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Statement of Changes in Immigration Rules

Volume 718: debated on Tuesday 6 April 2010

Motion to Resolve

Moved by

To resolve that this House regrets that Her Majesty’s Government have laid before Parliament the Statement of Changes in Immigration Rules without providing an impact assessment or full consultation responses and notes with concern the risk that Parliament may lack the ability to assess the significance of the concerns that have been expressed by the education sector about the policy changes made in the rules.

Relevant document:11th Report from the Merits Committee.

My Lords, I hope that I will not be accused of putting a withering load of Questions on the last day of Parliament by the Minister who will answer this debate, as the noble Lord, Lord Davies of Oldham, accused the Conservative Front Bench of doing in the previous debate. It is unfortunate that there are a lot of questions to be answered on the Statement of Changes to the Immigration Rules, but it is not my fault that it comes up on the last day of this Parliament. As I shall attempt to illustrate, that is a product of the whole sequence of events that led up to the changes that affect tier 4 of the Immigration Rules under the points-based system, dealing with non-EEA students, and the changes that they provide are intended to make it harder for students taking courses at lower than degree level, whether they are genuine or not. The matter reaches us on the last normal day of this Parliament by the most extraordinary and irregular process, as I shall attempt to explain.

The context is the concern expressed, notably by the Home Affairs Committee of another place, about the prevalence of bogus colleges and the number of pretended students who were getting into the country before the points-based system was introduced. The committee found that 2,200 colleges formerly on the register of education providers either did not apply or were not accepted for the new register of sponsors, but it was also told that tens of thousands of illegal entrants might have got in under the old system. There were reasons to suspect, also, that insufficient checks had been made on the remaining 1,600-odd colleges and that leaving approval of colleges largely to accrediting organisations of varying competence and reliability was not the answer. A review of those organisations was being undertaken, and I hope that we shall hear from the Minister what conclusions it reached.

According to UKBA’s November 2009 document, Simplifying Immigration Law—a misleading title when you consider that the rules dealing with the points-based system alone occupy 44 pages of 10-point type—a minimum of 12 weeks is usually allowed for external consultation on changes to the rules, and impact assessments and equality impact assessments may be produced, depending on the nature of the changes.

The National Audit Office states that the Government are committed to conducting formal impact assessments of the need for and impact of new regulations. They are said to be mandatory for all government interventions that impose costs on businesses, as this statement definitely does. However, in this case, an IA was conducted when it was far too late for it to have any practical effect. The IA, which stems from the tier 4 general review, encompassed the changes in the present statement and in HC 439—yet another statement, which was produced a couple of weeks ago, which we are not dealing with today.

That may explain why, although the Merits Committee was told in February that the IA would be published “in a couple of weeks”, the deadline was amended almost instantly to some time in March and now, coincidentally, to this very day. Your Lordships may think that it might not have appeared at all until after the dissolution if this Motion had not been tabled. The Merits Committee,

“questions the policy development merit of completing an IA after an instrument has already been laid, let alone having come into effect. The House may wish to satisfy itself that UKBA has followed the Government's own policy on the use of IAs in this respect”.

We look forward to the Minister's response to that comment and to the Merits Committee’s report in general. That is not the committee's only complaint. There is no separate equality impact assessment, as there should be for provisions that have a differential impact on married students, for example. Marriage and civil partnership is a protected characteristic in the Equality Bill, which is about to become law, and the Home Office may be in breach of the public sector duty under Clause 1 that it should,

“when making decisions of a strategic nature about how to exercise its functions, have due regard to the … desirability of exercising them in a way that is designed to reduce inequalities of outcome which result from socio-economic disadvantage”.

Clearly, inequalities of outcome between single and married students result from socio-economic disadvantage which are being aggravated by the rule changes.

