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Immigration and Nationality (Fees) Order 2011

Volume 725: debated on Monday 7 February 2011

Considered in Grand Committee

Moved By Earl Attlee

That the Grand Committee do report to the House that it has considered the Immigration and Nationality (Fees) Order 2011.

Relevant Documents: 14th Report from the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments

My Lords, the order concerns the charging for visa, immigration and nationality services and will enable the UK Border Agency to specify applications, processes and services for which it intends to set a fee. I thank all noble Lords who will take part in this debate. Specific fee levels will be set in separate legislation—using the affirmative procedure—that will be brought before the House in due course. Noble Lords will have the opportunity to ask searching questions about the level of fees in that debate.

In accordance with our legal powers, the order will carry forward our existing powers in the Immigration and Nationality (Fees) Order 2007 and set out the new provisions for which we intend to charge fees in future. The order will also transfer powers currently set out in the Consular Fees Order 2010 from Foreign and Commonwealth Office legislation to Home Office legislation so that all visa, immigration and nationality fees are handled in the same place. This will improve intelligibility for all customers, practitioners and corporate partners and will help address concerns raised previously in this House about the need for consolidation of such powers.

The order will allow us to charge fees in support of new services. For nationality applications, this includes the registration as British citizens, under amendments to Sections 1(3A) and 4D of the British Nationality Act 1981, of children born to foreign or Commonwealth parents who are serving as members of the Armed Forces. Previously, children born overseas to a foreign or Commonwealth parent serving outside the UK as a member of the Armed Forces had to wait until their return to the UK before they could acquire British citizenship. The order will also apply to those children born to a foreign or Commonwealth parent serving the UK Armed Forces who register as British citizens. As children born in the UK to a parent who is serving in the Armed Forces automatically become British citizens, both these changes will provide equality of treatment to the children of foreign or Commonwealth personnel irrespective of when or where they are born. The changes also represent action by the UK Border Agency on its commitment to enhance the immigration and nationality rights of Armed Forces personnel and their families.

The order will also provide a power to charge for requests for endorsements to amend the personal details on a previously issued national certificate.

In addition, some people are entitled to hold the status of British protected person through their connection with a former British protectorate, protected state, mandated territory or trust territory. Although this status can no longer be obtained automatically, people can apply for this sort of British nationality if they meet the appropriate criteria.

Students who were granted leave under tier 4 of the points-based system between 31 March 2009 and 4 October 2009 are currently required to advise the UK Border Agency when they are seeking to change their educational institution. Other tier 4 migrants apply and pay a fee to cover the cost of making such a change to the terms of their leave. We think that it is right that all students are treated equally in paying this fee. The order will provide that consistency.

The order will also allow us to charge a fee for highly trusted sponsor status at a level independent of the standard licence fee. This is an optional service for sponsors of tier 4 students under the points-based system. Currently, we charge the relevant sponsorship licence fee for such services. As we continue to develop service propositions for these sponsors, we believe that it is sensible to separate these provisions to ensure that we can set fees—subject to future parliamentary approval through the affirmative resolution procedure on the specific amounts—that better reflect the nature of the services provided.

Our power to charge fees for visa, immigration and nationality applications, processes and services is currently derived from the Immigration and Nationality (Fees) Order 2007.

The 2007 order has been amended twice since it came into force. Moving forward, however, to ensure that there is only one fees order in place under Section 51 of the Immigration, Asylum and Nationality Act 2006, we are consolidating the 2007 order and its amendment into this order. That will improve the intelligibility of our powers, as I mentioned earlier.

We will continue to ensure that fees for immigration and nationality demonstrate that the UK is open for business and retains its position as an attractive destination. We welcome the economic, cultural and social contribution made by legal migrants to the UK. As I said, we will return to Parliament in due course to debate further regulations under the affirmative procedure specifying the fee levels that rely on the powers in Section 51 of the Immigration, Asylum and Nationality Act 2006 and additional powers in the Asylum and Immigration (Treatment of Claimants, etc.) Act 2004, as amended.

The order provides a basis for the sustainable immigration system that noble Lords all want and I commend it to the Committee.

My Lords, I am sure that the Committee is grateful to the noble Earl for his clear introduction to the Immigration and Nationality (Fees) Order 2011. As he explained, the draft order enables the Secretary of State to set fees for applications related to immigration or nationality and to charge for the provision of services or processes related to immigration or nationality. Once this draft order comes into force, the Secretary of State will be able to make regulations setting out the relevant fees and charges.

