Monday 9 July 2018
[Dame Cheryl Gillan in the Chair]
Family Visitor Visas
I beg to move,
That this House has considered e-petitions 206568, 210497 and 201416 relating to family visitor visas.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dame Cheryl. I congratulate you on the honour you received in the recent honours list; it was well-deserved.
All the e-petitions we are considering deal with visitor visas for families, and we have grouped them together for that reason. There seem to be particular problems with families getting visitor visas for their relatives. Before I move on to that, I want to state the obvious for the record: every state has the right to control its borders. No one is asking for a free-for-all or for those who abuse the system to get away with it. However, people overwhelmingly want a system that is fair to people already in this country and to their visitors and that is fairly administered, with some compassion and common sense. From the public engagement we have done—I will refer to that later—that often seems not to be the case.
I must confess that I came to this issue as a bit of a novice; depending on the point of view, it is either an advantage or a drawback of the Petitions Committee that we often have to learn a new subject very quickly. I do not represent a constituency where many people have relatives abroad, so I thought that the few cases I had seen where people could not get someone in for a wedding or funeral represented blips in the system. However, having looked at the matter in some detail and talked to our petitioners—I am very grateful to them—and to others we have engaged with, I am convinced that there are serious problems with family visitor visas when it comes to the quality of decision making and how it is communicated to applicants.
We all accept that clearance officers have a difficult job to do. There are a number of things they need to consider when deciding whether to grant a visa, including people’s previous immigration history, their financial position, their economic and personal ties to their own country and whether they have been here so often that it constitutes de facto residence. Some of those things are clearly factual, while others require the exercise of judgment.
For example, when someone is applying from a country that is unstable or in a conflict zone, officers can look at the statistics for immigration compliance in that region. However, they are also told that if someone is applying from a country in conflict or where part of the country is in conflict, that
“can be sufficient reason for you not to be satisfied that the applicant is a genuine visitor”,
unless the applicant can produce evidence to show that that is not the case. One of the things cited as an example is where they have right of residence in a third country, which does not apply to many people. It is very difficult for an applicant to rebut that presumption, and we are in danger of judging people on where they come from, rather than their personal circumstances.
Officers can look at someone’s previous history to see whether they or their sponsor have attempted to deceive the immigration authorities in the past, and that is perfectly right, but they can also refuse an application when:
“It has not been possible to verify information provided by the applicant despite attempts to do so”.
I would have no problem with that if I was convinced that we were getting the quality of the decision making right in the first instance, but I do not think that is always the case.
In 2011, the chief inspector of borders and immigration looked at the New York visa section. One would not think that was a particularly difficult area, but he found that 26% of the cases did not meet the quality markers for decision making. Officers were often misinterpreting documents and were making inconsistent decisions. Although his 2012 report showed some improvement, he said there was a long way to go. In his 2014 report, he looked at various visa sections and found that 30% of decisions did not meet the quality markers. Again, officers were making very inconsistent decisions.
It is not surprising, then, that a number of cases have been raised of late in the press and by Members of this House. In May, my hon. Friend the Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Helen Hayes) said in a debate that she had lost count of the number of times people had been refused visas to attend a wedding or funeral. She highlighted a rather disturbing case where a constituent of hers was waiting for a stem cell transplant, but his brother in Nigeria, who was the donor, had been refused a visa to come here.
Another case—it is not a family one, but it illustrates the problems in the system—was highlighted by The Guardian. A person who runs a charity he set up in Malawi wanted to come to meet donors and speak at the Hay festival. He was refused a visa. He applied again with support from people in the other place and the head of an international charity. He had a full programme of what he was doing, and he was still turned down. He cannot get in for a perfectly reasonable thing, even with the support of a national newspaper. I worry about the people who have not had that support.
The Hertfordshire Mercury reported the case of a father from Morocco who was unable to attend the birth of his child, despite showing evidence of flights booked into and out of the country. The most bizarre recent case I came across was that of a grandmother in Jamaica—she is a retired nurse—who had been consistently refused a visa to come here to see her children and grandchildren, despite the fact she had worked for 30 years for the NHS and was entitled to both a state pension and an NHS pension. I do not believe that anyone would think that the system was set up to stop Jamaican grannies with 30 years’ service in this country from visiting their grandchildren.
The problem is that since the Crime and Courts Act 2013, there are no appeals, except in very limited cases on grounds of racial discrimination or human rights. The Government justified that by saying that appeals were costly. They were, but a third of appeals were succeeding, which shows that the decision making was bad in the first place. Some 63% of the appeals that succeeded had introduced new information, leaving 37% where there was no new information and the appeal still succeeded. To me, that says there is poor decision making. Worse than that, new information is often introduced on appeal because the grounds for refusal are so vague that people do not know what information they have to provide until they get to appeal.
The chief inspector has commented on cases where appeals are refused because the applicant did not provide particular information, had no way of knowing they needed to provide it and were not asked to provide it. He said that was unfair. He looked at recent cases. He pointed out that in 13% of cases where visas were turned down and 56% of cases where visas were allowed, there was not enough information on file for a proper audit of those decisions to be made. If that is the case, something is going very wrong. One of our petitions asks for appeals to be reinstated precisely because of that poor decision making.
I have talked to some of our petitioners. They have clearly said that in every other public authority, there is a way of appealing decisions if the authority does something wrong. That does not exist with these cases. If a local council makes a bad decision, someone can go to the ombudsman, but that is not possible in these cases. Others think they are being denied the opportunity to, as they see it, clear their name and prove that they have not given wrong information or tried to manipulate the system. If an appeal is not a possibility, people are caught on a merry-go-round of making applications and not always knowing why they have been turned down or what information they have to provide, and often being turned down again for a different reason.
Sometimes people are caught in a trap. I want to talk about a case that was given to me by a member of staff in the House. It is the case of a British citizen who teaches in South America, who has been married to a citizen of the country where he works for six years. Five years ago they came to visit his family—no problem at all. Recently they applied again and were turned down. The only reason anyone can see is that since then they have had a baby and his wife had given up work, as many people do, to care for her child while the baby was small. They were refused, even though they provided evidence of his contract for work and the contract for their rental accommodation. The result of that was heartbroken grandparents in this country, who find it difficult to travel and who had arranged a baptism and a family holiday to get to know their grandchild, and a British family—British born and bred—who feel that the system does not work for them. It is the lack of faith in the system that has prompted the petitions.
