazism and genocide.

Gordon MacDonald quoted from Amnesty International’s briefing. I thank Amnesty for its briefing, which is very good and has helped members get to grips with a difficult topic. As Gordon also said, in response to my intervention, the situation has reached a crisis point and there are no signs that it is likely to improve any time soon.

The Edinburgh festival fringe and the international festival are designated as permit-free festivals, which means that performers and their legitimate entourages can come here without the need for a work permit. However, they still need to apply for a conventional visa. That seems to be increasingly out of step with the role that tourism and culture play in the economy of not just Scotland but the UK.

In 2017, we had the high-profile case of the Austrian singer Conchita Wurst, who was forced to cancel her performance after her band members were denied visas. However, it is not only high-profile acts that have issues with the Home Office. Last year, I was contacted by a constituent who was having an issue with a visa for the book festival. Gordon MacDonald mentioned a few cases like that. The constituent’s young family had British citizenship but, due to Home Office rules, the constituent could not find a way to enter the UK from New Zealand. That was the book festival, which does not have permit-free status but, even if it did, as Amnesty makes clear, artists are still faced with the labyrinth of the visa application process.

Amnesty also tells us that some venues and programmers continue to be concerned that visa issues will compromise festival programmes in the future. Notwithstanding the immediate problems that artists face, that serious issue is the key point that we need to stress to the UK Government. As Gordon MacDonald said, the UK’s economy cannot have an important cultural component unless it is easy for artists to travel here.

One venue said that it hoped to continue working with visa-sensitive countries but that it was concerned about the high costs—they alone made the venue cautious about booking such shows in the future. Two venues said that they had been forced to reconsider the feasibility of projects that involve performers from certain countries; one noted that it had been forced to rethink bringing in artists from some Arab countries, for example. That cannot continue.

As Gordon MacDonald said, Scotland prides itself on our welcome to visitors and those from outwith Scotland who wish to make their home here. It is not possible to realise such ambitions if some who have most to offer in the cultural sphere are being denied access to perform and attend events in Edinburgh and elsewhere.

I thank Gordon MacDonald again for the debate. I—and, I am sure, other members—would be happy to be part of a wider focused campaign to resolve such matters as soon as possible, especially in the light of any new restrictions that might come in the aftermath of Brexit.

I call Rachael Hamilton, to be followed by Sandra White.

I thank Gordon MacDonald for bringing the debate to Parliament—[Interruption.] Do you want me to carry on, Presiding Officer? I can sit down.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

I am terribly sorry, Ms McAlpine—I do not know how I missed you. It is good of Ms Hamilton to give way.

We will have Joan McAlpine, who I think—I am all confused now—will be followed by Rachael Hamilton.


Joan McAlpine (South Scotland) (SNP)

I would have given way to Rachael Hamilton, but I have to leave—I apologise for that—so I will speak now.

I welcome Gordon MacDonald’s success in securing this important debate. It is almost a year since Nick Barley, the Edinburgh international book festival’s director, spoke out about the humiliating treatment of visiting authors by the UK. He was not alone; in fact, he was one of 25 festival directors who signed an open letter last year to complain about the situation.

Gordon MacDonald outlined the nightmare of the current situation well, and I will say a bit more about how it could get even worse in the event of a no-deal Brexit. At the moment, the visa difficulties do not extend to the 500 million citizens of Europe who enjoy free movement to work, travel, do business and enjoy culture across Europe. What an added nightmare there will be if the strong links that we have with artists from European Union countries suffer the same damage as the UK seems determined to inflict on our relationships with artists and cultural tourists from the rest of the world.

After Nick Barley addressed the Parliament’s cross-party group on culture on the issue last year, the CPG wrote collectively to David Lidington, the Minister for the Cabinet Office, about our concerns. We asked him to safeguard the ability of people in the cultural sector to move freely in order to continue to gain employment from European clients. We pointed out that Scotland’s cultural sector has many European clients; the European industry enables careers to be viable outside London, where most of the work in the sector is based. That makes freedom of movement particularly important to people who are based in Scotland, who have less employment locally than those in London.

