Tuesday 4 September 2018
[Mr Philip Hollobone in the Chair]
British Citizenship Fees: Children
I beg to move,
That this House has considered fees for registering children as British citizens.
It is good to see you in the Chair, Mr Hollobone. I trust that you are feeling suitably refreshed after the summer recess. What better way to start the new term than by seeking to ensure that all children entitled to British citizenship can access it and not be prevented from doing so by an exorbitant Home Office fee?
I thank colleagues from the different political parties who supported the debate application, the Backbench Business Committee for granting the debate, and everyone who has come along to support it. I also thank the 69 MPs, from every political party in the House of Commons, who have signed early-day motion 1262. Finally, I thank all the campaigning organisations that have been working incredibly hard, including the Children’s Society, Coram Children’s Legal Centre, Let Us Learn, the Project for the Registration of Children as British Citizens—PRCBC—and Amnesty International.
What we all seek is utterly reasonable and a very modest proposal. All we are asking the Home Office to do is to put in place a charging regime for registering children as British citizens that is fair and that allows them to access their right to citizenship, rather than one that leaves them to seek various forms of costly and precarious immigration status and sometimes with no status at all.
The hon. Gentleman may have seen that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has announced that he has asked for a review. Does the hon. Gentleman have an idea of what might come of that?
I hope good things come of the review, but I suspect that the Minister will be in a better position to provide us with answers.
We seek a system that reflects what Parliament intended when it passed the British Nationality Act 1981—that is, a system that makes it easy for kids with the requisite close connections to Britain to exercise their right to British citizenship, not one that makes money out of them by charging what the Home Secretary himself has described as a “huge” sum of money in order to fund other Home Office work. That is the case in a nutshell. In the remainder of my contribution, I plan to look at what Parliament intended for these children when it passed the legislation in 1981 and then to make the case that what the Home Office has put in place undermines rather than implements those intentions.
In 1983, Parliament scrapped the laws that meant that being born in the United Kingdom was in itself enough to make a person British. As well as being born in Britain, a person now also needs to have a parent who is settled or a UK citizen at the time of their birth. That was an understandable step. Many countries, although not all, have done the same. In a world in which people can live in several countries over their lifetime, place of birth is not necessarily the best way to identify a person’s true home country—the country that the person is most closely connected to and that should take them under its wing. However, in taking that step, Parliament was careful and mindful of the fact that it did not want to leave significant numbers of children for whom Britain is home deprived of that citizenship and the protections, security and stability that the anchor of citizenship can provide, which is precisely why it enacted provisions on registration.
British-born kids who were not automatically British at birth are allowed to register as British if they lived in the UK for the first 10 years of their life; either parent settles or becomes British before the kid turns 18; or if the kid was stateless at birth and lived for five continuous years in this country. Citizenship is their right. There is no discretion for the Home Secretary, although the 1981 Act rightly retained a discretion for the Home Secretary to allow other children to register, including those who came here at an early age and are to all intents and purposes British.
We could one day have a different debate on whether the rules are precisely the right ones and whether they draw the lines in the right place, but I think nobody could disagree that this type of rule was essential. The policy reasons behind them were quite right. In ending jus soli or citizenship by birthplace alone, it was vital to ensure that the thousands of kids for whom Britain was and is home should still enjoy that citizenship. The simple fact is that, by setting exorbitant fees, the Home Office is to all intents and purposes undermining Parliament’s intentions. Too many children cannot access citizenship because the Home Office charges what the Home Secretary has acknowledged is a “huge amount” of money.
When the British Nationality Act came into force in 1983, the fee set for registration applications was £30. In today’s money, that is almost exactly £100. For a quarter of a century, the fee simply represented the administrative cost of processing an application, but from 2007 the Home Office started charging more than the administrative cost. Accelerated increases mean that we have reached the “huge amount” of just over £1,000. The Home Office estimates the cost of processing an application to be £340, so it is creaming off £672 every time a child seeks to access their entitlement to citizenship.
It does my soul good to hear a member of the Scottish National party speak in such praise of British citizenship. I concur with that, but the hon. Gentleman is making a very good point. Compared with the cost in other countries—for example, the fee is £250 in Germany, £500 in the United States, £160 in Australia and £300 in Canada—the costs in our country are far too high.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his intervention—I shall be very happy to champion the cause of British citizenship for the next few years at least. He makes the absolutely valid point that, on the basis of international comparisons, the amount that we charge children is exorbitant. It does not compare well at all.
The Project for the Registration of Children as British Citizens has done fantastic work in challenging the Home Office fees on behalf of kids and even in helping to secure financial support from generous donors willing to help kids to achieve citizenship through donations, although it is outrageous that kids should have to look to charity to secure their citizenship. That organisation is fantastically well placed to speak about the impact on British kids of being denied formal British citizenship. The kids grow up blissfully unaware that they are not, unlike their peers, British citizens. They do not realise that until they cannot join their peers on a school trip abroad or they apply for university and suddenly are faced with paying overseas fees. Without British citizenship—they are just like the Windrush generation in a sense—these children are made subject to immigration control and potentially the hostile or compliant environment, which means that they run the risk of being refused access to healthcare, employment, education, social assistance and housing. There is even the possibility of being detained, removed from and excluded from their own country altogether. In fact, that was mentioned in the most recent report by Stephen Shaw.
The PRCBC has provided a number of case studies—I suspect that hon. Members have access to them—highlighting individual stories. I will mention just one. May was brought to the UK when she was two months old and she has never left the country. She was first taken into care when aged five. A full care order was made later. She should have been registered as a British citizen under section 3 of the British Nationality Act while she was in care, but she was not, and she lost the opportunity when she turned 18. May gave birth to Heather and was later granted indefinite leave to remain, but Heather was not born British, because at the time of her birth her mother was neither British nor settled. Heather now has an entitlement to register as British under section 1 of the 1981 Act because of the settled status that her mother subsequently acquired, but her mother simply cannot afford the £1,012 fee to register her daughter as British. Heather was born and brought up in Britain. She knows no other country. She is to all intents and purposes British. She is entitled to British citizenship—she should not be required to pay more than £1,000 to access that entitlement—and cannot access it.
Tens of thousands of British-born children face similar issues. Surely that is contrary to the Government’s duty to safeguard and promote the welfare of children and to the requirement that children’s best interests be a primary consideration in all actions concerning them.
I congratulate my fellow member of the Select Committee on Home Affairs on bringing up this very important issue. Is he aware of two things? First, the very expensive fees for all sorts of visa and citizenship arrangements in this country are having repercussions. For example, I have just had to pay out £465 for my daughter to study for a few months in Brazil—that form of visa is most expensive for UK citizens. Secondly, does he agree that, far from the Home Office making a substantial profit out of vulnerable children, there should be no fee at all in the case of children in the care system?
The hon. Gentleman has been a champion of this cause on the Home Affairs Committee. I agree that there should be no fee for children who have been in the care system. The early-day motion that I tabled referred to that and I will address it momentarily.
The Minister met me and representatives from PRCBC and Amnesty to hear our arguments. I am grateful that she was willing to listen. I want to address some of the arguments the Home Office continues to use to justify the current fees regime.
First, the Home Office asserts that the fee reflects the benefit received by the child in being able to register. That totally misunderstands the situation. Parliament has decided that these kids should formally be British citizens—it was not a benevolent act of the Home Office. It is not any more legitimate to charge these citizens for the benefits they obtain as UK citizens than it would be to charge anyone in this room or our own children. It seems the Home Office is conflating registration with the naturalisation of adults who choose to make the UK their home and ask for citizenship. That is totally different. Registration was put in place to compensate or to fill some of the gaps left by the end of citizenship by place of birth. The Home Office is subverting Parliament’s clear intentions by making it impossible to access those rights.
Secondly, the Home Office states that citizenship is not necessary—people can apply for leave to remain instead, which is an astonishing argument. How many hon. Members would be willing to give up their British nationality and settle for applying for leave to remain? There is no equivalence and it is outrageous to suggest that there is. That is particularly the case given that some of the kids affected would face a hellish path to settlement, which the Minister seems to be suggesting is a suitable alternative. Those not born here would require multiple applications at a cost of several thousand pounds on top of the cost to their wellbeing caused by the insecurity and stress of such a situation. It is not acceptable to say to someone whom Parliament says should be considered a British citizen, “Never mind, you can apply for leave to remain in your own country.”
Thirdly, the Home Office argues that it is fair for those using the immigration and nationality system to pay a contribution towards the broader costs of the immigration and nationality system, so that British taxpayers more generally do not have to. In some circumstances, I accept that that is true, but not here. The sum of money is not fair. As we have heard, it is huge and prohibitive, and we are talking about children. More fundamentally, these children are not migrants who chose to come in, but people entitled to citizenship. They were either born here or came here and grew up here without having had a choice.
I have a young constituent who has been refused citizenship after applying and her family paying that £1,012, despite the fact that her father is Scottish, she was born in Scotland and she has never lived anywhere else. Does my hon. Friend agree—developing the points he has been making—that it is difficult not to see this as profiteering by the UK Government to fund their hostile policies?
I absolutely agree that it is profiteering. The Home Office tends to deny it is profiteering because it spends the money elsewhere, but the fact that profits are reinvested does not mean that they are not profits in the first place. It is outrageous to take the approach that the Home Office is suggesting. It is also contradictory, because it is saying that kids entitled to British citizenship should pay more so that other British citizens get to pay less. Both groups are British citizens. There is equivalence between them. The Home Office argument almost suggests that one form of citizenship is superior to another.
In conclusion, the Home Secretary has to all intents and purposes deprived far too many kids of their right in law to register as British by setting a fee for registering citizenship, which he has described as,
“a huge amount of money to ask children to pay”.
There are not even any fee waivers for those kids brought up in care, never mind a broader opportunity to apply for a reduction where the fee is unaffordable.
I have been approached by the London Borough of Hounslow, which has a large number of people who were born all over the world. The local authority has many children in care whose parents were not born in the UK, so they have to apply for British citizenship. The local authority has to pay this extortionate fee, which means tens of thousands of pounds coming out of the children’s services budget, which is already terribly overstretched. The lead member and the officers have told me that they resent their overstretched budget being used to subsidise national Government. Does the hon. Gentleman agree with them that it is unacceptable?
I agree entirely. It makes no sense. In short, I am asking—I think most hon. Members are asking—that the cost of the application be no more in any case than the administrative cost to the Home Office; that where there is an inability to meet the financial cost, there should be the opportunity to apply for a fee waiver; and that no fee should be applied in instances such as the one the hon. Lady suggested—when children are in the care system.
In conclusion, if the Prime Minister is serious about remedying “burning injustices” and if the Home Secretary genuinely wants a fairer system of fees, this is a clear and obvious place to start. I hope the Home Office and the Immigration Minister look at this again.
Order. The debate can last until 1 pm. I am obliged to call the Front-Bench spokespeople no later than 12.27 pm. There will be 10 minutes for the SNP, 10 minutes for Her Majesty’s Opposition and 10 minutes for the Minister. If the Minister would be kind enough to leave three minutes for Mr McDonald to sum up at the end, that would be great. There are four or five Members seeking to speak and we have until 12.27 pm for contributions.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald) on securing this debate, which allows us to contribute to the ongoing dialogue about our immigration system. We both serve on the Home Affairs Committee, as the hon. Gentleman mentioned. I know that he has pursued this issue with great vigour. He only confirmed what he is asking for in the last few sentences of his speech. The early-day motion that he tabled, which has received cross-party support, speaks about the cost being prohibitive. I think he has now confirmed that his proposal would be for the cost to be roughly £400, rather than £1,000. The early-day motion also mentions that some people are simply
“unaware of the requirement to register”.
Perhaps the hon. Gentleman would say more in summing up, but I am not sure what more can be done to improve people’s knowledge, to ensure that they know they have to register for these entitlements, as British citizens. I think that was missing from his remarks. I know why he focused on the financial element, but if awareness is a problem, it is important that we discuss that.
There has been a lot of debate about our immigration system in recent months. For most people coming to make a life for themselves in this country, the immigration system will be their first interaction with our Government. For others, such as children who have been brought here by their parents, it is a gateway to making a life for themselves in a country that we are all proud to call home. It is vital, therefore, that the system is fair and efficient and always has people—not abstract policies—at its heart.
I understand many of the concerns that have been raised. When children are brought to this country, it is often because their parents have decided to move here. For many of them, their life in the UK is the only one they have ever known. We have a long history of welcoming, as children, people who go on to make exceptional contributions to British life, science and culture, and who are as British as you or I. I want that to continue to be the case.
It is right, however, that those who benefit from our immigration system are, where they can, the ones who pay for it. As the hon. Gentleman alluded to, he believes they should pay the cost recovery. Let us not forget that citizenship fees are not something new. They were introduced, not by this Government, but as far back as 2004, to ensure that the cost of running the immigration system is borne by those who stand to gain most from it, not the British taxpayer. This concept is not exceptional, nor is it out of line with international comparisons. Almost every country in the world charges a fee to cover the cost of becoming a citizen.
A big part of this debate has been the level at which those fees are set. I want to make it clear that fees should never be prohibitive and if they have climbed too high, too fast, I hope the Minister will take cognisance of that and look carefully at this issue. However, as the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East said, the Home Office believes that the fees cover much more than the cost of the application, as they contribute towards the running of the wider system and towards the benefits that newly naturalised people stand to receive as citizens. Yet, as I have said, it is important that the fees do not become so high that citizenship becomes an option only available to the wealthy.
It should also be said that applying for citizenship is a choice. This brings us back to the issue of fairness, as people who choose to become British citizens should pay to support that system. If we were to deny non-citizens certain benefits that accompany citizenship, I would better understand some of the concerns that exist around this argument. However, a child with indefinite leave to remain will have access to benefits and entitlements, as does someone with full citizenship. What is more, local authorities have a duty of care for all children in need, regardless of their status.
At the heart of our immigration system, there needs to be a focus on people. Everyone comes to this country with their own unique story to tell and we must ensure that our immigration system can handle people’s different circumstances. That is why it is absolutely right for the Government to waive citizenship fees for children in certain circumstances, as they already do, including for children who are victims of slavery or abuse, who are asylum applicants, or who are being looked after by a local authority. That is exactly the sort of flexible, personal approach that we need throughout our immigration system, to ensure that we do not turn our back on the most vulnerable people who come to this country to seek sanctuary.
I accept, as I think all hon. Members from across the political divide would, that no system is ever perfect, and the arguments that we have heard today have shown that in relation to the fees that children are being charged. I know that the Minister is an extremely capable member of the Government and that she understands the points that have been highlighted today; I also welcome the fact that she embarked on a review of this system over the summer. I look forward to hearing the findings of that review.
I hope that if changes are made, two key features will be recognised, which should be at the core of immigration policy. The first is fairness, both to the taxpayer and to immigrants; and the second is flexibility, so that unique circumstances are recognised and so that nobody who has a right to citizenship is ever deterred by prohibitive costs from seeking it.
Thank you, Mr Hollobone, for calling me to speak—it is an honour to speak under your chairmanship—and I congratulate the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald) on securing this debate.
For nearly six months, Parliament has been forced to confront the many personal tragedies that have been caused by the Windrush fiasco. Every one of us should be worried when British citizens can be quietly removed from the bottom of a list, refused their rights and healthcare, and thrown out of their jobs and houses after a lifetime of hard work, during which they have paid their taxes and national insurance. Many of us have constituents to whom some if not all of these things have happened.
Some of us also have ex-constituents who have already been deported from this country without trial. These people are British citizens who have been forced out of our country by a combination of the ruthless inefficiency of the Home Office and the hostile environment that discriminates not only against those born in any other country but even against those born in this country to British citizens who have moved here from abroad.
Both Houses of Parliament are rightly shocked that these things have happened to the Windrush generation, but a large part of the reason that the Windrush generation was treated so unjustly was that the systems that we have make it complicated and expensive for some people to establish their British citizenship. If an adult is applying for British citizenship as a privilege, then by all means let us expect them at least to cover the cost of their doing so. However, if someone has a statutory right to British citizenship, we have a responsibility to ensure that they receive the rights and the treatment that go with that citizenship. We should do everything in our power to ensure that such people are properly registered and are not inadvertently discriminated against.
One of the most blatant, indeed gratuitous, ways that we can discriminate against the children of immigrants is to charge them exorbitant sums for going through a process that we require them to go through—a process that in a truly equal and non-discriminatory society they probably would not have to go through anyway.
The early-day motion that was tabled in May makes absolutely reasonable demands on the Home Office. As far as I can see, legislation is not required to implement it and it is the only way in which the immigration system can be made compatible with the spirt of the various promises about Windrush that have been made in the House. The Minister should not continue to review these issues; instead, she should move immediately to respond to the calls that were made in the early-day motion.
I am grateful for the opportunity to speak. I thank the Minister for attending this debate, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald) on securing it and on describing the current situation very well.
The consensus of opinion seems to be that we should look to the Minister for change. So far, everybody whom I have heard today—I presume that those who follow me will take a similar view—has said nothing other than that we have a system that appears to take advantage of many people financially. We believe that system must change.
I am very much of the opinion that it is the job of Government to provide a service for the good of the nation out of the reasonable taxes that are paid. I do not believe we are perfect in the way we collect taxes; I believe that members of the higher echelons, who can afford to pay a little more, manage to slip the noose. We rightly help those in lower-paid employment, and in the middle a growing number of people are now working in poverty; across the UK, there are 3 million people in working poverty who are just one pay check away from homelessness.
That is a part of the responsibility of tax; there is certainly an issue with how we are taxing the middle class beyond a level that they can bear. However, that is not the subject of today’s debate, although I will take this opportunity to highlight the fact that we need to learn lessons from placing excessive burdens on people, in any way that we can, including tightening up tax loopholes to prevent them from being used by big corporations.
Today’s debate focusses on the money raised by the fees charged to register children as British citizens, which is an issue I feel strongly about; indeed, it is the reason I am here in Westminster Hall today to support my friend and colleague, the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East, and others in what they are putting forward.
I do not expect any Government Department that is providing a service to non-British people to run at a loss. I also support those who call for non-British people to pay their NHS bills and I believe in a percentage of our GDP going to international development and aid; I support those policies entirely. However, there is a question as to how far our charity extends and I fully support a Department that makes charges to cover its costs.
However, that is not what is happening here, which is clearly quite different and clearly wrong. I hope that I have read something wrongly and that I will be corrected by the Minister—it costs approximately £372 in administration to process a registration, yet from 6 April we have been asking the very same people to pay £1,012. It is a long time since I did O-levels or GCSEs, but my mathematics is just as good now as it was back at that time; some people say that my mathematics is not very good at all, but that is by the way.
Nevertheless, I can still trust my maths ability enough to know that these increased fees simply do not add up; we do not have to be an expert in maths at any level to understand that. Why are we charging 2.72 times the amount of money that it costs to run the system? Why does it seem appropriate to make almost 200% profit on this type of transaction? If that happened anywhere else, we would refer that place to the necessary ombudsman for racketeering. Indeed, in Northern Ireland somebody doing this could expect a visit from the Police Service of Northern Ireland, who would seek an explanation regarding exactly what the person was up to.
There should be a compassionate element, as these children are in a vulnerable position and should be helped to make the final steps to become British citizens. However, profit of this magnitude does not speak to me of compassion, so the Minister will understand our frustration when we speak about these matters and understand what we are gently trying to put to her, as she is the Minister responsible for this issue.
The Library briefing that some of us received before the debate says:
“Analysis published on the Free Movement website puts the profit made by the Home Office in the past five years at £94.24 million.”
My goodness. It went on to say:
“The Home Office accepted the methodology of that analysis but disputes that the money made represents a profit as it helps to fund the visa and borders systems.”
The hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East referred to that in his speech. Although I clearly understand the rationale for that, the fact of the matter is that there is a fine line between good stewardship and exploitation. We have to look at what is happening here. Is it good stewardship or is it exploitation? I respectfully suggest to the Minister that it looks more like exploitation than good stewardship. The Department must seriously consider its position at this time. I understand that the immigration system loses money with each application that is returned to it and with each in-depth investigation that it makes. However, should two other applications be processed at the expense of a child’s application? I think not.
I am asking the Home Office to consider that point, and this debate gives me the opportunity to do just that. Personally, I believe that rather than giving children indefinite leave to remain, we should see these children—who do not even know their parents’ homeland—as British citizens and invest in them as British citizens, allowing them the absolute privilege of ticking the box marked “British citizen” and to consider themselves British—the greatest nationality label in the world.
Here in Westminster Hall today, we are all—all the parties that are represented—collectively saying that, too, and it is great that that is the case. I am overwhelmed by my hon. Friends and colleagues sitting on either side of me or in front of me who subscribe to the very same principle.
I draw the House’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests in relation to the support I receive in my office for work on immigration.
The hon. Gentleman refers to the indefinite leave to remain route, and he will be aware that until 2008 we had a special process, known as the children’s concession, for children who had lived in this country for seven years. Does he agree that if that were reinstated it might fast-track at least some of the children affected?
The hon. Lady brings, as always, wise words and suggestions to the debate. The Minister will have heard her call, which I, and indeed others, endorse, and perhaps that is a methodology whereby her Department might be able to take the matter forward.
We talk often of community integration and of ensuring that we do not create countries and allegiances within our country. I believe that a way of controlling this from the cradle is ensuring that these children can be proud of their original culture and their heritage yet be proud to be British citizens. That is the true definition of integration, in my mind and in the minds of many, and it is what should be encouraged, rather than keeping children who know no other life that the British one at arm’s length and as somewhat second-class citizens.
I welcome the Minister to her place. I have always found her very responsive and helpful in any matters I have brought to her attention, and I appreciate that. I hope that she accepts the consensus in the debate—what we collectively would like to see happen in the days ahead in relation to this request. I understand that bills must be paid and I expect non-nationals to pay their way, but we should not ask them to pay someone else’s way as well. That is why I ask for a reconsideration and a more equitable dividing of the fee.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Hollobone.
Week in, week out, at surgeries, I see the impact of the UK Government’s hostile environment on the lives of the people I represent, and one of the cruellest things about that is how it affects children whose parents either cannot work or are not allowed to work, and have no access to public funds. It is the children who lose out in those circumstances. If a child does not have citizenship they are subject to most of the same frustrating and arbitrary rules as adults, some examples of which I will discuss. The hostile environment aims to reduce immigration by making life in the UK so difficult for people that they simply give up and go back to their original country. Children, however, do not have that choice, and it is staggering that the Government put such high barriers in the way of children’s security and future prospects. The environment also limits children’s opportunities. I have had cases in my constituency of children in youth clubs or schools wanting to go on trips but not having the right under citizenship to do so. They cannot get a passport and cannot travel and are therefore missing out on educational opportunities from which they would benefit hugely. It is also cruel for them to see all their friends going away and not being allowed to participate on the same basis because their family cannot afford the fee.
