Jake Berry is MP for Rossendale and Darwen.
In the last century, Commonwealth countries stood with Britain as we faced existential threats from abroad but, as we pivoted to Europe, our Commonwealth allies were increasingly left in the cold.
Following the Prime Minister’s recent speech on Brexit, it is clear that, like a modern day Janus, Britain will not just look towards Europe for trade but also towards the rest of the world. There has never been a more important time for us to extend the hand of friendship to Commonwealth citizens and their governments.
In March, there will be a meeting in London of Commonwealth heads of government trade ministers. This meeting will set some of the agenda for the Commonwealth heads of government meeting the following year in Britain. These two events, known respectively as CWEIC and CHOGM, must represent a key Government priority in a post-Brexit world.
In 2015, the last year for which figures are readily available, Britain welcomed 2.2 million visitors who spent over two billion pounds from Australia, Canada and India alone. These Commonwealth nations are consistently in the top five for non-European nationals arriving in the UK and travel for both business and pleasure.
The lack of special status afforded to Commonwealth citizens is at its starkest at our border. As we all run for the fast lane at Heathrow or Manchester, marked for EU arrivals, I am sure few of us spare a thought for our fellow travellers waiting patiently in the “All other passports” queue. In fact, EU citizens are out of the airport exchanging greetings with loved ones or flicking through their holiday snaps on the way home whilst non-EU travellers stand around answering innumerable questions about the reason for their visit.
It’s time for this to change, and I believe that an ambitious bold, and outward-looking UK should make the changes in time for CWEIC in London later this year.
In what we hope is a new era of friendship and cooperation with our friends in the Commonwealth, let’s start by changing the signs that simply class every non-EU national as “All other passports.” Step one is simple, mark our border control as “The Commonwealth and all other passports”. It’s a small step but one that acknowledges the importance of the Commonwealth to our nation.
But it’s time to do more than simply change a few signs, let’s create a designated channel at our border for Commonwealth citizens. It’s not yet going to be as easy to walk through as the EU channel, since many of the 52 Commonwealth nations still require a visa for travel to the UK, but the change would send out a powerful message about the importance of their relationship with Britain.
In addition, some foreign nationals, who either hold a valid UK visa or have visited the UK four times in the last two years, can register for the Government’s Registered Travellers Service. This programme allows participants to use the UK/EU lanes and e-passport gates, dramatically reducing the time spent waiting in line. It costs £70 to register, but is not available to all Commonwealth countries, including India one of our most frequent arrivals. This scheme, which is predominately aimed at the business traveller, should be opened to every Commonwealth nation and heavily promoted to those who are traveling to the UK for the purpose of trade.
The Commonwealth includes five G20 countries, has a combined GDP of $10.4 trillion with annual GDP growth in excess of four per cent and offers a ready-made, English language trading network for Britain. In life, it’s the small things that count – so let’s extend the hand of friendship to Commonwealth nations at our border and let them know that Britain is back.