I understand from talking to a Home Office official that the equality impact assessment had been conducted in parallel with the IA, and was to be published with it today. I received it at seven minutes to three o'clock, so I have not had time to study it in great detail, but it states that there may be negative effects on equality, but that will be because they arise from strong policy reasons. It then considers individual types of equality and states that, in fact, no impact arises. How can those two statements be reconciled? There is no point in carrying out these exercises if the Home Office sails on merrily with an order and does not give Parliament concrete assurances, which I now seek, that the matters raised in the EIA, including those regarding any of the protected characteristics, will be addressed: to begin with, in a Written Statement, and, if necessary, as soon as the opportunity arises, by an amending statement of changes.

On consultation, the Prime Minister announced a review of tier 4 on 12 November last year. On 17 November, some, but not all, of those concerned received e-mailed letters containing the questions and a 10-day deadline for replies. In its reply to that so-called consultation, the UK Council for International Student Affairs (UKCISA), which also gave evidence to the Merits Committee, stated that it was,

“quite extraordinary for this review to be commissioned and undertaken in little more than three weeks which has given us no proper time to canvass views from our members”.

The Independent Law Practitioners’ Association (ILPA) states that it was notified verbally about consultation on 25 November at a meeting of the Employers Task Force, but received the questions only on 30 November, after the closing date of 27 November. It submitted its observations on 4 December.

Universities UK told me that it had 24 hours to deal with the highly trusted sponsor details, which were of particular concern to its members. The proposals on the highly trusted sponsor scheme do not appear to be covered by the order, although there is a definition in HC 439, and the scheme itself was published on the UKBA website on 22 March. UKBA told the Merits Committee that 17 sector organisations submitted evidence for the tier 4 review and that more than 300 representations were received from individuals, education providers and related businesses. That is a remarkable score when you look at the timetable. It said that it was not publishing any analysis of those responses because the consultation was not formal. What sort of consultation was it and under what circumstances will such consultation be conducted in future?

The Government’s code of practice on consultation prescribes that:

“Consultations should normally last for at least 12 weeks with consideration given to longer timescales where feasible and sensible … Consultation responses should be analysed carefully and clear feedback should be provided to participants following the consultation”.

The code provides that Ministers should have discretion not to undertake a formal consultation exercise, but was ministerial authority cited for the decision in this case, and was any reason given for the “challenging and tight timetable”, as it was described in UKBA's letter of 17 November, or for the failure to analyse the responses? In every respect other than timetable, it looked as if it was a formal consultation. If the reason for the haste was to ensure that the process was finished and the statement agreed before the election was called, the Government should have said so at the time. Will the next edition of the code state that Ministers can declare a consultation not to be formal when the only reason for that is to avoid the 12-week obligation?

Speaking about immigration policy last week, the Prime Minister said,

“how we conduct this debate is as important as the debate itself”.

We can all agree with him on that, but that statement does not stack up with the arbitrary suspension of 60 colleges in the panic of last November. Can the Minister confirm that all but two of them were subsequently restored to the register and the Prime Minister's statement last week that, altogether, 140 colleges were stopped from bringing in non-EU students last year? How many of those were later reinstated, and does not fairness require that investigation of alleged abuse precede rather than follow suspension? What rights of appeal do colleges have against their suspension or removal?

What debate was there before the stopping of all applications under tier 4 from south China, north India, Bangladesh and Nepal from 1 February this year, and is that ban still in force? What was the evidential basis for the decision, apart from an unquantifiable increase in the number of applications at each of the three posts? Where has the UKBA got to with the investigation that was announced as to whether or not the applications at these posts were genuine?

The next thing that happened was that on 7 February the Home Secretary announced on BBC TV that the changes in this statement were to come into immediate effect, though of course that was not true as they had not been through the parliamentary negative resolution procedure that is required by law. Parliament was not told about them until Mr Johnson made a Written Statement the following Wednesday. Why did he not then correct the misinformation that he had given to Andrew Marr and his hundreds of thousands of viewers? As to the substance of the changes, the Prime Minister, speaking in Islington last week, said that,

“we need to be tougher on those who want to come under tier 4 and who are studying low-level qualifications, and tougher on bogus colleges”.