The fee has escalated, mirroring the escalation in the adult fee, but this is an example of migrant children being treated the same as adults in a way that is borderline discrimination. We do not treat children who are British citizens exactly as we treat adults, so why the children of migrants? Children would struggle to get the money from their paper round, lemonade stall or any other means of fundraising. The Home Office is charging vulnerable children nearly three times the actual cost of the process. The children have a right in law to be registered as British citizens, as my hon. Friend the Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald) outlined, so making a profit is simply not acceptable. Charging children an excessive amount for something they are fully entitled to under the laws set by this Parliament is a policy the Home Office should be ashamed of. The Secretary of State’s obligation to provide the framework to enable the will of this Parliament in recognising citizenship is long overdue.
There is also discrimination regarding the Government’s intended charges for EU nationals’ settled status, for which there is recognition that adults and children should be treated differently—the fee will be £65 for adults and £32.50 for children. There is a whole lot of resentment among many communities that EU nationals are being charged a different fee from non-EU nationals, which is stoking up problems for the future, because non-EU nationals seeking citizenship for their children are asking, “Why do we have to pay more? Is our contribution not valued as much? Is what we have to offer this country not valued as much?” I urge the Minister to consider the huge disparity in the fees, because it is causing an awful lot of resentment in communities.
The impact assessment refers to the fee being set above the cost of administration to reflect the benefit that users get from the system of migration, but that is entirely the wrong attitude. The child is not having additional benefits conferred by the Secretary of State; they are having their pre-existing right recognised. Characterising what should be viewed as a recognition of a right as the provision of a privilege has allowed the Home Office to apply the fee extremely rigidly. It is currently payable regardless of the child’s situation and there is no practical discretion to waive it in exceptional circumstances. That means, as we heard earlier, that children in the care of a local authority still need to come up with the amount. The local authority can pay, effectively constituting a transfer from local government funds to the UK Government and removing money that would otherwise be spent on public services.
The hon. Lady raises the issue of fees under the new settled status scheme for EU nationals. Does she agree that applying the adult fee to those aged over 16 is completely incompatible with our understanding of what constitutes a child in every other legal context?
I agree. This system of immigration is beset with contradictions and unfairness, and really needs a root and branch review to ensure that everyone gets a fair deal—my experience at my surgeries is that everyone certainly does not. It is also a hugely expensive system, as we have heard. Perhaps parents will prioritise applying for their own citizenship so that they can work and provide an income for their children—children who are entitled but whose parents cannot afford to access that entitlement—therefore impinging on children’s other rights and other household needs. I see many families, particularly those affected by the paragraph 322.5 highly skilled migrants situation, getting into huge amounts of debt by paying for lawyers and going through a complex, expensive and lengthy process, while all the time not being able to work or claim any other entitlements. That is hugely damaging to children, who are growing up in poverty because the Home Office’s immigration policies and the way in which it goes about its business put those families at such a detriment for such a long time.
Does the hon. Lady agree that not only is it hugely expensive to operate this complex system for the people trying to apply, or those who ought to be able to apply, but that it is also extremely expensive for the authorities and, in particular, for local authorities, with families getting into terrible trouble and requiring social care and homelessness help they would not otherwise have needed?
I absolutely agree. A constituent of mine who is affected by the 332.5 situation is under threat of eviction and the Home Office cannot tell us when the review it has been promising us will conclude. In the meantime, the family is in limbo and I have to fight off the housing association that is trying to evict a mother and her children. That is absolutely appalling, and the lack of information is scandalous. It is high time the barriers were removed and the fees for children taken away, because they are a huge burden on families.
There is also an issue with the statistics. The power to use discretion was mentioned. I am not sure that we have the detail on the figures, and if the Minister provided that it would be incredibly useful. In response to written questions on children applying for British citizenship, the Secretary of State has stated that the figures can be found in the Home Office’s quarterly migration statistics. My office and I have looked at those statistics, and they do not contain disaggregated data regarding how many children are applying and how many are refused, and they contain no reasons for refusal. Indeed, the Home Office’s own statisticians say that they do not currently produce routine breakdowns of applications or refusals by applicants’ age. That obfuscation conceals the true value of the money that the Home Office gathers from the citizenship applications of children and how many children are stuck in the process.
On the good character requirement, which some of my constituents have had issues with, paying the fees and the associated legal costs and having a parent as a British citizen still does not guarantee that a child will be registered as a British citizen. Any child between the ages of 10 and 18 who applies for such registration is subjected to a good character test in exactly the same way as an adult. The decision regarding the test rests with a decision maker, guided by official guidelines and criteria, many of which are redacted. If a child has filled in their tax return promptly and has a clean driving licence, then any further decisions will be shrouded in mystery. That comes from the Home Office’s own guidelines on good character requirements and it should probably look at them because they are surreal. It makes no sense, and is hugely unfair, to treat often vulnerable children—children who have perhaps been through the care system or have got into trouble—in the same way as adults. The policy is arbitrary, not transparent enough and only serves as yet another barrier to the inclusion of children in society.
The potential of children is not to be found in this £1,012 fee. It should not be limited by that cost. We have no real route to citizenship in this country. We have a series of hurdles, barriers, loopholes and costs that cripple families in this country. Through the system, we are storing up problems with community cohesion, the creation of future Windrush situations and the lack of connection with children not afforded citizenship with the rest of society. They are set apart. They are not allowed the privileges that other children in their class are allowed. Does the issue sit within the Minister’s obligations under the UN convention on the rights of the child? Article 7 is the right to a nationality. If we are denying that right by creating barriers, are we fulfilling our duties under the convention?
Some jibes have been made about the Scottish National party defending British citizenship. We hope that some day we will have a Scottish citizenship, with an entitlement to fairness at its heart. We do not want to see people in terms of the fees we can charge them, but in terms of what they can contribute to our society and what they can enrich our society with. That is the core of all these things. People are coming to our country and being brought up in our country. If we choose to alienate them, rather than accepting them and nurturing them, we are storing up problems for society in the future.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. Like others, I congratulate the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald) on bringing this debate to the House. It will be an important contribution to the review that the Minister is undertaking, which I hope will come to the right conclusions.
I do not think this is a terribly complicated affair, and I do not need to give a long speech to spell out the rights and wrongs and the facts. The simple truth is that since 2010, the Government have chosen to double the fees charged in respect of these children. They have gone up from around £370 to north of £1,000. That has happened in the context of the hostile environment, which has been infamous in recent weeks and months. The increase is clearly designed to discourage people from coming to this country or registering as British citizens. Unfortunately, an element of profiteering has come about as a result. It is entirely unjustifiable that the Government should seek to make profits from the immigration system, and in particular from children passing through our immigration system, in this fashion. The net result is that we have perhaps as many as 60,000 children—I agree with Members that we should know precisely how many children are engaged in the process—placed in limbo.
Why does it matter that these children are unable to secure the British citizenship that is their right? We need look no further than the Windrush scandal to see that it is vital that the right documentation is in place so that the British citizenship these children are entitled to is secured for them. While it may be true, as the Prime Minister has said on a number of occasions in responding to criticism on this issue, that access to benefits and other aspects of our social security system will be afforded to these children if they have indefinite leave to remain, who is to say, looking back at how the Windrush scandal unfolded, that that will necessarily be the case in future? Who is to say that there will not be renewed hostile environments under any future Government? If these children do not go through the process of securing British citizenship, they may well find themselves in the awful, invidious position in which British citizens have found themselves following the Windrush scandal, where they are denied access to their rights and are potentially deported from this country because they do not have the right papers.
For all those reasons, I hope the Minister has listened to the heartfelt and sincerely held views of Members from all parts of the House on the wrongness of profiteering from children and of simply assuming that indefinite leave to remain is good enough for these British citizens. In responding, I hope she will recognise that this is another Windrush scandal in the making, unless something is done about it. The right thing to do is very simple: we should waive fees for children in the care system; we should have a system that allows fees to be exempted for carers or parents who are unable to afford the fees; and we should not be charging exorbitant fees. It is entirely legitimate for there to be some administrative charge, as happens in other countries around the world, but we have clearly gone far too far. We are clearly gouging profits from children who by right should be British citizens. I think that is a pretty simple argument, and I hope the Minister can respond to it positively.
As always, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I welcome everyone back; I hope all Members have had a restful recess. I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald) for securing today’s debate under the auspices of the Backbench Business Committee. I pay tribute to his work as immigration spokesperson for our party. It is difficult to sum up this debate, because normally he would be doing it. I would have said much of what he said. I also want to take a moment to congratulate the hon. Member for East Renfrewshire (Paul Masterton) on joining the Government. He is moving up to be a Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Minister, and I wish him well in that.
During the course of the debate, we have had no fewer than 11 Back-Bench contributions, including interventions from the hon. Members for Stirling (Stephen Kerr), for Henley (John Howell) and for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton), my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh North and Leith (Deidre Brock), and the hon. Members for Brentford and Isleworth (Ruth Cadbury) and for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green). They all made valid contributions. The point that the former Children’s Minister, the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham, made about people who have been in the care system was spot on, and I hope the Minister will take it away and look at it.
The hon. Member for Moray (Douglas Ross) spoke about the importance of fairness, and I hope the Minister will take that on board. The hon. Member for Ipswich (Sandy Martin) made a passionate speech about the dangers of having another Windrush scandal by continuing the hostile environment. He was absolutely right to raise that issue. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) spoke with his typical compassion, which we have heard so often in this Chamber. In particular, he spoke about the racketeering that the Government are pursuing.
My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss) spoke eloquently about her casework experience and the people she sees at her surgeries week in, week out. She also spoke of the chaos we see unfolding from the Home Office week in, week out. She was absolutely right to put that on record. She also voiced concerns about what happens when we take back control of our borders and when EU nationals are also subject to the fees. Finally, the hon. Member for Pontypridd (Owen Smith) spoke about not learning lessons from the Windrush scandal. If we do not get a grip on the issue, we may well see a repeat of that.
The SNP has a fairly strong track record of consistently calling on the British Government to end their self-styled hostile environment policy. We have been consistent in calling on them to scrap their nonsensical immigration targets and abolish the prohibitive fees. The bottom line is that the Home Office should not be profiteering from children who are simply exercising their legal rights. Only last week, I had the pleasure of visiting Eastbank Primary School in Shettleston, where some of the children were showing me their wall display about their campaign for children’s rights. It is a very topical issue for the Scottish Youth Parliament as well.
Young people are aware of their rights, but an estimated 120,000 children living in the UK have neither British citizenship nor immigration permissions to be here. Equally, more than half those children were born in the UK and are perfectly entitled to register as British citizens under the provisions of the British Nationality Act 1981. Many of these children would simply be exercising their rights by applying for British citizenship, but they are being actively prohibited from doing so because of blatant profiteering on the part of the British Government. The fee for children to apply for registration stands at more than £1,000, making the Government a healthy profit of £672 on every application, given the stated processing cost of just £386. Why is there such a large fee? More to the point, why has there been such a significant increase—some 148%—since 2014? When the Prime Minister took office in Downing Street, she spoke about helping the “just about managing”. When the Government are asking people to pay these exorbitant fees, it seems they have forgotten about the “just about managing”.
Quite rightly, the British Government have been hauled over the coals following the shocking revelations about what happened to the Windrush generation. It is clear that the Minister and the Home Secretary are trying their best to get a grip on that situation, but the harsh reality is that, as other hon. Members have said today, we face the prospect of a second Windrush generation if the British Government do not immediately commit to reviewing and changing what has become, frankly, a Whitehall racket when it comes to child citizenship fees.
The ideology of the hostile environment is certainly not something that I support. It has no place in Scotland. We want instead to be a welcoming, outward-looking nation, with a diverse and growing population fit to meet the changes and challenges of the 21st century. However, Home Office policies and dogma are actively hindering that, so if the British Government will not enact a reasonable, fair and pragmatic immigration system, Scotland stands ready to take on immigration powers by way of devolution. That is not just something that I and the SNP are calling for; it is backed by the Scottish Trades Union Congress and countless others across civic Scotland.
Does the hon. Gentleman accept that it is not backed by the vast majority of people in Scotland, who have been polled time and again and agree that Scotland should have the same immigration systems as the rest of the UK?
In short, no. We have to look at the challenges that Scotland faces. Over the summer recess I undertook a process called In Your Shoes and I worked in care homes. I spoke to the people who run the homes and they are absolutely terrified of what will happen in future with the workforce. If the Westminster Government continue to pursue the one-size-fits-all policy, pursued through an entirely London-centric lens, we will end up with a situation in which people in care homes say, “People will not come to work here because the UK Government have such a hostile immigration policy.” From a practical point of view, Scotland needs control over immigration.
I welcomed the comments made by the right hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) when he came to Scotland on one of his recent trips. He was sympathetic to the devolution to Scotland of aspects of immigration policy, and I hope that the hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Afzal Khan) might be able to offer a little more clarity on UK Labour’s position on the devolution of immigration powers when he sums up in a few moments.
In conclusion, we want the British Government to remove the profit element from applications that children make to the Home Office. We want an immediate commitment to not increase application fees for limited leave to remain beyond the current level for children and young people. Above all—this is my final message to the Minister—we want an immigration system that is fair and compassionate and puts people first, not profit.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I thank the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald) for securing this debate and also the other Members who have contributed. There appears to be a consensus that the amount charged is not acceptable.
As of April this year, the cost of registering a child for citizenship was £1,012—a 51% increase since 2014. There are no exemptions, waivers, reductions or refunds for the fees, even though the Secretary of State has the power to make provision for them. Such outrageously high fees mean that children from poor and low-income families are prevented from accessing their right to citizenship. Constantly increasing the price of an application makes it almost impossible to plan for future costs, and increases the chances of people losing status because they cannot afford the price. It is important to stress that the children would not be claiming anything. They are not paying for citizenship to be granted by the Government, but for their existing entitlement to citizenship to be recognised.
Speaking to the Home Affairs Select Committee, the Home Secretary said the fee is,
“a huge amount of money to ask children to pay for citizenship”.
He said he would
“get around to”
looking at fees. My first question to the Minister is: has anybody got around to looking at the issue yet? The aspect of fees that I personally have greatest difficulty with is the profit that the Home Office makes on the applications. Of the £1,012 that is charged, £372 is the cost of administration and almost two thirds is profit. The Free Movement website estimates that the Home Office has made nearly £100 million in profits over the past five years. Such profits are unjustified because it is far from clear where the profits go.
It used to be the case that additional charges on visa and citizenship application fees contributed to a migration impact fund, which had a direct and measurable impact on communities experiencing high levels of migration. One of the first things that the coalition Government did was to scrap that widely praised scheme. They have since introduced a controlling migration fund, which is less accountable and less directly measurable than the previous scheme.
The profits are also potentially unlawful. The Secretary of State has a duty to safeguard and promote the welfare of children and to act in children’s best interests. The high cost of fees is in conflict with that duty. The impact assessment for the latest fee increase makes no reference to children and protecting their rights. Protecting the welfare of children has become even more vital as the hostile environment extends to more and more aspects of everyday life. Many children do not even know that they need to register for citizenship until they are prevented from taking out loans and going to university, accessing the NHS, or even going on school trips.
The costs of citizenship are not only contained in the fees. Recently, a family in my constituency approached my office for help; they were at the end of their tether. They had already paid the enormous cost of citizenship for their child. They were then asked to pay for a DNA test, even though the Immigration Minister had said that that was not Home Office policy. The family had only a week to get all the information together. In the end the application was refused, and they had to pay for an appeal. In total they have paid £1,783, and they were not in the best financial circumstances to begin with.
The immense complexity of our immigration and nationality system and the lack of legal aid, coupled with constantly increasing fees, makes it very difficult to gain documentation as a young person in the UK. I want to touch on why it is important for young people to have citizenship rather than other forms of temporary or permanent leave. It is vital that children have certainty about their lives and future prospects. Registering citizenship ends a young person’s engagement with the laborious, complex and high-cost immigration process. It is also vital to a young person’s identity that we, as a country, recognise that they are British. Other forms of leave do not reflect the identity that the young person might feel very strongly in themselves. It can be humiliating for someone who has no other place to claim as their home not to have the ability to rent a property, get a job and open a bank account with the most obvious form of ID—a passport.
In conclusion, the Government are undertaking a lessons learned review of Windrush. An essential part of that is to make sure that such a disaster never happens again. We have a large population of undocumented citizens who are a ticking time bomb for another Windrush-like scandal. The issue should be treated with urgency. Will the Minister set out what steps she is taking to review fees for registering children as British citizens in the immediate future?
As ever, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald) on securing this debate. It will come as no surprise to anybody who knows his tenacity that he managed to bag the first slot in Westminster Hall after the summer recess. I thank all Members who participated—they made thoughtful and very good contributions. I also thank the many Members, not all of whom are in the Chamber, who have taken the time to write to me and express their views. I particularly thank the hon. Member for Pontypridd (Owen Smith) for his comments. He is absolutely right that people have been thoughtful in their contributions. However, he did cause some consternation on my side of the Chamber with his new beard, which has changed his appearance to such an extent that we were not quite sure who he was.
Before I respond to the specific points that have been raised, I will set out the current landscape for the fees that we charge for visa, immigration and nationality services. It is important to remind ourselves of the principles that were agreed with Parliament, and which bring significant benefits to the immigration system and everyone in the UK in the form of effective and secure border and immigration functions, reduced general taxation and economic growth.
Under the Immigration Act 2014, and the Asylum and Immigration (Treatment of Claimants, etc.) Act 2004 that preceded it, Parliament approved the principle of setting fees charged for visa, immigration and nationality services to reflect the benefits that they bring to successful applicants. Until 2015, all fees that were set at above the cost of providing the service, which included the charge for children to register as British citizens, were subject to affirmative debate in both Houses of Parliament. Under the 2014 Act, Parliament approved the principle of taking a range of additional factors into account, including wider immigration system costs, the promotion of economic growth, international agreements and international comparisons.
At the Council of Europe, we produced a strategy for the rights of children. It made the point that the system that had been developed for judicial hearings and activity in relation to adults was simply being imported to deal with children, and that that was fundamentally wrong. We are not the only country to do that—the whole of Europe was largely doing that. Does the Minister share that view?
I will turn to the rights of children in comments that I will make in response to other Members, so I will come to my hon. Friend’s point very shortly.
The framework of charging, and in particular the principle of setting fees to reflect benefits accruing from a successful application, has enabled us to reflect the value that people get from the services that they receive, with indefinite leave to remain and citizenship rightly being the two most valuable outcomes.
We are getting to the crux of the matter. Does the Minister accept that the statutory right to citizenship is completely different from an immigration application, indefinite leave to remain, or anything else? These kids have a right to citizenship. It is no more appropriate to charge them an extra fee to subsidise other parts of the immigration and nationality system than it would be to charge any of us a fee for our British nationality. It is a different thing altogether.
If the hon. Gentleman allows me to make some progress, I will turn to the points he made in his opening speech.
During 2017-18, about 64,000 people were granted indefinite leave to remain and 123,000 were granted citizenship. Of those granted citizenship, more than 28,000 were minor children who were registered and were related to a British citizen, or children granted citizenship on a discretionary basis. In all cases the applicants either paid the due fee or had that fee paid on their behalf, reflecting the value placed on permanent residence and citizenship in the UK.
The charging framework for visa and immigration services delivered £1.35 billion of income in the last financial year, 2017-18. That helped to fund more than £620 million of costs associated with other immigration system functions, helping to maintain their effectiveness and security, and investment in ongoing service improvement. Setting fees at above the cost of processing an application has also helped us to set some fees at below cost—for example, short-term visit visas, in recognition of the significant economic benefits that tourists and other visitors bring to the whole of the UK. The subsidy for the circa 2.5 million short-term visit visas issued each year costs in the region of £90 million per annum, which can be afforded only by setting a wide range of other fees.
Let me make one other obvious point: setting fees at the level that we do—putting the burden on those who benefit from the services—reduces the burden on the Exchequer and on the general taxpayers of this country. It is easy, particularly in opposition, to call for fees or taxes to be reduced, but a responsible Government must balance the books. The loss of income that would result from any reduction in fees would have to be made up elsewhere, and there have been rather fewer suggestions of how that might be achieved.
Turning to the nub of the issue, safeguarding the welfare of children has always been and will continue to be a priority for the Home Office that it takes very seriously, for the reasons raised by hon. Members. I am concerned by any suggestion that the current fee levels for child registration are putting children off from registering, or making it more difficult for those entitled to register to operate in our society when they reach adulthood. For that reason, I met the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East just before the summer recess. He was accompanied on that occasion by some of those involved in campaigning. I listened very carefully to what they said and undertook to reflect on the matter, which is exactly what I am doing.
The issue is also very much on the radar of my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary. A number of Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell), referred to the comments he made when he appeared before the Home Affairs Committee. I am sorry that I am not in a position to give a firm answer today, but that certainly does not mean that either the Home Secretary or I are ignoring the issue or have put it on the backburner.
I reassure the Opposition spokesman, the hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Afzal Khan), that we are working hard, but it is a complex issue and decisions cannot be taken in isolation. They must be taken in the round, taking into account any wider implications, for example on fees charged to other groups of applicants and the impact on the Home Office budget. I wholly rebut the suggestion that the Home Office is profiteering. In 2017-18, the total Home Office expenditure was £12.9 billion, which was funded by £10.5 billion from the Exchequer and £2.5 billion generated from income.
In due course, we will also need to consider the findings of the review into the borders, immigration and citizenship chargeable services by the Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration that will conclude later this year. I will update the House as soon as I am in a position to do so. In the meantime, the Home Office will continue to consider granting leave to remain to a child who has lived in the UK continuously for seven years, or to a young person who is over 18 but under 25 and has lived continuously in the UK for half of their life. Such leave gives the person concerned the right to live, study and work in the UK and the right, in appropriate circumstances, to receive benefits from public funds.
An application can be made to the Home Office for the fee to be waived when the applicant is making one of a set of specified human rights-based claims for leave to remain and when there are reasons why the applicant cannot meet the payment required. Those human rights-based claims include those that are relevant to a child who has been in the UK continuously for seven years. That will ensure that the Home Office meets its core requirements to safeguard children and ensure their welfare, but we are working on a proportionate response to the representations made on child citizenship fees and will announce the outcome as soon as practical.