I do not think—I have said this to the petitioners—we can grant people an automatic right to come here. There are always a few people who want to manipulate the system, but the evidence that we have indicates that that is not a particular problem with visitor visas. The Library’s information on exit checks for last year show that 96.7% of people who came here on visitor visas left at the right time. That is a slightly higher percentage than for those who come on work visas, so there does not appear to be a particular problem.
Another petition asked for a system like the Canadian super visas, whereby people are allowed to visit their families for up to two years. I think that slightly misunderstands what the Canadian system was brought in for. It was actually introduced to reduce settlement in Canada under the parents and grandparents settlement scheme, because people settling were deemed to be a bit of a strain on the Canadian medical system. I do not know whether that is true, but I do know that people have to provide £100,000 worth of health insurance, which is fine if someone is wealthy and healthy enough to be accepted, but not much help to people such as our granny in Jamaica or a young couple from South America. The petitions might not have the solutions to the problem, but they, including the one asking for the right of appeal to be reinstated, highlight issues that the Home Office needs to look at.
We conducted some public engagement with surveys of people who had signed petitions about visas. We got more than 2,000 responses and we heard the same stories again and again: mothers unable to come to a daughter’s wedding; nieces not able to come and be bridesmaids; and parents who could not come to help with a new baby—sometimes even a premature baby. Some of the stories we heard verged on the bizarre and seemed to indicate to me that the more honest people were, the more likely they were to be rejected. My general view is that villains know how to manipulate the system.
We had a grandmother, for example, who had said that she would be looking after her grandchild while the parents were at work—she was going to get to know the grandchild—and she was turned down on the grounds that that was paid work. Anyone who knows anything about grandparents knows that, far from having to pay them to look after their grandchildren, someone is more likely to be trampled in the rush to look after them. It is nonsense. We also had the case of someone in the British forces, whose mother was denied a visa to attend his passing out parade. Yet another military family, who had had their second child, were keen to get the husband’s niece over for a couple of months to help out. She had finished one set of exams, but was going back to school. She was refused a visa. The family were desperate for some help because the husband, who had served nine years in the forces, was about to deploy, leaving his wife on her own. Unless the British forces are running a concentrated visa scam, which is unlikely, I can see no reason at all for such decisions.
The people who responded to our survey understand that decisions are difficult to make. In fact, I was surprised at the number who said they would even be prepared to deposit a sum of money to be returned to them when their visitor left as evidence of good faith. They know it is difficult, but they find the whole process they are expected to go through excruciating. Some of them told us that their relatives had been so traumatised by the process, they did not want to apply again. Others used words such as, “demeaning”, “devastating”, “inhumane” and even “shameful”. Those are the words of British citizens living in this country and paying taxes here.
A family whose mother had been refused a visa twice, although she had been here before without any problem, said,
“What else can we actually do to prove that the visitor will return?”
That is a fair question. Another family, whose mother-in-law was refused a visa a couple of times—even though, again, she had been here before with no problem and left on time—said:
“I do understand that they have concerns about people coming and staying, but for genuine, hard-working taxpayers like us it seems very unfair that we are punished for immigration issues which we have no control over.”
That hits the spot. Immigration issues are being confused with issues about visitors, particularly family visitors. Because there is seldom an appeals process now, people feel they have no redress. That was highlighted for us by one of our respondents, a senior NHS doctor, who said that some time ago his mother applied to come over for the birth of his daughter. She was refused a visa, although it was granted on appeal, albeit when the child was two months old. Now his father would like to come and visit, but he has been turned down and was told that he does not have the financial resources to sustain him if he becomes ill, even though he has shown that he has health insurance. There is no appeal and the family, having shown they have got health insurance, are left wondering what else they have to show to get a visa for the father.
We heard from a businessman who employs 15 people in this country and is perfectly solvent. He could not get his mother-in-law a visa, even though she had been here before, again with no problem, and left on time. Such cases recur again and again. They cannot be seen any longer, as I admit I used to see them, as isolated incidents. They are flagging up systemic problems in the system.
Perhaps we should look at reinstating a category of family visas, as has been suggested by some of our petitioners. We should certainly look at the method of appeal, even if it is not like the old system. We need a proper method of review, but it depends on getting the decision making right in the first place and keeping the files up to date so that things can be properly reviewed.
People are not asking for anything unreasonable. All they ask for is a fair system that makes consistent decisions and tells people properly why they have been rejected; that allows them to know, when they apply again, what evidence they should produce to prove that they are genuine visitors; and that does not stigmatise people simply because of where they come from. That does not seem to be an unreasonable thing for British citizens to ask for—it seems entirely reasonable. We should not leave them as they are at the moment: feeling let down by the system and stigmatised because of issues beyond their control, when all they want to do is see their family—often to let a grandparent see her grandchildren. Surely all our children deserve that right.
As has been pointed out to me, given that we live in an increasingly global world, with people moving to work abroad—often marrying people whom they meet there—this problem will not go away; in fact, it will get worse. I urge the Minister to look seriously at how the system is operating at the moment and what we can do to make it better. Our people deserve no less.
It is truly a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dame Cheryl, in this important petition debate. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington North (Helen Jones) for the way she presented the issues. I have put a pen through quite a lot of my speech, because I do not believe in repeating things that have already been said very well.
I will start where my hon. Friend left off, which is with thinking about how this feels. I have an Indian father, an English mother and a sister who lives in America. Every year, without fail, I—along with my mother and husband—apply for, and am granted, a visa to visit India, where I have a great many relatives, including a much-beloved, now quite elderly, aunt in her 90s, whom I completely adore. She is a role model to me, and has been since I was a small child.
I have cousins to whom I am very close, and their children are growing up and each year seem to be bigger and doing all sorts of interesting things. I cannot bear the thought of how it would feel to be kept apart from them, were I to be refused that visa. The visa system is moderately onerous, but it is clear. Each year, whenever I have difficulties with it, there is someone I can call who can give me advice on how to deal with any problems that I might have had, and it has got better each year.
