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UK Visa Applications (Malawi)

Volume 587: debated on Tuesday 28 October 2014

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship again, Mr Hollobone. We are debating in the presence of the Malawian high commissioner to the UK, who is here to observe our proceedings. I am pleased to have been able to secure this debate this afternoon. I am grateful to the Home Office Minister for being here to respond to it. I am aware that he has a full range of responsibilities. Although Malawi is important to me and to many other Members of this House, I am sure that it is not necessarily at the top of his agenda. I took the opportunity earlier to provide him with a list of the points I want to raise, so I hope he will be able to respond to at least some of those points this afternoon.

I declare an interest as the co-chair of the all-party group on Zambia and Malawi. I chair the Malawi part. As I am sure Members are aware, Malawi has strong links, through David Livingstone, with Blantyre in my constituency in Lanarkshire. That is the basis for my interest. It is a long-standing interest also shared by many of my constituents, which is why I am keen to pursue some of the issues this afternoon.

I should also say that I am indebted to the Scotland Malawi Partnership, a non-profit organisation in Scotland that works to ensure that relationships between projects and communities seeking to support Malawi are well linked up. It works as a resource for a range of charities, some large and some very small, that support communities in Malawi. It has provided me with some of the case studies and detailed information that I want to touch on this afternoon.

This is not a new issue. Through the all-party group, I have been involved in meetings with the Minister’s colleagues in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Department for International Development over the past year to express some of these concerns. Each time, they have said that they understand that there are frustrations, acknowledged the issues and said that the matter was really for the Home Office. That is why I am grateful that a Home Office Minister is here. I hope that he will be able to respond to some of these issues.

As the Minister will be aware, there was a short general debate on Malawi last week in the other place. In the debate, Lord McConnell, the former First Minister of Scotland, who was involved in the founding of the Scotland Malawi Partnership, and Lord Steel, the former Presiding Officer of the Scottish Parliament—I visited Malawi with him and others last year—raised the frustrations that had been expressed to them about the way in which the visa system operates for applicants from Malawi. They did so in the context of a much wider debate on Malawi, which focused on the UK’s relationship with Malawi and the strong community relationships with Malawi that exist in many parts of Scotland.

The context is significant for this debate, because the point I want to get across to the Minister is that there is real concern that the relationship is being undermined by the frustration, the difficulty, the bureaucracy and the cumbersome nature of the visa application process, which enables people to visit the UK in support of many charitable, educational and religious projects at a community and local level. The nature of that relationship is important, particularly because with Malawi, due to issues that are rightly of concern to the UK Government, it is not possible for there to be direct grant aid from Government to Government. A lot of the aid and support is channelled through charitable and other projects. That makes the issue even more significant, and the frustration is in danger of undermining the relationship.

As such, there appears to be a contrast between some of the language and ideals that the Government say underpin their international development efforts and those that inform the way in which this aspect of the immigration system works. They talk about inclusion and equality as core principles, yet it is near impossible for anyone other than the wealthiest of the urban elite in countries across Africa to secure visas to visit the UK. These visits are often for legitimate purposes. In many circumstances, all the costs are being met by reputable charitable organisations and groups in the UK. They are more than happy to provide any assurances that are needed that the visitor will be there for those purposes and will be able to return at the end of the visit.

I raised an example at a business statement in the House just two weeks ago. Christian Aid held an event in Parliament to highlight the impact of climate change on some of the poorest countries of the world. Representatives from organisations working with Christian Aid from the Philippines, Bolivia and Malawi were due to be at the event, but the Malawian representative was unable to attend due to problems securing a visa. Sadly, that is not unusual. I have heard examples—I know of some personally—of teachers, charity workers and people working with Churches being unable to fulfil long-standing partnership engagements in communities across the UK, including in Scotland, because of the changes to the application system for visas from Malawi.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. I have come along to endorse what he is saying. I have constituents and organisations in my constituency that are involved in the Scotland Malawi Partnership and want their concerns raised in the House. I hope that the Minister can respond to them. As my hon. Friend has set out, it is not just about projects in Malawi and similar projects elsewhere; this issue is of great concern to those involved in that partnership. I hope we can get some results from the Minister this afternoon.

My hon. Friend makes a good point on the growing sense of frustration felt by many of those involved in Malawi on the difficulties people have had in securing visas to visit the UK. I am sure that the Minister will be able to respond to some of these more detailed points as we develop them this afternoon.