Hon. Members have raised a number of points regarding young people who might be unaware of the requirement to register, and what specifically can be done to improve their knowledge of that. We are considering what more can be done using different channels. I am very conscious that, as Members have mentioned today, our immigration system can be complex, particularly for those who do not have experience or knowledge of it from the outset. It is important that we improve our processes and introduce online application systems that are intuitive and enable people to work through the parts of the process that apply to them and bypass those that do not. I am conscious that, as has been mentioned, young people perhaps do not go to gov.uk as a first port of call. We have to focus on what more we can do to better reach out to them through channels that they might use.
The hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss) raised a range of issues. At one point she sought to conflate British citizenship with the settled status process for EU citizens who are living in the UK that we have recently launched, and which is currently in its private beta testing mode. It is a crucial part of our commitment to EU citizens, and the fees for it were set in agreement with the EU. It is wrong to conflate EU settled status with British citizenship because many EU citizens might choose, both now and in the future, to apply for British citizenship in addition to their settled status.
The hon. Lady mentioned young people who might discover that they do not have the same ability to travel abroad as their classmates for school trips, which is important. The Home Office works closely with education authorities to help to establish length of residence and reaches out to schools and those organising school trips to make those applications possible. We are willing to work with other public bodies to help make those applications as easy as we can.
With the timescales of school trips and that of the citizenship and ILR processes, children apply and are still waiting after the school trip has been and gone and they have missed out. It seems very difficult to influence that process to be able to say that there is a school trip. All the Home Office will say in reply is, “That’s too bad. You should have known you were going on a school trip beforehand. Don’t book any travel ahead.” Does the Minister agree that that is unfair for young people who will miss out when all their classmates go away?
In my experience, I have not found school trips to be that spontaneous, particularly when they are abroad. Where Members find particular instances of young people who are seeking the ability to participate in school trips—I know many Members make representations on their behalf—I urge them to use the MP account management units, who can help. Of course, in extremis—we have seen Members use the technique very effectively—questions in the House and summoning me to account in Westminster Hall can work incredibly well.
The hon. Member for Glasgow East (David Linden), acting as spokesman for the Scottish National party, which is, as he said, a pretty brave shout with his hon. Friend, the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East sat behind him, referred to immigration policy as one-size-fits-all. Of course, we have a separate shortage occupation list for Scotland and, importantly, the Migration Advisory Committee has over the course of the last year or so been working on the impact of Brexit and labour movement both on a sectoral basis and regionally. That is very important work and I look forward to the report coming forward very shortly.
The Government have a one-size-fits-all approach. When the Minister gave evidence to the Scottish Affairs Committee, she said she would not grant to Scotland the powers she would not grant to Lincolnshire County Council, so it is quite clear that the Home Office does have a one-size-fits-all policy when it comes to UK immigration.
I refute that. The Government very clearly have a separate shortage occupation list for Scotland, which I would have made clear at the Scottish Affairs Committee and am doing again today. The Migration Advisory Committee has specifically looked at both sectors and at regions. We absolutely believe that immigration policy should be reserved and I will continue to hold that view. However, I used the opportunity of the parliamentary recess to travel widely—to Scotland, Northern Ireland and, just last week, to Wales—to hold roundtables with business people and to talk to them about the impact of Brexit on labour mobility and their expectations. All of that work is important to me and feeds into the forthcoming policy on immigration post Brexit.
I hope that I have reassured the hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton that we have got round to looking at this. He asked specific questions about safeguarding children and the impact assessment for immigration and nationality fees. The Home Office takes its responsibility for the welfare of children very seriously. We make sure that we treat children with care and compassion and that is an absolute priority. I want to make it clear to him that citizenship, unlike leave to remain, is not a necessary prerequisite to enable a person to remain in the UK and enjoy any of their convention rights. As such, the Home Office’s view is that there is no breach of the European convention on human rights in requiring a person to pay a fee for citizenship applications.
Will the Minister explain why it is appropriate that children should pay fees to subsidise a visitor who is coming to Britain for a short period?
I would very gently point the hon. Gentleman to the Immigration Act 2014, which gives us the ability to set fees. That has enabled us to look very carefully at the range of services provided by the borders, immigration and citizenship services and to make decisions accordingly. I am sure that he would agree that we want visitors to come to the UK to contribute to our economy. Particularly over the coming months and years, it is absolutely imperative that we make Britain an outward-looking, open country where visitors can come easily and help us to continue our sustained economic growth.
I am committed to reviewing our approach to setting fees for visa, immigration and nationality services, including taking account of the issues raised in this debate, the debate in the House of Lords in June and representations made to me elsewhere. As I have said, with fees from immigration and nationality services bringing in more than £1.3 billion of income per annum, which contributes significantly to our ability to afford and maintain a secure and effective border, decisions have to be taken in the round.
In the meantime, the Government remain entirely committed to maintaining the welfare of children who come into contact with the immigration system, ensuring that they are treated fairly and humanely. I am sure we will return to this issue, and that the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East will not let it go. As I have said, I have noted the strength of feeling expressed by all who have spoken today and I have given my word that I am giving active consideration and keen to see it brought to a resolution.
I start by thanking all hon. Members for their very thoughtful contributions. The debate has served a very useful purpose in making clear to the Home Office that there is a consensus that citizenship should not just be celebrated, but positively encouraged and facilitated. There is a pretty broad and deep consensus in the Chamber, as well as a concern that the Home Office is prioritising making a profit from applications over ensuring that all those who have a statutory right to register as British citizens can do so. The fact that the Home Office reinvests some of the income in subsidising visit visas, for example, does not disguise the fact that it is a profit. In fact, that we are asking British children to subsidise visit visas makes this all the more absurd.
In response to some of the Minister’s arguments, I would re-emphasise that I do not regard the immigration system and immigration rules as in any way an adequate substitute for citizenship. The hon. Member for Moray (Douglas Ross) rightly mentioned awareness raising, which is as much a part of this issue as the fee itself. There is work to do. It was interesting to hear the Minister’s remarks on that. Whether it be through local authorities, schools or the social care system, we have to ensure that everyone is aware of the need to register in some circumstances.
Ultimately, the Home Office is going wrong in trying to conflate citizenship with the immigration rules and the naturalisation processes for adults. They are different things. The hon. Member for Ipswich (Sandy Martin) nailed it: this is a statutory right. The source of these kids’ right to citizenship is exactly the same as that of our right to citizenship—it is the British Nationality Act. We would be absolutely outraged if we were to be charged £1,000 to subsidise visit visa application fees or any other aspect of the immigration and nationality system and it is just as outrageous that kids have been charged that massive fee as well. We pay a small administrative fee for a passport and we accept that an administrative fee might be appropriate for kids registering as British citizens—but it should not be anything beyond that.
I am grateful that the Minister is still listening. She is right that Members will continue to pursue the matter, but I very much look forward to hearing the result of her deliberations in due course. I very much hope that she will listen to the concerns that have been raised today.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered fees for registering children as British citizens.
Leaving the EU: Women’s Rights
I beg to move,
That this House has considered women’s rights after the UK leaves the EU.
As ever, Mr Hollobone, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. To start, I thank Gina Miller, and Nina, Tess and the other people from OFOC—Our Future Our Choice—who gave me the idea for this debate. Some of them are in the Public Gallery today.
On 23 June 2016, the UK took the landmark decision to exit the European Union by 52% to 48%. The pound immediately plummeted and, swiftly, there was a change of Prime Minister. Knowing what we know now, however, enacting Brexit will clearly not be as easy as we were promised. We were told that it would be a cinch, a doddle, a trade deal that would be the “easiest in…history”. It is also now coming to light that there will be a worse scenario for women—even though we now have a PM who is one.
Two years on from the decision, we still do not know exactly where we are headed in terms of the final deal. The Cabinet has suffered the high-level resignations of both the Brexit Secretary and the Foreign Secretary, and since 2015 a subject that never featured on a doorstep in my election campaign—that was never mentioned at all—has now become all that there is, taking up valuable parliamentary bandwidth. As the Minister—whom I respect and like very much—knows, we are meant to have a domestic violence Bill to consider soon, but this bloomin’ Brexit is taking up all the bandwidth. Brexit is all we ever see, and it dominates the airwaves.
We do know, however, that every Government impact study, for every region of the country and every sector of the economy, predicts that things will be worse. Above all, a multitude of factors add up to the inescapable conclusion that women will be the hardest-hit of all by Brexit.
In recent months we have heard admonitions from farming, finance and fisheries, but females have been largely absent from that picture, whether among the voices leading up to the decision—the human face of the campaign was Nigel Farage—or the negotiating teams that we see on the news, with the exception of the PM, of course. Olly Robbins is, sadly, not Olivia Robbins, but one of the men in suits. All we saw on the news yesterday was dark-suited chaps engaged in Tory blue-on-blue warfare—internal party-management issues that are destroying our country. That is a massive oversight, especially as when one drills down to the gendered nature of the effects of Brexit—we have all heard about lost jobs, cuts to services and a squeeze on family budgets—women have the most to lose.
The scant progress in negotiations means that, all this time on, more than two years in, zero trade deals have been secured to date, and the Chequers plan has been rejected by the EU—personified in another man, Michel Barnier—so “no deal” is now seriously being talked about. If that ever came to pass, or even if our desperation to avoid it led to a bad deal, the UK would be put in a weak position to resist pressure from other countries to go for scenarios that would damage women’s rights at work, adversely impact them as consumers or undermine the quality of public service standards. I shall outline a couple of examples.
In terms of economic impact—Bill Clinton said, “The economy, stupid”, but the remain campaign was critiqued for a lot of its economic doomsday scenarios—the fall in GDP will most adversely affect sectors such as clothing and textiles, which have a majority female workforce and are particularly vulnerable to increased trade barriers. Despite people voting in good faith for £350 million every week of additional money for the NHS post Brexit—that was plastered on the side of a big red bus—we now know that that will not happen. Instead, we face the prospect of opening up our NHS and other public services to overseas competition—that means grubby American health insurance companies getting their mitts on our NHS.
The health service relies on a workforce from overseas and we hear that nurses from EU nations are already leaving in droves—we have not even left yet. There is also the ticking demographic time bomb of a worsening crisis in social care. We constantly hear about that, and it is the biggest spend in any local authority budget. It is the UK’s lowest-paid sector, where 80% of workers are women, but it, too, is hollowing out as EU staffers go elsewhere or home. The profession is one that UK-born people eschew. In such a situation—some analysis came out last week—women always, sadly, bear the burden as unofficial carers. They care for elderly parents and, as the sandwich generation, care for their kids at one end and their parents at the other. If they are forced to cut corners at work or even to depart employment altogether to do that, we will have huge gaps in our labour market.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. She mentioned social care and the preponderance of women in the sector. Through membership of the EU, women have also gained rights to part-time and flexible working, which are particularly important to the 6.2 million women who work part time because they have caring responsibilities. Does she agree that there is a double whammy of social care workers leaving and women with social care responsibilities unable to have their rights protected?
I agree with my hon. Friend completely—she is also learned, as a distinguished lawyer for many years before she came to this place—and she makes a good point: it is not only the nature of the work, but the structuring of the contracts. Our party has argued against zero-hours contracts—we will ban such implementation malpractices—and things such as part-time working directives have kept such women afloat so, as she says, they are being hit twice over.
Consider plummeting GDP, which is likely to have the knock-on effect of further cuts to Government spending on services. We have a clever Conservative Government who have shifted a lot of the burden on to local government budgets, but women are more likely to work in the public sector and to need public services, so they are the worst affected. Analysis has shown that, as it is, austerity has hit women: I think 80% of the savings—a euphemism for cuts—has fallen on women.
Consider women as consumers: increased tariffs and a fall in the value of the pound will result in increased food prices, which hit the poorest hardest. Looking at wage differences, women are more likely to be poor and, like it or not, in the traditional family unit women are more likely to be bearing the burden of managing the household finances and shopping for food. I do not want to use horrible stereotypes—“Hi, honey, I’m home!”—but that is the case. We have already witnessed rising prices and things such as the shrinking size of the Toblerone bar—it is diminishing before our eyes, even though we have not yet left the EU. Potentially, we might also be subject to diluted standards, as we mirror US ones and get imported hormone-injected beef. Chlorinated chicken, anyone? Mmmm! All that is bad news.
Hard-won rights of maternity and paternity leave and, indeed, against pregnancy discrimination all came from the EU. We have no guarantee that we will uphold them or that we will mirror future advances. In 2017, the Women and Equalities Committee—a Conservative majority Select Committee, so not my words but theirs—did a report on “Ensuring strong equalities legislation after the EU exit”. The report stated:
“At present, domestic legislation and EU legal structures together provide the UK’s strong equality protections. Stakeholders have expressed concern that the removal of the EU legal underpinning, including the court system, will lead to a weakening of equality protection in the future unless its full effects are understood. It is therefore important for the Government, during the process of leaving the EU, to ensure that robust equality protection is embedded at each milestone. The Government should ensure that equality protections—including but not limited to workers’ rights—remain to the fore as negotiations begin and throughout the leaving process.”
That was in 2017. Since then, we have had a general election that took up eight weeks of valuable negotiating time, in a time-limited process set by the Government. But that report still should prevail. Will the Minister tell us how many of the report’s 15 recommendations have been adopted? I have heard nothing since.
We are at a crucial crossroads. The Secretary of State for the Environment said that we could theoretically opt to exceed the existing gender equality standards when we leave. The Government could do that—it is technically possible. The existing stuff we have via EU frameworks could be bettered. But the omens are not good, going by the previous form of Conservative Governments dating back to Mrs Thatcher’s dislike of the social chapter, and going by the Brexit Minister Lord Callanan’s criticism of the pregnant workers directive and the agency workers regulations, which my hon. Friend referred to. When he was an MEP, Lord Callanan called them “barriers to employment” and made a speech advocating that they be “scrapped”. It is all very googleable. Never let it be forgotten that the UK tried to block the EU’s pregnancy discrimination directive, but was overturned by the European Court of Justice.
Whether we exceed what is there or go backwards, it is unclear what the enforcement mechanisms would be. We are to cut ourselves off from the additional layer of accountability and recourse provided by the charter of fundamental rights, as the Government have vowed to end the ECJ’s direct jurisdiction. There is nothing to guarantee that gender equality law will not regress to below the UK’s current level. Even though it was a Labour Government, I am proud to say, who introduced the Equal Pay Act 1970 before we were a member of the EU, equal pay was one of the establishing principles of the original treaty of Rome in 1957. Indeed, the UK’s weaker home-grown provisions in the 1970 Act were significantly strengthened by signing up to the European Economic Community equal pay directive on joining, as that obliged employers to pay women and men equally for the first time. The Equal Pay Act did not do that—it merely gave women the right to make equal pay claims.
Sacrificing workplace rights on which women rely, such as parental leave, equal treatment and rights for part-time workers, at the altar of increased flexibility and “competitiveness” could be easily done. It is easy to knock the EU—our leader gave it seven out of 10, but who would say 10 out of 10? We know the arguments against unelected bureaucrats in Brussels, but it has a good record on various equality measures. It enacted violence against women directives and the blue badge scheme, which is a European arrangement for parking for those with reduced mobility that is transferable among nation states. As MPs, I am sure we have all been asked to countersign the paperwork. Mobility features to accommodate wheelchairs and buggies on buses—I have been on many a bus with a buggy—originated from the EU. Red tape and EU directives have made life easier for women, by introducing anti-harassment laws and properly paid holiday rights, reducing hours worked and making it illegal to be dismissed for pregnancy.
I have a set of questions for the Minister—who I am usually quite a fan of, for a Tory—and I hope she will give proper answers and not just a gloss-over. What discussions has she had with colleagues from the Department for Exiting the European Union to ensure that Brexit does not disproportionately harm women, rather than just taking the Prime Minister’s word for it? The fact that we have a woman at the top does not enshrine continuity. What assurances will the Minister give to ensure that there is sufficient female representation during the remainder of the negotiating process? There is eight months to go, and there is the possibility of an extended article 50 process—it is not too late.
What steps are the Government taking to ensure that equality rights are not diluted after the UK leaves the EU, as per the Women and Equalities Committee report? What arbitration mechanisms can the Minister and her DExEU colleagues offer as a guarantor to hold future Governments to account? Will she reconsider the gender-blind approach to Government policy making and commit, like Labour, to gender-audit every policy and ensure action is taken now to avert disaster, and apply that to the Brexit deal so that we can evaluate the impact on women’s equality and financial well-being?
Of course, women are people, and no Brexit scenario is a good scenario for anyone. Having entered the shady world of the reading room with the secret documents, I know that men, women and non-binary alike have all benefited from EU employment, environmental and consumer protections—things such as the European health insurance card, which entitles us to holiday healthcare, and the European arrest warrant, which protects us from criminals.
We will all suffer from the attempt to judderingly extricate ourselves unscathed from 40-plus years of progress, but women will most acutely feel the most adverse effects. Women also feature in the other block categories we hear about: EU nationals treated as collateral pawns in some sort of hostage situation, Brits abroad on the costa del wherever who will not be able to have their pensions paid into UK bank accounts. It is not only those people; the average Jo—that is not just Joseph but Josephine—suffers, too.
For both leavers and remainers, the opinion polls indicate widespread dissatisfaction at how it is going. Those who deem themselves to be satisfied are in single figures on every poll. Project fear has become project reality. Britain has slipped from the fifth-largest economy in the world to sixth, behind France. What a humiliation that we have been overtaken by those who Bart Simpson called the “cheese-eating surrender monkeys”.
Since 2016, new variables are coming to light all the time: customs arrangements for complex supply chains, rules of origin for car and aeroplane parts and the Northern Ireland border are all unresolved. More recently, we have heard of the contingency planning for no deal regarding food, medicines and fuel to be distributed by troops on the streets. That was never on the ballot paper. International firms are relocating European operations elsewhere: in the last week, Panasonic’s European headquarters went from Bracknell to Amsterdam and the London-based European Medicines Agency, which employs 900 people, has already upped sticks from Canary Wharf to the Netherlands. To add insult to injury, it is cutting Britain out of its contracts before we even leave, which is a body blow to pharmaceuticals.
With a £50 billion price tag of exit fees plus the Government’s undertaking to underwrite all structural and research funding, Brexit will not be cheap. In fact, it is unprecedented to leave an organisation that it took 12 years of negotiating to join in the first place, and which has potential applicants queuing around the block to get in. There are 27 of them and one of us. There is the prospect of returning to the dark ages—there are eight months to go and we are still in the dark about what happens next.
Surely, in order to make any decision, one should be in receipt of the full facts. People voted in good faith, but increasingly they believe what they are presented with is not what they thought they were getting. To resolve what Danny Dyer so memorably called the “mad riddle” of Brexit, a people’s vote is imperative. To validate the final deal must be a decision not just for 650 MPs, because we have a population of 60 million. Give that decision back to the people. The final say on whatever comes back from the negotiations—or on no deal if it comes to that—must be presented to the electorate, with an option to remain, because we know what that looks like. Now that is what I call the will of the people.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I thank the hon. Member for Ealing Central and Acton (Dr Huq) for calling this debate on a subject which she knows we both share a great deal of interest in and are passionate about: ensuring not just that the rights of women are protected but that we flourish in our country in future.
May I give the hon. Lady a slightly different perspective on the 2015 election? She may not have been asked about Europe in Ealing Central and Acton, but I promise her that that was a subject of constant conversation in Lincolnshire. As we saw in the referendum, perhaps different parts of the country took different views. I am grateful to her for taking us through the history of legislation to enhance the rights of workers, people with protected characteristics and so on, both before we joined the European Union and during our membership. I am committed to continuing that journey, and I know that the Prime Minister and the Government are too.
If the hon. Lady will forgive me, I will not be drawn into a re-enactment of the referendum debate—I suspect that will be to the relief of many people watching. However, I am delighted that she, I, the hon. Member for Cardiff Central (Jo Stevens) and my hon. Friend the Member for Faversham and Mid Kent (Helen Whately)—I congratulate her on being appointed as the Conservative party’s new vice-chair for women—and our other female colleagues can shape the law as it affects women in this country. My constituents in Louth and Horncastle voted strongly in favour of Brexit, and one of their key asks is that, in respecting the result of the referendum, we ensure that Parliament and our Supreme Court are sovereign in shaping and determining the laws under which we all live. That is the essence of the Government’s approach to reshaping our relationship with the EU as we withdraw.
Let me pick the hon. Member for Ealing Central and Acton up on chlorinated chicken. Given that my constituency feeds the country, I take a great interest in food standards and animal welfare. As a Back Bencher, I asked the Prime Minister—this was at Prime Minister’s Question Time soon after she was selected as Prime Minister—to ensure that we maintain food standards and animal welfare. She has been absolutely clear about that, and I hope that Members across the House can coalesce around those very good intentions.
Let me start with some essential reassurances. As the Government have said on numerous occasions—I hope the hon. Lady will forgive me for repeating this—there will be no reductions in protection under the Equality Acts of 2006 and 2010 and the equivalent provisions in Northern Ireland as a result of our exiting the European Union. She rightly asked about ensuring that every measure is gender audited as we leave the EU. The Government not only agree but have acted on that. Thanks to provisions in the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018, which we passed only a few months ago, every piece of EU exit law will include an equalities impact statement.
As a starting point, I hope that that demonstrates our commitment to these incredibly important issues. That commitment applies to all protected characteristics, including sex and gender reassignment, and in all fields covered by the Equality Act 2010: employment, the provision of services and the exercise of public functions, education, housing, transport and associations.
More broadly, our key EU exit White Paper notes:
“Existing workers’ rights enjoyed under EU law will continue to be available in UK law on the day of withdrawal. The UK already exceeds EU minimum standards in a number of areas…and is a leader in many others.”
I will come on to a couple of those in a moment. The White Paper continues:
“Given this strong record, and in the context of the UK’s vision for the future relationship with the EU, the UK proposes that the UK and the EU commit to the non-regression of labour standards.”
Not only are we setting out our stall, but we are setting out our expectation and hope that the EU will mirror our actions.
During the passage of the withdrawal Act, we also published a right-by-right analysis of the EU charter of fundamental rights. We ensured that that set out exhaustively and comprehensively how each right in the charter is covered by domestic or existing legislation.
Will the Minister explain why, in the so-called impact assessments that I read in the reading room, there is reference to the “opportunities” that leaving the European Union brings in relation to the working time directive? Those sound to me like opportunities to water it down.
I will ask the relevant Minister to write to the hon. Lady. We put EU law into domestic law through the EU withdrawal Act, which means that any debate about which EU laws apply and which do not will go through the House, so that will have the scrutiny of 650 Members of Parliament.
The Minister just said that any change would have to go through the House’s 650 Members. That is not strictly true is it? It is possible to do lots of things by statutory instrument.
