Friday, March 09, 2007

Immigration and Nationality (Fees) Order

Lord Avebury: My Lords, the order allows for fees to be charged for almost every service provided to applicants for leave to enter or remain in the UK, for

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registration or naturalisation as a British citizen, or for permission to marry if not permanently resident in the UK. As the Minister has explained, these are not new charges; they already existed in previous legislation but were subject to fees under various previous Acts and have all been brought together. That is helpful. For reference purposes, Sections 50 to 52 of the 2006 Act put all these charging powers together while allowing for the recovery of more than the full costs, as the Minister explained and the Explanatory Notes to the Bill—but not to the Act itself—identified.

When these clauses were debated over a year ago, we were given no idea that the fees were to be almost doubled in some cases. Since the new charges were published only yesterday on the Home Office website, your Lordships have been given insufficient time to comment on them, although an opportunity will be allowed later on. Why was it necessary to have two separate instruments, one allowing the charges to be brought in and the other specifying the amounts? As a matter of economy for parliamentary time, one would have thought it preferable to take the two together.

For example, the grant of indefinite leave to remain, under Article 3(2)(c) of the order, which was £335, is to be increased to £750 if done by post, and from £500 to £950 if the applicant wants an accelerated process or to get permission in person.In addition, the applicant would have to pay for the citizenship test, which currently costs £68. That charge is not mentioned in the order. Can the Minister explain where one must look for it, and whether it, too, is being increased in line with allthe others referred to in the order? Why was the citizenship test charge not treated as part of the same order?

The Home Office consulted on the new fees structure, but it appears to have paid little attention to what was said by the Immigration Law Practitioners’ Association and the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, whose views were swamped by thelarge number of responses from the educational and cultural sectors. I am not complaining about that,but those sectors counted for well over half the respondents listed in the appendix to the consultation document.
4.45 pm

We have no objection to the charging of fees, but I refer to the criteria, which the noble Baroness outlined in her speech. The first criterion that the Government say that they applied in determining the amounts is that the operational risk to the activities of the departments levying the charge should be minimised. That is jargon, which I hope the noble Baroness will elucidate.

Secondly, the Government want to generate the revenue that will fund the transformation of the immigration system over the next four years, which means that applicants will be expected to pay for the measures that are needed to correct the appalling errors made by the IND up to now. That is grossly unfair. To load on to current applicants the

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£100 million additional expenditure, which the noble Baroness mentioned, makes the increases very severe indeed.

Thirdly, the Government seek to maintain the global competitiveness of the UK’s approach to work and doing business. In that regard, they have done research enabling them to assess the price sensitivity of routes to increases in visa and in-country application fees and therefore to set these fees at or below the point of cost recovery for those routes, which are highly price sensitive. The research has also, as the noble Baroness explained, allowed them to overcharge applicants from the richer countries to make up the deficit.

The table of the new fees to be charged from 1 April shows that the amount charged to the applicant is the same in every case, but with a variable amount levied on what are called “corporate partners”, who have to pay “application checking service providers” an amount ranging from £3.57 and £44.78—curiously precise amounts, which I should be grateful if the noble Baroness would explain—in respect of 60 per cent of visa applications. The table does not explain how a particular application comes within the 60 per cent or who these corporate partners are, although one may infer that for somebody applying for a work permit, for example, it would be the employer, and for someone applying for a student visa, it would be the university or educational institution. It would have been helpful if that had been explained in the table.

That is for overseas applications. The table shows all student in-country leave-to-remain applications being charged at a standard £295, instead of the previous £250. Perhaps the Minister could explain how that squares with the principle of differential charging according to what the traffic can bear. As I read it, the same amount can be charged whether the student comes from a very poor country or whether he comes from a rich first-world country, such as the United States.

The Minister may recall that the question of students who need to stay over for short periods at the end of a course leading to a degree or higher degree for academic reasons has been raised. Can we have clarification on that? Presumably, normal student fees are for the period that it will take to attain the degree or the further degree, as the case may be, with the right of multiple re-entry so that the holder can return home during vacations. If the student has to remain for a short period after the end of the degree, say for the ceremony, voting or some academic purpose, is it reasonable to demand £295 extra for the few weeks that that would take?

We recently discussed the new entry certificate monitor’s report and noted her strictures on the continued denial of applicants’ lawful rights of appeal. The Minister who replied, the noble Lord, Lord Triesman, did not accept that proposition or the other assumption, as he called it, that subjective criteria were still being used to assess visitor and student applications. I remind the House that the monitor found that 18.4 per cent of her sample were wrongly refused, and the anecdotal evidence in her

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report makes it abundantly clear that subjective judgments are still being applied.

In relation to denial of appeal rights, I refer the Minister to paragraph 60 of the monitor’s report:

“I assess applications with limited rights of appeal but my most serious and worrying finding is that an unacceptably high proportion of cases put into that category should have been told that they have full rights of appeal. The former Independent Monitor made the same point in each of her Reports and although UKvisas disputed her figures, my own findings suggest that hers were correct”.

Will the Minister acknowledge that the assumptions behind my question on 26 February were correctand were based on four successive reports by entry certificate monitors? If that is so, will applicants who were refused and unlawfully denied their appeal rights have to pay the fee a second time if they lodge a fresh application? Similarly, will the 18.4 per cent of applicants who were wrongly refused be made to pay twice to cover the cost of entry certificate officers’ mistakes? Does the Minister consider that that would be fair?

We do not oppose this order, but we consider that it leaves some important questions unanswered.We suggest that, once the agencies have had an opportunity to consider the effects of the fees proposed, the Minister should invite interestedparties to a round-table discussion. The practical implications could be explored in much greater detail than is possible across the Floor of the Houseto see where there is some flexibility, and further representations could be taken on board.

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