Would it not be odd if citizens in Malawi were being deprived of visas to come to the UK when those against whom corruption allegations have been made were still able to secure visas?

I assume that the hon. Gentleman is alluding to the ongoing investigation into the misappropriation of aid funds in Malawi and more widely. He makes an important point. The examples I am talking about are individuals involved in projects, partnership arrangements or exchange visits, often with schools or Churches and other organisations. They are not part of that wealthy elite. In many cases, they struggle to secure a visa when they have a legitimate reason to visit the UK and are support the underlying Government policy on aid and development in Malawi. He makes that point very well.

A recent example, provided to me by the Scotland Malawi Partnership, is the experience of Donald Osborne, who has worked with Malawi for a number of years. He was organising a visa for a Malawian teacher to visit Scotland, and the application was rejected not once but twice, and without any notification. That speaks to the hon. Gentleman’s intervention.

Malawi is 170th out of 187 in the human development index. In Malawi, around 60% of the population live on £1 or less a day. For every 1,000 children born, 68 will die before the age of five. Only 16% of children will have the opportunity to attend secondary school. The partnerships that Malawi has with the UK, in my constituency, in Edinburgh and elsewhere across the UK, promote development to address those issues through a person-to-person model. The relationships between individuals, communities and families enhance the effectiveness of Government-to-Government relationships to tackle poverty. Some of those relationships have been under strain as a result of the events to which the hon. Gentleman alluded.

Many aspects of the visa process make it extremely difficult for Malawians to visit the UK. Lord McConnell highlighted in the other place last week how damaging the application process can be. He asked the Government whether steps could be taken to improve the system. The revised system provides a remarkably long, complex and often confusing process. The online process requires details from the applicant and the sponsor and has a detailed application form that requires an extraordinary level of supporting evidence and runs to 15 pages. That it is online is a clear difficulty for many people living in Malawi, as access to the internet is often difficult, time consuming and expensive. Power supplies and connections are unreliable and unpredictable.

I completely understand the need to be thorough—the process should be thorough—but the Government need to be aware that an online system, which seems straightforward from our perspective in the UK and in Europe, is very much more difficult for those applying from Malawi, particularly those doing so through the third-party contractor that has been running the system. I know that the operator of that system changed relatively recently. How many complaints have been made about the online system? Are the Government aware of the proportion of Malawians who have regular access to the internet? Was that taken into account prior to the changes to the system being introduced through Pretoria? Do the Minister and the Home Office have data available on the number of online applications that are started but never completed?

There is also a lengthy series of offline processes, which include posting passports to another country for assessment. At every stage, the process seems to confuse and frustrate many prospective applicants. The minimum cost for applications is £144, including the basic visa charge. It costs £59 just for an appointment. That translates to some 2,500 South African rand or some 107,000 Malawian kwacha, which is more than 30 times the weekly wage for the average Malawian and for which there is no refund if the application is unsuccessful. Indeed, I have heard of many cases in which repeat applications have been made, so how much money has been taken through unsuccessful visa applications, in particular from people from Malawi?

Furthermore, the move to a cashless system has made applying for UK visas in Malawi difficult for many people. In debates in the other place, Lord Steel explained the issues with a cashless system. International credit cards do not exist in the same way in Malawi, and it is illegal to pay in rand without the specific permission and authorisation of the national bank. The Government are therefore asking people to pay in a currency to which they have limited access. That has become a barrier to visa applications and has also worryingly led to an increasing number of industry intermediaries, who make onward electronic transfers on behalf of applicants, often involving high fees and cursory regard to the system’s robustness and whether applications are ever formally concluded. That is but one aspect of the system that causes discrimination based on wealth.

The Minister will be aware that many Malawians do not have an internationally recognised credit or bank card, but I wonder whether the Home Office took that into account when deciding how the system would work. Has any consideration been made of how much industry intermediaries make each year through charging to make electronic transfers? Are there any concerns about the quality of those transactions and the potential for fraud in the visa application process? We are told that the solution is for the UK sponsor to pay the fees, but that rarely works. The IT system regularly crashes and is unclear, making it hard for the sponsor to be able to get to the appropriate place in the application and make the payment. How many UK sponsors have been unable to pay fees for applications? What is the figure as a percentage of all applications?