We told Mr Lidington that the economic benefits of cultural tourism are well known. The cultural sector needs to access European talent, which includes performers to play in festivals, major events and companies, as well as educators to teach at our universities and cultural institutions. The issue applies particularly to smaller enterprises, which could close if they cannot withstand the potentially prohibitive visa and work permit administration and management costs in the event of a no-deal Brexit.

The European Parliament’s Committee on Culture and Education is very much aware of the threat of obstacles to mobility for cultural workers. It held an inquiry on the topic, which highlighted three areas of difficulty:

“The recognition of the specific working regimes of artists and cultural professionals”,

“Withholding tax and social security rules”,


“The issuance of travel documents.”

Those are the obstacles that face cultural workers at the moment.

The UK Government’s white paper contains a so-called cultural accord, but culture counts—which acts as secretary to the CPG—points out that the cultural accord does not address the three barriers that the European Parliament’s Committee on Culture and Education set out. The Brexit withdrawal agreement does not do so either—although the political declaration hints at visa-free travel, the withdrawal agreement certainly does not. In the event of a no-deal Brexit, we would be completely up in the air.

The withdrawal agreement does not guarantee the UK single market; in fact, the red lines of the UK Government mean that we are leaving the single market. Of course, the single market covers services, and creative industries are service industries.

The cross-party group received a reply, not from Mr Lidington but from the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport minister, Michael Ellis. Mr Ellis acknowledged the very important role of the arts and artists; indeed, he suggested that it was the strength of the creative sector that had resulted in the UK being placed number 1 on the Portland soft-power index—how long that will last after Brexit has made Britain a laughing stock, we do not know.

In response to the CPG’s concerns about the end of freedom of movement, Mr Ellis offered not one single crumb of comfort. His letter simply stated:

“The UK government is clear that free movement will end as we leave the EU”.

There was some mention in the letter of reciprocal arrangements for business travellers in the withdrawal agreement, which is of course now dead in the water, but there was nothing whatever for the cultural sector.

The issue was and continues to be of deep concern to the CPG, which is why we have to ensure that we call a halt to Brexit. A no-deal Brexit would obviously be disastrous for the economy as a whole and particularly disastrous for the cultural sector.


Rachael Hamilton (Ettrick, Roxburgh and Berwickshire) (Con)

I thank Gordon MacDonald for securing the debate on what is a difficult subject to talk about. I have looked at some of the issues that he has raised and I have tried to speak to my colleagues, but not one of them has come to me to speak about the matter. I would like to hear more from Edinburgh MSPs about the difficulties, which might enable us to feed into any future agreements. I also take the opportunity to say that I do not want to see a no-deal Brexit.

I herald the success of the Edinburgh festivals, which are fast approaching. It is important that we do so in the debate. The diversity of participation in the festivals is very important and the festivals are an exciting time in Scotland’s cultural calendar, attracting more than 4 million people from all over the world.

Most of us enjoy the festivals and the Edinburgh festival fringe is the largest arts festival in the world, involving live theatre and comedy performances. Speaking about visa applications for artists is important, because so many people are involved. On average, the Edinburgh international festival presents more than 150 performances, involving 2,500 artists and attracting a huge audience of in the region of 400,000 people.

The capital comes alive with visitors from around the world. Overseas tourism to Scotland has risen by 10 per cent in a year, while the number of European tourists jumped by 19 per cent. The attractiveness of the festivals continues to grow, and I hope that we continue to have a positive outlook on the festivals and the people who come to Scotland.

As we heard, the Edinburgh festival fringe is a permit-free festival, which means—as Andy Wightman said—that performers and their legitimate entourages do not need to obtain work permits to appear in the UK. I agree that simplicity is absolutely the key—the visa application process should be simple, so I am concerned to hear Gordon MacDonald talk about the issues that some artists are having.

Performers and entourages at permit-free festivals enter the UK as standard visitors and do not need to apply for entry under the points-based system or as permitted paid engagements visitors. However, as Andy Wightman said, some visitors, such as those from non-EU countries, might still need to apply for a visa. The countries are listed and the festival gives guidelines on that.

Let me be clear: nothing has changed regarding EU countries and, in the future, as we leave the EU, EU citizens will still be able to participate in the fringe, just as they can today, because it is a permit-free festival.

The music industry is calling for the introduction of an EU-wide touring visa, and the Government should pursue that when it looks into our future relationship with the European Union. The idea of a cultural passport is interesting.

