A live music scene struggling to recover after 16 months of shutdown has been dealt a further blow after a Home Office blunder meant many venues and agents were given zero allocations for certificates to sponsor overseas artists on the grounds that they applied for none last year.
Thousands of live entertainment companies have sponsor licences with the Home Office which allow them to issue temporary working papers to musicians and other artists or crew visiting from overseas. Demand for such papers is expected to rise sharply because of Brexit, which has removed the automatic right to free movement of EU citizens.
But annual licences are routinely issued on the basis of repeating the previous year’s allowance, and with no touring in 2020 because of Covid-19, many have been automatically set at zero.
Steve Richard, managing director of entertainment immigration specialists T&S Immigration Services, told The Independent: “Lots of people in the industry have been on furlough and they have come back to find they’ve been given a zero allocation. They can ask for more, but they are told that there’s an 18-week wait. If you’re running a festival in August you can’t wait that long.
“There is a way round it, because if you pay UK Visas and Immigration £200 they will turn it round it five days. Most people I’ve spoken to are doing that. But that means the department profits from the dilemma its own system spawned, and it will add up to a fair bit of money which the sector can’t afford to throw away.”
Major events affected by the issue have included dance music festivals putting on DJs from Spain, Germany or Italy and thrash metal shows involving bands from the thriving Scandinavian scene.
Mr Richard said that thousands of organisations take up certificates of sponsorship each year, ranging from small venues applying for an allocation of 10 to major agencies needing thousands. Often a band, DJ or orchestra will be booked at short notice, and hosts do not know how many certificates they will need until the last minute, making pre-allocated quotas vital.
Mr Richard raised the issue of zero allocations with the Home Office and received the response that it was “an automatic system-driven process that case-working teams have no control over”.
“The system just doesn’t work,” he said. “This was a really predictable problem. They can’t just blame it on the computer saying No.
“International touring is just starting up again and if you want to put on an American artist coming to the UK, things like this are really unhelpful.
“At present there are so many barriers to touring. Quarantine periods – waived for footballers and tennis players, but not for entertainers – which add a great deal of time and expense to a tour; lack of available insurance against last-minute cancellation due to lockdown; increased paperwork; testing; trucking issues. The Home Office should not be adding to these woes.”
Asked about the issue of zero allocations, the Home Office did not dispute Mr Richard’s account.
A government spokesperson said: “Musicians and performers are a valued and important part of UK culture. The UK attracts world-class artists, entertainers and musicians and that’s not going to change under the new system.
“The rules already permit performers from around the world to take part in events, concerts and competitions without the need for formal sponsorship or a work visa and that will continue to be the case.
“We will work with the sponsor to expedite their request and ensure there is no risk to the live music industry.”