Home Office urged to waive £18k visa fees for Ukrainian orchestra set to perform at BBC Proms

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Members of the Orchestra, pictured on their tour poster, are facing an £18k bill to get to the UK  (BBC\The Proms)
Members of the Orchestra, pictured on their tour poster, are facing an £18k bill to get to the UK (BBC\The Proms)

The Home Office has been urged to waive visa fees for a Ukrainian orchestra facing an £18,000 charge to perform at the BBC Proms and the Edinburgh Festival.

The Ukrainian Freedom Orchestra, which includes refugee musicians fleeing Vladimir Putin’s war, are facing a battle to secure funds for visas required to play at a series of major cultural events in the UK later this summer.

Members of the Orchestra will require a Tier 5 creative worker visa to perform in the UK at the cost of £259 per person. As the group need some 70 visas to perform, they face a cumulative bill of over £18,000.

A Home Office spokesperson told the Standard they would “discuss options” with the orchestra over how they could enter the UK.

The orchestra, led by Ukrainian-Canadian conductor Keri-Lynn Wilson, features musicians from some of Ukraine’s leading classical music groups. They will kick off a Europe-wide tour in Warsaw in July 28 before their performance at the Proms on July 31 and the Edinburgh Festival on August 6.

Mark Pemberton, chief executive of the Association of British Orchestras, said it would be “morally repugnant” if the Orchestra were made to pay and called on the Government to grant them an exemption.

“The Orchestra just don’t have the funds. There are fantastic venues willing to host these concerts but the money isn’t there to pay for the visas,” he told the Standard.

“These are people who have had to leave their country. They are refugees but they are coming in as ambassadors for their country, to raise awareness about the war.”

The orchestra are set to perform at the BBC Proms (File picture) (PA)
The orchestra are set to perform at the BBC Proms (File picture) (PA)

Mr Pemberton, who is providing logistical assistance to the group, said that ministers could waive the visa requirement on an “exceptional basis”, allowing the orchestra to enter the country for free.

“This could be a good news story which the Government could get credit for, so we are appealing to them to help this orchestra come and perform,” he added.

“It would be a wonderful gesture… but the irony is our European colleagues have already done this.”

The Ukraine Ministry of Culture has already granted a special exemption from fighting to male members of orchestras who are of military-age.

The orchestra has also been given public backing by Ukraine’s culture minister Oleksandr Tkachenko, who said his country’s art “is original and deserves to be at the centre of attention abroad.”

Labour MP Barbara Keeley, the shadow minister for arts and civil society, said the fees were “absurd” as the orchestra were set to perform for free in France, Germany and the Netherlands.

“This orchestra has not had the normal flow of funds as a result of the war,” she told the Standard. “We should be doing everything to get Ukrainian musicians into this country and enabling them to perform.”

Ms Keeley, MP for Worsley and Eccles South, wrote to the Home Office on May 31 about the delays but has not yet received a response. She also raised the issue of the delays at Prime Minister’s Questions on Wednesday but was told by Boris Johnson to raise the case with the Home Secretary.

“There needs to be a special exemption made for these orchestras,” she said. “The point I made in the House of Commons that our EU neighbours have waived visas. If Ukrainians want to go to Ireland they don’t need a visa but they need one to come to London.

“It’s good that we’re giving Ukraine the support they need militarily and in other ways but this is important too. This we can do something about – and it’s not a large amount of money for the Government to waive.”

The BBC are understood to be filming a segment involving the Ukrainian Freedom Orchestra for the Proms but could face an “embarrassing” situation if they were not able to secure the visas, Ms Keeley said.

The Ukrainian Freedom Orchestra was put together in conjunction with the New York-based Metropolitan Opera and the Polish National Opera. All of the proceeds from the tour will go towards supporting Ukrainian artists.

A Home Office spokesperson said: “In response to Putin’s barbaric invasion we launched one of the fastest and biggest visa schemes in UK history, with more than 120,000 visas issued so Ukrainians can live and work in the UK.

“While we are yet to receive a formal application from the Ukrainian Freedom Orchestra, we are aware of this issue and, should they apply, will be discussing options with them and their UK sponsors around how they apply for entry to the UK for the events in question.”

The Edinburgh Festival was contacted for comment.

The BBC declined to comment.

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