That is fair enough. But what lies behind this seemingly reasonable approach is the immigration policy of the Government, which is causing serious concerns and can best be described as a complete shambles. The fact is that the Labour Government’s points-based system would have been a far more effective means of controlling non-EU migration rather than an arbitrary and inflexible cap. It is clear that the Government’s cap policy was not thought through properly. It certainly did not get the scrutiny that it deserved. Not only will it do little to control immigration, it is clear that the Prime Minister's flagship election promise to bring net immigration down to the tens of thousands has now been watered down from a firm pledge to just an aim.

Only an hour or two ago, the House passed the Budget Responsibility and National Audit Bill. It is worth referring to the comments of the Office for Budget Responsibility in November. It said that the Government’s immigration cap will make no difference to net immigration levels:

“The interim OBR’s June Budget estimates of trend growth estimates were based on an average net inward migration assumption of 140,000 per annum … Since June, the Government has announced a limit of 21,700 for non-EU migrants coming into the UK under the skilled and highly skilled routes from April 2011, a reduction of 6,300 on 2009 … At this stage, we judge that there is insufficient reason to change our average net migration assumption of 140,000 per year from 2010, which remains well below the net inflows of 198,000 seen in 2009”.

However frail the Government’s migration policy is, it is inescapable that enormous pressure is to be put on the UK Border Agency by the reduction in its budget of up to 20 per cent in real terms over the next four years. That feeds through into a reduction in staff of around 5,200. Cutting the number of border officers and staff by such an amount raises questions about the effective security of our borders. We seem to be seeing the noble Earl’s department desperately scrambling around trying to raise money through the use of the order. How much, it is impossible to say, as no details are given in the order or the Explanatory Memorandum and no impact assessment has been made. My understanding is that the reason for that is that the information will be made available alongside the regulations made in reliance upon this instrument. However, it is at least likely that the Home Office must have some indicative intent as to what income the fees will be expected to raise and I would be grateful if the noble Earl would inform the Committee of any details that he may have.

I would also like to follow on from the previous debate on the misuse of drugs by asking about consultation. We are informed that a full consultation was undertaken in September to December 2009, with a low response rate and support for a flexible fee policy. Has there been any further consultation since that took place?

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

My Lords, I apologise for keeping the Committee waiting. I had an enormous opportunity to think up some more questions but, alas, the excitement of the vote rather inhibited me from doing so.

In his introductory remarks, the noble Earl mentioned that when the orders that will follow come to the House, they will be subject to certain scrutiny in relation to the fees. In relation to those subsequent orders, will there be full consultation before they are brought to the House?

I would finally like to ask him whether he can explain how he thinks the UKBA can be expected to carry out its crucial duties effectively when having to take out such a huge amount of people and finance. If he says that this is to be a more efficient use of the way in which the UKBA organises itself, and that there will be no impact on front-line UKBA services, I would be grateful if he could give me a definition of what he might mean by front-line services. He will be aware that I put down a Question to the Government on 1 December about the definition of front-line services in relation to police forces. As of today, that was still unanswered. It is the only Question that is still unanswered in your Lordships' House from before Christmas. A delay from 1 December to nearly mid-February is not very much to the credit of the Home Office. I realise that he is not answering such questions today, but I think that it would be helpful if he could give a definition of front-line services.

My Lords, my questions follow a number of those that were raised by the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, although I will not follow him on the desirability or otherwise of the changes to the Immigration Rules—or on the definition of front-line services in the case of Labour Party research on police numbers.

However, as I am confused about this—I apologise to the Committee if it is utterly clear to everyone else—I will ask my noble friend Lord Attlee whether this order lays the ground for changes to the Immigration Rules which Parliament has not yet agreed and has not yet had sight of. The answer may be that the rules which we will be asked to agree are a mixture of the same sorts of provisions as are in place at the moment but that they will be a different mix. I am unclear and slightly uneasy at the prospect of being asked to agree a structure for fees if this is related to the new rules themselves.

I should also be grateful if my noble friend will give us an assurance that moving fees relating to immigration and nationality matters from the consular fees order to regulations under the 2006 Act provides us with exactly the same level of scrutiny as has been available under the arrangement which is being superseded.