From a document entitled Tier 4 Sponsor Recruitment Practices and marked as a draft, “not for wider circulation”, sponsor institutions are being required to undertake a variety of checks on an applicant before issuing a confirmation of acceptance for studies. Looking at the passport to see whether the applicant has been refused leave to enter in the past, verifying the qualifications which are presented with the issuing institution and assessing the difficulty that a candidate may have in adapting to life as a student in the UK, are three examples of good practice in this 21-page document. In the case of the HTS scheme, some of the tests, which are only recommended for institutions of further education generally, become mandatory, raising acute concern for Universities UK. For the rest of the sector, there is uncertainty about the tests they will need to apply, and that really does need to be clarified.

More generally, the providers do not like the way that these changes transfer the responsibility for immigration control from the UKBA, acting on behalf of the Secretary of State, to educational institutions, and impose severe penalties on them if they fail to carry out enough of the 21 pages of tests or if more than a small proportion of those granted certificates of approval go absent or fail to complete the course. In the case of the HTS scheme, following a meeting with UUK on 1 April, UKBA has undertaken to review these arrangements and come up with amendments by 15 April, yet a further illustration of,

“the inadequate and incomplete consultation on the proposals with the university sector”,

which has resulted in what the UUK calls,

“poor quality and unclear documentation”.

What I would like from the Minister as the outcome of this debate is a review of the tier 4 arrangements as a whole in the light of the impact assessment and in full consultation—which did not happen before—with the stakeholders; and an undertaking equivalent to the one given to UUK that amendments will be made to cover the valid objections that have been made. Above all, I am looking for an assurance from the Minister that if the present Government are re-elected on 6 May, they will never again try to push through material changes to the Immigration Rules affecting people and institutions without any of the safeguards that exist to ensure informed parliamentary scrutiny and to prevent flawed legislation. I beg to move.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, for bringing this Statement of Changes in Immigration Rules on to the Floor of the House. The issues that he raises are very significant and we are in agreement on most of them.

Immigration is a very controversial and sensitive topic and we must get the balance right. Running incomplete statutory instruments through this House, which is essentially what we have before us today—with an impact assessment delivered approximately two hours before this debate, and without full consultation responses—is unacceptable, especially in the knowledge that there have been voices of concern in the education sector about the rules this statement will change. Furthermore, the Merits Committee rightly points out in its 11th report that it feels,

“unable to take an informed view of the policy development processes behind this statement”.

I have the same reservations from these Benches.

As we all know, the Statement of Changes in Immigration Rules is being made to tighten up border controls through tier 4, which include but are not limited to implementing a new restriction on the amount of work that can be carried out by students below degree level, and further restrictions on family members of some students. A linked change is to be made in guidance, although not included in this statement, which will require all students below degree level to demonstrate an existing level of English language at just below GCSE standard. The aim of the review by the Merits Committee was to assess whether the suggested policy changes to tier 4 strike the right balance between facilitating the access of genuine students to education in the UK and preventing abuse by economic migrants. As already stated, the committee could not reach a conclusion, and I am in agreement with the stance that it was forced to take.

I do not support the approach that the Government took in the first instance in regard to the handling of student visa immigration loopholes, and I do not believe that this statement will make the situation any better. The student visa system has been the biggest hole in our border controls for a decade under this Government, and the Government still seem to be stumbling around trying desperately to mend their mistakes. We on these Benches are fully aware of the scale of the serious problem involving the abuse of student visas for immigration purposes, while understanding the need to encourage and welcome the brightest and best students to come to the UK to study. We need those who can contribute to the revitalisation of our knowledge-based economy.