Andy Wightman

I am grateful to the member for giving way. She says that EU citizens will still be able to come to the festival and that the fringe is a permit-free festival, but many European artists come here not on their own account but as part of ensembles or entourages, which often include people who have visa requirements to enter the UK. Does she accept that difficulty?

Rachael Hamilton

There are non-EU countries that are listed in the festival guidelines. People from those countries need visa permits.

I am not quite sure about the nature of Andy Wightman’s point, but I am very interested to learn about the current issues and I would like to discuss them with both Gordon MacDonald and Andy Wightman.

As I was saying, the cultural passport is a very good idea and should be pursued.

I know that time is of the essence, so I make one last point. I do not believe that the negativity in the wording of the motion does anyone any favours. Despite our leaving the EU, we must make visitors very welcome to Scotland and the UK. They can continue to perform in the festivals just as they have always done, and long may that continue.


Sandra White (Glasgow Kelvin) (SNP)

I congratulate Gordon MacDonald on securing the debate. It is very interesting.

As someone from Glasgow, I know that Celtic Connections faces similar problems. Today’s debate is on the Edinburgh festivals, but I want to pick up John Mason’s important point about the overall issue of visas. Recently, the father of Sabir Zazai, the chief executive of the Scottish Refugee Council, was refused entry to the UK. Thankfully, with support from others, he has now been given a visa. It is important to remember that the issue affects a variety of people.

Rachael Hamilton mentioned EU citizens, as did Gordon MacDonald, which reminded me of the important point that I wanted to make: the vast majority of people who are refused visas come from the middle east or Africa. I find that that is often the case. A great many people have come to me who have been refused visas and they come from the middle east—Palestine, the Lebanon and Syria.

I will give a couple of examples. In November 2017, Mr Mahmoud Alkurd, an award-winning photographer, was exhibiting his work in Edinburgh and Glasgow and wanted permission to come. He was not given that permission and was not allowed to enter. He comes from Palestine.

A group of people from the freedom to run project, which is part of Right to Movement Palestine, wanted to come to Edinburgh to run the marathon in May. They, too, were refused entry. However, as in the previous example, with a lot of hard work, and appeals, we managed to enable them to come. It was a lot of hard work. Those people were waiting for months, not knowing whether they could enter the country or not.

It is the middle east and Africa that is the biggest problem, not Europe. Andy Wightman is right that people do not come just as individuals but as part of an entourage. We must realise that. If we get figures on that, we will see the discrepancies and the bias against people from the middle east, which prevents them from coming to Edinburgh festivals—and other festivals, such as Celtic Connections—to perform as individuals or as part of an entourage or group.

Recently, I received a letter asking me to look into another application. This gentleman was from Gaza, in Palestine. He was asked very invasive questions about whether he would go back to Gaza. The chap has a job and a family that he supports—of course he would have gone back to his home country to support his family. This particular gentleman is world renowned, and yet he too was refused a visa to come to Edinburgh.

We tried everything. In fact, I had booked rooms for the chap here in the Parliament—he would have been here two weeks ago, in May. He received permission from the Scottish Parliament to come and exhibit his work here in the Parliament, but he did not get the visa to come.

There is something far wrong when renowned artists are not allowed to come here, just because they come from a certain part of the world—not necessarily Europe; they are most often from the middle east and Africa. They are asked invasive questions and they have to jump through I do not know how many hoops. Thankfully, sometimes they are successful. However, it had taken that gentleman four years to produce his exhibition, and in two days it was ruined, simply because the Home Office did not give him permission to come. This Parliament had emailed to say that it had the event set up for him and my office had sent out invitations, but it could not happen.

Although I do not know how we will consider them, I think that cultural passports are a great idea. I am thankful that Gordon MacDonald raised this issue today, because it is high time that we considered who is actually allowed to come into this country and who is not.


Claire Baker (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Lab)

I welcome Gordon MacDonald’s having brought the issue to the chamber. As others have said, Edinburgh’s festivals secure audiences of 4.5 million and offer more than 3,000 events each year. They generate an annual economic impact of some £280 million in Edinburgh, and £313 million across Scotland. For more than 70 years, the city has built its enviable reputation as a world leader, delivering individual festivals that have a global cultural impact. Almost one third of annual visitors to Scotland are motivated by the cultural and heritage offer, in which the festivals play a key role.