I very much accept that point, which I thank the hon. Lady for making. As I said, I will not be drawn into the detail of that specific issue because I do not know whether primary legislation would be required to change that. In any event, statutory instruments are still open to scrutiny by the House, as I suspect we are all about to find out.
We are proud as a country to have long been a trailblazer on gender equality and tackling discrimination. Even after we joined the EU, Britain led the way on pre-empting protections that were later introduced through EU law, with legislation such as the Sex Discrimination Act 1975 and the Disability Discrimination Act 1995. We go beyond EU minimum standards in a number of areas, such as entitlement to annual leave, paid maternity leave and parental leave. We do not need to be part of the EU to have strong protections for workers or high standards in the workplace. We lead the world with our gender pay gap regulations. We would like the EU to follow our lead. For the first time, 10,500 businesses had to discuss at board level how they pay women. That groundbreaking work was led not by the EU but by the UK Government.
We are doing more to try to help women flourish in our economy and our society. It is not just through legislation that we can help advance the interests and participation of women across society. A record number of women are in work, which gives them the financial independence in their families and their home settings that we worry about so often in this place, ensuring that they can control the direction of their lives.
Of course, that does not affect our commitment to, for example, changing the personal tax allowance and higher-rate threshold, which means an estimated 700,000 women have been taken out of income tax altogether and 13 million women will see their income tax bill reduced. The hon. Member for Cardiff Central mentioned women’s income. Increases in the national minimum wage and the national living wage are expected to benefit more women than men. We have announced investment in childcare of around £6 billion every year by 2020—more than ever before—which will help women with their responsibilities in that field. We are encouraging employers to introduce flexible working, as well as trying to open up opportunities for women who perhaps left work because of caring responsibilities to get back into work and develop their careers.
At the other end of the spectrum, since 2010 we have strengthened the law on violence against women. We introduced new offences of domestic abuse and failing to protect a girl from female genital mutilation, and we want to do far more. I very much look forward to the introduction of the draft domestic abuse Bill this year. The Prime Minister herself set introducing the Modern Slavery Act 2015 as a personal priority. Sadly, in some parts of the world, women are trafficked to the UK or elsewhere to be used as sex slaves. All those measures have helped in the darker recesses of humanity. They are helping us improve the lot of women in this country. I look forward to tomorrow’s debate about upskirting, as well as to work on sexual harassment.
The hon. Member for Ealing Central and Acton asked me a number of questions. I have already mentioned the transparency of equality statements. I will write to her about the other matters. This is a Government run by a woman for women, and I look forward to women flourishing in the future of this country.
Question put and agreed to.
TOEIC Visa Cancellations
[Mr Adrian Bailey in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered TOEIC visa cancellations.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bailey. I place on record my enormous thanks to my right hon. Friend the Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms), who has put in a huge amount of hard work, not least in helping us to secure the debate. If he were not attending the Offensive Weapons Bill Committee, which unfortunately clashes, he would have been with us for the duration.
We are here to discuss Britain’s forgotten immigration scandal, which has seen thousands of international students wrongly deported and tens of thousands more left in limbo. Their lives have been plunged into chaos by a Government who have effectively branded them all cheats, defied the principles of natural justice and created a hostile environment for international students. In 2014, BBC’s “Panorama” uncovered evidence of widespread cheating at testing centres delivering the test of English for international communication—the TOEIC—on behalf of the Home Office for non-EEA students as part of the tier 4 visa. It discovered that, in some colleges, exam invigilators read the correct answers to students or supplied proxies to sit sections of the test. The provider administering the tests, Educational Testing Service, claimed that 33,725 people who took the test used a proxy, and it suspected a further 22,694 instances of fraud.
That abuse on such a scale was allowed to take place at a Home Office-approved provider was clearly a source of political embarrassment for the Government and the Home Secretary of the day, who is now our Prime Minister. When immigration system abuse goes unchecked and unchallenged, it undermines public confidence in the system and the Government responsible for it. When individuals are found to be cheating the system, it is right that their visas are cancelled and they are asked to leave the country. When providers are found to be failing in their responsibility to ensure that tests are fairly and properly delivered, it is right that they are removed from the list of approved providers.
Cheating cannot be condoned or excused—there is no disagreement about that. The Minister comes to this issue with a fresh pair of eyes, and therein lies an opportunity to reflect on what has gone wrong and put right a terrible injustice. What we have seen in the TOEIC scandal is a Home Office response so appalling that it was described by one immigration tribunal judge as
“so unfair and unreasonable as to amount to an abuse of power.”
The 22,694 students whose test results had been deemed questionable because ETS had “limited confidence” in the tests’ validity because of administrative irregularity were permitted to sit a new secure English language test. When the Minister responds, I hope she will tell us how many of those students were required to pay for those new tests and, crucially, what the outcomes of those tests were.
For those whose test results were deemed invalid by ETS, the Home Office relied on the assurances of an untrustworthy provider to presume the guilt of tens of thousands of international students without properly considering the merits of individual cases or giving those students an opportunity to defend their innocence. According to figures obtained by the House of Commons Library, by the end of September 2016—the last time the Home Office published any figures related to such cases—more than 35,870 visa holders had had their visas refused or curtailed on the basis of the TOEIC test. More than 3,600 of those had received an enforcement visit and more than 4,600 had been subjected to removal from the country.
I give way to my neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford South (Mike Gapes).
Like me, my hon. Friend has been contacted by constituents who have been subjected to this outrageous behaviour, so he will know that many people are distraught and have had their whole futures destroyed by these administrative measures. Is it not a fact that this a bigger scandal than Windrush in terms of the number of individuals removed from the country and whose livelihoods are being destroyed by anguish and despair? In many cases, they are labelled as cheats when they are not.
I am delighted that my hon. Friend could be here before returning to the main Chamber to consider the important matter of Brexit. I strongly agree and he is absolutely correct. The injustice is grave and the numbers affected are huge. This scandal should have been plastered on the front page of every national newspaper. It is bad enough that those students have been denied access to justice through appeal. They should have been given at least some sense of justice through the disinfectant of sunlight.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for securing the debate and for his work on this subject. I suspect that a number of Members in the Chamber have, like me, had a series of affected constituents approach them. Given the seriousness of what has happened in the Home Office in the past—never mind that the Minister is new to the subject—does he think that this new scandal merits a proper, thorough independent inquiry?
I strongly agree. In fact, when I come to describe the Home Office’s handling of this, we will see that an independent inquiry is necessary.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate and on his excellent speech. Does he agree that, as well as the incredible social injustice that has happened under this Government’s watch, the reputational impact that families have suffered, which has led to depression and affected whole families, including children, demands an extensive apology and potential compensation? Does he also agree that the huge cost to the taxpayer of enforcement action and otherwise should be investigated?
I strongly agree and will talk in some detail about those issues. The UK is highly regarded around the world as a country that has respect for the rule of law and an independent judiciary. It also has a Government who are supposed to respect that rule of law, but in too many cases I am afraid we have seen blanket decisions and people deported without an opportunity to defend their innocence. I believe the Government have acted unlawfully and I am afraid that this country’s reputation for respect, access to justice and upholding the rule of law is not warranted in this case.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. He said that this issue has not commanded the media attention of Windrush, yet the numbers of those directly affected in recent years are well in excess of that scandal, and it has been going on for at least four years now. Given that there has been a “Panorama” programme, a Sunday Times exposé and a Guardian report, does he have an opinion on why it has not commanded media attention like the Windrush scandal?
I am grateful for that intervention. There is some complexity—as I acknowledged, there is no doubt whatsoever that some cheating took place, which is clearly serious—but we must distinguish, and allow students to distinguish, between those who committed genuine wrongdoing and who deserve to be punished, and those who have been caught up in a scandal not of their making. That is the distinction I wish to draw in the debate, which the Home Office has failed to do. In the vast majority of cases, students were told that they had no right to appeal in the UK and that they should leave the country.
The experiences of students whose test results were deemed invalid by ETS varied considerably depending on when the Home Office took action and where those students were at the time. The hideous complexity I have alluded to is thrown into sharp relief by an excellent briefing by the National Union of Students, with the support of Bindmans. In some cases, it appears that the Home Office directed further and higher education institutions to withdraw students from their course of study and told students that they had 60 days to find a new sponsoring institution or to leave the country. Of course, having effectively been blacklisted by ETS and the Government, they invariably failed to do so. By handling cases in this way, the Home Office placed students outside the usual immigration processes without the right to appeal either in country or out of country.
That approach was found to be unlawful by the upper tribunal in the case of Mohibullah. The Minister should tell the House how many students fell into that category and what steps the Home Office has taken in light of the judgment in that case to contact other students who were similarly mistreated and, most importantly, to reassure the House that such an attempt to circumvent properly agreed immigration processes will never happen again.
Students who were outside the UK at the time of Home Office action, who received notices informing them of the allegations against them upon their return to the UK prior to 6 April 2015, were served with notices at airports and prevented from resuming their studies pending their appeal from within the UK. In some cases, students were subjected to interview and detention. For many students, that led to the end of their studies. However, the NUS,
“understands that in each and every case won by a student the Home Office appealed the outcome”.
The NUS also asserts that, where the appeals process led to a successful outcome for students,
“the Home Office has been slow to provide a remedy”
to the student concerned, effectively leaving them in “limbo”.
Is that right? Did the Home Office really drag every single case in this category through the upper tribunal and onward to the court of appeal? Perhaps the Minister can tell us how many cases we are talking about, how many appeals were successful and how much this lengthy process has cost the taxpayer. It is only reasonable to ask how long it takes, following the successful conclusion of an appeal, for the Home Office to ensure that successful appellants are given the right to remain in the UK.
For students who were in the UK at the time of Home Office action, their right to appeal varied according to when the action took place. From 6 April 2015, students were subjected to rules under the Immigration Act 2014, which removed the right to appeal, with only limited exceptions for human rights arguments deemed worthy by the Home Office. Prior to 6 April 2015, students were served with section 10 notices under the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999. Effectively branded cheats by Her Majesty’s Government, they were told to leave the UK immediately, and that they could only appeal from their country of origin. The students took their fight for an in-country appeal to the courts. In the case of Ahsan v. Secretary of State for the Home Department, the Court of Appeal ruled in favour of students’ right to appeal in the UK, finding that an out-of-country appeal was an inadequate legal remedy.
How much did that cost the taxpayer? How much of the UK taxpayer’s money has the Home Office wasted in trying to stop students gaining proper access to the appeal to which they are entitled? Schools in my constituency are sending begging letters to parents to meet the cost of basic materials. I have countless examples of people having to fight tooth and nail to get social care for their elderly parents. I have community policing that only exists on paper and in the speeches of politicians because the Home Office has cut police budgets; but apparently the Home Office has a bottomless pit when it comes to dragging international students through lengthy, costly and pointless legal action.
In response to a written parliamentary question from my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz), the Minister’s predecessor, the right hon. Member for Great Yarmouth (Brandon Lewis), claimed that he was unable to tell the House how much public money has been spent on court fees involving TOEIC cases,
“because Home Office data systems are unable to disaggregate costs”.
That tells us quite a lot about cost control and value for money deliberations in the Home Office. Ministers should know how much this has cost, and they should be accountable to taxpayers for it.
What we have seen through those cases has made it clear before the courts and tribunals that innocent students have been wrongly caught up in a scandal that was not of their making. I am enormously grateful to Garden Court Chambers for the thorough briefing it provided to hon. Members in advance of this debate, to give us some examples. When the scandal was exposed by “Panorama”, the Home Office’s response was to delegate the identification of those who used a proxy to ETS. The very organisation that had failed to properly oversee the test centres—the organisation the Government had deemed unworthy of Government accreditation—was none the less entirely trusted, it seems, to oversee this process.
You can see the logic.
Absolutely; it beggars belief. But do not worry, folks, because the Home Office ensured that two senior officials had oversight of the process. That was hugely reassuring—until, of course, those same Home Office officials responsible for supervising the process gave evidence before the president of the immigration tribunal, a senior High Court judge. His criticism was remarkable, and I am sure the House will indulge me while I read what he said in the course of judging that case. I will not name the officials, because they do not have the right to reply. The shambolic mess of the Home Office tells us that it is probably not their individual responsibility, and the judge said in the case of both those senior officials that they gave truthful evidence.
However, the judge also said that,
“this neither counterbalances nor diminishes the shortcomings in their testimony.”
“Neither witness has any qualifications or expertise, vocational or otherwise, in the scientific subject matter of these appeals, namely voice recognition technology and techniques…In making its decisions in individual cases, the Home Office was entirely dependent on the information provided by ETS. At a later stage viz from around June 2014 this dependency extended to what was reported by its delegation which went to the United States…ETS was the sole arbiter of the information disclosed and assertions made to the delegation. For its part, the delegation—unsurprisingly, given its lack of expertise—”
this is what the judge said—
“and indeed, the entirety of the Secretary of State’s officials and decision makers accepted uncritically everything reported by ETS.”
This is absolute amateur hour at the Home Office. How on earth, in a case of this nature, involving fraud and electronic tests, would someone at the Home Office—probably paid a significant amount of money at our expense—ensure that there was adequate expertise to properly judge, in life-changing decisions about individuals, whether the evidence presented was enough to deny them their right to study in the UK? It is outrageous; coupled with the fact that these people have in many cases been deported on the basis of this flimsy evidence, it is disgraceful. The whole process was also subjected to stinging criticisms by three independent experts, who gave evidence to the tribunal—again, before a senior High Court judge.
In evidence to the Home Affairs Committee, one of those experts, summarising the report of the three, said:
“We agreed that in any one testing session there could be a mix of genuine applicants and those who were paying for fraudulent results.”
He also said:
“It seems reasonable to conclude that the ‘ETS lists’ are not a reliable indicator of whether or not a student…cheated.”
Patrick Lewis, an immigration barrister with Garden Court Chambers, told the Financial Times:
“The highly questionable quality of the evidence upon which these accusations have been based and the lack of any effective judicial oversight have given rise to some of the greatest injustices”,
that he had,
“encountered in over 20 years of practice”.
In the case of one of my own constituents I have seen this gross injustice for myself. He is one of the students whose test results were deemed invalid by ETS. He had to fight tooth and nail to get basic details of the allegations against him. When he requested the audio clip that had been used to brand him a cheat, it was discovered that there were two tests associated with him—two tests, involving my constituent, that are meant to have taken place at precisely the same time. This student came to the UK having already completed the highly respected International English Language Testing System test with the British Council, yet we are supposed to believe that he felt it necessary to cheat his way through the TOEIC test.
The decision has thrown his life into chaos, which is how I arrived on this issue. He is unable to complete his studies and get on with his life. His mental health has suffered. He is worried about his reputation back home, fearful that he will be considered a cheat because that is what the British Government has determined on the basis of this shambolic process. The irony is that the reputations of innocent international students are in tatters because around the world the United Kingdom is respected as a beacon of democracy and the rule of law, but what we see here is an affront to the principles of natural justice, with innocent students removed from our country without first giving them an opportunity to respond to the allegations against them. It is a disgrace. It should never have happened. There should be not only a fulsome apology, but immediate action to put this right. The family, friends and community back home of my constituent should be in no doubt about his innocence. I have no doubt about his innocence, and if our Government think otherwise they should meet the burden of proof and demonstrate his guilt.
My constituent is not alone. A Migrant Voice report reveals just how devastating this scandal has been to the lives of the international students caught up in all this, and we have heard them speak here in this very Parliament. They came to the UK, at considerable cost to themselves and their families, with the hope of experiencing a good education in a country renowned for its world-class universities. They have been robbed of that opportunity. They have been denied access to work, spent all their savings, relied on handouts from their family and friends and racked up debts in the battle to clear their name in a David v. Goliath contest, with poor old David cobbling together what he can to fund his legal action and Goliath funded by the taxpayer to unnecessarily drag these students through the courts. They have lost their right to rent. Their relationships have been placed under considerable strain. They have suffered mental ill health, heart troubles, hyperthyroidism and other stress-related conditions. All they want is the chance to clear their name, complete their studies and get on with their life and career.
Universities UK today published an excellent report about the importance of the contribution that international students make to the UK, not just to the economy but to our culture, enriching the educational experience of everyone at our world-class universities. I wholly endorse what Universities UK says about making it easier for students who come to this country to gain work experience after they graduate. However, how can we possibly expect the Government to take up such sensible recommendations when they treat students who are already here in such a disgraceful way? Universities across the world—in North America and Australia—are going hell for leather to grab the UK’s coveted place in the international student market and the Home Office is allowing them to run riot, diminishing our standing in the world and our ability to attract the very best students.
The Home Office and ETS—the grubby contractor at the centre of this scandal—have serious questions to answer about their conduct in all this. It is clear that the Home Office is persisting with creating a hostile environment for international students, hoping that, by dragging it out for as long as possible, it will cause students to simply give up and go home. The judicial criticism of senior civil servants’ and the Home Office’s approach should be a source of professional embarrassment for everyone involved; it is a global embarrassment to our country.
Prior to the summer, my right hon. Friend the Member for East Ham asked the Minister, and then the Home Secretary, to ensure that students whose visas were cancelled for allegedly cheating in the TOEIC test be allowed to sit a new test to resume their studies. On both occasions he was informed that that was being carefully considered, and that advice was being sought.
In closing, I offer some advice. We are now four years on from the “Panorama” investigation, and the Government have had long enough. Let these students sit their tests. Let them clear their names. Let them get on with their lives.
Order. I intend to call the Front-Bench spokespeople at 5.30 pm. Simple mathematics demonstrates that the four Back-Bench Members who wish to speak should confine their remarks to eight or nine minutes each, which will allow each Member an adequate amount of time.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Bailey. I am pleased to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford North (Wes Streeting). I congratulate him not only on securing the debate but on his excellent introduction, which set the scene for why the debate is necessary. I join him in expressing appreciation of our right hon. Friend the Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms) and his role in making sure that the Government keep having to address questions on this issue.
I will speak briefly on behalf of several of my constituents who have emailed me and who have been living in limbo since 2014. They all have different issues. They have each experienced different reporting restrictions. One was detained at one point for eight days. They have been denied in-country appeals. They have all experienced stress, causing health pressures, and sometimes mental health pressures, which has extended to their families, who are uncertain about their futures and those of their children.
In addition, their inability to access the benefits system while simultaneously being refused a work permit is completely unfair. How are people expected to survive for years without access to work and if the Government are not allowing them to exist, given that the Government have decided to place them in such a position? This has been going on for four years. They risk being driven into the black economy and rely entirely on the charity of friends and family, with pressure then transferred on to the budgets, which are sometimes meagre, of those friends and family who try to look after people in this predicament.
The Library briefing was very helpful in explaining the background and the extensive and outrageous fraud exposed by “Panorama” and The Sunday Times. The cheats and the cheating obviously need to be addressed, and I entirely understand that the Government need to look at that, but it seems that, following those investigations and legal action, some Home Office responses have been questionable and even open to challenge. For example, the Library briefing says that
“the Home Office may have erroneously cancelled a significant number of visas”
and mistakenly deported thousands of people, as my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford North said, and that the Court of Appeal found that out-of-country appeals were not adequate.
I will be grateful if the Minister addresses those criticisms and challenges and, more importantly, if she gives us a timeline for when those outstanding decisions, as a result of parliamentary questions from my right hon. Friend the Member for East Ham, will be made. The Government clearly said that they are looking at these matters, but we are yet to hear a clear indication of when those decisions might be made.
My office has been contacted by a number of constituents who had their visas curtailed in 2014 and have since been denied permission to work and refused access to public funds. One told me that he could not complete his studies at Shakespeare College. A second told me that he was studying at the Chartered Institute of Management Accountants, spending his entire life savings to do so in an attempt to better his future. Instead he now lives in poverty, debt and uncertainty. A third was due to study business and marketing at Anglia Ruskin University in London. A fourth came to study business studies at the London School of Commerce in 2010. The Home Office curtailed his visa in 2014 and, since that cancellation, he has lost the £20,000 he paid for his studies and more than £15,000 in legal fees.
Some advocate an open-door immigration policy. I do not subscribe to that point of view. However, as my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford North outlined, our educational institutions are in the international marketplace trying to attract students. We want them to come here. We want their money. We want them to become friends of the UK, and if we need them for their skills and qualifications, we would hope to encourage them to stay. The least we want is for them to go home with a positive view of the United Kingdom. That is soft diplomacy in action and it will hopefully last.
We currently have the worst of all outcomes. Not only are people wrongly deported and denied basic liberties, they are also in limbo, with no hope, no means with which to live and/or provide for their families and no indication of when the Home Office will sort this out. There have been disagreements in Government for years about whether to count students in the immigration statistics, and this is partly a result of that indecision. It is surely time to get a grip, and I hope the Minister is the person to do so. I hope to hear positive comments from her on how the Home Office will sort out the decent people caught up in this mess and what it intends to do to help them and to allow them to get on with their lives.
It is good to be back here and speaking under your chairmanship, Mr Bailey. I hope hon. Members and all members of staff have had a fabulous holiday and have come back rested. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford North (Wes Streeting) on securing this debate. I echo his words about my right hon. Friend the Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms) and his valuable work on this campaign. I also pay tribute to Migrant Voice and, above all, those who have bravely spoken out about their experiences at the hands of the Home Office.
When the BBC aired the “Panorama” exposé about the test of English for international communications, the Home Office responded severely. It cancelled or refused visas for over 40,000 people in 2014 and 2015 alone. In a display of extraordinary cold bureaucracy—nowhere near natural justice—it prevented many of those students from appealing the decisions. Applicants were simply told that their claims were clearly unfounded. Cases were rushed through. The burden of proof fell on the defendants. The Home Office has admitted that much of the evidence against the students was “shaky”. These cases should have been reopened but were not. Like other hon. Members, I have been contacted again and again by constituents who have suffered utter humiliation because of this scandal. I want to give voice to a couple of those constituents’ stories today.
One man—I will call him Mr M—arrived in the UK in 2009. He undertook the International English Language Testing System exam before coming to the country, on which he scored a grade 6, which is defined as competent use of English. Mr M completed his undergraduate degree in business at the University of Sunderland and was pursuing his master’s degree when he was summoned by the head of the business school about the TOEIC allegations. He undertook a 45 minute interview with the head of the business school along with his student manager. They bizarrely concluded that his level of English was proficient—who would have thought it! They left him to continue his degree.
Despite that, later that year, Mr M had his visa revoked by the Home Office on the basis of alleged cheating in the TOEIC test. As a result, he suspended his studies. In the years since he has repeatedly tried to appeal the allegations against him without success. The university has claimed the rest of his tuition fees, though he is not yet permitted to study there. He has spent his parents’ money as well as his own fighting legal battles and is now dependent on his uncle to support him. He has no right to rent or to work. He has told me that he has considered suicide. Four years of this young life have been wasted fighting a complicated and damaging legal battle over a one-year course—it is a travesty.