However, the Government's immigration policies have failed time and again to address the real problems, while the new English language requirement threatens the existence of hundreds of legitimate businesses. This is the point that the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, has made well. The results of this review include increasing the minimum English-language requirement. This has serious consequences for genuine language schools. If the Government were to adopt this change it could in effect close every language school across the country.

The English language industry is worth £1.5 billion annually in foreign earnings to the UK economy. We should be encouraging legitimate foreign students to come here to learn English, and the Government should not make blanket, knee-jerk regulations that could seriously damage that industry. A number of bodies have voiced their concerns. English UK and Study UK, for example, are unhappy about raising the bar for English language students. They are concerned that publicly funded bodies are likely to have HTS status by default while their private sector colleagues will have to apply, with all the time and expense that that involves. The committee is also aware that the Independent Schools Council—the ISC—believes that the changes may have a number of unintended effects for independent schools, stemming from the lack of a clear distinction in tier 4 between adult students and school pupils. The ISC is pursuing its concerns with the UK Border Agency.

As we have not had time to assess the impact assessment or full consultation responses, none of these concerns has been addressed, and detailed information simply has not been provided even to those who are expected to implement the changes and will have to deal with the consequences. I ask the Minister to explain the Government's justification for withholding this information and how they are addressing the types of concerns that the likes of English UK, Study UK and the ISC have.

As the committee reported, the Explanatory Memorandum says that an impact assessment of all the changes stemming from the tier 4 review was to be published on the UKBA website in March 2010. That is a point that the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, has made; and in fact, as we know, it has just appeared, as he said, coincidentally today. In response to questioning from the committee, the UKBA said that the impact assessment was being prepared and would be published when the changes took effect. That has just happened. I agree that the committee would like replies to its questions about the correctness of completing an impact assessment after an instrument has been laid, let alone after it has come into effect, which was a point well made by the noble Lord. We do not believe that the UKBA has followed the Government's policy on the use of IAs in this respect and would like the Government to explain their thoughts and how they plan to rectify the situation, if indeed they intend to do so at all.

Further information submitted to the committee by the UKBA states that 17 sector-representative organisations submitted written evidence to the review of tier 4, and over 300 representations were received from individuals and individual education providers and related businesses. Meetings were also held with key representative bodies. However, the UKBA says that it is not planning to publish an analysis of consultation responses. We would welcome the Minister’s comments on that point.

We have long called on the Government to crack down on bogus colleges and students. However, their new proposals fail to address the real problem. I am sorry to say that I consider this to be yet another quick fix, an ill thought-out policy direction that will do more damage than good in the long run. What is needed is: a proper clampdown on bogus colleges; allowing only institutions that are officially registered to sponsor students; an end to in-country switching between student and work visas; making it a priority for the newly formed national border police, which my party has in mind, to crack down on suspected bogus colleges; and strictly enforcing regulations on illegal working. Abuse of the student visa system is not fair on genuine students or on British taxpayers, and it has created a security loophole that must be closed.

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, has covered all the points with his usual clarity, as has the noble Viscount. Like them, I have considerable doubts about the new rules and the way they have been introduced. Overseas students are essential to our economy, and we have to be especially careful about how we handle these arrivals. I, of course, recognise the general need for controls on bogus education, but I suspect that the UKBA's system of monitoring the rules gets choked every time by the arrival of new ones.

I am very concerned about the restriction on the amount of work, which cannot be enough to help poorer students live here. I am concerned about the prohibition on family members. What is the Minister's answer to the points made by the UKCISA about, for example, the effect on women students from the Middle East?

With regard to English language competence, I agree with the noble Viscount that there could be serious consequences for our economy if the requirement for students has to be raised. I wonder whether the UKBA has calculated the effect of such a change. Does the Minister with hindsight agree with the Merits Committee that it was disappointing that the UKBA did not publish an analysis of the consultation responses and did not, until now, complete the impact assessment that might have helped in the debate? Noble Lords put it more forcefully than that.

