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Immigration and Nationality (Fees) Order 2007

Volume 690: debated on Thursday 8 March 2007

rose to move, That the draft order laid before the House on 21 February be approved.

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, the order is an important first step in the implementation of a new charging model for immigration and nationality services in support of the new enforcement strategy for immigration announced yesterday. The Government set out their proposals for charging in the formal response to the charging consultation published yesterday. In this, we said that we will introduce a flexible, value-based model, as backed by the responses to the consultation. This will allow us to set fees at realistic levels that are fair both to the users of the system and to the general public, and we will make the regulations specify the fees. We are taking the powers in Sections 51 and 52 of the Immigration, Asylum and Nationality Act 2006, along with the power in Section 42 of the Asylum and Immigration (Treatment of Claimants, etc.) Act 2004, to implement the new model for in-country applications.

The order sets out the immigration and nationality services that will come under the new charging model. The actual fee levels will be specified in subsequent regulations and we will return to consider those in due course after the other place has debated this order. The order does not introduce any new fee streams; it only includes services for which we already charge.

The charging model rests on the ability to set fees at levels that we believe are realistic and fair, taking into account a number of factors: first, the value of a successful application to the migrant, and, secondly, whether there would be a significant drop in demand if the fees were raised to normal cost-recovery levels, together with the need to remain internationally competitive. Thirdly, we are aware that migration is a cross-cutting issue that impacts on a number of different policy issues. We are clear that we need to support wider government objectives, such as the Prime Minister’s initiative to promote student exports, when determining appropriate fee levels. Finally, in setting fees, we will take into account the value of the migrant to the United Kingdom. Those factors will be taken into account in order to moderate the over-cost on normal cost-recovery fees, for which the legislation provides.

Many fees will continue to be set at cost-recovery levels. There are some routes where there are pre-determined limits to the amount that we can charge for an application, such as certain travel documents. Some fees will be set below cost-recovery levels because we believe that there are strong grounds for doing so, and some fees will be set at levels above cost recovery.

The additional revenue raised by fees set at over-cost levels will be used to recover the overall costs of the immigration system, including the step change in enforcement activity and border security set out in the IND review published last summer and most recently in the comprehensive and radical cross-government enforcement strategy published yesterday. The strategy will be backed up by around an extra £100 million for immigration policing, detention space and systems to share data and intelligence on those here illegally, which are designed to bear down on those seeking to cheat the system and live here unlawfully.

In line with our policy, we want to make it easier for those who want to come here but tougher on those abusing the system. As I said, there will be ample opportunity to debate the proposed fee levels in detail in due course, when the fees regulations come back—subject, of course, to your Lordships and the other place agreeing to this order. I beg to move.

Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 21 February be approved. 10th Report from the Statutory Instruments Committee.—(Baroness Scotland of Asthal.)

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for her explanation. We look forward to having the opportunity to debate the level of fees when the regulations come to this House. In the mean time, we have no objections to the order.

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

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

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

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

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

Secondly, the Government want to generate the revenue that will fund the transformation of the immigration system over the next four years, which means that applicants will be expected to pay for the measures that are needed to correct the appalling errors made by the IND up to now. That is grossly unfair. To load on to current applicants the £100 million additional expenditure, which the noble Baroness mentioned, makes the increases very severe indeed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for introducing this order, which I very much welcome. I was not going to intervene in this debate, but I feel slightly provoked by the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, who anticipated the regulations about the details of the fees. As he has made so much critical comment about them, I shall welcome part of yesterday’s announcement, particularly the relatively modest increase in fees for overseas students and visitors coming to the United Kingdom. These areas of economic activity are extremely important to this country. The revenue from overseas students is vital to the funding of our higher education system, and the revenue from tourism is a vital income for the national Exchequer. The modesty of those fee increases is to be welcomed. I will cross swords with the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, on one or two of the points that he made when we come to discuss the relative priorities of this legislation.

I shall conclude with a few words of praise for a frequently attacked department of state, the Home Office, and, in particular, the Immigration and Nationality Directorate. The changes in policy, particularly those that come with the programme for managed migration, which will fundamentally change the system by which visas are issued, are essential and need to be introduced with all expedition. Alongside welcoming that programme, I congratulate the Minister’s department and the Immigration and Nationality Directorate on the level of public consultation that they have engaged in, which has made sure that the vast majority of stakeholders have had their opinions carefully listened to. That makes a change from the historic practice in some of these matters. I welcome the order.

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for his expressions of gratitude and congratulation and I thank the noble Viscount, Lord Bridgeman, for the brevity and completeness of his support.

My noble friend Lord Tomlinson is right that we are doing two separate things. The noble Lord, Lord Avebury, will be aware that in order to implement a new flexible charging model for in-country immigration and nationality applications, we need to use a combination of secondary legislation to set out the new fees. It is a two-stage process. We need to take a Section 51 order through the affirmative process in both the Commons and the Lords. That is this order, which sets out the principles of a flexible approach and the routes that we intend to apply to the new model. That is the first stage. Only when that first stage is complete in both Houses are we entitled to move to the second stage and to take regulations made under Section 51, in reliance on Section 42, through the affirmative process in both the Commons and the Lords, detailing the new fees where they have been set at levels above simple cost recovery. The dates for the future debates will be set in due course.

The whole purpose of issuing the information as soon as we could with this order was that the House would have the advantage of seeing the principles on which the fees were to be set and of deciding whether they were acceptable—and I am grateful for the indication of the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, that he does accept them. After that, we will have a fuller, detailed debate about all the other issues that the noble Lord has properly raised on fees and citizenship and on how education and other factors are dealt with. I thank him for the fullness of the questions, because it will be enormously helpful in preparing for that second debate to have an opportunity to look at those issues.

There will be a gap between this order and the regulations. I hope, therefore, that when the noble Lord has a moment of more mature reflection, rather than looking at this so quickly—and I commend him for the speed with which he has absorbed all this information to make the critical questions so clear—he will be able to come back so that we can deal with the matter appropriately.

I endorse what my noble friend Lord Tomlinson said. We have spent some time and not inconsiderable trouble in researching this issue comprehensively—more comprehensively perhaps than such issues have ever been researched before—so that we understand it better and can target the fees in a way that makes sense for those who wish to take advantage of the services that we will provide and, we hope, provide ever more efficiently. We very much take into account the worries and concerns of the different sectors, not least about education. I pay credit to my noble friend Lord Tomlinson, who has been of great assistance and who has participated with great energy in this consultation process.

I hope that, with the assurance that we can come back to all these issues when the regulations come into play, the noble Lord will be content to have that fuller debate at that time. I thank him for his gracious acceptance that this order, which sets out the framework within which the fees will be set, is something with which he and his party can concur.

On Question, Motion agreed to.