Another constituent of mine—I will call him Mr S—has a similar story. He came to study in 2009. He completed an undergraduate and a masters degree in business, the latter from a college of the University of Wales. In 2014, Mr S’s student visa was extended to permit him to specialise through postgraduate studies in business skills for the social care sector at the London School of Technology. In 2015, without any warning, the Home Office cancelled his leave to remain on allegations of cheating in his TOEIC exam. Like Mr M, he struggled to appeal the decision, spending £20,000 over three years, slowly building up debts to family and friends all the while. For the last few years, he has attended the reporting centre every fortnight where he says he feels like a criminal. His relations with his family back home have been severely tested. They believe he won his degree through dishonesty. “Above all,” he says:
“I want our dignity back.”
Who can blame him? In both cases my constituents told me that they are yet to see a single shred of evidence against them.
Probably the most upsetting story I have heard so far is from a constituent who had completed his studies and was living with his British wife and child. They met while he was studying. He has been in the UK for almost 11 years. When the TOEIC revelations emerged, he was asked to sit a different test. After successfully completing a language test called English for Speakers of Other Languages—ESOL—his visa application was accepted. Despite that, one day he was dragged from his bed at 6 am. He was not given a chance to say goodbye to his wife and was detained for several days, unable to contact her. The Home Office justified this treatment on the basis that he had obtained his leave to remain through “deception”. His right to work has been suspended, he is speeding towards bankruptcy and he certainly has not got the money to pay for more proceedings. Like the others, he has had to borrow thousands of pounds from friends to pay legal fees. He now lives in constant fear of a knock on the door.
I could go on—I have a number of cases—but time is short. I am not the first to compare the dreadful mishandling of the TOEIC cases to the scandalous mistreatment of the Windrush generation. There are differences, but in both cases people have been separated from their families, detained and deported, their assets are stripped away and their sources of income removed. Some become homeless. In both cases, the blame falls squarely on the shoulders of the Home Office. Our constituents undertook tests run by the Educational Testing Service, a body approved and licenced by the Home Office. They should not be punished for doing something like that. It is shameful and unacceptable that this is going on.
My constituents and all of those affected by this treatment need to be retested fairly. At the very least they deserve an apology. This is an issue of justice and it is crucial for universities, our exports and our economy. International student numbers are now growing far faster in the US, Canada and Australia than here. It is easy see why. This is about our international reputation, how we are seen and how we see ourselves. The Home Secretary has been hesitant to express his support for migration targets. I hope that that shows us that change is coming.
Moving on by treating each group as an exception will not do. First Windrush, now TOEIC. Who is next? I have spoken before about trust. This Government’s hostile environment has destroyed trust for so many, especially in constituencies such as mine, where we are blessed with diverse communities, where our lives have been repeatedly enriched by migration. The Confederation of British Industry has recommended abolishing migration targets after Brexit, but this is about more than just business. It is about our fundamental values and justice.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford North (Wes Streeting) on securing this important debate. I reiterate the thanks to my right hon. Friend the Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms), who is not here, for all his work, and to the many others who have spoken passionately.
When I was on the Home Affairs Committee, we took evidence from many students. I was part of the evidence session when students came to give evidence about the impact this had on their lives. That impact continues. It is no laughing matter. One wonders what to do when one hears such raw evidence. We have just had the urgent question on Windrush. There appears to be a shadow hanging over the Home Office today. We have seen that for quite a while in relation to the hostile environment. At the end of my speech, I will ask some questions I hope the Minister can answer.
The hostile environment policy has extended to students. The Home Secretary has committed to move away from this shameful discrimination and has taken steps to offer remedy to the Windrush generation, which has suffered greatly. We are still waiting, however, for the Government to offer a concrete resolution to those unfairly affected by the TOEIC scandal. In many cases, the Government continue to fight judicially against individuals who have been accused. Financing such appeals brings to mind a bottomless pit, especially given what we have heard this week, which the shadow Home Secretary has responded to. Given the recent legal judgments that have lambasted the Government and ETS for failing to present any real evidence to support their actions, it is clear that many of those affected were treated unfairly, denied all natural justice and deemed guilty until proven innocent.
Some 56,000 students were accused of deception or potential deception while sitting the test—36,000 of them had action taken against them in one way or another by the Home Office, including the immediate cancellation of their visas. They were not given the evidence against them nor the chance to clear their name, and they received no help to survive legally in this country. They were simply told to go home.
To compound that appalling situation, many students were not even given the opportunity to contest the decision against them, even though they had been promised a chance to do so. The out-of-country appeal route that they were offered was effectively non-existent and it was certainly not robust enough to resolve the kind of issues that these individuals had endured. Many of them would not have been able to access the relevant evidence against them, so they could not be involved in the hearings or give evidence themselves due to the unsatisfactory nature of the process.
In truth, it would have been better for those accused to have faced criminal charges, because at least they would have been entitled to see the evidence against them and contest it. However, the Home Office simply cancelled their visas, forcing them to leave the country or live in poverty with the accusations against them hanging over their heads, with some people wanting to hang themselves.
As the Home Office was well aware, when a visa was cancelled because of alleged fraud it was impossible for those affected to travel to any other country to study or work. In effect, the Home Office is responsible for curtailing not only people’s immediate livelihoods but the whole future for themselves and their family, not just in the country they had come from and that they had to return to with their heads hung in shame after being accused of fraud and cheating, but in any other country—they could not go to another country because they had been defamed by our country and our Government. If visas were cancelled because of alleged fraud, it was impossible for those affected to travel to other countries to study or work.
We must remind ourselves at every stage of this debate that, based on the evidence available to us, potentially thousands of people who were here perfectly legally and who had followed the Home Office’s rules will have faced untold misery. The collective punishment approach of the Government has been shown for what it is—deeply toxic, unfair and unjust. It has potentially ruined the lives of thousands of individuals who acted according to the rules. They placed their trust in a Government-approved and Government-sanctioned test, and the response of the Government has been to treat them with contempt at every step of the process.
The Home Office has clearly been too eager to accept the analysis of the Educational Testing Service. There is clear evidence of mislabelling and misattributing the voice recordings to the wrong individual or the wrong test centre. When those recordings have been disclosed to an applicant, they have invariably turned out to be wrong, but there has been no system in place to allow for the cross-checking of tests.
Experts, including those employed by the Home Office itself, have highlighted a number of ways in which students could have been deceived by the test centres themselves and proxies used without their knowledge or involvement. In any other situation, this would make those students victims and not criminals, but the Government continue to disregard both the expert advice and judicial judgments. Instead, they rely on the evidence provided by the fraudulent test centres themselves to decide on the guilt of individual students. Those test centres had a monopoly on testing, which reminds me of the Carillion fiasco—the Government often seem to be involved in such fiascos.
This is a clearly flawed process that has turned lives upside down, but still the Government persist and still they rely on unreliable evidence. Has there been any real attempt by the Home Office to understand how many people have been unfairly accused? Do we know the number of people who are involved? I would be interested to hear the Minister say how many students were able to retake their tests and how many were deported.
Although we recognise that there was fraud within the system of Home Office certified tests and testing centres, we must also acknowledge that potentially thousands of innocent applicants had their lives ruined for doing nothing more serious than unwittingly choosing the wrong test centre, and they now have no way of remedying that accident of fate. Fate led them to this country. They and their parents might have spent years and years saving up money to send them to a British institution to receive a degree from one of our universities that would qualify them to work anywhere in the world with its British “brand” of authenticity. And yet Britain failed them.
What resolution are the Government prepared to offer those students? After failures in court, will the Government continue to fight these individuals, or are they at least willing to listen and try to find a solution? Will there be a pot of compensation money for those who have been proven to have been mistreated by this Government? Will the Government finally commit to allowing these individuals the tools they need to have a fair and just chance of clearing their name, or will they continue with a decision that was politically expedient due to its “hostile character”, which victimises those who may only be guilty of being in an unfortunate circumstance?
In conclusion, I have some questions for the Minister. First, did these numbers contribute to the targets that were set by the Home Office? The targets I am referring to relate to the resignation of a previous Home Secretary, the right hon. Member for Hastings and Rye (Amber Rudd). Secondly, will the Minister now take this opportunity to apologise for Home Office mistakes? Such an apology was rightly offered to the Windrush generation and one should be offered to these students, who have been affected by the Government’s failure, the Government’s monopoly and the Government’s unfairness.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bailey.
I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford North (Wes Streeting) on securing this debate, and I congratulate him and other colleagues who have covered many of the core issues that are important to this debate; I will try not to repeat all those excellent points, because they have already been made. I thank Migrant Voice for the briefing that it has provided for our debate today.
It strikes me that the TOEIC issue is yet another example of the hostile environment that has been created by the immigration section of the Home Office in recent years. It certainly affects many of my constituents. Like other Members who are here today, I represent constituents who come from many diaspora communities—some short-term and some long-term.
An urgent question on Windrush was asked in Parliament earlier today by the shadow Home Secretary. Other examples of the hostile environment include section 322(5) of the immigration rules; the removal of appeal rights for many applicants; the exorbitant cost of applications; and delays, often lasting years, in making decisions. Most worrying of all—I see this in my surgery week in, week out—are completely bizarre and arbitrary reasons for the refusal of perfectly reasonable applications to come here to visit or live, or for leave to remain, or for citizenship. It is a completely unacceptable environment, and it is not just about Windrush.
Immigration policies and processes must be fair and transparent; they should also benefit the UK and the countries that migrants come from. I want to give as an example one of my constituents; he is not a student, but he has still been hit by the TOEIC issue. Back in December 2012, he applied for a visa as a tier 1 entrepreneur migrant. It took a year for his application to be refused, and at that hearing in December 2013 he gave oral evidence in English, in the presence of a barrister from the Home Office and a judge of the first tier tribunal. Nobody at that hearing raised any concerns about his English language ability. The appeal was allowed at that time. My constituent—Mr A—waited for the implementation of that decision. He waited a year and three months, but he was refused on the basis that he had submitted a TOEIC test certificate that was cancelled by the Home Office.
My constituent, Mr A, had a partner in his entrepreneurial team, whom I will call Mr B, who was not a constituent of mine. The TOEIC certificate from Mr B was cancelled by the Home Office, but Mr B was given the opportunity to retake the English language test, whereas Mr A was not. Subsequently, Mr B had his application granted. Why, with two parallel applicants coming into the same situation to work together, was one refused the opportunity to retake the English test and one not? It is important to note that Mr A is competent in English, as in 2010 he passed the IELTS—international English Language testing system—exam in Pakistan, with a 5.5 band. Like other Members, I have met many of those affected, and all the people I have spoken to have been perfectly able to converse in very clear English. A simple remedy, in the case of any doubt, would be to allow them to retake the English test. I certainly have no doubt about the competency in English of those I have met who have been affected.
I written to the Home Office with a number of questions. Why does it not allow a retake of the test? Why does it take so long to get a reply, even after a case is won at the first tier tribunal? As Mr A applied for his visa in 2012 under the old category, why did the Home Office not just grant him an in-country right of appeal according to the law at that time?
My constituent is an entrepreneur, not a student, but there is an impact on all those affected: on students—not just on them personally but on universities—on families and on the UK’s reputation around the world. How does it affect a student’s personal reputation in their home country and community, especially in those areas that have particular respect for British ways and the British state—the Commonwealth countries—when they have to tell their family and community that the British Government have told them they have cheated? These are good people who want to study and work, to bring prosperity both to their own communities and countries and to Britain, yet they have effectively been condemned out of hand by a Government and a country for which they and their communities have deep respect. That is shattering the UK’s reputation as well as shattering lives.
In this country, life has become unbearable for those who have been refused on this basis and cannot study, work or rent—they often have their driving licences removed. They are caught between a rock and a hard place: do they stay here or go home in shame? If they stay they can continue to fight, and that is why we are speaking on their behalf today.
The Government should address a number of recommendations. One thing that I and others have said is: why not just offer a repeat, trustworthy English language test? We should clear the students’ names and remove what is, effectively, a criminal allegation against them. We should put an immediate stop to detention and deportation until a decision is made and a correct process is implemented, and issue clear instructions to universities to reinstate and readmit students and allow them to complete their studies without the need to resubmit costly financial and other evidence for a new visa. In future, universities should have the power to decide on student admissions, including the type of accredited or recognised English language test that is used. The Government should not have been involved in this process. Universities should develop their own processes, including using Skype or other technology to interview students before they leave their country, to ascertain their level of English. For non-student applicants, such as my constituent, there are other ways in which that can be done, but Skype is an obvious opportunity.
Other recommendations include issuing a students’ rights Bill to protect their rights in the event of a university shutting down or a test centre failing or closing, and changing students’ visa sponsorship, so that they get a visa to study for a particular UK university but can transfer it if they need or wish to move university. A recommendation that is relevant not just to this debate, but to many other debates in this place, is to remove students from the cap on net immigration. Those students who have been deported or have had to leave the UK should be given the opportunity to resit the test in their own country and to have their names removed from the allegation list, so that they can get on with their life, go back to studying, take up employment, develop their business and regain their dignity. Finally, students and others who were deported or who have left the UK should be allowed the option to return to complete their studies, their work and their entrepreneurial activity, following the above processes.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bailey. I would like to point out that I have a personal family interest, more of which I will mention later.
I am grateful to the hon. Member for Ilford North (Wes Streeting) for securing time for this important debate and for his excellent opening contribution. I am also grateful to Migrant Voice for its report entitled, “I want my future back”, and to the National Union of Students for its briefings, as well as the work of Mr Lewis from the Garden Court Chambers, all of which has been referenced by earlier speakers and which highlight the injustices and human costs of the situation. Perhaps those costs were best summed up by the hon. Member for Ilford North when he described the position of those affected as that of being in limbo.
We have heard from a range of speakers. The hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick), the hon. Member for West Ham (Lyn Brown), the hon. Member for Bradford West (Naz Shah) and the hon. Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Ruth Cadbury) all made excellent first-hand contributions regarding their constituents. Indeed, I think we are all coming from the same page.
I first encountered TOEIC cases shortly after I was elected in 2015, when I met a native English-speaking—I stress that point—constituent whose indefinite leave to remain application had been refused because he had sat an ETS test. I was disappointed by the Home Office’s handling of the case and by its handling of the process since, and I echo the calls of many Members for an independent inquiry.
I start by stating that it is absolutely clear and not in question that a number of individuals cheated. Such fraud must never be tolerated and those responsible should be prosecuted wherever possible. Given the failings of the US organisation, Educational Testing Service, the Home Office was correct to remove it from the list of approved TOEIC test providers. However, what is in question is the heavy-handed nature of the Government’s response to the cheating, with their revoking of at least 36,000 visas by the end of 2016 when recording stopped, and the estimates of thousands having been falsely accused and deported as a result. The impact on many of those affected has been devastating, with reputations ruined by the allegations of cheating, as well as severe financial hardship, family upheaval and ongoing distress. This is a clear example of the Tories’ hostile environment policy on immigration, and there are serious questions about the process the Home Office followed.
What I cannot understand is why individuals were not simply given the opportunity to redo a TOEIC test at the time, which would have avoided a lot of unnecessary cost and distress for many individuals. Indeed, the right to re-sit the test is a key recommendation made by Migrant Voice, and one that I endorse. I trust the Minister will address that in her summing up. At the very least, the Home Office should recognise applicants’ right to appeal from within the UK. According to research conducted by Migrant Voice, all those students it questioned stressed the unfairness of not even being given the chance to defend themselves and prove their innocence within the UK. None of the respondents was given an in-country appeal right, while the reality of conditions in the countries of many of the applicants would make it impossible for them to appeal. Most of the students affected are from Bangladesh, India and Pakistan, and I wonder what the lasting reputational damage to the UK will be. It can be no surprise—I think there is definitely a connection—that the number of student applications from India is barely a third of what is was before this situation arose.
Despite a Court of Appeal ruling, the Home Office continues to insist that applicants must appeal accusations of cheating from abroad via video link and forces them to leave the UK, which is unacceptable. If someone was accused of a criminal offence they would have their day in court with the right to see the evidence against them and the ability to defend themselves, and so should those affected by the TOEIC cancellations. It is a matter of natural justice.
Members might have met my partner, Nadia, who is a regular visitor to Parliament—she is here today—and has given evidence to the Home Affairs Committee. She is from India and was falsely accused of cheating having sat an ETS TOEIC test. She had her visa revoked as a result, even though she had never used the test to support her visa applications in the UK. She used the more detailed IELTS—she passed the test on two occasions. She had also qualified with a masters degree in information management in the UK, in English. That did not stop her from being accused and arrested. When she was interviewed by an immigration officer, he said that her English was as good as his. It might even be better than mine. She clearly understands English and speaks it well. She often corrects my grammar when she gets advance sight of my press releases and speeches. Unfortunately, the Hansard guys will have to do this one on their own.
Through Nadia, I have gained a real understanding of the personal impact this Home Office policy has had on those affected, and I have met many other victims. Like other speakers today, I have conversed with those affected, who have all done so in perfectly good English. I speak only English, so if they did not, I would not understand them. They have conveyed the trauma of living in fear of arrest and deportation with no way of supporting themselves financially. They have been living on the good grace of friends and relatives, suffering from stress and seeing relatives and loved ones overseas via Skype only. The situation has gone on for three or four years. They all have one simple wish: to clear their names and continue living without the stigma of these allegations.
One of the greatest areas of concern I have relates to the accuracy of the evidence relied upon by the Home Office when revoking visas. The hon. Member for Ilford North has already mentioned Patrick Lewis from Garden Court Chambers, who represented several of the affected claimants and overturned the Home Office’s ruling in each case. He said:
“The highly questionable quality of the evidence upon which these accusations have been based and the lack of any effective judicial oversight have given rise to some of the greatest injustices that I have encountered in over 20 years of practice.”
I would be grateful to hear from the Minister about what she plans to do to tackle that injustice.
The Migrant Voice report noted that:
“Some students were accused of cheating in a city or place they have never visited, or of taking the test on a date on which they did not take it. One student who has never ever taken the TOEIC test was among those accused.”
We know that the Home Office instructed ETS to use voice recognition software to check test recordings, but there is a serious credibility issue with the ETS evidence. ETS records for certain students are linked to the wrong test centre or the wrong date. The National Union of Students briefing that was sent to Members highlighted cases where those who had legitimately taken the test had had their recordings deleted. The briefing from Mr Lewis from Garden Court Chambers details the evidence experts gave to an immigration tribunal, and I noted that in every instance of fraud, test centre staff were involved. It seems bizarre that the Home Office continues to trust without question the evidence supplied from ETS while simultaneously having no confidence in ETS to run any future TOEIC tests. It would be far more reasonable to have no confidence in the evidence.
Too many innocents have been affected by the process. They have all suffered severe financial loss. For many, it is not just their own personal loss, but that of their families and members of their community. Even once their immigration status is resolved, they will face difficulty in rebuilding their lives. Imagine what a three or four-year gap in a CV looks like to a potential employer. That is what they face. Given the length of time the cases have taken, these people clearly should have the right to study and work until they are resolved. Fundamentally, everyone should have the ability to challenge the decision. Will the Minister spell out exactly what the Government plan to do to enable those wrongly accused in this process to have their names cleared? I hope the answer is re-testing and giving all applicants the right to appeal within the UK.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bailey. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford North (Wes Streeting) for opening the debate in such a powerful and forceful manner. I also thank all other Members who contributed.
The situation of TOEIC students has a long history. The original controversy came to light in 2014, when BBC’s “Panorama” uncovered an unacceptable situation of bogus colleges and fake tests through which people were illegitimately gaining UK visas. There was a crackdown, and the Government revoked or curtailed the visas of thousands of students. We have now reached a point where the pendulum has swung too far in the other direction. Thousands of innocent students have been victims of the crackdown. A prolonged and unnecessarily hostile legal fight with the Home Office has taken years to reach a settlement. The effect on innocent people caught up in the TOEIC scandal has been catastrophic and constitutes a grave injustice. The Government have not confirmed the numbers, but I have seen estimates that between 4,000 and 7,000 students have been falsely accused of faking their tests and deported.
Four years after the scandal, many students still have no resolution to their cases. For many, their mere presence in the UK was made unlawful. They have been subject to the hostile environment, stripped of the right to study, to work, to find accommodation and to access banking and NHS services. Because the charge is of having engaged in fraud, many students have felt compelled to stay in the UK to clear their names. They are unlikely to obtain entry clearance in the future without removing the charge from their record.
In 2016, the Home Affairs Committee heard from a witness who clearly said that they did not cheat on their English language test. They were arrested, their home was searched and they were taken to prison and made to wait 20 hours until somebody came and told them why they were even there. The combination of a traumatic event like that, followed by years of legal uncertainty over their status, has caused psychological and emotional damage, potentially to thousands.
The TOEIC scandal and the prolonged aftermath expose two wider problems in the Home Office. First, the appeals process is insufficient and is not conducive to swift justice. High fees, the stripping back of appeal rights, the lack of access to legal aid and the hostile environment combine to make it very difficult for people to seek justice and rectify wrong Home Office decisions. Initially, the TOEIC group was only allowed out-of-country appeals. It took a prolonged legal fight to establish that they should have the right to contest the decision in the UK. It is extremely difficult to launch an out-of-country appeal. The technology often does not work and any difficulties can result in a case being postponed for months.
The Financial Times featured the case of a man who emigrated to the UK from Bangladesh. His student visa was suspended over allegations he cheated on an English language test in 2014. He returned to Bangladesh and now faces a two-hour walk to the nearest place where he can use the internet to make an international telephone call. His case has been adjourned until December, leaving him with months of uncertainty before he can clear his name. He described his situation as follows:
“My future is being destroyed here, not only financially but morally”.
In the case of Ahsan, which was decided at the end of 2017, the judges ruled that students who had lived and studied in the UK for a number of years should not be summarily removed from the UK with only an out-of-country appeal. The NUS is aware of at least eight cases currently before the Court of Appeal that are due to be heard in November. Is the Minister aware of any ongoing cases where appellants are not allowed to be in the country? Will she confirm what the Home Office’s approach is to TOEIC appeals? Will the Home Office restore the rights of those appealing while their case is being decided?
The second issue that has been exposed by the TOEIC issue is the Home Office’s lack of a human face. Many of the students accused of cheating on their English language tests have never had the chance to speak directly to anybody at the Home Office about their case. Many of the students accused of cheating speak very good English. I heard of someone studying for a degree in English literature who was accused of cheating on their English language test. Why would someone possibly cheat when their vocabulary is wider than many MPs? Can the Minister tell us if those accused of cheating will have the chance to sit their tests again to prove that they can pass on their own?
