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Volume 564: debated on Monday 10 June 2013

The Home Office’s performance in granting visa applications overseas has been excellent and remains so, with average waiting times decreasing rather than increasing. As I have acknowledged myself at the Dispatch Box, there have been problems with our in-country performance in the past financial year, but since the abolition of the UK Border Agency and the creation of UK Visa and Immigration we have got that on the right path, with waiting times decreasing too.

We are probably all aware from our own casework of the real problems that visa delays cause for our constituents. Given that the average waiting time for a skilled worker—somebody whom the British economy needs—has gone up from 36 days in 2010 to 56 days in 2012, does the Minister really think that measures of the kind he mentions are going to crack the problem, and if so, when are we going to see the results?

I acknowledged openly and honestly that there had been a problem in the past financial year, and that is what the figures quoted by the hon. Gentleman reflect. However, as I said, in the past quarter the figures have improved, so when they are published in the instalment of that information that we give to the Home Affairs Committee, he will see that we are getting things back on track. There is an open session with Members of Parliament this Wednesday, and I hope he will attend to listen to the steps we are taking to improve performance.

Will the Minister pay particular attention to the business community in China, where there is evidence that people are being disincentivised from coming to the UK because it is easier to get elsewhere in the EU and because of the time taken? Surely there is an argument for having a fast-track procedure for bona fide business visitors from China so that they can come to Britain to help our economy.

I am grateful for that question because it gives me an opportunity to set out the excellent performance we deliver on visas applied for from China. We grant 96% of visa applications and deliver 95% of those within 15 days; for business visitors, we deliver the vast majority within five days. We are increasingly rolling out premium services, with an ongoing increasing performance level, for the very reasons that my hon. Friend sets out.

The recent report on family migration by the all-party migration group—I am vice-chair of the inquiry committee—shows that the processing time for non-European economic area partner applications has significantly increased over the past 18 years. What is the Minister doing to keep families united rather than dividing them?

My response to the hon. Gentleman, who takes a very close interest in these matters, is similar to the one that I gave to the hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden). He is right: in the past financial year, those processing times increased. We have split family applications for spouses from, so to speak, straightforward applications, and we are making decisions on them much more quickly. They had been grouped with applications that were taking a great deal of time. The hon. Gentleman will see in the latest figures that we have made a great improvement, and I hope to see more of that in future.

The Minister clearly has a personal commitment to getting waiting times down—I thank him for his recent visit to Cambridge to see some of problems there—but will he be able to change the culture within the new borders agency? After all, the permanent secretary, Mark Sedwill, said:

“Most of us will still be doing the same job in the same place with the same colleagues for the same boss.”

We want the Minister to succeed, but will he be able to?

I very much hope so. I was encouraged by my visit to Cambridge with my hon. Friend, where I listened, yes, to some of the concerns that people had, but also to an acknowledgement by the university, for example, that it had seen recent improvement. The new interim director general of UK Visa and Immigration, Sarah Rapson, has a great commitment to creating such a culture. I think that the decision taken by my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary to end the UK Border Agency and set up the new approach will be successful.