On the wider issue of student visas, the Government told the Home Affairs Committee in December that:

“The implementation of PBS T4 has placed a particular strain on the system”,

last summer, especially in India and Pakistan. Does the Minister think that the new rules will put more or less strain on the system as a whole, including sponsorship? How many visa sections are still left open to students in those countries? Does he accept that penalising whole countries—I think Nepal is also on the list—for breaches in Immigration Rules or an overheated system discriminates against students who have legitimate claims to come here? Is it not likely that a new layer of criminal fixers will come and offer their highly priced services to help better-off students evade or avoid the rules?

My Lords, I am glad that my noble friend on the Front Bench does not like these provisions as it is yet another reason for optimism for 7 May. This is a bit of late, decaying government foolishness. They have not taken into account the many adverse effects of the rules they propose. As other speakers have said, international students coming here to learn English are an important contributor to our economy. More than that, it is an enormous contributor to our status in the world and to our long-term financial health that so many people come from overseas, gain a command of English, go back home and—presuming that they have been treated well here, which the vast majority are—are our friends for life. To cut off that part of our future in such an arbitrary and ill thought-out way is entirely unjustified, as is the setting of a bar at GCSE level for English. That is the point at which children come here to study, by and large. You would expect to pick a child up to bring him up to GCSE standard. What is the point of setting the level at GCSE for genuine school-age pupils coming to take part of their school education here? It seems entirely inappropriate.

I also object extremely strongly to the idea that an impact assessment should not be prepared before an instrument is laid. It is clearly part of the standard procedure, as is a proper exposé of consultation responses. There is no reason for the border agency generally or in this instance to be exempt from those requirements. It means that its proposals are not subject to a proper degree of scrutiny by this House, and I hope that the Minister will say that it will never happen again, at least under his jurisdiction.

My Lords, the whole House has on many occasions had cause to be grateful to my noble friend for bringing issues of immigration to the Floor of the House, and today is no exception. He has answered a question for me. I was unable to find the impact assessment. I read the papers hastily, not having expected to be able to take part in this debate, and went into the UKBA website to look for the impact assessment and got nowhere. It was clearly not yet there, but this is probably the season for rather jerky knees.

As noble Lords have said, these changes stem from concerns about so-called bogus colleges. I think “bogus” is overused in the context of immigration and asylum. As the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, said, there are clear reputational issues around this. We should indeed crack down on bogus colleges that do not offer proper education, but that is because of the reputation of the UK and because it is simply cheating for colleges that do not educate their students properly to be taking money off them. That is something that I feel extremely strongly about. Perhaps the next Parliament will give us an opportunity to consider licensing such institutions.

So many of the changes that we are considering appear to stem from the guidance rather than from the rules. The rules are complex enough. I refer to just one paragraph that is mentioned: paragraph 245ZZB(c)(iv)(1). One can understand how many changes there must have been to get at such a designation of a paragraph, and it is very difficult for anyone to understand the current position. Many of these changes come in the guidance, and I question whether guidance is the appropriate vehicle for some of this. My noble friend is drawing the House’s attention to changes in the Immigration Rules, but the guidance is a step lower in that we cannot even challenge it through the legislative process.

I see from the letter from the UK Council for International Student Affairs that was published in the Merits Committee report that, since the Immigration Rules for tier 4 were first published, just less than 12 months ago—the letter was sent, I think, last month—there have been six versions of the tier 4 policy guidance. That is bad in itself, and it is bad that guidance has assumed such significance in the decisions that are taken in this area and in the futures of the people who are affected by them. The council says that the scheme is becoming quite unworkable because of the number of changes and because the information is published in so many different places and in many cases says different things. The council goes on to say—this worries me very much:

“Where there is a discrepancy between the Immigration Rules and some other document or source of information, we cannot assume that the Immigration Rules will be applied and have to ask on every occasion which version reflects the real policy intention. As the policy guidance is changed so often, there appears to be little legal certainty on which students and advisers can rely”.