The system for America is not without its flaws, and my mother is certainly very worried that in the course of my duties as an MP I might accidentally visit a country that will appear on one of President Trump’s lists. Although that is sort of funny, it is also heartbreaking, because my mother is truly terrified that I will risk not being let into the country to see my sister. Again, the thought of being prevented from seeing my sister is very painful to me. I try to think of how it must feel to be one of my constituents.
The problem is getting worse. My caseworkers have just messaged me to say that in my first year as an MP we had one such case. In my second year, 2016, we had five. We had a further five in 2017, but so far, after just six months of this year, we have had 10. I pay heartfelt tribute to my dedicated staff, particularly Michelle Boobier and Sheila Sharman, the constituency caseworkers. I sometimes feel that our caseworkers are not given the credit they deserve. Constituents tend to thank us when they get a visa granted, or some other problem solved. Almost always, the work was done by our dedicated, hard-working caseworkers, who are relentless, determined and completely committed to trying to do the right thing by our constituents.
My caseworkers are very smart women who are not likely to have the wool pulled over their eyes, or be hoodwinked by someone trying to pull a fast one. They take a lot of care over getting the details and information, and I trust them when they say to me, “This person has a good case.” It distresses me that my caseworkers are now feeling quite distressed about some of the people whom we have not been able to help.
To mention a couple of successes, last year we helped an Iranian mother to get a visa to see her son graduate in Bristol. That was a considerable effort. She had plenty of evidence to show that she wanted to return home afterwards, which she did. It meant the world to her that she was able to be in Bristol for her son’s graduation. Tragically, we had two doctors from Pakistan who wanted to see their mother one last time before she died. We were able to help them, but we know of other cases. Despite the Home Office’s stricture that we should bother it to expedite things only in matters of death or the dying, unfortunately we often have cases where people are either dead or dying, but it does not seem possible to get things overturned.
I know that many of the Minister’s officials try very hard, and we have had some good experiences of officials who have been very sympathetic, but for whom it feels as though there is an underlying culture of distrust and a default setting. I do not hold the Minister responsible for that, but it seems to be there none the less. For instance, the parents of another constituent have been refused visas, even though they have visited many times before, have always returned home and can prove that they have very good reasons to return home.
We recently requested a review of a refusal of a visa for two teachers from a country that I am not going to name, because I do not want to jeopardise their application. I hope that the Minister will be able to give us some good news on that at some point. They are teachers who have applied for visas to come to one of my local schools, as part of a school exchange programme. We have evidence galore that that is why they are coming; we have evidence up to the eyeballs. We hope that her officials will reconsider and that the teachers eventually succeed, because the school itself is desperately upset.
We find that in immigration inquiries the most common cases that we have are visa refusals, where people have been denied entry clearance to visit the UK. The process of applying is so complex and expensive, and there is no right of appeal. It therefore seems terribly unfair that even the most insignificant error, which we are often able to see and say, “That may be where it went wrong,” is a reason for the Home Office to say, “Aha! There’s a mistake you made. Let’s refuse,” rather than exercising reasonableness.
Of course the Home Office needs to be satisfied that the visitor has sufficient ties to their home country, but the Indian visa system does not ask me for very much. It asks me to name my profession, and in my previous job I once provided a letter from my employer, but I have not been asked to provide a letter from Parliament. I understand why the Home Office is asking for sufficient evidence that the person will return to their country of origin, but the amount of proof required is so high that it seems that people from certain countries, as my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington North said, feel bound to fail.
The most heartbreaking cases have involved people refused visas to visit sick or dying relatives. We have also had a father who was denied the opportunity to be present at the birth of his child. Although we helped one mother to be at the graduation of her son, others have been unable to attend graduation ceremonies, and parents have been unable to spend time with children and grandchildren.
My hon. Friend said that there is a strong suggestion—this is what we feel from our case load, which I admit might seem small—that certain countries seem to produce an automatic refusal. I urge the Minister to consider looking into whether that is the case, because that is our experience. That is not helpful for democracy. It does not help our constituents to feel faith in the democratic process. They feel increasingly that even MPs cannot help to right wrongs. That does not seem right: no matter how hard my caseworkers work and if we feel that there is a mountain of evidence but we have not been able to change anything, it gives our constituents the idea that even democratically elected representatives are impotent and useless, and have no power in the system whatever, no matter how hard we try.
I have three requests of the Minister that come from my caseworkers, whom I, again, thank greatly. Will she consider introducing an automatic right of approval of visitor visas for families of British citizens? I believe that family members of UK citizens should not have to meet exactly the same criteria as other applicants for a visit visa. Not being a citizen does not make our parents, siblings, children and grandchildren any less a part of our family. I believe that the only requirement should be that a British relative sponsor them.
I understand that the Minister might wish to introduce other requirements, but the requirements at the moment seem terribly, heartbreakingly unfair for the relatives of British citizens. For instance, I know, because I have looked into this, that were I to try to bring over my cousins from India, whom I am able to get a visitor visa to visit, the requirements would be very high. I am afraid even to ask for a visa, because I am terribly afraid of disappointing them.
Will the Minister introduce a super visa category for the parents of British citizens? My hon. Friend the Member for Warrington North laid out very well some of the problems and shortcomings of the Canadian super visa system, but there must be some way to allow the parents of British citizens to come here—parents who definitely want to go home, and have a life to go home to. There should be some way to make it easier for British citizens to be able to see their parents. The Minister might say, “They can visit their parents in their country of origin,” and I have said that, too, but if they are working parents with children at school, it is not practical to do that as often as their parents wish to see them.
I ask the Minister to consider whether British citizens should be able to appeal the refusal of a family visit visa. My constituents consider the removal of the right to appeal to be one of the most egregious acts. They simply do not understand how that could be so in a democratic country. The appeals process for family visit visas was removed on 25 June 2013, allegedly to cut costs, but in my recent experience the UK Border Agency seems to have cut the process of justice and accountability at the same time as cutting costs. How can that be justified? Is the UK Border Agency now judge and jury—the administrator and the rule maker? It certainly feels that way to my constituents, my caseworkers and me.
I respectfully ask the Minister to consider this. We are a modern, democratic country, and I am sure she wishes us to be known, post-Brexit, as outward facing. We live in a very confusing world—a world that increasingly feels divided, rather than united—so is now not the time to show the world what a country that is capable of bringing people together and reuniting families can truly do if it tries hard enough? I ask her to consider the requests made by the petitioners, my caseworkers and me.