Participants from 85 counties took part in the festivals in 2017; that ability of the festivals to attract and to welcome global artists is critical to their success. It is clear that the approach of the immigration service is undermining that and is damaging the reputation of the UK—and, consequently, that of the Edinburgh festivals—as a welcoming destination for performers from across the world. Incidences of performers being denied visas appear to be increasing, which results in additional costs, inconvenience and stress for all involved.

Julia Armour, who is the director of Festivals Edinburgh, has warned that the current approach risks putting artists off coming to the UK. As others have said, Nick Barley, who is the director of the international book festival, has spoken of up to a dozen performers from Africa and the middle east having experienced serious delays to their applications for last year’s events. Some had to reapply several times, or even had to cancel their plans to participate in the book festival.

In its briefing for the debate, Amnesty International notes a 2017 survey of festival organisers and venues that highlights that visa issues posed a serious challenge for organisers. Two thirds of those who were surveyed said that performers whom they had worked with had experienced visa refusals, including a number of people from Iran, Egypt, Syria, Palestine, Sudan and Lebanon. Those refusals resulted in performances being cancelled or taking place with limited cast and crew. The situation also means that some venues are now more cautious about booking shows that involve performers from certain countries. There is a clear emphasis on middle eastern artists, with Arab Arts Focus saying that half its performers have had visa applications declined.

Of course, the visa issues are not restricted to Edinburgh’s festivals, but impact on events throughout the UK, which underlines the need for a UK system that recognises the legitimate requirements of performers and other international guests who visit the UK. Organisers of the WOMAD—world of music, arts and dance—festival, for example, report that acts are turning down invitations to perform as a result of the difficult and humiliating visa process that they would have to go through.

Although the current system attempts to make provision for entertainer visitors for specific permit-free festivals, such as the Edinburgh festival fringe and the Edinburgh international festival, not all events are covered by the definitions and some carry differing requirements. It is also reported that where performers can apply for visas as entertainer visitors, the process is actually the same as that for a standard visitor, and refusal under either scheme is a high probability for performers from a number of countries.

The approach that the Home Office has taken to short-term visa applications, which is affecting middle eastern and African countries, is inconsistent and lacking in clarity. It is clear that its impact is damaging and is proving to be a deterrent to viable applications. The changes have already made it more difficult, if not impossible, for some legitimate performers to take part in events, which is to the detriment of our cultural life and expression.

The House of Lords recently held a debate on movement of people in the culture sector, which highlighted recommendations in a committee report calling for consideration of an EU-wide multi-entry touring visa, post-Brexit. The debate criticised the failure of the UK Government to respond to the recommendations, and highlighted the need for more thorough consideration of how the immigration system can and does impact on the culture sector.

The UK Government needs to change its approach to immigration and it needs to recognise how damaging its current approach is to the richness of our cultural events. We want Edinburgh, Scotland and the UK to be seen as welcoming places for all cultures. Indeed, that is key to the continuing success of our festivals and our wider tourism appeal.

Events such as the Edinburgh festival rely on being able to attract the very best talent from around the world. The festival offers performers an opportunity to apply their creative skills and talent in a world-leading showcase. Visa processes should be supporting rather than hampering our cultural exchange. The system that is overseen by the Home Office is increasingly hostile and is a threat to the vibrancy of our festivals, so it must take action to fix that.


The Cabinet Secretary for Culture, Tourism and External Affairs (Fiona Hyslop)

I am pleased to be concluding today’s debate on this most important issue. I am grateful to Gordon MacDonald for bringing the motion to the chamber for debate, and to Deidre Brock, who is the MP for Edinburgh North and Leith, for her on-going support for the Edinburgh international festivals on the issue.

The Scottish Government has long-standing concerns about how easily artists and performers can come to Scotland for the Edinburgh international festivals, and about the problems that delayed visa processes, refusals, and refusals that are then overturned at the last minute, can cause organisers of festivals of all sizes.

Year after year, festivals across Scotland and the United Kingdom are plagued by uncertainty about visas. Sometimes artists face repeats of the issue from one year to the next, which is unacceptable.

