Thursday, 2 May 2013
6. To ask the Minister for Justice and Equality the steps he has taken to address visa issues with visitors to the Schengen agreement area who subsequently want to travel here; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [20768/13]
Ireland has not applied to participate in the Schengen arrangements to the extent that they deal with the abolition of border checks. This decision has been taken to maintain the common travel area with the United Kingdom which remains a priority for Ireland. The reality is that the common travel area could not continue to operate if Ireland were to remove border checks with Schengen states generally while the United Kingdom did not do so. To do so would result in a situation where the land border with Northern Ireland would become the border between the Schengen area and the United Kingdom. In such circumstances, land border controls would appear inevitable and this is obviously something that no Irish Government would seriously contemplate. The reality is that we cannot operate a common travel area with Britain and be part of the Schengen visa free zone at the same time.
The Government's focus instead is on doing what it can to maximise the potential of the common travel area as evidenced by the visa waiver programme for holders of certain categories of British visa, which this Government introduced in July 2011, and by ongoing talks with our British colleagues on the possibility of reciprocal CTA visa arrangements.
It must be first pointed out that the great majority of visitors to Ireland, over 98%, come from countries whose citizens are not visa-required, for example, Britain, the US and EU member states. Therefore, reforms of the visa regime can have only a limited effect on tourism and other visits. That being said, I have taken a number of steps to reform the visa system to facilitate business and tourist visitors from visa-required countries. The short-stay Irish visa waiver programme, launched by this Government on 1 July 2011, allows persons from 17 designated countries to travel to Ireland on the basis of a British visa. This programme has proved very effective in attracting increased numbers of visitors from emerging tourist markets.
The Government has also taken other steps to make the visa process easier including making greater use of multi-entry visas for regular tourist and business visitors from targeted markets, including China, the UAE and Russia. The Department has established six overseas offices in strategic hub locations to provide a better and more convenient service to visa applicants from the busiest locations. It is also in discussion with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade on steps to make the issuing of visas through Irish missions overseas, under delegated sanction from my Department, more efficient.
The Minister has outlined some of the schemes in operation. For the Olympic Games in London last year the visa waiver programme was in place but that was possibly a disappointment because there did not seem to a huge take-up of it. The Minister mentioned the Irish short stay visa waiver programme and there is also the start-up entrepreneur programme. I want to ascertain if there has been any positive impact. Has the Department carried out any assessment of the economic benefits accruing to the State? Can the Minister give us an indication of the numbers? Can he envisage if the countries covered can be extended?
The various schemes are continuously under review. Some of them have only started within the last 12 to 18 months so there is a need to let them bed down in particular countries so knowledge of the schemes spreads.
A statistic was published recently showing an increase in visitor numbers to the country of around 7% in the first quarter of 2013. I do not have a breakdown of the countries of origin for those visitors, which is a relevant factor. There is substantial interest in the emigrant investor and start-up entrepreneur schemes that I hope over a period of time will not only increase investment in this country but create substantial numbers of jobs. Many of the schemes started in the last 18 months and I am advised that the new visa system for the 17 countries that was mentioned, whereby a British visa will allow for entry to this country, is producing additional tourist numbers.
We are constantly monitoring the different schemes. In the context of the scheme for the 17 countries mentioned, we have added some countries to it. It is my recollection that it started off with 15 and we are looking at what other countries might be appropriately added.
The Minister may be aware of the case that has been reported in the media over the past week of two Chinese parents, Meijiao Yu and Xiao Shao, who are looking to have their daughter, aged almost four years, returned to be with them. They came here as students on student visas and now they are here with a business. They are exactly the kind of persons who we want to build their future here in Ireland. I hope the Minister can help resolve that issue.
The visa system is operated at official level and the Minister cannot deal with every visa application. I only learnt of that matter on Friday. The two young persons concerned are in employment in the State. They are lawfully here in the State. Upon learning of the matter, I directed that a visa should issue for their young child. I understand that the child, when a baby, went back to China to be cared for by the grandparents and the parents now wish to have their child returned to their care in Ireland. I am happy to say that I gave instructions that a visa should issue, they have been so informed, the legal practitioner representing them has been so informed, and I hope that happily resolves the difficulty that arose in respect of that family.
In response to Deputy Niall Collins, I do not have an exact economic analysis of the impact of the visa scheme. One of the issues is the extent to which it is contributing to the numbers of tourists coming to the State. I do not know individually how much each person is spending when he or she is here, and it would be impossible to conduct an economic analysis of that. On the other side of it, we are aware, for example, in the context of the visa investment programme, that investments in excess of €10 million have been achieved. I understand that within the processing system - there is an independent committee with representatives, among others, of the Department of Justice and Equality, the Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation and the Department of Finance who vet applications and business propositions - there are a number of interesting propositions under consideration. I am hopeful that in 2013 we will see a considerable upsurge in the financial values of the investments that result from this scheme.