I was also struck by the level of English that is to be attained. Again, the Merits Committee cites in evidence a letter that states that,

“it is absurd to require people who wish to come to learn the language already to be competent in it, which is the effect of this proposal”.

We have arrived in Alice in Wonderland.

The effect on students and their families of the restrictions on the hours of work has been mentioned. The letter from the UK Council for International Student Affairs to the Merits Committee states:

“It is not clear why the Government wishes to disrupt so severely the family life of students, particularly when family support in a new country can be so helpful in ensuring that students successfully complete their studies”.

In short, there are a lot of questions, which I do not need to repeat. The biggest question with which I am left is why the Government have chosen to take what clearly appears, to all the speakers in the debate, to be such a perverse course without having provided material on which there could have been a proper debate. We are having a debate thanks to my noble friend, although we are having it at the 11th hour—indeed the 24th—but it is right at least that we put on record our concerns.

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, for raising this important subject and for his prior notice of some of the questions that he was going to ask, as it gives me an opportunity to explain to the House the background to the changes to the Immigration Rules for students studying under tier 4 of the points-based system and why they were introduced with some urgency. Before I do so, I acknowledge the unique contribution that international students make to the country as a whole, as well as to the universities and colleges where they study. Their contribution goes much wider than the £8.5 billion that they contribute to the economy and can be seen in areas as diverse as investment in the UK and the future prominence of the UK on the world stage. The noble Viscount, Lord Bridgeman, the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, and the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, touched on this and I absolutely agree with the points that they made about the value of such students.

The changes form part of the measures that were agreed following the Prime Minister’s review of tier 4. It may be helpful if I explain the background to the review. Tier 4 is a system that tackles the immigration abuse and reputational damage caused by bogus colleges and bogus students. We have been broadly supported on this journey by the legitimate education sector, which is responsible for securing the UK’s place as a world-class education provider. Tier 4 was introduced on 31 March last year. The new system of sponsor licensing has prevented immigration criminals from obtaining licences. The current register has around 2,000 licensed institutions, which is half the estimated number of institutions that were previously active in recruiting international students, but the review showed that, given that the system was new, there was still more to be done.

Despite this reduction in the number of institutions, we have seen an increase in the number of student applications compared with the numbers in previous years. When UKBA staff in some parts of the world expressed concern about this, it was right for the Prime Minister to call for a review. Given the urgent need to understand what was happening to prevent potential abuse, the review team was set a challenging timescale of four weeks to gather evidence from the UK Border Agency and to consult the education sector. The review team from the Home Office and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills was asked to assess whether tier 4 policy was striking the appropriate balance between facilitating genuine students’ access to education in the UK and preventing abuse by economic migrants.

Despite the challenging timescale, the review team held meetings with all the main education representative bodies to listen to their views and accepted their representations, along with several hundred additional responses that were received from individual providers. There is, as a couple of speakers have said, a code of practice on formal written consultations, but it is non-binding and, given concerns about the security of immigration control, it was decided that it was not appropriate to conduct a formal written consultation of the type that is covered by the code. Notwithstanding that lack of a formal written consultation, any suggestion that the review took no account of the sector’s views is wrong.

The findings of the review confirmed that there was evidence of higher student application rates in some parts of the world than in previous years—the rate was up by approximately 250 per cent in parts of south Asia—and these increases were far more significant compared with those in our main competitor countries. In the areas of concern, the students were seen typically to enrol on low-level English language courses and courses below degree level. A further trend was of student applicants with little English coming to study lower-level courses, despite having been out of education for many years, and seeking to bring their dependants. There were also significant numbers of reports on students who had failed to enrol or who had dropped out of their courses soon after arrival.