In terms of the substantive comment, there are a couple of matters on which I should like to have a word. As regards students, we are told in the Explanatory Memorandum that a student moving between institutions is currently not charged for the, let us say, visa—I am not quite sure of the status of the permission—and for the UKBA’s consideration of that. We are told that the order will enable—a term used throughout—fees to be imposed for the request to change institutions. I take it that the word “enable” means that there will be a fee. My comment is that, although I share the view expressed by consultees that it is right that the taxpayer does not bear the whole of the cost of this service, overseas students nevertheless bring a lot of money and potential good will with them. I feel a little uneasy—

Oh! The result of the Division in the House makes me feel even more uneasy. I also feel a little uneasy about the prospect of charging such students more.

With regard to the new provisions explained in paragraphs 7.3 and 7.4 of the Explanatory Memorandum, will the Minister say what thought has gone into allowing fees to be charged to provide “a route to … citizenship” for children born outside the UK to members of our Armed Forces? It seems to me to be pushing it a little to charge members of the Armed Forces for this. I hope that the Minister can amplify the thinking behind that.

My Lords, I thank all noble Lords for their considered response this afternoon.

The order concerns itself with the ability to set the fees. The noble Lord, Lord Hunt, used somewhat flamboyant language to describe our current immigration policy. Clearly we shall have to look forward to our discussions in the coming months, when he can table suitable Motions and Questions to explore his concerns further. However, I understand them; I am listening to similar concerns being expressed right around the House, and I will discuss these issues with my honourable friend Mr Damian Green tomorrow. I will use a lot of the noble Lord’s speech, when I read it in Hansard tomorrow, as my starting point. We can also look forward to the Oral Question on immigration next week; I am sure that the noble Lord is. There will be plenty of time to discuss all the issues in the detail that we want.

The level of fees will be set by further orders. Where the fees are above the level required for cost recovery, there has to be an affirmative procedure. Where the fees are lower than necessary for cost recovery, there will be the negative order procedure, but we intend to make sure that we can discuss all the fee levels together.

Some 2.5 million people are looking for work, many of whom have key skills to offer employers. There is more reason now than ever to limit economic migration. We are fully aware that we will not meet our target of reducing net migration to the tens of thousands by looking at economic routes alone, so we are looking at all the main immigration routes. We will also consult on changes to the marriage route and entitlement to settle in the UK, to make settlement a less automatic prospect.

I was asked how we decided the level of the limit. The MAC recommended a reduction of 6,300 visas in 2011-12, which we accepted. Applying that reduction to our 2009 baseline of 50,000 tier 1 and tier 2 visas results in an overall limit for 2011-12 of 43,700. However, the 2009 baseline includes 22,000 ICTs. As they have been exempted and need to be excluded from the baseline, that gives an overall limit of 21,700.

The noble Lord, Lord Hunt, asked what additional consultation had taken place since 2009. The UK Border Agency published results of the last full consultation on fees in January 2010. That consultation established the principle that the agency should charge flexibly to take into account wider policy aims, and 90 per cent agreed. Since then, we have engaged with the task forces representing the Armed Forces, education, employment, arts and the entertainment sectors.

The noble Lord also asked about the impact assessment and specific fee levels. We expect to raise £829 million from fee income in 2011-12, but that is only 36 per cent of the UK Border Agency costs. The noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, touched on whether the fees covered all the UK Border Agency’s costs; clearly, they do not. We will publish a full impact assessment when we lay the subsequent fee regulations, which will be brought before the House through the affirmative resolution procedure.

The noble Lord, Lord Hunt, mentioned much of our immigration policy. The Government believe that Britain can benefit from migration but not uncontrolled migration, which places unacceptable pressure on public services. We can reduce net migration without damaging our economy. We can increase the number of high-value migrants—the entrepreneurs, the investors, the research scientists—at the same time as we reduce the total number of people coming into Britain through economic routes.

The noble Lord asked broadly what the UK Border Agency is doing to ensure that the effect of any increase is minimised. The agency has committed to cutting its budget by up to 20 per cent in real terms over the next four years. That is the economic situation that we are in; that is the reality. The UK Border Agency is cutting overheads by more than a third over the spending review period. The agency will save around £500 million in efficiencies by reducing support costs, boosting productivity and improving value for money from commercial suppliers. The agency is determined to ensure that applicants pay more of the costs of running the agency, with taxpayers paying less. That will ensure that we can continue to provide the excellent service that noble Lords would wish.