However, it is not simply a matter of timeliness; our international standing as a leading centre of global cultural discovery is also jeopardised. Something has to change.

Two years ago, I attended at the Edinburgh international festival the “New European Songbook”, in which Eurovision song contest winner Conchita Wurst was due to perform alongside her band, Basalt. That is the case that Gordon MacDonald referred to. Despite having a supporting statement from the festival, all three Syrian band members had their visa applications denied. As a direct result, the performance was cancelled, which caused last-minute changes to the festival programme, disappointment for the people who were attending and embarrassment for the event organisers. That was a Scottish Government expo funded and British Council supported Edinburgh international festival event, at which ORF—the Austrian Broadcasting Corporation—was the lead broadcaster, and at which the Austrian performance could not take place. That was beyond belief. Does the UK Home Office not realise how bad that looked—never mind the effect that it had on the individual artist?

Last year, Nayrouz Qarmout, who is a Palestinian writer and TV journalist, had her application for a visitor visa to attend the international book festival denied not once but three times, having started the process in April that year. Eventually her application was granted, but not before she had missed the original event at which she was billed to appear.

John Mason asked about business events. This weekend, Glasgow is hosting the world news media congress. We have reports of delegates having been refused visas by the UK Home Office: it is now parading hostility in front of the world’s press.

Rachael Hamilton referred to permit-free festivals. Of course, the duration of permit-paid engagement is only one month, and clearly if someone is travelling round the world they might have onward engagements. The visa is not open to emerging artists or to under-18s. The Edinburgh festival fringe is keen to retain permit-free-festival status. That route could and should be approved.

On the situation in which we find ourselves, every year it seems that the internationalism of our festivals and the opening and welcoming message that we strive to send risk being confused and muddied by persistent visa issues that delay, and prevent from doing so, those who wish to visit and to contribute their creativity and culture.

The Scottish Government has regularly raised concerns with the UK Government about the challenges for international artists and performers in coming to participate in our festivals. Those challenges existed long before the added chaos and uncertainty that is being foisted on us by Brexit. However, as Joan McAlpine said, Brexit now threatens to extend the problems to EU citizens, as is detailed in the UK Government’s white paper on immigration. A better solution for visiting artists, performers and others must be integral to any future immigration system. That will be especially important if free movement is to end if the UK leaves the EU and European visitors are made to comply with the Home Office’s increasingly burdensome and complex rules.

The UK Government outlines in its white paper a commitment to redesigning and simplifying implementation and operation of the immigration system. It is crucial that it seize that opportunity in order to ensure that the issues in the past and those in the present are not replicated in the future. The current visa application process for visitors coming to Scotland for international events is lengthy, complex and costly, with attendees or organisers sometimes spending thousands of pounds on visas and associated costs for a visit that might last only a few days. The guidance is confusing, the decision making is uncertain and there is no right to appeal or review.

The Scottish Government will continue to argue for a system that works for everyone. I fully acknowledge the need to find solutions in conjunction with people who experience the systems first hand. That is why I work, and have worked, with organisers of festivals, conferences and events of all sizes, because I want to ensure that their contribution to Scotland’s reputation as a place of artistic diversity and exchange is recognised. The messages that we hear each time we meet leaders and representatives from across Scotland’s cultural life are clear and consistent.

Although short-term technical changes to the immigration rules are a step in the right direction, a wider and more meaningful shift is needed in how the UK Government operates its policy towards the myriad visiting members of the world’s creative communities. I inform Parliament that I have written to the Home Secretary, asking the Home Office to work with the Scottish Government and the other devolved Administrations to address proactively and meaningfully the challenges of the existing visa system for artists and performers. I will be inviting the Home Secretary and counterparts in the devolved Administrations to an international festivals visa summit in Edinburgh at which, in the home of the world’s biggest arts festival, we can openly discuss our shared concerns and work together to find solutions to protect our reputation as an outward-looking and welcoming country.

I reiterate that this Parliament is committed to protecting Scotland’s international cultural standing, and remains proud of our capital being the world’s leading festival city. To the people who face challenges in coming here, we say clearly that Scotland remains open to the unrivalled pleasures of the arts, to cultural exchange and to business. It is time that the immigration system recognised that.

13:27 Meeting suspended.  

14:30 On resuming—