NYT Article Debunked


The article opens with: ‘Britain is turning away countless non-European writers, artists and performers at its borders, a result of cumbersome and unevenly interpreted immigration rules that are making it increasingly difficult for many arts organizations to include foreigners in their programs.’

The New York Times totally misses the point about the legal aspects of performers working in the UK (i.e. Tier 5 applicants). Some of the facts are correct; the interpretation, however, is mostly not, or is, at best, exaggerated by implying that what has happened to a few individuals is a widespread occurrence.

Many of the people who are highlighted as having been turned back have not done their homework and failed to get a Certificate of Sponsorship before travelling to the UK. Honestly, guys, it’s not rocket science. The new system has been in place for three years now and all the information is up on the UK, Border Agency website.

One element that some performers fall down on is that even if you are not being paid, you do need a Certificate of Sponsorship to play in front of an audience or do any promotional radio or TV work in the UK. The Border Agency regards this as advancing your career and attempting to attract further offers of work in the UK. This is where a lot of confusion occurs. It’s not explicitly stated on the Border Agency website, but it is the rule applied by immigration officials at airports. If you are going to be in front of an audience via live performance, radio or TV you do need a Certificate of Sponsorship in advance of travel.

The article talks about small organisations not being able to bring in visiting performers because they can’t qualify to be licensed as sponsors, but there’s absolutely nothing to stop any individual or organisation from working through a third party legitimate licensed sponsor. I do Certificates of Sponsorship all the time for organisations (festivals and small agencies) who only need intermittent certificates of sponsorship and therefore it’s not worth the hassle, cost and staff-training time for them to get a licence themselves.

The article says: ‘A separate category, for “entertainers,” requires that applicants promise not to make money in Britain or perform — even for no fee — at for-profit events.’ Err- no. I’m not sure where that bit of non-fact came from. Entertainers come under Tier 5 regulations for ‘Entertainers and Sportspeople’ of course they are allowed to earn money providing they’ve got their Certificate of Sponsorship in advance of travel.

It’s true that the British Government’s new Points Based System is not really designed for performers, but despite that it does work.

Yes, performers entering to work temporarily have to prove they have £800 in a bank account and have had it there for at least three months – unless – and this is relevant – the sponsor ticks one simple box to say they guarantee the performer’s subsistence (for the first month) in the UK. Performers, of course, have no right to British state benefits if they become destitute whilst here temporarily, so making sure they won’t starve is common sense, really, but the figure of £800 is a bit arbitrary..

The article also says: [Artists must] ‘pay nonrefundable application fees of hundreds of pounds; and find established arts organizations that can pay additional hefty fees, sponsor them and take responsibility for them while they are in Britain.‘ Err… not really. If they are coming in for less than three months it’s only the cost of a certificate of sponsorship (which varies depending on the cost an agent charges to get one but on balance way less than £200. If they are coming in for more than three months there’s an additional fee for the ‘entry clearance’ at the British Embassy in their own country – about £140 the last time I looked. It doesn’t have to be an arts organisation that provides sponsorship. A number of independent agents, just like me, can do it equally well.

It is true that we sponsors have to pay £400 for a licence, and jump through hoops to prove we’re legitimate in order to get it, which is why I charge performers a basic fee of £160 per application, but that £160 includes all government disbursements and is all any non-visa national coming in for less than three months will have to pay.

Let me be very clear on that one. Artists travelling in from a county where a Visa is NOT required for tourist travel to the UK (i.e. non-visa nationals such as Americans, Australians and Canadians) don’t need to send their passports away for a visa affixing before they travel. All they need is their Certificate of Sponsorship (which is a virtual certificate corresponding to the application information on the Border Agency database). They present the certificate number on arrival in the UK and that’s all there is to it. For work periods of over three months they have to get entry clearance first – which usually takes a couple of weeks – but of course, common sense says apply in plenty of time.

Yes, I do appreciate that individuals from African countries which require a visa even for holidays in the UK do have problems if their country doesn’t have a British Embassy but this applies to all travellers from that country. Performers haven’t been singled out for special treatment.

The article says: ‘Even established artists at Springsteen-esque fame levels are required to obtain temporary worker visas if they come to Britain for paid engagements. While stars like Bruce Springsteen have managers and agents to handle such matters, this rule often trips up smaller-scale artists and performers from the United States and other countries whose citizens don’t need visas to enter Britain as tourists. “They assume that because of the visa waiver program they’ll have no problem and so they just turn up,” said Robert Sharp, campaigns manager at English PEN. “But then an official spots their tuba or their cello or their paintbrushes and says, ‘You’re working, get back on the plane.”

Well – yeah. Why should a famous musician sidestep the rules? Would America waive their rules for any famous British musician? I very much doubt it. And why should it be Britain’s fault if musicians ‘assume they’ll have no problem’ and ‘just turn up’? What would the American reaction be if a British musician turned up at Dulles airport without applying for a work permit in advance? Good heavens, America doesn’t even allow Canadian musicians to cross the border to play without a work permit, even though Canada does allow cultural artists to cross in the opposite direction gratis.

I’ve been a not-so-famous musician applying for an American work permit and believe me when I say that it’s not only much more expensive (around $350 non-refundable), and open to refusal for ‘not being sufficiently qualified’ (even though you’ve been granted US work visas in the past) but also much more time consuming (up to three months), involves (before you apply) having to pay one or the other of the American musicians’ unions $250 or more just for a letter stating they don’t object to you working in the USA as a foreign musician and then – when the permission is finally granted – having to pay an additional fee (around £60 per person) and having present yourself at the American Embassy in London for an interview and for the visa affixing in your passport (and this regardless of how many hundreds of miles from London you may live). And yes, they do retain your passport and send it back via second class post unless you pay an additional fee for a next-day courier. For my trio it has cost anything up to £1000 to obtain American work permits. That cost being: government disbursements, union fees, embassy fees and travel expenses to London – and never any guarantee of success no matter how many other times we’d had P3 visas stating we were ‘culturally unique’. And to add insult to injury it’s always been a nail-biting eleventh-hour permission (twice involving our American agents to beg state senators to get the system unstuck in order to get the permits in time for the tour), followed by a further wait for hard-copy documentation to arrive (they won’t accept a fax of the permission paperwork) and a mad dash to London for an emergency 8.00 a.m. interview however far in advance we applied.

So forgive me for thinking that the NY Times is making mountains out of molehills, taking facts out of context and making the whole thing sound more complicated than it really is.

Short piece of advice: don’t make assumptions and do your homework before you travel.

About Jacey Bedford

Jacey Bedford maintains this blog. She is a writer of science fiction and fantasy (www.jaceybedford.co.uk), the secretary of Milford SF Writers (www.milfordSF.co.uk), a singer (www.artisan-harmony.com) and a music agent booking UK tours and concerts for folk performers (www.jacey-bedford.com).
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