Ministers relaxed visa rules for polo teams to stop the Queen worrying about it damaging her beloved sport, a report has claimed. In 2016 the Home Office suspended a special rule allowing polo teams to employ foreign players and stable workers during the English season over fears it was being exploited to let in low-skilled migrants. Polo players and patrons are able to act as sponsors supporting visa applications for people from outside the EU in the same way as other licenced companies and individuals in the UK. The Home Office lifted the ban after investigating 15 visa sponsors, three of which had their licences revoked, and drew up plans to restrict visas to only the highest levels of non-EU polo players. But the department struck a deal with polo clubs to also let in 500 overseas horse grooms a year after they warned staff shortages would cripple the sport. Whitehall sources cited by The Mail on Sunday say the exemption was granted just days after then-Home Secretary Amber Rudd and the Queen discussed the topic during a private audience in January 2017. One source claimed the Queen became ‘very animated’ over the plans.
A former official reportedly added ministers went ‘above and beyond’ normal practice to address Buckingham Palace concerns, which civil servants were also informed of. A decision on whether to extend the exemption is expected in the coming days. The Home Office said it does not routinely comment on private conversations or individual visa sponsor compliance. It added that any decision on future arrangements will be announced in due course. Buckingham Palace refused to comment. Royal officials have long insisted the Queen does not lobby on specific policies. The Queen has been a regular at polo games since the 1950s, and Prince Philip, an active player until the age of 50, played a key role in popularising the sport in the UK.
Last year Prince Philip’s polo club, the Guards Polo Club, blamed its first annual cash loss in five years on the Home Office’s toughened visa rules. The club boasts of an ‘unrivalled, close relationship with the royal family’ on its website. According to guidance updated in November by the Hurlingham Polo Association, the sport’s governing body, grooms need to provide references and a contract with a player or a patron of a polo team in order to qualify for temporary work visas.
The HPA’s chief, David Woodd, said in 2017: ‘The grooms coming in from overseas are only here for the summer months and are not displacing resident labour; there is not a huge demand for people from the UK to want to be grooms.’ The Mail cited experts claiming that before the 2016 clampdown, many of the 800-plus foreigners who entered the UK on polo visas ended up working as farm workers rather than in the teams’ stables. An English player told The Telegraph in 2017 that some overseas players would end up not working for their visa sponsor, instead earning tax-free income by playing for up to seven other teams in the summer. The English season involves around 3000 players and 15,000 ponies. Most non-EU foreign workers arrive from Argentina and Australia.