Throughout the Windrush scandal, we heard calls for the return to a face-to-face approach in immigration. Lucy Moreton from the ISU, the union for borders, immigration and customs staff, said that face-to-face interviews with visa and immigration applicants vanished around 2014. That had a bearing on the Windrush scandal, and it clearly has had a bearing on TOEIC as well. As part of her review of Windrush, and of the Home Office’s handling of the TOEIC scandal, will the Minister commit to reintroducing a human face to the Home Office’s approach to visas and immigration?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bailey. I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Ilford North (Wes Streeting) on securing the debate, and all Members who have contributed. It would be remiss of me not to mention the right hon. Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms), who is detained elsewhere. In his absence, I thank him for his continued scrutiny of the issue, and for first raising TOEIC tests with me when I was a very new Immigration Minister indeed.
I value the contributions that have been made in the debate. I will begin by providing something of an overview, but I thank the hon. Members for Ilford North and for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick) for having set the scene quite clearly regarding what was certainly a very big scandal in terms of how the tests went so horribly wrong and became open to abuse and, in some cases, organised criminality.
English language testing for certain immigration purposes was first introduced in 2008. Since reforms in 2011, it has been a requirement for all student visa applicants to prove that they can speak English at an appropriate level. A number have used the qualification provided by the secure English language testing regime, and all private colleges are required to ensure that their sponsored students have a SELT qualification. Thus, individuals who wished to come to the UK to study, or to extend their leave to study, had to submit, where required, an English language test certificate from an approved company licensed by the Government.
Test centres operated on behalf of Educational Testing Services, or ETS as we have often heard it described this afternoon, were the subject of a BBC “Panorama” programme in February 2014 that aired footage of systematic cheating in examinations for the Test of English for International Communication—TOEIC—at a number of its UK test centres. Facilitated by organised criminals, it typically involved invigilators supplying, or even reading out, answers to entire exam rooms, or gangs of impostors being allowed to step into the exam candidates’ places to sit the test as proxy test-takers, and sitting speaking tests for candidates.
The Government, as one would expect and welcome, took immediate, robust action, which has been measured and proportionate. So far, 21 people have received criminal convictions for their role in the deception and have been sentenced to a total of 68 years’ imprisonment. Only two further live investigations remain.
Can the Minister tell the House whether ETS itself is still under criminal investigation? If not, will she take steps to ensure that ETS agrees to release any information reasonably requested by one of its student clients?
Unfortunately, I cannot provide a live update on criminal investigations, but I will write to the hon. Gentleman providing him with that information.
The majority of individuals linked to the fraud were sponsored by private colleges, not universities, many of which the Home Office had significant concerns about well before “Panorama”. Indeed, 400 colleges that had sponsored students linked to ETS had already had their licences revoked prior to 2014. ETS had its own licence to provide tests within the UK suspended in February 2014. That licence expired in April of the same year and ETS was removed from the immigration rules on 1 July 2014. Approximately 20% of the tests taken in the UK were provided by ETS prior to its suspension in February 2014.
Over the course of 2014, as we have heard, ETS systematically analysed all the tests taken in the UK dating back to 2011—some 58,458 tests. Analysis of the results identified 33,725 invalid results and 22,694 questionable results. People who used invalid ETS test certificates to obtain immigration leave have had action taken against them. Those with questionable results—more than 22,000 individuals—were given the chance to resit a test or attend an interview before any action was taken.
In appeals, we have sought to provide sufficient evidence to discharge the evidential burden of establishing that fraud was used to obtain a certificate from ETS. The courts have consistently found in our favour that our evidence for invalid cases is enough to act on and creates a reasonable suspicion of fraud. It is then for individuals, through either appeals or judicial reviews, to address that.
Before addressing some of the specific points raised, I add that the issues covered in today’s debate have been looked into very thoroughly by the Home Affairs Committee, which ran an inquiry in 2016. During that inquiry, Ministers and officials from the Home Office answered well over 100 specific questions, and those answers are still detailed on the Committee’s website.
Where we have made removal decisions against those with invalid certificates, we have ensured that any appeal against the decision is properly exercised after removal from the UK. Under the appeals regime that was in place in 2014, many of those who we believed to have committed fraud were given an out-of-country appeal. That had been the position since 2003. As a result of the Immigration Act 2014, there is now a right of appeal only where claims raising asylum, humanitarian protection or human rights issues are refused.
I have time for the Minister—I often find her speeches considered and reasonable—but I am struggling with what she is saying here. We know that there is a problem, and she is defending, it seems to me, taking people’s liberty away and threatening them with deportation, despite the fact that we know there is a problem with the process. I really want to hear an apology from her, and some understanding of just how unfair, unreasonable and unjust this has been.
I am moving on to some additional comments, but we have heard today repeatedly the use of the word “deportation”. Those who have followed this matter carefully will know that deportation happens only to foreign national offenders. Those who have been subject to removals have been removed from the country, not deported. There is a very clear difference between those two scenarios that the hon. Member for West Ham (Lyn Brown) may not agree with, but it happens to be a fact.
The action that the Home Office took was based on information from ETS, but it is incorrect to suggest that we relied exclusively and unquestioningly on the material that it provided. Yes, a senior delegation from the Home Office visited the USA in order to obtain a thorough understanding of the process, but following that, and fully considering the seriousness of the issues for the individuals concerned, we commissioned a further independent expert report from Professor Peter French, chairman of J P French Associates, the forensic speech and acoustics laboratory, and professor of forensic speech science at the University of York, into the reliability of the evidence.
That report, unlike the report produced as part of earlier legal proceedings and quoted extensively in recent coverage of ETS issues, was produced with the benefit of additional evidence about the specific systems that it used to verify matches. With the benefit of more information, Professor French specifically concluded that findings that the previous expert made around high error rates in other models are not
“transferable to the ETS testing”
and that the number of false matches would in fact be very small. He concluded that the triple-lock approach that ETS took was much more likely to give people the benefit of the doubt than falsely flag people as having cheated. The courts, at every level up to the Court of Appeal, have consistently said that that standard of evidence is sufficient to justify making an accusation of fraud. It is then up to an individual to establish an innocent explanation for their involvement, and they can challenge the finding, where applicable, through a judicial review.
A number of Members mentioned the case of Ahsan and out-of-country rights of appeal. That case was indeed heard at the Court of Appeal last year, but did not look at the evidence that the Home Office had relied on to establish that fraud had taken place. The narrow issue that the Court looked at in the Ahsan case was whether an out-of-country appeal would be an effective remedy to the accusation of fraud. It concluded that, in such cases where there was no mechanism for the individual to give oral evidence, that was unlikely to be the case.
Since then, the Home Office has put in place practical arrangements, including video conference links from overseas, to enable appellants to give live evidence at their appeal. Those overseas with outstanding appeals can apply to the tribunal that is hearing their appeal to indicate if they wish to give live evidence. It will then be for the tribunal to decide whether the arrangements that the Home Office can put in place are sufficient or whether it is necessary for the individual to return to the UK.
Does the Minister know how many people have been successful in their out-of-country appeal? Have those who have been successful been offered compensation for the Home Office’s mistakes?
The hon. Lady asks whether the Home Office has offered compensation. We have not, because what we have seen in successive High Court judgments is that our ability to rely on an accusation of fraud was appropriate. We heard a lengthy quote from a senior High Court judge, who, it is interesting to note, said in a subsequent case that new evidence that the Home Office had provided was focused and much more substantial. That same judge also found that evidence was sufficient to make our accusation of fraud.
The question that is being asked is not about the Home Office being right in some cases. The question is, in the cases where it has been wrong, has it offered any compensation?
The Home Office has enabled people to take cases to judicial review. The Home Office has established that we can rely on the evidence of fraud that we very clearly have, and the links to criminal gangs. It is important that we recognise that there was significant, widespread and indeed very lucrative fraud taking place in these cases. Our enforcement investigations uncovered evidence of impersonation and of proxy test-takers. I very much regret that this has happened. Innocent applicants may well have been caught up in widespread fraud, but we also have reports from judges that there were a number of different reasons why individuals might have undertaken the deception, even if they spoke very good English.
Will the Minister give way?
I have given way plenty of times. I am very clear that we have acted proportionately, both in initial actions and in response to the Court of Appeal’s verdict. We are right to continue acting on these cases.
The Government are committed to the principle of a fair immigration system, which welcomes highly skilled migrants and genuine international students, and we have heard a number of points about the attractiveness of the UK to international students. We know that the number of overseas students applying for tier 4 visas is up and there has been an increase in the number of visas granted, including 9% more from Chinese nationals and 32% more from Indian nationals. The UK remains an attractive place for foreign students to come to. We welcome highly skilled migrants and genuine students, while guarding against attempts at abuse. We have significantly strengthened our secure English language testing regime to ensure the issue cannot be repeated in future, and have put in place additional features to make sure that we clamp down on abuse by non-genuine students.
I thank everyone who has taken part in this afternoon’s debate. It is striking that no Government Members have chosen to come along to defend their conduct; it has been left solely to the Minister.
To put it mildly, I am deeply disappointed with the Minister’s response. There are a few key issues that she has not addressed. I do not think she adequately explained how it was that international students were told to leave the country without a right to appeal here, in contravention of the Court of Appeal ruling. She did not address at all the fiasco where further and higher education institutions were told to cancel student places and force them out of the conventional immigration appeals route. That issue has not been adequately addressed.
Perhaps worst of all, the Minister has not given any sense of reassurance to students who are here today about when this will be resolved. My constituent’s case has been in limbo now for years, and he is not alone. The Home Office has a responsibility to these people to make sure that their cases are reviewed fairly, and that they are given the chance to clear their name and get on with their life. We have had no reassurances whatsoever. We have not been told anything by way of detail about numbers of people. We have overall numbers affected—we have quoted those and they are really clear in the briefings—but nothing in terms of appeals, what stage they are at, success rates, how long it is taking to resolve the issues and, crucially, how much it is costing the taxpayer.
With some of the ongoing cases, not least that of my constituent, a really simple, cost-effective and fair way to resolve the case would be to allow them to resit the test. That is true for so many students. It would prove beyond any reasonable doubt whether or not they were fit to sit that test and whether the pass rate was valid or invalid. If it is invalid, they have to take it on the chin and get on with their lives in that knowledge, but in the vast majority of cases that we have seen as constituency MPs, and in the vast majority of cases that have been seen by the organisations we have heard from in this debate, there is no doubt about the proficiency of the students’ English. There is no doubt in our minds about the integrity of the students and their desire to engage with their studies.
I hope the Minister will agree, if I write to her, to look at my constituent’s case and will write back to me about when we can expect action on it. I hope she might agree to a detailed meeting with some of us, to look at how we can resolve this in a timely fashion, but I also hope that she will go away and challenge her Department and her officials about the way in which they are pursuing these cases and the time and public money that is being invested, in order to make sure that we can move on in an adequate and appropriate way.
This is really doing enormous damage to the reputation of our universities. It is doing enormous damage to our students. We heard most powerfully from our Scottish National party Opposition colleague, the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Martyn Day), about his own family circumstances. That is one story that captures the absurdity and the human impact of the situation. It is so close to this place! Of course, not everyone has a member of the family who is a Member of Parliament. We are speaking on behalf of so many of our constituents who have suffered real injustice. They have been given a voice today, but they have not been given sufficient answers. We have been going on with this for far too long.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered TOEIC visa cancellations.
Derbyshire CCGs’ Finances
[Mr Christopher Chope in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered Derbyshire clinical commissioning groups’ finances.
It does not give me great pleasure to raise this matter of great importance: the finances of our local health services and the clinical commissioning groups in Derbyshire. Two months ago—ironically on the 70th anniversary of the NHS—all the voluntary sector organisations in Derbyshire were shocked to receive letters stating that their funding from the clinical commissioning groups was to be cut. Our voluntary services provide much-needed support to thousands of frail, elderly and disabled people across Derbyshire, including support when they come home from hospital, befriending services, respite care, overnight stays and community transport.
Thousands of volunteers give their time to help vulnerable people, often in very rural areas where no other services are available, to live independently and stay well. They provide a constant check on those people’s physical and mental wellbeing. I thank all the volunteers across Derbyshire and the services that support them in helping people. They help older people to manage on their own, reducing the calls on GPs, visits to accident and emergency, and stays in hospitals or care homes for a fraction of the cost of those services. For example, the night-sitting service in High Peak provides emergency and respite care overnight—for example, when a carer is ill or to prevent a patient who would otherwise have to go into hospital from being admitted.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. Does she agree that, alongside the financial consequences of their cheaper cost, many voluntary organisations, such as Age Concern, which I saw last week, keep old people well and prevent them from having to use health services by providing services such as the befriending service in Chesterfield?
Absolutely. Age Concern and other voluntary services work fantastically well with thousands of older people.
Last year, the night-sitting service supported 93 people with more than 2,000 hours of care at a cost of just £34,000. That works out at just £369 per person for an average of three nights’ support each. Just one of those nights in a hospital would have cost the CCG more than that.
The CCG says that the county council provides an alternative service, and it may do on paper, but as we have a drastic shortage of social carers, like so many other places, no other help is available. The voluntary sector provides friendly, personalised, local care for far less than any other service could. For example, New Mills and District Volunteer Centre told me that it supports 550 mostly elderly, widowed and disabled clients for an average cost, between the staff and the volunteers, of just £2.26 an hour. If just two of those 550 clients have to go into a care home as a result of losing the volunteer services—in practice, it is likely to be many times that—the cut will cost more than has been saved.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this important debate. I agree with her: the work that volunteers do in my constituency and the support they get from the centre for voluntary services is vital. Does she agree that it is short-sighted in the extreme to try to fix a medium-term funding issue by creating irreversible long-term damage to voluntary services in the area? The way it was done—with the threat of little notice—was equally crazy, as there was no way of replicating the structures in that time. We need a long-term, sustainable solution, not a short-term quick fix that does long-term damage.
The hon. Gentleman has just summarised the next 11 minutes of my speech extremely well. I absolutely agree with him.
Having asked their commissioners to make a decision about all the cuts to voluntary services two weeks ago, after just four weeks of consultation over the summer, and in the face of challenges from Healthwatch Derbyshire and the county council’s health scrutiny committee and a large public outcry, the CCGs are now being forced to look again at some of the cuts, but they are still on the table. They come on top of all the other cuts to health and social care in Derbyshire, where the county council has lost more than half of its funding since 2010.
I share the concerns outlined by the hon. Lady and my hon. Friend the Member for Amber Valley (Nigel Mills), and I absolutely regret what the CCGs are proposing for the voluntary budgets. I hope they think again, as I am sure everybody in this Chamber does. However, does the hon. Lady agree that contextualising this issue with a wider point about cuts, which she is about to start doing, is not as accurate as it could be? The litany of historical poor management decisions by the four CCGs got us to this place and is the problem we are dealing with now. As my hon. Friend said, we need a long-term solution, and we should not default to a narrative of Government cuts when we know that is not quite correct.
Actually, the alternative is correct. The CCGs in Derbyshire were managing absolutely fine until the five-year forward review in 2016-17. They were making surpluses, and there was no problem—particularly with North Derbyshire CCG, which covers my area and the hon. Gentleman’s area. It had surpluses and hit the 1% target underspend—[Interruption.]
Order. It is intolerable that the hon. Member for North East Derbyshire (Lee Rowley) should seek to intervene from a sedentary position.
The figures speak for themselves, as do the cuts to the county council, and as do all the other cuts that the CCG has had to make since the reduction in its funding increase in 2017, which I will set out in detail.
Last year, just after I was elected, our local dementia assessment and support ward in Buxton was axed. It was a gold-standard service that took the most difficult patients with dementia and helped them back into care in their own home in an average of less than six weeks. Our rehabilitation and support ward at Buxton, Fenton ward—the only place where acute patients in High Peak can be sent, as we have no nursing homes at all—is due to lose more than half its beds, despite the fact that a waiting list of patients in our acute hospital need those beds, even during the summer.
Community hospitals across Derbyshire are facing the loss of 84 beds. Bolsover Hospital and Bakewell have already closed, and staff at Clay Cross and Ilkeston hospitals are living with a threat to their wards. Anyone would think we were seeing a reduction in the number of patients with dementia, or elderly and frail people who need rehabilitation to get them home from hospital. Of course we are not. Instead, there has been an explosion in the need for those services at a time when our NHS is being forced to make short-term cuts that will have long-term implications for the care of our patients and for the skilled staff we need to keep in the NHS.
I had thought that the Government’s aim was to keep our long-term health costs down. Instead, cut after cut is forcing up costs—not just in the long term but immediately. The hours have been cut at our minor injuries units at Buxton and in Erewash. Our local A&E had an immediate increase in patients, which is costing the NHS even more. That A&E department, which usually sees 200 cases a day on average, rising to 250 in winter, has been seeing 300 patients a day over the summer. There has not been a spate of accidents; those patients have long-term illnesses that are not being managed because our local health services cannot keep up with the increased demand as they are not now being funded to do so.
It seems that, whichever service that helps people to stay out of hospital or long-term care one thinks of, it is being reviewed or cut. Our respite care for people with severe learning disabilities is one of the services that patients have been told is being reviewed due to the challenges it faces. My constituent Christine told me that her daughter Julie who is 38 but has a mental age of eight receives four or five days of respite care a month, and that is all that enables Christine and her husband to continue to care for her at home, as Christine is 62 and her husband 75. The alternative of permanent residential care would be far more expensive for the state to provide.
Specialist nurses who help people to manage very serious long-term conditions, including heart failure, diabetes and Parkinson’s disease, are also proposed for cuts. After more outcries, especially from the GPs who would be shouldering that huge extra burden, those cuts have been put on hold until next year. The threat, however, is still there, and the specialists and the committed staff who run the service do not feel secure in their jobs.
Even funding for wound dressings has been removed. After suture removal and the first dressing, GPs are supposed to send patients with suppurating wounds to clinics many miles away, although often those patients have no transport. Otherwise, GPs have to pick up the burden themselves to prevent their patients from suffering serious infections, ending up in constant pain and back in hospital. In the case of our average small rural GP practice, that is 1.5 days of practice-nurse time a week. To keep that up is not sustainable.
Given all the rhetoric from the Department of Health and Social Care about sustainability, why is that happening? Why are short-term financial decisions impacting so hard on our frontline health services, on our voluntary services—which are vital as part of a long-term sustainable service—and on the frail and vulnerable people who need them? The short answer is finance. Finance has become the be-all and end-all for decisions on healthcare in Derbyshire. It is not an unusual area and we do not have particularly unusual health needs, apart from being more rural and having a slightly older age profile. The cost of our health needs, as in most areas, increases by about 3.5% a year.
Our CCGs were doing absolutely fine—meeting all their targets, delivering the required underspends and building up reserves—until the funding formula changed in 2016. North Derbyshire, for example had a reserve of £20 million until, instead of the average CCG increase of 3.75%, North Derbyshire received only 1.6%. With a flat budget for 2017-18 and only a 2% increase for 2019-20, that is disastrous. The CCG was told by NHS England to find £16 million in cuts over six months during 2016-17. When that did not happen, it was placed in special measures and told to find cuts of 7% in 2017-18. However, long-term services with loyal staff cannot be cut that quickly, so again the deficit mounted.
Now Derbyshire’s four CCGs are applying to merge so that they can achieve the required efficiencies of scale and organisation. However, their combined deficit is now £95 million. NHS England has stipulated that if they can make £51 million of cuts, the other £44 million will be written off. That is all well and good, but it is dependent on those £51 million of cuts being made in just seven months. If the CCGs cannot make those cuts, they will have to find not only the £51 million but another £44 million. That is on top of the unmet extra costs of services next year of a further £21 million.
The Government claim that they are increasing spending on the NHS, but that is not what we see locally. Our communities see cut after cut after cut. Even the long-promised uplift of 3.5% a year from 2020 will only meet that one year’s increase in need; it will do nothing to deal with the huge backlog of cuts from a decade of austerity for our NHS.
Healthwatch Derbyshire has challenged the legality of the cuts, because they are being made at such speed that there is little assessment of the impact, let alone proper consultation. Much of the problem is that the benefits of the services that are being cut will not be measured financially—only their immediate cost. As far as NHS England is concerned, as long as £51 million of cuts are made, it does not matter that those cuts will increase costs by £151 million next year and every year thereafter. Furthermore, in the case of our voluntary sector and of our skilled specialist staff, when they are gone, they are gone. Voluntary services such as ours in Derbyshire, take years of building up, of working with volunteers and of recruiting staff who are often prepared to be paid for only a few hours a week but who show absolute commitment to looking after their clients and volunteers. No one wants to make those cuts, but as the chair of one of our CCGs said:
“I wish that we had a regulator who would walk the path with us, and would look at the impact of these cuts, instead of simply demanding savings.”
That brings me to my question for the Minister. We should be nurturing our voluntary services and supporting our hard-working NHS staff, whose pay has been declining while their workloads have soared. We should be protecting our ever-growing numbers of frail, elderly and disabled patients, who have seen huge cuts to their social care and become ever more reliant on the health service, and working to integrate our health and social care budgets properly so that we do not see one service making cuts that cost the other even more. We should be building a sustainable health service fit for the 21st century. Please will the Minister tell me that NHS England will enable that to happen in Derbyshire?
It is a pleasure to serve once again under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher. I congratulate the hon. Member for High Peak (Ruth George) on securing this important debate. She has effectively put on record her concerns about the financial challenge faced by the Derbyshire CCGs.
The hon. Lady is right to recognise that the Government are committing more money to the NHS. That is why the Prime Minister has announced a funding increase of, on average, 3.4% each year to 2023-24. The NHS budget will therefore increase by more than £20 billion a year compared with today. Alongside that, it is also right for NHS England, the independent organisation that allocates funding, to question the efficiency of CCGs, in particular by comparison with other CCGs, looking for what efficiencies can be found. Indeed, the four CCGs in Derbyshire have already identified £39 million of savings, against our target which is 3% of their overall budgets. Significant progress has therefore been made to meet the challenge set by NHS England.
Part of that £39 million is £5 million of decommissioning, which includes those voluntary services, so they are now having to be reviewed. That £39 million in cuts is not good news—it is pretty bad news for the NHS, as I have set out.
I was just about to come on to the voluntary sector, because that is where the hon. Lady’s speech started, but in her remarks she talked about the four CCGs coming together as part of the “efficiencies of scale”—her precise phrase—so I shall come back to the voluntary sector later.