Ministers agreed that the review had demonstrated sufficient evidence of potential abuse to justify introducing further measures to strengthen tier 4 and to do so without delay. On 10 February, my right honourable friend the Home Secretary announced a targeted package of measures, of which these changes to the Immigration Rules form a crucial part. These rules were laid at the first realistic opportunity following the announcement by my right honourable friend the Home Secretary.

I now beg noble Lords’ patience as I explain the changes in more detail, as this is one of those occasions when detail is important. The detail demonstrates that, far from ignoring the views of the education sector when making the changes, the Government have responded to its concerns. First, the change to the English language level means that applicants are required to have a higher level of competency in English before they can use tier 4. As a number of speakers have said, this may seem to be a major change, which could arguably have a significant impact on the English language sector in particular. However, complete beginners have never been able to use the tier 4 route, and the student visitor route, which operates outside the points-based system, continues to be available to beginners and to low-level students.

The Government contend that this is the more appropriate route for such students, and independent research confirms that an average student can progress to the standard required for entry under tier 4 during a six-month course. In making this change in the minimum level of English, the Government have also made concessions for degree students who may need to do some English before their main course and for low-risk government-sponsored students. This change targets the abuse of low-level English language courses, while safeguarding genuine student progression.

Another English language change now requires sponsors of students studying on courses below degree level, excluding foundation degrees, to confirm that their students have a minimum standard of English. I make no apology for this: if students are to be taught in English, it is not unreasonable to require them to have a certain level to be able to follow their courses. By the summer, we will also require them to demonstrate this through a UKBA-approved secure test. This change was largely supported by institutions in the sector, many of which already require their students to demonstrate an English language ability. It simply levels the playing field and ensures that students can follow their courses.

The other changes introduced on 3 March mean that, for example, the time that a student studying below degree level, excluding foundation degrees, is able to work has been halved to 10 hours during term time. This change reinforces tier 4 as a route for serious study and was supported by a significant proportion of the further education sector. The noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, touched on this point. The previous 20-hour limit sometimes distracted students and the sector rightly said that it was more important for them to concentrate on their studies to gain good grades. This was something that the education sector felt that it wanted.

In addition, anyone studying a course for less than six months can no longer bring their dependants, and the dependants of those studying courses lower than undergraduate level, excluding the foundation degrees, are not permitted to work. These changes respond to the marked increase in such applications, since the introduction of tier 4, where we questioned whether the main purpose of the applicants was to study or to work. Neither the further education sector nor the English language sector felt that these changes would impact on them significantly, as they said that their students were typically younger, without families.

Today we have also launched the new category of highly trusted sponsor for tier 4 sponsors. Tier 4 sponsors will require this status if they are to continue to offer adult student places on courses with work placements, where these are below degree level, and courses at the lowest academic level. It is right for the Government to limit such courses, which are highly attractive to economic migrants, to the most trustworthy and compliant sponsors.

From the outset, this review was about putting in place measures to ensure that tier 4 has the necessary controls to drive out abuse. It is regrettable that the necessary speed of the review meant that a formal impact assessment could not be published to coincide with the initial changes. However, the review considered impact as an integral part of its work. As has been stated, a full impact assessment has today been provided to the Printed Paper Office and is available on the UK Border Agency website. Notwithstanding the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, I have to say that I do not think that that was just because of this debate. However, I take his point about it being done rather later than one would like.

In addition to the changes that I have outlined, UKBA is undertaking other operational measures to ensure the integrity of the system. Sponsors are required to be satisfied that a student is able to, and intends to, follow the course of study in question before they issue a confirmation for acceptance of studies. We have been working with the sector to ensure a thorough understanding of this and we are in the process of publishing clearer guidance on how sponsors can discharge these responsibilities.