I thank my hon. Friends the Members for Warrington North (Helen Jones) and for Bristol West (Thangam Debbonaire) for putting the case very eloquently and for giving us information and examples. We are debating this petition because, across the United Kingdom, the relatives of British citizens, who want nothing more than to visit their family, are being prevented from doing so. My hon. Friends have given examples of constituents who have contacted them, and I have been contacted by many constituents who are victims of the Government’s cruel and inhuman approach to immigration. I am pleased that we have the opportunity to raise their plight today.
My constituent, Mr Sul, came to the United Kingdom in 2006 to study for his masters. He has worked in the United Kingdom ever since and was granted citizenship in 2015. He owns a home in the United Kingdom and his children were born here. How did the Government choose to thank him for making this country his home, for contributing to our economy and for his family’s contribution to their local community? They denied his wife the opportunity to have her mother present for the birth of their first child, and they denied his father the opportunity to travel to the UK to meet his grandchildren and take pride in the home his eldest son had built. That is absolutely inhuman. My constituent is not alone; many others have contacted me and my hon. Friends.
Unjustly refusing visas causes unnecessary emotional distress and keeps families apart, preventing them from sharing important moments together. The practice of preventing visitors from entering the country is not only deeply unfair to those UK citizens and their families, but harmful to the UK’s tourism industry. Those people are potential tourists who would spend their money on local goods and services, boosting the local economy.
We all recognise the need to secure our borders, reduce illegal immigration, tackle organised crime and protect national security, and I commend the work of the vast majority of Border Agency officials who work hard daily to do just that, but let us be clear: denying those visas is not about border security. It is an ideological choice by the Conservative Government to create a hostile environment for immigrants and their families, which was first launched by the Prime Minister. The Home Office is misusing immigration rules to prevent honest people from visiting the country, and is so afraid of any challenge to its unjustifiable decisions that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol West said, in 2013 the Government removed the right of appeal for family visitor visas. They have allowed the Home Office to become judge, jury and executioner in relation to the lives of the families of British citizens. This gross misuse of immigration rules is similar to an issue we debated in Westminster Hall last month, at which the Minister was also present—the use of paragraph 322(5) of the immigration rules to deport honest, hard-working immigrants.
The rejection of family visit visas and the refusal to hear appeals in cases such as that of my constituent are yet another manifestation of the hostile environment policy. We have a new Secretary of State, but we appear to have the same old problems. Will the Minister tell us that things will be different under the new Secretary of State? Will he tackle the hostile environment policy, which has infected the Home Office since the days when the Prime Minister was Home Secretary, or should we expect more of the unfair mistreatment of British citizens and their families that we have witnessed since 2010? I second the positive suggestions made by my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol West and urge the Minister to look at them seriously.
It is a great pleasure to participate in this debate under your chairmanship, Dame Cheryl. I draw the House’s attention to my declaration in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, in respect of the research support I receive in my office for the work I do on immigration and asylum matters.
My constituents’ experiences are similar to those that my hon. Friends have related this afternoon. There is, to a degree at least, a sense that there is a culture of disbelief in the Home Office when cases come forward for decision. I am sure the Minister will wish to address that. The consequence is often heartbreak for families: relatives miss important family occasions and celebrations. As we have heard, they miss the births of grandchildren and come too late to visit terminally ill relatives. Sometimes they worry that there is little hope that very elderly relatives will ever have the chance to see family members again. Even if a favourable decision is eventually made, they may have had many months and years of heartbreak, during which time the family members remained apart.
I am sure the Minister understands that, in many such cases, timely decision making is of the essence, because the events are often one-off, significant occasions that cannot be repeated. The first question that I want to put to the Minister is, how can the process be made speedier, as well as more reliable and compassionate?
I did not know about the speed of the Indian e-visa system, but I am sure the Minister will want to comment on that comparison.
The decision making often seems irrational and random, in terms of the way factors determine the outcome of applications. As we have heard—I have experience of this from my constituency—people who have previously been granted visitor visas, made a visit to this country and then returned to their home country find that when they submit subsequent applications to do exactly the same thing, often with exactly the same facts, their new application is rejected. As we have heard, visas are often refused because they lack some key piece of information. It has often never been made clear to the applicant that it is necessary, so it is hardly surprising that it is not supplied. Again and again in my constituency, I have heard examples of very clear evidence of an intention to return that has seemingly simply been ignored.
We heard about the reports of the independent chief inspector of borders and immigration. The 2015 report found considerable evidence of the systemic problems mentioned by my hon. Friends and of the rules not being applied appropriately. In one overseas visitors section, in Jordan, the inspector found that evidence was overlooked or misinterpreted in more than 10% of applications, and that 43% of refusal notices were “not balanced”. In a wider report, again by the inspector, 30% of visit visa cases sampled failed the Department’s own quality standards. I know that the Minister will not be satisfied with that kind of performance, and we need to hear what she will do about it.
In cases from my constituency, applicants have provided evidence of land ownership and substantial personal wealth, or income statements from their employers, only for such evidence of resources seemingly to be ignored. In other cases, children, grandchildren, the spouse or other family dependants have remained at home—clearly an applicant will want to return to them—but cases have simply been dismissed for not demonstrating strong enough family ties. It is hard to think what more an applicant can do than to demonstrate a tie to a spouse, child or grandchild.
I have heard of refused cases of applicants who have held responsible roles in their home country. In one case I have been dealing with recently, the visitor was a councillor—an elected member of the local legislature—and in another, a doctor and university professor was deemed likely, for some reason, not to return home. I have seen the Home Office dismiss what it characterises as “claims” to be in employment, implying that an applicant is lying in the application. Applicants feel very offended, hurt and alarmed about that. I have heard of cases in which families have been forced to make multiple applications, as they receive refusal after refusal, costing them thousands of pounds and going on for years and years. None of that is satisfactory or acceptable, and I do not think that the Minister will tolerate it either. I look forward to what she has to say.