The system also means that all UK visa applications from Africa are now handled in regional hubs, which causes delays as passports, birth certificates, bank details and other essential documents are sent back and forth across the continent, not always reliably. Decisions are then made by those who have almost no knowledge of the country concerned. Applicants have even had to fly across the continent to collect their passports in urgent situations. I understand that the move to regional hubs was partly about efficiency, but the Government should be concerned about reliability. How has the move to regional hubs affected the time scale involved in securing visas? What is the current backlog of the hub in Pretoria?

In last week’s debate in the other place, Baroness Northover stated:

“Poorly paid people from Malawi are not discriminated against in applying for visas. There is no income threshold.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 23 October 2014; Vol. 756, c. 858.]

While it may be correct that there is no income threshold, that is not the same as there being no disincentive based on income. For example, applicants must demonstrate that they have sufficient funds to cover the costs of their visit and to return to Malawi, meaning that more than 90% are simply not rich enough to be allowed to accept an invitation to the UK. They must also prove that there is a strong reason for them to return to Malawi, through either employment or family ties, but Malawi has a great deal of poverty and a lack of formal employment—85% of Malawians are subsistence farmers. Often, the events that people want to come over and take part in are run by organisations that are willing and able to provide any necessary assurances that the event is the reason why the applicant wants to come over and that the person will return, but that is almost impossible to prove in the application process. I hope that the Minister will be able to respond to that.

Before I conclude, I will outline one recent example. Members will be aware of the work of Mary’s Meals, which feeds many people in Malawi and across poorer parts of Africa. The head of programmes for Mary’s Meals in Malawi, which currently feeds 690,000 children, was refused a visa on the grounds that he was likely to abscond, despite letters from the charity’s UK chief operating officer, as well as the country director, providing reassurances about the work that the individual was undertaking.

In conclusion, I return to my central point about the frustration caused by the visa system, how it operates, its cashless nature, which is inadequate for many Malawians, and the implications and consequences. Thousands of people in the UK are involved in projects and community initiatives to support Malawi, often on a local, project-by-project basis involving schools, Churches and community organisations. They want to help, support and underpin the work that the UK Government’s aid programme is engaged in delivering to one of the poorest countries in the world. The Scotland Malawi Partnership is a phenomenal organisation that is helping to facilitate that. It is not an unreasonable group of people, but it has repeatedly highlighted the concerns and the scale of the problem.

We have heard the line-to-take response from Ministers in other Departments, but I hope that the Minister can commit today not only to answering my questions but to re-examining the effectiveness of the system and its processes. This is not about immigration policy so much as the way the system is applied and how it affects people in Malawi. In the short term, will the Minister consider giving the high commission in Lilongwe a front-facing officer to provide face-to-face support to those applying for a visa to visit the UK and guide them through a process that can be confusing, frustrating and incoherent in equal measure? We all understand the importance of ensuring that immigration policy is well designed and robust, but there are real concerns that it is not as effective as it could or should be and that important charitable and support work for one of the poorest countries in the world is being undermined by the system. I implore the Minister to reconsider the matter and to provide a better system in the interests of the people of Malawi and of the UK.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Tom Greatrex) on securing the debate, and on how he advanced his points about the visa arrangements for Malawi and underlined the connections between Malawi and the United Kingdom, and Scotland in particular. I also recognise his direct constituency interest, it being the birthplace of Dr David Livingstone, whose connection with Malawi started in the 1850s, and I recognise the history involved. It is important to underline the connections between the UK and Malawi, and the movement of people ensures closer engagement between both countries. The visa service has an important part to play in facilitating that movement, while, as the hon. Gentleman understands, protecting our borders and preventing illegal immigration.

In addressing the hon. Gentleman’s questions and points, it is important to give the broader context of our performance and the number of visa applications received from Malawi. I believe that we provide a good service to customers from Malawi. Of the 2,160 visa applications received from Malawian nationals in 2013, 86% were successful. That is an important figure to highlight, given his question about the number of refused applications.

Looking back at the figures for 2010, I note that the grant rate then was 74%. The hon. Gentleman suggests a worsening picture, but it would seem that the grant rate is higher than it was four years ago. The number of applications that we receive from Malawi is comparatively small—I will come on to talk about some of the challenges that that creates—but it is important to see the context of the overall grant rate.