As of 22 January, UKBA has revoked 15, and suspended 145, sponsor licences. A number of the suspended institutions have been returned to the register after further investigation or where they have taken measures to tighten up their systems. Students sponsored by institutions that have been suspended from the register may continue with their studies at the institution, while new students coming to join the institution may still travel to the United Kingdom. In response to the increase in numbers of applications and pending the implementation of any recommendations stemming from the review, UKBA instigated a selective operational pause and is currently not accepting certain student applications in some areas of the world—parts of southern China and south Asia. UKBA will be working with colleagues in Ofsted and the existing accreditation bodies to ensure that the academic accreditation process that is crucial to the continuing effectiveness of the system is sufficiently robust.

The noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, talked about the complexity of the system. That was also touched on by the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, and others. I believe that the system is complex, so it is absolutely right that it is reviewed and looked at. There needs to be some rationalisation of the immigration system. Tier 4 is being reviewed all the time. We are always looking to make sure that it is working properly but, in the context of the rationalisation of the immigration system, I believe that it is correct that we should address that as well.

I have been involved in this area—by which I mean that I am spokesman in the House for it—for only about two and a half years. It seems clear to me that, over the last 50 years or so, no one has been very clever about getting to grips with some of these immigration issues. Immigrants, of course, bring a great deal to this country, but the issue needs to be grasped. I believe that we are now getting to grips with it. In my last two and a half years here, I have been impressed with what has been going on, whether it is the new border force and what it is achieving, the points-based system or the e-Borders system. We are getting to grips with it.

We have an enviable reputation as a provider of world-class education in this area. Those who seek to undermine the sector by abusing immigration controls do significant damage to its reputation. It is right that we should take prompt action to prevent that. The changes that I have outlined represent a targeted and balanced package that tightens up the student route while at the same time ensuring that genuine students are still welcome to come to the United Kingdom.

The Minister referred to the highly trusted sponsors and I understand that there is some concern that private providers might be in a less advantageous position than publicly funded ones. Will he say something about keeping the providers under review? What arrangements are there to review the standards to be met by those who seek to achieve the status of highly trusted sponsor? Is it a rolling programme?

As I understand it, that is assessed continually, but I will get back in writing with the detail of how it is done.

My Lords, on that final point, we understood that, after representations by UUK, the Government had agreed to review the highly trusted sponsors scheme and to come up with variations to it by 15 April. If that is so, as I asked the Minister in one of my questions to him, why cannot the same be done for the other parts of the tier 4 sector? As there have been many criticisms from all the noble Lords who have spoken, and we know that this is a reflection of what the providing organisations feel, why are they not entitled to an equivalent review?

The Minister says that tier 4 is subject to continuous review, but in this case there has been a botched consultation and no publication of the responses. He was asked about that by several noble Lords, including the noble Viscount, Lord Bridgeman, but he gave no answer as to why the responses to the consultation were not published. This might have given significant insight into the genuine concerns felt by many of the institutions, which we feel have not been properly addressed either in the rules or in the debate this evening. My concluding request to the Minister was whether he would give an assurance to the House that this botched method of consultation would not be adopted in the future. He said that the 12-week period provided for consultations in the code of conduct was not observed in this case because there were concerns about security and immigration control, which was why the timescale was abandoned. However, that can be prayed in aid for any changes in the Immigration Rules or, as my noble friend Lady Hamwee said, when guidance is changed. The system can be fundamentally altered without any consultation at all.

Without wishing to prolong the debate, I have to say that I am not satisfied with the Minister’s response. I only regret that we are talking about this when it is far too late to do anything about it. The changes have come into effect. The impact assessment has been published very belatedly. I should also have liked an assurance from the Minister that impact assessments invariably would be published within the appropriate timescale relating to the instrument and that they would be available not just three hours before a debate but in good time for us to assess them and to have a proper debate based on their conclusions.

I am concerned that the whole process of getting to the changes in the Immigration Rules provided in this statement was fundamentally wrong and flawed. I certainly hope that it will never happen again, although at this late stage in the Parliament I am sure that nothing that I can say will persuade the Minister to give that undertaking. I beg leave to withdraw the Motion.

Motion withdrawn.