The Minister is aware of my particular concern, because I have expressed it to her directly in the past: family members seeking to visit who are resident in refugee camps. I understand how difficult such a situation is for the Government to assess but, by definition, such people cannot demonstrate an immediate intention to return to their home country, because that country is not safe. Often they will not have documentation because they have fled, leaving everything. However, she knows—I have discussed a particular case with her—that those families are as desperate to visit as any. Family members have gained asylum in this country successfully, which is greatly to this country’s credit—for example, under the community sponsorship scheme—but, having given that initial welcome to such desperate people, we cannot agree to their family members making visits at a time of important family need. Will the Minister look at what can be done in this situation—I recognise that it is difficult and challenging—to ensure that when applicants are resident in refugee camps we have the most flexible and compassionate approach possible to give them the chance of family visits, too?
We heard from all my colleagues about the problems that have arisen following the removal of appeal rights. Not only is that unjust and worrying for applicants, because they feel that the refusal of an administrative application will taint a future one, but it is disingenuous of the Home Office to advise that a fresh action is quicker and more straightforward than making an appeal. I have heard cases of constituents who have had to go through the process again and again.
Equally importantly, however, the lack of an appeal process might remove any route or incentive for the Home Office to learn from and improve on poor and wrong decision making. The lack of such a process removes the feedback loop that might drive up quality standards. With my colleagues, I urge the Minister to look again at some reinstatement of appeal rights.
In conclusion, we are clearly not talking about isolated incidents; the system is poor, irrational and painful for families, and none of us can see any sign of things getting better—indeed, we fear that they are getting worse. As my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol West (Thangam Debbonaire) said, in the context of global travel, of it being more common for families to live in different countries, and of Brexit—whatever happens about settled status, in future more European visitors will visit family members who may not qualify for settled status—and when, as we understand, the Home Office faces so many pressures, to streamline and simplify the visitor visa system would surely be an early win for the Government, and one that would make an enormous difference to families who simply long to see their loved ones at times of important family events.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dame Cheryl.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Warrington North (Helen Jones) on the way in which she introduced the debate. I was tempted to accuse her of misleading the House, because she said that she was not an expert, but by the sound of her speech, she certainly is now. In fact, we have had four excellent contributions so far.
I also congratulate the petitioners sincerely on securing a parliamentary debate on this important issue. The numbers signing the petitions have been remarkable—the first petition, in particular—and that indicates clearly how strongly the rules impact on people and families and how strongly people feel the need for change.
An important preliminary point to make is that I suspect that one reason why so many have been attracted by the petitions is that, increasingly, many people find that a family visit is the only way they get to see their partners, husbands, wives, children and parents—close family members—as well as distant relatives. Why? The reason is that we have some of the most draconian family immigration rules in the world. Tens of thousands of families are split apart, all in the name of the net migration target.
Almost half our population would not be able to meet the maintenance requirements imposed by the coalition Government, and the rules have a disproportionate impact on young people, women and those living outside London and the south-east. One reassurance that the Minister could give us today is that she has—I hope—ditched the proposals in the Conservative party manifesto to make those rules even more draconian by increasing the thresholds for various family visas.
We should not pretend, however, that improvements to the family visit visa rules would be the big fix or the final outcome that we are looking for. Such improvements would be welcome, but fundamental reform of the family migration rules is needed. Whether we look at the report of the all-party group on migration or of the Children’s Commissioner on the so-called “Skype families”—they included 15,000 children in 2015, according to the commissioner, so how many thousands more are there now?—or various other critiques, the pain that the rules are causing cannot be ignored.
Compared internationally, the UK is an outlier with its severe family immigration policies. One 2014 comparison of 38 western countries on facilitation of family unity put the UK in last place. UK requirements are difficult to meet, not only in the substantive rules but in the impenetrability of the evidence rules that must be met.
Family visits have therefore become even more important. That is not to say, of course, that they were not already important, and they certainly remain important for people who want to visit more distant relatives. As the hon. Members for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) and for Warrington South (Faisal Rashid) pointed out, the sense of injustice and heartbreak that many feel in such circumstances would be compounded if the result was missing a special occasion such as a wedding, a special birthday, a baptism or a passing out ceremony.
A number of colleagues have highlighted some very sad individual cases—elected councillors, doctors, transplant donors, charity visitors, long-serving nurses, grandparents and wedding guests all being denied visit visas—and I join the hon. Member for Bristol West (Thangam Debbonaire) in paying tribute to the caseworkers who do so much of the hard work in such cases. I could mention a handful of examples, but I think we have heard enough about the sorts of decisions that are too often being made.
Mistakes happen, and there will always be decisions with which we disagree. I recognise that entry clearance officers have a difficult job, but, as a number of hon. Members pointed out, there are deeper issues. Some of them were touched on in the 2015 inspection by the chief inspector of borders and immigration, which the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston highlighted. Those systemic issues, as she put it, included a lack of proper reasons being kept on file and, too often, the ignoring of positive evidence by decision makers, so that more than 40% of decisions were considered by the inspector to be imbalanced. Requirements were, in essence, made up by individual entry clearance posts. The inspector found quality concerns in 25% of entry clearance management reviews. The hon. Members for Bristol West, for Warrington North and for Stretford and Urmston were also right to highlight the danger of making decisions based on the country of origin alone.
It must be heartbreaking, especially for those who face the double whammy of being excluded from having their loved ones—husbands, wives and partners—join them here permanently, and being excluded from even having their loved ones come to visit on a temporary basis. In response to the points raised in the three petitions, there is a very strong case for arguing that there should be at least a strong presumption in close family cases that in the absence of specific, individual information to the contrary, an applicant who has shown that he or she can afford the visit and has suitable accommodation should be taken to be just that—a visitor, who will leave again in accordance with their visa. There must be an end to the deep-seated culture of disbelief and the failure to take into account things such as positive immigration or visit histories. Too often, decisions have been made because something is not clear or a document is missing. Why not pick up the phone instead of simply reaching straight for the refusal paragraphs?
There is so much we can learn from Canadian immigration laws and policies, which tend to be based on evidence and respect instead of random targets. The hon. Member for Bristol West rightly said that there seems to me to be real merit in providing family members with better access to the country than random tourists would generally get. I note the concerns that the hon. Member for Warrington North raised, and I will have to look at them.
The hon. Member for Warrington North made a persuasive case for a proper appeal right, and I absolutely agree. That would simply recognise the importance of these visits and the challenge that it poses to family relationships if there is no ability to pay short visits. It would also help, as the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston said, to concentrate the minds of the decision makers and improve the quality of decision making. Most importantly, it would simply be a way to access justice.