I am probably in the position of largely agreeing with the Minister. I remember that, back in 2010, we had the Derbyshire primary care trust, but then the Lansley reforms came in, broke up the PCT and turned it into five different organisations in North Derbyshire. Can he imagine how galling it is for us to hear that those organisations, which went from a very strong financial position back in 2010, are now in utter financial chaos, so the Government are going to undo the Lansley reforms and to get those economies of scale that we were telling them about back in 2010?
There seems to be a slight contradiction in the hon. Gentleman’s argument. He is arguing that, on the one hand, the financial position was strong in 2016—I remind him simply that the Lansley reforms were in 2012—and, on the other hand, that the issue is with the Lansley reforms.
May I make a point of clarification, because the Minister is misquoting me? I said that the financial position was strong in 2010, not in 2016.
In which case, I refer to the remarks of the hon. Member for High Peak, who did say that the CCGs’ position was strong in 2016. The hon. Gentleman is therefore seeking to disagree with his hon. Friend rather than with me.
Every Member present who represents a Derbyshire constituency is concerned about the actions of the CCG, particularly the implication for the voluntary sector. That was outlined by the three Conservatives and two of the Labour Members, either by speaking or by being present. The challenge is that, if we contextualise this debate in a not-quite-accurate framework, we misunderstand why we are here in the first place and therefore how we get out of here. That is why the cuts narrative from the hon. Member for High Peak is unhelpful in the extreme.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I was coming on to address the allocations for the four CCGs, which I am told by NHS England are above where NHS England independently sets the target. To be precise, according to NHS England, in the case of the Derbyshire CCGs, North Derbyshire is 6.2% above its target allocation, Erewash is 2.31%, Hardwick is 1.92% and Southern Derbyshire is 0.25% above the target.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right that it is about how effectively the money is spent. He is also right that, within that search for efficiencies, alongside the additional £20 billion of funding that the Government have allocated, we need to address the point that the hon. Lady correctly raised about the value for money of many of the voluntary services. He correctly identified that there is a cross-party consensus and indeed concern that the value for money of those services should not be the first line of call when seeking efficiencies.
As part of that discussion, the CCG has confirmed that, having looked into this, three of the voluntary services will be protected. The south Derbyshire, Chesterfield and north Derbyshire Cruse Bereavement Care and the Stroke Association support services will be protected. The hon. Lady made a point about the value for money of night services costing £34,000, which within a £51 million target is a very small sum, and the New Mills where she cited the £2.26 per hour. That is exactly the discussion that the CCG is having. It is unhelpful to scare local people ahead of those consultations, because those decisions have not been taken. One of the benefits of the hon. Lady calling this debate is that it allows Members from across the House to put on record their support for voluntary services as part of looking at the legitimate question of where the efficiencies from economies of scale can be identified across the CCGs.
The Government are allocating more funding to the NHS, but they are looking at areas that are above their target allocation to ask, “Where are the inefficiencies and how do we spend that?” As part of asking taxpayers to contribute £20 billion more a year to the NHS, it is right that we ask how effectively that money is spent and that we ensure that we drive efficiencies.
The hon. Lady did not mention this, but it is pertinent that there is funding to Derbyshire in other forms: for example, the £12.5 million that has recently been provided for the four CCGs to spend on increasing theatre capacity at the Royal Derby Hospital. Again, that is part of enabling the CCGs to drive efficiencies. Some £40 million of suitability and transformation partnership capital bids are yet to be approved. There are additional funding bids in the Department, NHS Improvement and NHS England as part of driving those efficiencies that the CCGs are being asked to deliver.
Alongside that is the vanguard programme—the CCGs agreed a business case in January 2018 to spend £1.1 million to continue to fund significant elements of the Wellbeing Erewash programme. My hon. Friend the Member for Erewash (Maggie Throup) has been an extremely strong champion of the benefits and importance of the programme in Erewash in her interactions with ministerial colleagues. The CCGs have introduced a range of financial measures to improve their financial position, including development of an efficiency strategy and a move to joint leadership arrangements, to which the hon. Member for High Peak referred. Closer functional working across the four CCGs in Derbyshire will help, but so will the additional capital that is being sought and innovation to work more efficiently through programmes such as vanguard.
On the voluntary sector, which was the meat of the hon. Lady’s remarks, it is important to stress that decisions have not been taken and that a consultation process is under way. The CCGs will have those discussions with local stakeholders. It is important to be clear that before taking any final funding decisions on services through the voluntary and communities sector, that further round of engagement and consultation with the local communities, local authorities, patients, GPs and other stakeholders will take place.
What we desperately do not want is a short-term saving made to fix a short-term problem. Bringing those services back in 18 months’ time when the much welcome increased funding is available will not happen because the volunteers and the organisations will have gone. Can there be any kind of downpayment on that future funding, or some slight relaxing of the annual deficit calculations, just to get us through the gap so that we do not do something now that we regret in 18 months’ time?
To some extent, that is already happening in the form of the £45 million of the deficit that is being absorbed by NHS England, but part of the NHS England consultation is assessing where the CCGs are against their target allocation—it is part of the consideration of the £40 million of capital bids for Derbyshire and part of the £12.5 million that was secured for the improvements at Derby county. It is also part of other issues in the NHS such as length of stay—43% of patients in acute hospitals do not clinically need to be there and would be better served in the community, which is where those value for money assessments need to play a part.
Why are 84 community beds, and my beds in Buxton at Fenton ward, which are the only place where patients in acute care can be transferred, being cut?
Again, local clinical decisions are taken by the CCGs, which is the correct approach. This goes to the heart of the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for North East Derbyshire. Driving efficiency as part of spending more on the NHS is not about not having any change. Indeed, the hon. Lady previously expressed concerns about her specialist dementia inpatient beds in her constituency. Again, those are specific commissioning decisions—it is inappropriate for a Minister to comment on specific decisions—but, although I understand her concerns in relation to the number of specialist dementia inpatient beds, I am assured that the model implemented in Derbyshire reflects the changing needs and approaches to providing health and care for dementia patients. Patients benefit from structured care in their homes or in an adult care-led facility—that model is supported by clinicians.
We need to differentiate legitimate questions from NHS England in an area that is receiving more than its target allocation and where there are opportunities for efficiency, while taking on board the concerns raised by the hon. Member for Amber Valley about the transition as the additional Government funding comes, and while allowing the NHS in Derbyshire to change. Just as the additional funding to Derby will unlock efficiencies, so will the vanguard programme and other local initiatives on, for example, dementia care to deliver an NHS that is fit for the future. It needs to evolve but is also needs to take the community with it. That is why it is right that we have a discussion about the voluntary sector without scaring people that decisions have been taken when services such as the three I mentioned have already been protected and I am told that no decisions have been taken on the other voluntary’s services.
We are committed to spending more on the NHS in Derbyshire. That is the clear commitment the Prime Minister made. The CCG has made significant progress on delivering efficiencies against its 3% target, but we are building an NHS fit for the future, which includes ensuring that we give more money to Derbyshire. As part of the 10-year plan being devised by NHS England and NHS Improvement, Derbyshire will receive its fair share of that additional funding.
Question put and agreed to.
Legal Aid: Post-Implementation Review
I beg to move,
That this House has considered legal aid and the post-implementation review.
It is a pleasure to introduce this important debate under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher.
We cannot have meaningful rights without the means of enforcing them, and we cannot have meaningful justice if people have no way of accessing it. Legal aid lies at the heart of both those assertions, which is why I very much welcome the Government’s review of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 six years on, and the opportunity to ask the Minister about the review’s process and substance. If she is unable to answer all my questions—I suspect she may not be able to—I would be grateful if she agreed to write to me so that we have answers on the record.
A few weeks ago, the Joint Committee on Human Rights, of which I am a member, published its report, “Enforcing human rights,” as a contribution to the wider debate. It stated:
“Access to justice is fundamental to the rule of law. We are concerned that the reforms to legal aid introduced by the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (LASPO) have made access to justice more difficult for many, for whom it is simply unaffordable.”
Six years on from the Act’s passage, it is clear that the system is in crisis. Cuts to the Ministry of Justice were higher than to any other Department, at 40%. The impact of cuts on that scale is simply unsustainable.
The review of the changes must provide answers—not rhetorical answers and warm words, but practical solutions. Such solutions were set out in the Committee’s report, as they have been in expert report after expert report by bodies from the Bach review—I pay particular tribute to Lord Bach—to the Law Commission, and in evidence from the frontline of civil and criminal law. Solutions were also set out in excellent briefings for the debate from the Legal Aid Practitioners Group—I particularly praise the work of the extraordinary Carol Storer, who has been in charge of the LAPG for the past decade, and her team— the Equality and Human Rights Commission, to which I will make particular reference, the Law Society, Mind, the Families Together coalition, the Children’s Society, the Coram Children’s Legal Centre and many others.
I will ask about some of the specific points arising from all those briefings, but let me first ask about the review process. The review is currently under way, with a deadline of the end of this month for the submission of evidence and engagement with stakeholders. I put on the record my appreciation for officials’ engagement with the all-party legal aid group, which I chair, but there are a number of wider concerns about the transparency of the process.
No minutes have been published of the meetings that have been held. We understand that no independent research has been commissioned either. Will the Minister confirm whether that is the case? Will she also confirm that the report will definitely be published by the end of the year? How long does she estimate it will take the Government to respond? Critically, what will happen next? Will the review be affected in any way by Brexit? How long will the response take? What steps will be put in place to safeguard the current situation and prevent more providers from closing before there is an opportunity for recommendations arising out of the review to be implemented?
Let me return to the substantial issues that confront us in the post-LASPO world. We hope that many will be addressed by the review, and hopes are high, given the pressure under which many legal aid services are operating. LASPO narrowed considerably the scope of legal aid, with the result that it is no longer available for most private family, housing, debt, welfare benefit and employment matters. LASPO also changed the financial eligibility criteria for legal aid, including by increasing the amount that people have to contribute from their income and by removing automatic eligibility for people on means-tested benefits.
I could have filled my allocated time with any number of comments made to me by individual lawyers prior to the debate, but I picked one at random relating to housing, which I am particularly concerned about. I was contacted this morning by Russell Conway, a housing lawyer with Oliver Fisher, who said:
“Legal Aid lawyers are hanging on by the skin of their teeth. Worse still large numbers of clients cannot get access. Yesterday I turned away 10 prospective housing clients as their cases were no longer within scope”.
The latest statistics relating to the provision of legal aid confirm exactly that. Total legal aid expenditure has fallen by £600 million since 2013. The number of legal aid and controlled legal representation claims fell from 188,643 to 92,124—in other words, they halved. Mediation starts more than halved, and the number of providers has plunged by 800 in criminal law and 1,200 in civil law. It is no wonder that when the Joint Committee looked at the impact of LASPO on access to justice, concerns about advice deserts—parts of the country where advice and representation are close to non-existent—featured strongly.
In summary, legal aid is no longer available to many of those who need it. Even those eligible for help find it hard to access it, and major gaps in services are not being addressed. As is so often the case, the most disadvantaged and the disempowered bear the burden. To take just one group, important research by the mental health charity Mind found that half the people facing legal problems that were removed from the scope of legal aid by LASPO have mental health problems.
As LASPO removed significant areas of law from the scope of legal aid, exceptional case funding was brought in as a safety valve for more complex cases, such as where funding is deemed necessary to prevent a breach of human rights. Exceptional case funding was expected to support between 5,000 and 7,000 cases a year, but there were only 70 successful grants in the year after LASPO was introduced. Although that funding has picked up to some degree, it clearly has not fulfilled its intended function. We need to be reassured that addressing it will be core to the review.
Both the Equality and Human Rights Commission and the Joint Committee on Human Rights raised grave concerns about discrimination cases, the implications for human rights and the disproportionate impact of legal aid cuts on access to justice for people with protected characteristics, including disabled people, children and migrants. I hope the Minister will join me in welcoming the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s report and the inquiry it announced yesterday. Although the timing of that inquiry means that its results will not feed directly into the Government review, I hope she reflects on what the commission is doing and why.
The Equality and Human Rights Commission drew attention to how the removal of most welfare benefits law from the scope of legal aid disproportionately affected disabled people. It flagged up the fact that the number of benefits disputes cases in which legal aid was granted fell by 99% post-LASPO, from 29,801 in 2011-12 to just 308 in 2016-17. When individuals are able to challenge benefits decisions, the majority are overturned. Since 2013, 63% of appeals against personal independence payment decisions and 60% of appeals against employment and support allowance decisions have been decided in the claimant’s favour.
The Equality and Human Rights Commission also drew attention to the fact that the removal of most private family law from the scope of legal aid affects women disproportionately, and of course the removal of most immigration law impacts people from certain ethnic minorities. As the EHRC report states, many of the areas of law removed from the scope of legal aid cover issues central to domestic and international human rights protections. Restrictions on the availability of legal aid carry the real risk of preventing the enjoyment of fundamental rights and freedoms, especially when the practical effect of such measures is to hinder, dissuade or deny access to legal redress where individual rights have been violated.
The EHRC cited specifically the effects in family law or immigration cases that may involve violations of the right to respect for family life under article 8 of the European convention on human rights; in education cases where the removal of provision presents barriers to justice for those seeking redress for breaches of the right to an education, which is protected by article 2, protocol 1 of the convention; and in social welfare law cases, the removal of many of which from the scope of legal aid carries implications for the UK’s international obligations under the international covenant on economic, social and cultural rights.
The Minister will be very aware of the concerns that have been raised about the operation of the civil legal advice mandatory telephone gateway, which is often the only way for a victim of discrimination to access the legal aid system. Somehow, just 16 people have been referred to face-to-face advice in the past five years, despite more than 18,000 discrimination cases coming through the telephone gateway and an estimate that the referral rate would be 10%. Why does the Minister think that is?
Is the Minister able to say how many people with protected characteristics, including mental health problems, have been denied legal aid since the introduction of LASPO? Will the LASPO review include an assessment of the impact of legal aid reforms on groups with protected characteristics? What assessment has the Department made of the number of those people with protected characteristics who have been forced to represent themselves in court since the introduction of LASPO? Will the review consider reintroducing to the scope of legal aid issues most commonly experienced by vulnerable individuals?
Powerful evidence of how LASPO affects children has been submitted by the Children’s Society and Coram Children’s Legal Centre, among others. They and I greatly welcome the MOJ’s decision to bring back into scope non-asylum immigration advice for unaccompanied and separated children’s immigration matters before the end of 2018, yet many other children and young people with outstanding immigration matters—particularly children with parents, and young people who are over 18—will continue to miss out.
The Government estimated 8,500 cases involving claimants aged 18 to 24 and around 43,000 cases involving claimants over 25 would go out of scope for immigration and asylum matters. No data were available on how many dependent children would be affected within those cases and I do not believe there has been any assessment since then. Is the Minister aware of such information? If not, will she ensure that such an assessment is carried out, so that we have accurate data on which to plan?
We know that the status children have can change easily and sometimes frequently. The lack of legal aid available for families to resolve their immigration status can mean children fall in and out of services, leaving them exposed to considerable risk. Undocumented children are often excluded from accessing mainstream benefits, secondary NHS healthcare and local authority homelessness assistance, and their parents are sometimes not allowed legally to work. Children in such families, care leavers and young adults who are over 18 with unresolved immigration issues are at serious risk of destitution and, at worst, abuse and exploitation, as a result of hardening immigration policies and cuts to legal aid.
That is just the situation today. It could soon get worse. There is a critical need to plan for a post-Brexit future, as millions of European economic area nationals, including children, need to settle their status in the United Kingdom. Although little is known about the immigration system post-Brexit, restrictions on the movement of EEA nationals are likely to mean that more children and families will become subject to immigration control in this country and therefore will need to regularise their status. That will include thousands of EEA children in local authority care and care leavers. Making legal aid available to those cases will be critical to protecting children’s rights.
Will the post-implementation review take account of the likely issues on the horizon, to ensure that they future-proof our system of access to justice and ensure that there is consistency in access to legal aid, to help to resolve the range of complex immigration circumstances and protect children, young people and families? Does the Minister know how many children in families and young adults have been affected by cuts to immigration legal aid since 2012? What assessment has she made of the availability of immigration advice regulated by the office of the Immigration Service Commissioner as a result of LASPO? What assessment has she made of the need for advice in areas where regulated immigration advice has dried up as a result of LASPO? What steps will she be taking to ensure that action is under way to deal with the issue of advice deserts?
The withdrawal of legal aid for initial legal advice in many areas of law can result in the escalation of relatively minor problems into more complex issues. There is a clear link between receiving professional legal advice early and resolving a problem sooner. Research commissioned by the Law Society using data from the legal needs survey found that on average one in four people who receive early professional legal advice had resolved their problem within three to four months, while one in four people who did not receive early legal advice had resolved their problem within nine months.
Lack of early legal advice can cause problems to escalate unnecessarily, potentially increasing the burden on the courts and increasing costs to the public purse. That has a clear impact on access to justice and the rule of law. The Government anticipated that people with legal problems in areas taken out of scope by LASPO would use alternative means of resolution. When removing legal aid for family matters, for example, the Government predicted that there would be increased uptake in mediation as an alternative, so that families could resolve their problems outside court. In fact, there has been a decrease of 56% in mediation assessments in the year after the reforms and the number of mediation cases that started fell by 38% in the same period. It may be that solicitors providing early advice referred people to mediation, so that removing access to such advice from a solicitor resulted in fewer, rather than more, cases being resolved that way. Has the Department conducted such research into the extent to which people have found alternative means of resolving disputes or obtaining representation? What research has been carried out or commissioned within the review looking at the cost of displacement to other services?
One obvious area of displacement is the rise in the number of litigants in person—people representing themselves in court. LASPO has resulted in an increase in litigants in person in family law proceedings, with 19,000 more unrepresented parties in 2016-17 than in 2012-13—up from 42% to 64% of such cases. Litigants in person often struggle to understand their legal entitlements and the complexities of court procedures. As the National Audit Office found, litigants in person are less likely to settle cases outside court, likely to have more court orders and interventions, likely to lack the knowledge and skills to conduct their cases efficiently, and create additional work for judges and court staff, which can make court listing processes less efficient. The Joint Committee on Human Rights report welcomed the fact that the Government are considering the impact of the increase on litigants in person, both in terms of outcomes for the individual concerned and on the court system. Has the Minister considered the recommendations of our report? Will she ensure they are reflected in the LASPO review?
Finally, the Joint Committee on Human Rights heard compelling evidence about the extent to which pressures caused by the reforms in legal aid impact on legal aid professionals. By damaging morale, and undermining the legal profession’s ability to undertake legal aid work, access to justice, the rule of law and the enforcement of human rights in the UK are further undermined. In the area of criminal law, data suggest that in five to 10 years’ time, there will be insufficient criminal duty solicitors in many regions of the country, leaving those in need of legal advice unable to access their rights.
I will quote just one message from the many that I was sent before this debate. A lady wrote to me to say that she has been a family lawyer and latterly a mediator for 35 years. She continued:
“Since 1996, I have been mediating under the legal aid scheme. I have always done legal aid work, as a solicitor as well as mediator…I will leave it to others to give facts and figures…I just want to put in a plea for the people who provide these services. We, the mediators, are paid the same rate as we received in 1996. This is no pay rise for 22 years…This has the consequence that services are not viable any longer. I have not had a pay rise for 22 years and carry on out of the goodness of my heart. Unless this issue is addressed, even if legal aid is reinstated in many cases, there will…not be the lawyers or the mediators to provide the service at all.”
Let us recognise that reality and praise those people who work so hard, frequently in very stressful environments and for precious little money, despite all the rhetoric about fat cat lawyers.
How is the review addressing the issue of future provision? How will any restoration of services be guaranteed when no new providers are operating in certain parts of the country? How many firms does the Minister estimate do not see a future for legal aid in their future business plans? How many legal aid lawyers expect to retire and how will they be replaced? What immediate steps are being taken to try to encourage young lawyers who want to do legal aid work to obtain training contacts and pupillages, and to overcome the reluctance of those with student debt burdens to enter into this work? Truthfully, it is impossible to wholly separate the impact of LASPO on those who need advice and representation from the needs of the people who provide that service. I hope that the Minister will reassure me that the review is considering the issue of pressures on those working in the sector and recruitment and retention, not just nationally, but across all parts of the country.
I doubt that many people working in legal aid will have been reassured by the contract debacle this weekend. It would be helpful if the Minister said something about how that is going to be swiftly resolved. Almost every aspect of the legal aid debacle was predicted and objected to at the time, hence the large number of defeats in the other place—only very minor, although welcome, adjustments have been made since. There is an opportunity in this review to learn from what has gone wrong and to put it right. The moment must be seized before it is too late.
It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Westminster North (Ms Buck), who spoke passionately and effectively on a subject that I know is dear to her heart, as it is to mine. I do not want to speak too long today, but when I saw that she had secured this debate, I wanted to come along and say a few words on behalf of the people of Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill, and in the defence of access to justice.
I want to say a few words on legal aid because of its vital importance to our society and our country and every single person in Scotland, England, Northern Ireland and Wales. I welcome the comments from the Justice Committee. Earlier this year, it warned that the cuts we have seen from this Tory Government and the Liberal Democrat/Tory coalition before it have damaged the fundamental right of legal defence. Rather than being empowered, supported and protected, people across our country are ever more vulnerable to abuse at work from bad employers and to domestic abuse at home. Those are just two examples.
After the last decade of austerity, it is clear that working people in this country are paying the price of decisions made by people in this place. Of all that we have seen taken away from the most vulnerable, the poorest and the most in need across the United Kingdom, the cuts to legal aid have been among the most disgraceful.
The hon. Gentleman is, like me, a Member for a Scottish constituency, and will be aware that the legal aid system in Scotland is completely different, with much wider scope and eligibility.
I thank the hon. and learned Lady for her intervention. I do understand that Scottish legal aid might be different, but this is still something that affects all people. Having been a representative of the Communication Workers Union across Britain, I am here to stand up for the whole country—that is why I have come down here.
Not only is legal aid no longer available for those who need it, those who are eligible are finding it harder and harder to access. I hope that the Government, as part of their review, will do all they can to right the wrongs, and acknowledge that the cuts have not worked, have not been just and must be reversed. They must be reversed for the age-old principle that is access to justice but also because of the people who use legal aid, the people eligible for legal aid and the people who deserve it.
Legal aid is often used for housing cases, and we must not forget that many people across the country, particularly in our inner cities, are dealing with overcrowding pressures and, increasingly, with rogue landlords, who evict families if they can find tenants willing to pay a higher rent, or worse, when a tenant speaks up about damp or other structural issues that pose a risk to the lives of those living there. Legal aid is also used for family-related issues, whether a refugee parent seeking to keep their children away from an abusive partner or any other unpleasant situation.