We do process applications within our published customer service standards, and often much faster than that. The global published service standards are to process non-settlement applications within 15 working days and settlement applications within 60 working days. On the gov.uk website, we have published the August figures for the processing time for applications submitted in Malawi for business visit visas; 69% were processed in five days, 90% in 10 days and 100% in 15 days. With regard to settlement, 100% of applications were processed in 60 days. I point the hon. Gentleman to the current performance figures on the website. I take the performance in individual countries seriously, so that we can ensure that we are delivering a quality, timely visa service for the citizens of those countries who want to visit the UK.

In the current economic climate, it is not possible to offer a free, five-day-a-week visa application network in all countries of the world. However, where possible, we do not want to require someone who wishes to travel to the UK to travel to a different country first in order to apply for a visa. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will appreciate that point.

In order to offer the option of submitting an application for a UK visa in Malawi as well as in other locations, UK Visas and Immigration had to make changes to our visa application footprint. Those are in line with a global model that includes requiring customers at lower-volume visa application centres to provide a contribution to the running costs, and reducing the opening frequencies of some visa application points. The alternative was to withdraw our visa application network from Malawi entirely, which we did not want to do.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the additional £59 charge. That was determined solely to recover the costs of operating the visa application points in this location. Malawi is one of a number of countries in which such arrangements have been put in place. I reassure him that the charge is in no way a means of trying to make money. The UK does not make any money from such charges, which support the visa application service in-country.

The arrangement to clear visas in Pretoria was put in place in about 2008-09. The concept of having a smaller number of hubs to ensure an efficient and effective service has been adopted by us around the globe. We have not seen inefficiencies in it, and it has led to—I hope—better decision making on the applications received. I will come on to that point.

I have four minutes left, and as this debate was secured by the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West, I need to give credit to him in the time available.

There is a close tie between Scotland and Malawi, which dates back to the 1850s, and the Scotland-Malawi Partnership plays a key role in supporting links between our countries. My officials in Pretoria, where Malawian applications are considered, have established a good relationship with Mr David Hope-Jones, the principal officer of the partnership, to ensure that citizens from Malawi can apply for visas.

One particular problem raised has been the difficulty in accessing the internet in Malawi and, therefore, in submitting a visa application. UKVI has moved to an application and payment process in which almost all customers apply and pay for their visas online. We have introduced that arrangement around the globe; it is part of the Government’s “digital by default” strategy.

The Visa4UK application portal has been upgraded to provide an improved customer interface, as well as to introduce a number of new features designed to make applications clearer and easier to complete. The move to online applications and payments has delivered a streamlined process that is consistent with a wider global trend for online transactions and payments. It will also be a safer system for both customers and staff, as it reduces the risk associated with handling large amounts of cash.

Customers who do not have a credit or debit card can seek a sponsor to pay online, as the hon. Gentleman said. I made further inquiries and discovered that prepaid credit or debit cards from the major suppliers can be provided by Malawian banks and used for our gateway. There is, therefore, the ability to go to a mainstream Malawian bank to secure that. We have received no official communication from the Malawian Government saying that the permission of the Reserve Bank of Malawi is required for visa payments. The situation in Malawi for applications has improved, and my officials continue to work with sponsors to ensure access to the visa service.

The hon. Gentleman and others have raised concerns about it being difficult for a Malawian to be issued a visa, owing to their modest economic circumstances, even if a genuine sponsor in the UK is meeting the cost of the visit. All visa applications from anywhere in the world are considered on their individual merits against the immigration rules. Applicants should provide evidence to show that they meet the rules and that their circumstances are as they outline. Those intending to visit the UK should provide evidence to show that they can be adequately accommodated and supported during their stay, and that they can meet the cost of their onward journey. That is important to ensure that only genuine visitors come to the UK, and to protect our system.

There is flexibility within the rules for visitors to be maintained and accommodated by friends or relatives. Entry clearance officers will take into account all information provided by applicants and their sponsors when making decisions on visa applications. They will make inquiries directly with sponsors where necessary, but the onus is on the applicant to provide all relevant information in support of their application, including full details of their sponsor’s ability to maintain and accommodate them. However, it is important to note that visitors must meet all the other requirements of the immigration rules. I recognise the point about return.

I have had limited time in which to respond, but I will reflect carefully on what the hon. Gentleman has said. Perhaps I could write to him with further details following the debate.

Sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(13)).