In conclusion, I welcome these petitions and I am happy to provide my broad support to them. However, the Government should be in no doubt that fundamental reform of their outrageous, outdated and inhumane family migration rules is urgently required.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dame Cheryl. I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington North (Helen Jones) for opening this important debate and for so eloquently and forcefully putting the case forward. I thank all my colleagues for their contributions. It is also appropriate to thank all the tens of thousands of people who signed the three petitions. I am glad that we are debating this important topic.
The petitions we are considering raise two questions. First, do we want an immigration policy that respects the right to a family life, or one that breaks up families and prevents British citizens from being able to see their loved ones? Secondly, do we want a process that is effective, fair and transparent? I believe the answer to both questions should be yes. Our family visa system is not working. Too many visas are routinely rejected on false or unfounded grounds. Removing the right of appeal has meant that decision makers are not being held to account for poor performance. Where there is no accountability, prejudice and unequal treatment can flourish unchecked.
There are three main grounds on which family visa applications are unjustifiably rejected. As an MP with probably one of the largest immigration case loads, I can say this from personal experience and from evidence provided by campaigners and lawyers. First, the Home Office will claim an applicant does not have the means to support themselves while they are in the UK, when in fact they have proven that they can or that someone in the UK will take care of their expenses. My constituent’s mother wanted to visit her children in the UK after the passing of her husband. Clearly, it was an extremely emotional time when we would all want to be able to mourn our close family members. Her application was rejected because the Home Office claimed that she could not provide evidence that she was able to support herself while she was here, even though both her sons had agreed to support her for the duration of her stay.
Secondly, the Home Office will claim that it is not confident that the applicant will leave the country after their stay, even when they are here for a specific purpose or event, they have booked a hotel only for a certain period and possibly even a return flight, and they can prove they have permission from employers to leave work only for a limited period. Another constituent wanted her aunt to come and visit her. Her aunt has seven sons, two daughters and 10 grandchildren who she takes care of as a housewife in Pakistan. It is clear from her case file, and from my conversations with my constituent, that she fully intended to return after her visit, yet her family visa application was rejected because the Home Office did not believe she would go back at the end of her stay.
Thirdly, possibly the most infuriating and outrageous grounds for the Home Office to reject an application is because it has made a mistake. The case of Chinwe Azubuike was reported in The Guardian. She had not seen her family for 14 years when she invited them to London for her wedding. All of her seven applications on behalf of her family were rejected on the grounds that they did not “have sufficient funds available”, a claim that her immigration lawyer called
“unlawful, spurious and plainly wrong”.
As well as ignoring the fact that Chinwe and her husband had committed to pay all her family’s expenses, the decision was based on a basic error by Home Office decision makers, who confused yearly with monthly income. The accusation that the couple were lying about their income was therefore particularly insulting.
Basic errors resulting in outright rejections are not unique to the visitor visa system. I will discuss later wider failings in the Home Office, but from highly skilled migrants to the Windrush scandal, the Home Office cannot seem to get even the most basic information and checks consistently correct. The rate of refusals for visitor visas cannot be blamed solely on mismanagement and inefficiency. The assumption behind many of refusal letters is that, given the chance, nobody from Africa or the Indian subcontinent—such as Pakistan, Bangladesh, India and Sri Lanka—could possibly want to return home at the end of their visit to the UK. That is deeply offensive, not to mention plainly wrong.
I represent the great city of Manchester where, every two years, we have an international festival. Festivals up and down the country have difficulties.
My hon. Friend will know because the Gurdwara is in his constituency, although many of the worshippers are my constituents, that there is particular difficulty in getting visitor visas for members of the Sikh community to come to participate in religious festivals.
I am aware of that difficulty. There are similar issues when events are going on at the mosques. Manchester International Festival invited Abida Parveen, a renowned artist of international calibre, but it was a struggle—we all had to get involved to make sure she could get here. Only about a month ago, I got involved with another incident concerning an international artist. Many people, including my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington South (Faisal Rashid), I am sure, enjoy listening to Abrar-ul-Haq. He struggled to get a visa for a charity event and the whole event had to be cancelled. There are issues here that the Minister should consider.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bristol West (Thangam Debbonaire) touched on the introduction of e-visas in India, which is proving effective. I hope the Minister will elaborate on that and tell us whether e-visas will be rolled out to Pakistan, Bangladesh and other countries.
Let me turn to my first question: do we want an immigration policy that respects the right to a family life? Article 8 of the European convention on human rights states:
“Everyone has the right to respect for his private and family life, his home and his correspondence.”
The Labour party believes that right should be protected. We are committed to allowing spouses to come to the UK without a minimum income requirement, we will not force children to pay more than £1,000 to obtain citizenship just because their parents were not born here, and we will allow all reasonable requests for visitor visas.
An estimated 15,000 children live without a parent because of restrictions on family visas. When a reasonable request for even a visitor visa is turned down, families can be devastated. Children grow up used to the possibility that they may never see their parents, even for a short visit. The Government’s spouse visa rules have already been found to breach article 8. The Government have tweaked the wording of their policy since that ruling, but the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants argues that that has not made a difference to decision making. The right to a family life will be a guiding principle for Labour as we review our immigration system in government.
Does the Minister believe that charging £1,000 for citizenship is in the best interests of a child and their family? Does she think denying people the right to come for family visits—for weddings and funerals—respects the right to a family life? Family visitors are tourists, who contribute to our economy by visiting our great sights. Does she believe it helps her colleagues in the Department for International Trade sell the idea of a “global Britain” post-Brexit for it to be almost impossible to sustain family ties across borders? How does the fact that anyone who comes to Britain runs a high risk of not being able to have their family visit them while they are here help to build trade links?
My second question is: do we want an immigration process that is effective, fair and transparent? The right to appeal in family visa cases was removed in 2013—a move the Labour party opposed. Before their abolition, one in three appeals was successful, which raises concerns about how decisions were—and still are—made. The Minister must address the underlying issues with the application process and reinstate appeals so that her Department can properly be held to account.
In a recent report, the Select Committee on Home Affairs made a powerful and convincing case that the “refusal culture” in the Home Office is in dire need of root-and-branch reform. It pointed out that the removal of legal aid and of the right of appeal removed a
“valuable legal check on decision-making within the Home Office despite no obvious signs that the quality of decisions had improved”.