I have said in this House, since my election, that I was sent here to stand up for and defend working people, seeking justice for those who need and deserve a better deal. I am a proud member of the Communication Workers Union, and I have seen first-hand the support provided to people who cannot afford to represent or defend themselves. In those circumstances when the union movement is not able to defend a member, legal aid has been the route to ensuring that people are not on their own.
I said I would be brief, so I shall leave my remarks there. I hope that the Government will listen to the Law Society’s request for an economic review of the long-term viability of the criminal legal aid system and that they will think again about their approach to this issue. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Westminster North for her work on this incredibly important issue and for letting me take part in the debate. I look forward to working with her and with colleagues around the House on these issues over the coming months and years.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher, and to take part in this important debate. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Westminster North (Ms Buck) on securing it, on her excellent speech setting out the main issues and on her continuing work as the chair of the all-party group on legal aid.
There is no doubt that part 1 of the landmark piece of legislation that is LASPO rolled back 70 years of development in social welfare law. I have nothing complimentary to say about the Government—not even about the review, because it was one of the concessions that was wrung out of them during the passage of the LASPO Bill. Even then, they left it until the last possible moment—five years on from the implementation of the Act—before introducing it. I wonder what we will see from the review. I appreciate that work is being done and that substantial work is being carried out by practitioners and others to influence the Government. I am interested in hearing from the Minister how much money there will be and how seriously the Government are taking the review.
The legislation was very controversial at the time, with double-figure defeats in the other place. The fact that we ended up with only nugatory changes had nothing to do, I am sure, with my lack of eloquence as shadow Justice Minister, and more to do with the coalition Government’s substantial majority. The Liberal Democrats deserve a mention. I dwell on the number of times they waxed lyrical about the importance of legal aid but voted time and again to destroy it as part of the tawdry deal—perhaps that is why we see none of them here today.
Since 2013, we have moved on, and favourable decisions in our higher courts have restored legal aid in some respects—on prisoner law, on exceptional case funding, and on non-asylum immigration by unaccompanied and refugee children. There have been accompanying decisions in analogous fields—a Supreme Court decision showed that the disgraceful fees for employment tribunals were unlawful. Such decisions are important and benefit large numbers of people, but they only scratch the surface.
Opposition has crystallised around certain areas regarding eligibility for early funding, particularly in housing and law on family reunion. I hope there will be specific concessions when the review takes place in those areas and perhaps in others. The Legal Aid Agency’s lack of independence was raised in Committee, and we have seen a series of High Court judgments about unlawful patterns of behaviour on behalf of the Legal Aid Agency. The way the system is run is quite shocking.
Rather than dwell on the details, which my hon. Friend the Member for Westminster North has dealt with expertly, I will talk about the profundity of the changes that the legislation has brought in. It has, of course, affected millions of vulnerable people and people with protected characteristics, which we see in the number of successful appeals in welfare benefits cases. If people have the ability—cynically, the Government hopes that many people do not, or can no longer get advice—to get before a tribunal, they often succeed. Two thirds of appeals are succeeding in many cases.
We can look at what happened with what was supposed to be the safety net—the telephone gateway that provided ready access for exceptional case funding, which has not been used at all. There was only 2% of the anticipated demand for exceptional case funding in its first year. I know that has grown since, but it is still at very low.
We have advice deserts all over the country—areas where there are single practitioners, or sometimes no practitioners, which applies to entire counties for certain areas of law. How can the Government defend their record? It is about the day-to-day effects on individuals seeking justice or redress legitimately and not being able to get it. The Minister, who is a senior practitioner, should be ashamed of that, as should her colleagues.
The effects go far beyond that. Legal aid was often at the forefront of important test cases in establishing and developing the law. That has gone in many cases. I cannot emphasise enough that having an effective system of justice, and particularly challenging the decisions of the state and other powerful institutions, promotes good behaviour. It stops bad landlords and bad employers doing what they want to do, because they know that they are subject to legal challenge. Again, that has gone. I am sure that that is deliberate on the Government’s part, but they should dwell on it.
It affects the operation of the whole justice system. The courts are now overwhelmed with litigants in person. With all due respect to litigants in person, in complex areas of law, particularly when there is an inequality of arms and the other side is represented and they are not, or even when there are two litigants in person, it is very difficult for justice to be done. What a difficult and insidious position that puts the tribunal in, where the established adversarial process of law, which has grown up over several hundred years in this country, is suddenly turned into an inquisitorial one, where the judge has to suddenly act in the role, effectively, of both counsel and an interventionist, rather than simply as somebody who is keeping order and arbitrating in proceedings. The Minister may think that I am exaggerating, but the rights of defendants in the courts have been established over many hundreds of years, and an important part of that has been established through legal aid in civil justice, as it was previously in criminal justice, over that time.
I wish I could be in two places at once, because I would like to be taking part in Second Reading on the Civil Liability Bill. That is another strong attack on the justice system in this country, where another swathe of claimants will be prevented from getting justice by arbitrary decisions by the Government. That says to me that the Government have not learnt their lessons from LASPO, and therefore it is very unlikely that the review will get us where we want to go.
I would love to be proved wrong, but in fact we are seeing the effect not only of the lack of representation and advice, but of the huge, swingeing cuts in the Courts and Tribunals Service, which have led to court closures, the inability of courts to function properly and the inability of the prison system to function properly, which was referred to in the main Chamber today.
The Minister took over at a rather difficult time, when the fruits of austerity were becoming apparent across the Ministry of Justice which, as my hon. Friend the Member for Westminster North said, has suffered the largest cuts of any Department over the last seven or eight years.
I made my opening speech in a political debate and it lasted for a mere three hours—you would not consider that to be a long speech, Sir Christopher. However, the point I wanted to emphasise was that legal aid was an important part of the welfare state settlement. It was about looking after vulnerable people; it was about providing a safety net; and it was about providing justice and equality for people. That is how important it is to our society and that is what LASPO has destroyed.
When the Minister replies, she may not be able to deal with all the points that my hon. Friend has made. However, I hope that when the Government give their response to the review, they will dwell on that point, as well as on the individual points and the individual cases that are crying out for justice.
It is a pleasure, Sir Christopher, to serve under your chairmanship.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Westminster North (Ms Buck) on securing this important debate. It has been a pleasure to work with her on these matters in the Joint Committee on Human Rights and I very much admired her tenacity in getting to the bottom of things. As she has said today, this issue is fundamentally about access to justice; it is one of Lord Bingham’s eight principles that are fundamental to the rule of law that there should be equal and ready access to justice.
As the hon. Lady explained in her speech, the Equality and Human Rights Commission is very concerned about these reforms in England and Wales, because it feels that they have restricted access to justice. Ensuring that there is access to justice is a principle that is required not only by the common law of England and Wales, and indeed by the common law of Scotland, but by article 6 of schedule 1 to the Human Rights Act. As the hon. Lady went on to say in her speech, the Equality and Human Rights Commission, like other bodies, has underlined the fact that there is evidence of a disproportionately negative impact on people who share certain protected characteristics, such as disabled people, as a result of these so-called reforms. The commission has also said that there is evidence that LASPO has limited access to redress for breaches of human rights and for discrimination claims.
The hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Hugh Gaffney) raised an important issue. I know about it because I have to declare an interest from a previous life, when I was a practising member of the Scottish Bar and did a lot of legal aid work for people who had had accidents at work. It has been very important over the years for ordinary working people to have access to legal aid in order to realise their rights, and we must take very seriously anything that undermines that. Like the hon. Gentleman, I am anxious that there should be access to justice south of the border, as there is north of the border.
In my speech today, therefore, I will take a few moments to outline the findings of a recent independent review of legal aid in Scotland, which may be of assistance to the Minister as she considers how to deal with the shortcomings of the current system in England and Wales.
Despite a succession of cuts to the Scottish budget by the UK Government, the Scottish Government are committed to promoting access to justice, and they have managed to maintain a much fairer system of legal aid, with much wider scope and eligibility than exists south of the border. The hon. Member for Westminster North will recall that those of us who serve on the JCHR heard evidence about this from a number of witnesses. In particular, we heard evidence about an independent review of legal aid that was carried out in Scotland earlier this year. It was independent of Government; it was chaired by Martyn Evans, the chief executive officer of the Carnegie UK Trust; and it reported at the end of February this year.
I am not saying that the Scottish legal aid system is perfect—indeed, Martyn Evans suggested some ways in which it could be reformed—but crucially he found that, although the Scottish Government spend less per capita on legal aid than the UK Government spend in England and Wales, the scope of legal aid in Scotland is broader, and a larger percentage of the population of Scotland is eligible. The report shows the contrast between what is done with a smaller budget in Scotland and what happens in England and Wales.
As others have said—the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter) made an eloquent speech—according to last year’s figures from the Ministry of Justice, legal aid expenditure in England and Wales has been cut from £2.5 billion to £1.55 billion in real terms in a few short years. In England, that has led to a substantial reduction in the scope of family, social welfare, debt, housing and immigration cases. We do not have the same problem in Scotland. Legal aid is still available for family, social welfare, debt, housing and immigration cases, and the Scottish Legal Aid Board manages to make it available, despite spending less per capita. Do not take my word for it; take the word of the independent review.
The independent review looked at three key areas of legal aid in Scotland—scope, eligibility and cost—and compared the service in Scotland with that of other jurisdictions in relation to them. On scope, it found that the provision of criminal legal aid in Scotland compares very well with other systems. In almost all criminal cases prosecuted before a jury, the accused receives legal aid, which potentially pays for the best criminal defence lawyers available. I can vouch for that, not because I was one of them, but because I used to have to prosecute people and I regularly found myself up against some of the best criminal silks in Scotland, who were paid for by the legal aid fund.
For civil legal aid in Scotland, the scope is also broader than in many other jurisdictions, with comparatively few areas excluded. Approximately 70% of the population of Scotland are eligible on the basis of income for a degree of civil legal aid to fund at least part of their actions. That is one of the highest levels of eligibility in Europe.
On cost, Scotland’s expenditure per capita exceeds €30—it is in euros because this is European research. The European average is €9 a head, and the median is €2 a head. The figure spent in England and Wales is €38 a head, and in Scotland it is €33. That shows that it is possible, with a lesser spend, to have greater scope and greater eligibility for legal aid.
The report found that Scotland is one of the leading jurisdictions in Europe for the provision of legal aid on the basis of scope, eligibility and expenditure. In drawing attention to that, I do not say that the situation is perfect in Scotland. I am sure many of my former colleagues would want me to say that they do not think it is perfect, but lawyers will always moan about legal aid. What we as politicians must be most concerned about is access to justice for our constituents.
Does the Minister agree that the Scottish experience shows that, with less spending per capita, it is possible for legal aid to involve a wider scope and more eligibility, and to cover the sort of cases that hon. Members are concerned are not covered at present in England and Wales? Will she look to the Scottish example to see how the system in England and Wales can be reformed? Will she consider commissioning, rather than the in-house review of LASPO, an independent strategic review of legal aid in England and Wales similar to the one commissioned by the Scottish Government, about which I have spoken today?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Westminster North (Ms Buck) on securing this important and timely debate, and on the excellent points she made in her speech. I commend the work she does as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on legal aid. Her record on this issue is outstanding, and her spirited defence of legal aid was stupendous.
Before I come to the crux of my speech, I acknowledge the hard work of my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter), who was the shadow Minister who led on the LASPO Bill in the Parliament of 2010-15. At that time, I was on the Justice Committee. I remember the hours of work that my hon. Friend put into the scrutiny of that Bill. The sadness of it is that many of the predictions he made, and those of the Justice Committee that examined LASPO at the time, have come to fruition. All the warnings and worries that we had then have turned out to be justified now. That is really sad. I do not think any of us wanted to be proved correct; we would have preferred to be proved wrong, but we have turned out to be correct.
The reforms have caused an enormous amount of sadness and misery for many ordinary people who are not familiar with the legal system. Often they are not the most literate people, who may not have the most excellent advocacy skills and are probably coming to the judicial system—criminal or civil—for the first time. Most are utterly bemused, and do not know what they are doing. I am sure many Members of Parliament have constituents who have come to them with such problems, and will know that most of them are completely confused, are not sure what to do, do not know their rights and do not have the finance to afford legal support. Because there is no legal aid, they cannot access a solicitor or a barrister or get legal advice.
My hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Hugh Gaffney) spoke about the problems of tenants and landlords. It is a shocking situation that many people now live in squalid accommodation but cannot do anything about it and do not know their rights. In any case, enforcing any of their rights costs too much. They live in squalid accommodation, and their options are to shut up or try to move elsewhere—and often the alternative accommodation they could move into is not great. That is another area where vulnerable people are affected.
My hon. Friend the Member for Westminster North spoke about immigration—another sector where there have been big cuts in legal aid—and particularly the impact on children and families. Immigrants are not flavour of the month in most parts of the world, but they are human beings with children and family ties, who have legal rights and need to be able to access legal advice. There has been a massive reduction in their ability to understand what their rights are in trying to keep their family unit together.
Those are just two areas. We also know about people who are employed but who are in not particularly good working conditions or have employers who are not the fairest, and they cannot access employment tribunals. Many people with health issues cannot get advice on the benefits they may be able to get or, if they have a disability, on what their rights are. Such vulnerable groups are badly affected. Prior to LASPO, a reasonable, decent amount of legal aid was available and accessible. A lot has now gone.
We have also talked about ordinary family law cases, not just family law issues in relation to immigration—where parents may be going through divorce or separation, or where children are involved. That is a lot of stress for families. Often, they cannot go and get legal advice because, frankly, they cannot pay for it, and that causes distress.
Even if we ignore the human costs of the changes in legal aid, our court systems have not benefited, either. I distinctly remember hearing from a number of judges sitting in the civil courts, who came to give evidence on LASPO to the Justice Committee. They said, “One effect of the legislation will be that you will have a lot of unrepresented litigants turning up in court, taking more time, clogging up the court, which in the end will cost us more.”
Let us face it: even an hour in a county court, a magistrates court or the High Court costs thousands and thousands of pounds, because there are all the costs of running the court and paying people. When there is an unrepresented claimant or person before the court—or a defendant, in the criminal courts—they can take up a lot of time. Any saving of a few hundred pounds that might have been made by preventing them from getting the preliminary advice that could have helped them ends up being wasted, because the courts will, and do, take longer to deal with those cases and those cases clog them up. I think that if hon. Members speak to judges, they will find that that problem is still occurring.
Of course, one of the things the Government plan, which we have not touched on but which will have an additional impact on unrepresented people, is the increasing introduction of virtual courts and online court systems, where they will not be speaking to anyone, nobody will be able to guide them and they will be even more confused. One of our great worries in the criminal justice system is that we may have people pleading guilty or making admissions to things they should not.
As a practitioner in the current system—in which we do not have so many virtual courts—I remember being in court when somebody would come in who was unrepresented. Many legal professionals in court, when they hear that somebody is not sure about their case, will often give them voluntary advice and guidance or signpost them as to where they should go. That will not happen in a virtual court. The availability of legal aid becomes even more important in this technical age, where there will be less interface with people and there will be fewer people able to guide litigants.
I am sad that the Government, even now that they are carrying out a review, are taking so long about it. We were told we would probably have the review by the end of the summer; now we are talking about the end of the year. My first question for the Minister is, when will the review be completed?
The second question that I hope the Minister will answer is, in light of what we know is happening, will there be any real changes to legal aid to make it applicable and available to many more people? The Ministry of Justice must be aware of the issue that I and other hon. Members have raised about the effect on people’s lives. It is pointless to have rights if we cannot enforce them; they might as well be meaningless if we have no mechanism to enforce them. The lack of legal aid means that those rights often cannot be enforced for the people who are the most vulnerable.
Another problem that has occurred as a result of the legal aid cuts is that even those people who might qualify for legal aid often find that there are not enough lawyers out there who are willing to do legal aid work, because the rates have gone down. The Government’s attitude is, “These are all ‘fat cats’ or people who are living a lavish lifestyle.” That is not true. Most legal aid lawyers are not fat cats or people earning hundreds of thousands of pounds; they are just trying to make a reasonable living. Therefore, it is more difficult to find people who can do legal aid work, and many small high street firms have closed down because they cannot afford to continue to run a practice. Even when people are able to get legal aid, finding lawyers who will do legal aid work for them is problematic.
I ask the Minister to look at this issue again. Legal aid was introduced by a Labour Government in 1949 as one of the benefits that people need the most, and I hope the Minister and the Government will reconsider the whole issue of legal aid and make it much more widely available to people.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher. I thank the hon. Member for Westminster North (Ms Buck) for bringing the debate. I acknowledge her work, as others have done, as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on legal aid. I am delighted to have the opportunity to respond, because legal aid is an important part of our legal system. It is fundamental that individuals have access to justice—the ability to determine their rights in a fair and impartial way—and, as the hon. Lady said at the beginning of her speech, legal aid is an important part of the process for those who cannot afford to pay for legal representation.
Before I address many of the important points made, I want to make three points, which concern the amount of money we have invested and continue to invest in legal aid, the recent steps we have made to expand the scope of legal aid, and the significant investment we are making in our justice system, which will assist all litigants more broadly. First, on spending, it is important to recognise that the Government spend £1.6 billion a year on legal aid, which is a fifth of the Ministry of Justice budget. That is in addition to other sources of funding to ensure justice and the fair determination of rights. For example, in the last three years we have spent almost £6.5 million in addition through the litigants-in-person support strategy to help people to navigate the legal process.
Secondly, in recent months the Government have increased the scope of legal aid in a number of areas, as the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter) kindly highlighted. In January, we broadened the accepted evidence for domestic violence and removed all time limits. Since then, in the first quarter of this year, there has been a 21% increase in applications for legal aid for domestic violence and a record number of legal aid grants were made.
In February, as the hon. Gentleman mentioned, we broadened the scope for legal aid for prisoners, and in June we updated the legal guidance for inquests on cases involving deaths in custody. In doing so, we have ensured that the starting presumption is always that legal aid should be available for such cases. I have also recently committed to laying an amendment to LASPO before the end of the year to bring immigration matters for unaccompanied and separated children into scope of legal aid.
Thirdly, it is important to mention that the Government are making a significant investment to transform our courts and tribunal services—we are investing £1 billion to bring our justice system into the 21st century. That helps vulnerable people in a number of ways. It enables traumatised and vulnerable witnesses to give pre-recorded evidence. It enables those who find it difficult to travel to court the opportunity to take part by video link. It enables those who are time-pressed to make applications to court online, for example, for divorce or for probate. It enables those who wish to resolve money disputes up to £10,000 to make claims online and, should both parties agree, to settle without going to court. It also enables those making welfare claims to do so online, get updates about those claims online and deal with queries and issues before a hearing by liaising with the judge online. All those mechanisms and that investment make our justice system more accessible and more available to all. The Government are investing in our justice system in so many ways to protect the vulnerable and to facilitate justice outside the provision of legal aid.
I turn to the changes made by LASPO. The hon. Lady rightly highlighted that the Joint Committee on Human Rights on which she serves recently published a report, which I read with interest. She and the hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Hugh Gaffney) are right to identify that changes were made to legal aid by the coalition Government through LASPO in 2012, but it would be wrong not to mention the context in which those changes were made.
When the programme to reform legal aid commenced in 2010, the scale of the financial challenge facing the Government was unprecedented. As the then Chancellor said in November 2010, the Government faced
“the greatest budget deficit in our peacetime history”.—[Official Report, 29 November 2010; Vol. 519, c. 529.]
The Government’s financial deficit for the fiscal year 2010-11 was almost £144 billion, according to the Office for National Statistics. The savings required from public services to cut the deficit were substantial, in which circumstances the Government made difficult choices. They rightly focused their resources on the most vulnerable people in our society and set the following principles for LASPO: to discourage unnecessary and adversarial litigation at public expense; to make significant savings to the cost of the scheme; to deliver better overall value for money for the taxpayer; and to target legal aid at those who most need it.
The hon. Member for Westminster North was right to identify that we are in the process of a review. My officials have met more than 70 organisations to gather evidence from across the justice system. Over recent months, I have met representatives of Resolution, Women’s Aid, the Law Centres Network and the Low Commission to gain a greater understanding of the impact of the legal aid changes. I am also pleased to have recently led a number of roundtable discussions focused on topics such as domestic violence and improving the use of technology in the justice system. Those discussions, and this debate, will better inform our thoughts and views on the LASPO review.
I will respond to some of the points made by hon. Members from both sides of the House. In the short time that I am on my feet, I will not have time to address all the points that the hon. Member for Westminster North made, but I will take up her offer and address those that are outstanding in writing. I will try to go through as many as I can in the time remaining. Many hon. Members asked about the timing of the review. The Government remain committed to responding by the end of the year. The hon. Member for Westminster North suggested that there was a lack of transparency, which I hope is not the case. I have mentioned the large number of third parties with whom we are engaging and having extremely transparent discussions. In July, we published an update on gov.uk about the progress of the review, which included the agendas of the consultation groups.
The hon. Lady started and finished with the impact of the changes on providers, which she said meant that providers were closing. She asked how we were going to deal with that. The Legal Aid Agency regularly reviews market capacity to assess capacity around the country. In a recent retender of face-to-face contracts, it received tenders from more than 1,700 organisations that wished to deliver face-to-face civil legal aid work. Those organisations submitted more than 4,300 individual bids, so it is confident that a good quantity of people are providing work at the moment.
The hon. Lady mentioned solicitors more broadly and the recent Law Society study. There is a further study in relation to the age of the profession, which I have looked at with interest. I am meeting the Law Society this month to discuss that and several other matters. In relation to barristers, we recently launched our consultation on the advocates’ graduated fee scheme, with a commitment to put a further £15 million into criminal advocacy.
The hon. Lady mentioned exceptional case funding and human rights. Quotes and figures were given about the start of the exceptional case funding scheme. Concerns have been expressed, but it is important to point out that the number of applications has risen significantly in recent years. In the first quarter of 2018, 745 applications were made through the ECF, which is a 40% increase on the previous year. Not for the first time, concerns were also expressed about the telephone gateway. As a result of those concerns, I recently had a meeting in Nottingham with the Legal Aid Agency and the provider of the telephone gateway service to understand how that service operates. I was interested to hear that they say that more than 90% of people find the service helpful, but I will continue to look at that.
Briefly, the hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry) mentioned the Scottish law review. I have read it, and it is interesting that some of the ideas in it are already being put in place by this Government—for example, video links and the online court. I have not been able to address all the points that have been made in the debate, although I would have liked to, because these are important matters. However, I am pleased that I have had the opportunity to touch on some of the issues that are so important to the House.
Motion lapsed, and sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No.10(14)).