That lack of vital checks and balances was a strong factor in the Windrush crisis.
A system that sets people up to fail, coupled with the removal of checks and balances, has caused the wrong people—some of them British citizens—to be caught up in the hostile environment. On top of that, there is no evidence that any of those policies achieve their apparent aims. The chief inspector of borders and immigration said that the right-to-rent scheme
“had yet to demonstrate its worth as a tool to encourage immigration compliance, with the Home Office failing to coordinate, maximise or even measure effectively its use, while at the same time doing little to address the concerns of stakeholders.”
The Government’s approach to visitor visas is part of a refusal culture and a punitive hostile environment, which work against people who want to come to the UK, against British citizens who want to maintain family ties and against our country’s best interests. The chief inspector of borders and immigration and the Home Affairs Committee—independent bodies that spend significant time and resources investigating the Home Office—are united in saying that the effectiveness of the hostile environment has not been proved, and the Government have consistently ignored legitimate concerns that it hits the wrong people.
We clearly need to re-examine the visitor visa system and immediately reinstate appeals. It took too long for Ministers to realise the extent and devastation of the Windrush crisis. We need proper checks and balances to avoid a repeat of that scandal.
It is, as ever, a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dame Cheryl, and I congratulate the Chair of the Petitions Committee, the hon. Member for Warrington North (Helen Jones), on introducing this important debate.
I thank Members for their contributions and echo the comments of the hon. Member for Bristol West (Thangam Debbonaire) on the work of not only Members’ caseworkers, but UK Visas and Immigration decision makers. I think everyone in the Chamber would agree that their job is not easy.
I am not going to pretend that we at the Home Office always get things right. Although I am not in a position to comment on the individual cases that hon. Members raised, it is of course perfectly true that, both as a constituency Member and as Immigration Minister, I see cases where mistakes have been made. I am painfully conscious of the human impact of those mistakes—the missed graduation ceremonies, births and marriages at which families had wished to come together and celebrate, and the occasions when families had wished to come together to mourn. I know how difficult those situations are.
I do not wish to come across from the outset as unsympathetic, but I am going to point out the scale of visitor visa applications and of the visa and immigration service more generally, and the rate and average speed at which visas are granted. In the year to December 2017, UKVI received just over 3 million visa applications globally, of which 2.7 million were granted. Some 2.1 million visitor visas were granted last year—an increase of 10% on the previous year. The average processing time for a non-settlement visa globally was less than eight days. Some 97% of non-settlement visa applications were decided within the standard processing time of 15 working days.
[Stewart Hosie in the Chair]
It is important to reflect that UKVI works hard and at scale to process the number of visas it processes. It is completely incorrect and misleading to suggest that visa decisions are based on nationality bias. All applications are and must be considered on their individual merits and in line with the immigration rules, regardless of the nationality of the applicant.
The Government of course welcome genuine visitors to the UK. We want people to come here on holiday and to visit family, to study and do business here. It is a key Home Office goal that, as well as keeping the country safe, we should contribute to the prosperity of the United Kingdom. In 2016, more than 38 million people visited the UK. Those visitors in combination spent more than £22.5 billion. VisitBritain forecasts that in 2018 we will welcome close to 42 million visitors, who are projected to spend almost £27 billion. More specifically, the Government recognise the importance of family ties. Families should be able to spend quality time together, take part in important family events and build strong connections.
The Minister is generous in giving way. Will she clarify something? I think she said that in 2017, 2.1 million visitor visas were granted, each in less than eight days. Is that figure for family visitor visas or for visitor visas, full stop? If the latter, does she know how many were family visitor visas? There are aspects specific to those visas.
The hon. Lady is correct to pick that up. I was specific in what I said, which was that, in total, 2.1 million visitor visas were granted. I do not have the number for family visitor visas in front of me, but I am happy to write to her after the debate with that.
The petitions we are discussing focus on visitor visas, and I will begin by setting out why we must have them. The first duty of the Government is to keep citizens safe and the country secure, and visas are one of the effective means we have in that regard. They are a good tool for reducing illegal immigration, tackling organised crime and protecting our national security.
Nationals of some non-European economic area countries need a visa to visit the UK. However, the requirements that must be met are the same for everyone whether there is a visa requirement or not. All applications, whether lodged at a visa application centre or at the UK border, are assessed case by case according to individual merits and against the part of the immigration rules that relates to why someone is coming to the UK. Visitor visas are available with validities of six months, two years, five years and 10 years, which allows those wishing to visit the UK regularly or at short notice to do so without having to apply for a new visa each time they wish to travel.
The Minister is being terribly generous in giving way, but I must press her. The debate is specifically about family visitor visas, which are for a specific group of people whom the Home Office often seems to suspect will stay on because they are family visitors. That is not the same as general visitor visas.
If the hon. Lady will be a little generous with her patience, I will come to the point of the three petitions we are considering. I did think it important to give a little context to begin with.
I am absolutely committed to ensuring that the UK visa service is high performing, customer focused and continually improving—that last point is important—in terms of both products available and the route to apply for them. There is always room to improve and—as we respond to evolving demands and requirements, harness new technology and reflect customer experiences and needs—we have a good story to tell.
As I said, 99% of non-settlement applications were processed within 15 days and the average processing time last year was just under eight days. Overall, customer satisfaction remains high. Comparisons are not straightforward, but we continue to believe that our visa service stands up well against key competitor countries. Having said that, I accept that we occasionally make mistakes, and I will address that later.
We continue to innovate, and our mission to deliver world-class customer service is informed by customer insight. For example, Access UK, a new intuitive online application service, has been successfully rolled out. Within the next few months, almost all customers worldwide will be able to apply for their new visa, visa extension or change of visa type via the new digital platform. UKVI also offers premium services, which mean that a visit visa can typically be processed in five days, and in some locations there is a super-premium service.
I am pleased that the hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Afzal Khan) referred to e-visas. I have much enthusiasm for the introduction of electronic travel authorisations, which I very much hope to see when the immigration Bill is introduced. Perhaps I might be able to look forward to his support on that.
The immigration rules set out the requirements to visit the UK, usually for up to six months. They apply to all visitors, and all applications are considered on their merits, regardless of the nationality of the applicant. Visitors must satisfy the decision maker that they are genuine visitors to the UK, that what they are coming to do here is allowed and that they will not work or access public funds. The decision maker looks at all aspects of an individual’s application and makes a credibility assessment against the immigration rules on the balance of probabilities.
I turn to the petitions, which call for a new visa category for parents of British citizens similar to that in Canada, automatic approval of visitor visas for families of British citizens and British citizens to be able to appeal the refusal of a family visitor visa. I shall address each in turn.
The Canadian super visa permits the parents or grandparents of a Canadian citizen or permanent resident of Canada to visit for up to two years, rather than for six months at a time as is usual. There are additional eligibility requirements, including minimum income thresholds, financial sponsorship guarantees from the family in Canada, Canadian medical insurance policies and medical examinations. Facts about applicants’ ties to their home country, as well as the overall economic and political stability of that country, are considered.
The UK’s long-held position is that visitors are those individuals who, in the vast majority of cases, come to the UK for a maximum of six months. We do not consider being in the UK for two years at a time as temporary or visiting, and therefore we do not intend to adopt a model like that of Canada. To do so, thereby allowing a select group of people to remain in the UK for two years as visitors, would mean that important considerations against the immigration rules would not be applied consistently, which could raise equality concerns.
Visitor visas are available with long validities, which means that people do not have to apply for a new visa each time they want to visit. Additional services are also available that reduce the processing time if, for example, people need to travel urgently. Long-term routes for family members are available; I will address them later.
The next petition calls for automatic approval of visas for family members of British citizens. Automatically approving visas rather undermines the benefits that the visa system gives us in border security. Visas are an effective tool for the UK in reducing illegal immigration, tackling organised crime and protecting national security. Automatically approving visas for a select group of people without consistent consideration could also lead to discrimination against people who do not have family members settled in the UK, but have just as valid a reason for wishing to visit. There would also be a danger of additional complexity in the assessment process around how someone confirmed that they were the family member of a British citizen. Unintended consequences could make the application process longer, more difficult and costly for everyone, due to the resources needed to undertake any additional verification that may be required.
The vast majority of visitor visa applications made are granted. Last year, the figure stood at 90%. That equates to more than 2 million visitor visas issued last year, which is an increase of 10% on the previous year. Those statistics mean little to those who do not get the visa they have applied for, especially if they feel that a mistake has been made in processing the application.
The hon. Gentleman asks an interesting question, but it is important that visa applications are considered consistently wherever the individual comes from in the world and whether they have family here or not. When we are seeking to attract visitors to the UK, we do not wish to discriminate against people who do not have family members here, which he pointed out was important.
That brings me to the third petition, on appeals. As we heard earlier, family visitor appeals were removed by the Crime and Courts Act 2013. At that point, no other type of entry clearance application, including those involving work or study in the UK, carried a full right of appeal in the event of refusal. The wide-ranging appeals reform introduced by the Immigration Act 2014 means that rights of appeal are now available only in cases involving asylum or humanitarian protection, human rights or rights under EU law. Where someone makes an application for a visitor visa and that application is refused, they will be provided with reasons for that refusal. It is open to those who have been refused to make a fresh application in which they can address any reasons given for the previous refusal.
There are practical reasons why a new application is a better approach than an appeal, both generally and for the individual visitor. Before the removal of the appeal right, such appeals accounted for about a third of all immigration appeals and, because of the volume of such cases in the system, they could take up to eight months to be concluded. Asylum appeals and other appeals on fundamental rights issues were therefore also delayed.
By the time the appeal had been determined, the circumstances might well have changed. For example, a document relevant to the application may have been found. There was also the possibility that the family event for which the visa was needed had already taken place, in which case the visitor, the person being visited and the appeal system—everyone—lost out. By contrast, the service standard for straightforward non-settlement visa applications is 99% processed within 15 days.
I do not think it is fair to say we are asking for an appeal right instead of the ability to put in a second application; it is about having the choice. If there is urgency about it, someone can make a second application. However, if they receive two or three refusals, surely the only way they will ever be able to challenge that is through an appeal.
Speed is important, but also when someone receives a refusal the reasons are given and can be addressed in a fresh application.
The removal of the right of appeal for family visitor visas was regarded as a proportionate measure to ensure that a right of appeal was available in the most significant and complex cases and that another avenue—that of making a new application taking into account the reasons for refusal—was available in visitor visa cases. However, I accept that sometimes mistakes are made and I take the distress caused very seriously. I reassure hon. Members that if a customer is unhappy with any aspect of the service they receive, there are routes to provide feedback, request a refund or lodge a complaint. Those are all made clear in the communications that go out to customers at every point of their application. Locally, teams rigorously interrogate complaints data and respond to arising issues.
I reassure Members that the Government are absolutely committed to welcoming genuine visitors to the UK. I take seriously my duty to balance border security and the priority of having a high-performing, customer-focused and continually improving visa service.
I thank all those who have spoken today, for despite what the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald) kindly said, I am not an expert on the subject of the debate. In fact, the only family in my constituency that I can think of, currently, who have someone abroad are called Lingard—but I think we will let Jesse back in.
It is important that Members have spoken about individual cases. We have heard a record of poor and inconsistent decision making and failure to read documents properly. I am sorry that the Minister is not taking that on board as she should. It is not possible always to get things right in any visa system, but there are systemic problems that affect British residents, taxpayers and citizens.
We have raised the individual cases not in the expectation that the Minister will comment on them—of course she cannot—but to illustrate the problems. In her response, she confused visitors to this country with those who need visas. They are not the same thing, as we all know. She needs to take the problems with visas for families more seriously. The mistakes are not occasional. They happen frequently, as we have heard, and cause distress to people in this country who are denied contact with their families. The vast majority of people the Committee has heard from are respectable, decent British citizens who simply want to have contact with their families. That is not a big ask.
I am sorry that the Minister does not seem to see the problems, and that she does not see that there is a problem in having no appeal system. That reduces the incentive to get things right first time. It means people do not learn from mistakes because, as has been said, there is no feedback loop. I am sure that we shall return to this problem, because it affects many citizens of this country and causes them anxiety. I hope that, in time, the Home Office will recognise that and separate the issue of immigration from that of visitor visas. That is not happening now but it needs to happen fairly urgently.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered e-petitions 206568, 210497 and 201416 relating to family visitor visas.