The noble Lord, Lord Hunt, asked about the definition of front-line services. We will provide a written response to that as soon as possible. I apologise for the delay in providing that information, but I will personally look into this with the Home Office.

The noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, asked about the Armed Forces nationality fee. It is fair that, rather than the taxpayer, those seeking a benefit from the application should meet the costs of the consideration. A person or their parent makes a choice on whether they wish to register as a British citizen, so they accept that it involves the payment of a fee. Enabling a choice to be made also ensures that the person can make decisions regarding any other nationality that they may hold.

The noble Baroness also asked about the possibility of pricing out students. We remain committed to maintaining the UK as an attractive destination for work, for study, to visit or for cultural visits. We recognise that migrants make a valuable contribution to the wider British economy and continually monitor our fees to ensure that they remain competitive with similar endorsement types offered in other countries. We believe that our fees remain competitive, particularly when one considers them alongside the entitlements which are offered to successful applicants. We also need to ensure that the charging system is fair to those who use the system and fair to the UK taxpayer, who will continue to support the immigration system that brings benefits and enrichments to this country. The fees that we charge are neither designed nor expected to deter migrants from choosing to come to the UK.

We will return to Parliament in March with regulations under the affirmative procedure to ask for approval of the regulations that will detail the fee levels for the visa immigration and nationality services covered by this order. The Committee should be assured that the brightest and the best will continue to be welcome in the UK, as will those who seek to come here to visit or to invest.

My Lords, I wonder whether I could just come back to the noble Earl on one or two points. First, I thank him for the comprehensive response that he gave to both me and the noble Baroness but I do have two points.

On the brightest and the best, I very much appreciate the noble Earl’s willingness to share some of these points with Mr Damian Green, the Minister responsible. My concern about students is one that comes from very reputable educational institutions—not the bogus institutions which we have debated and on which I think that a great deal of action has already taken place. These are respected institutions that have overseas students who make a huge contribution to the life and the finances of our higher education institutes and who go back to their own countries. They are also very helpful in future relationships between the UK and other countries.

The noble Earl knows that my background is in the health service, on which I refer noble Lords to the register of interests. However, if one thinks about the doctors who have trained here, for example, while I know that this is a slightly different issue from the more general one of students from other countries, the positive impact that they have on the UK healthcare industry for years to come is immeasurable. That is why we have to be careful about the consultation that is out with UKBA at the moment.

The second issue is that of fairness for those overseas students who are currently here and who will be impacted by the restriction on work. A crucial part of the experience for overseas students when they come here is that they are able to do some post-student work. Is the noble Earl prepared to look into this matter? I know we have Oral Questions next week, but these matters relating to work are being pursued by myself and by the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, with a genuine concern about the impact that this will have on the UK and on our universities in particular.

The Minister very kindly responded to the points I raised about consultation. He is to bring forward orders later on with the proposed fee changes. Will the proposed fees in those orders have gone through some consultative procedure? It would be helpful to get an answer to that.

My Lords, on the first point raised by the noble Lord, I agree with nearly everything that is said about the background to his concern; he is clearly right. I say “nearly everything” just in case he said something with which I cannot agree, but everything he said makes sense. He talked about post-student work, if I may put it that way. The problem is that some students have abused it and ruined it for others. We need to work out how we can get all the benefits of overseas students not only for ourselves but for the rest of the world while avoiding some of the problems.

I understand that, but the point is that we are in a competitive world. I am being told that other countries, such as the US and other European countries, are rubbing their hands with glee at the UKBA consultation because they know that the impact will be that the high-quality people, who would have come to the UK, will go elsewhere. From an economic point of view, that is madness. I am grateful for the tone of the noble Earl’s response, which is very constructive, but we need to be very careful about the signals we are giving to the kind of people we would always want to welcome to our shores.

My Lords, I am grateful for the noble Lord's attitude to me because I am trying to be as helpful as I can and I look forward to drilling down into these issues and getting him the answers that he requires. The noble Lord made the point about the brightest and the best and the concerns of the education sector. We note those concerns and we will respond fully to the responses received on the UKBA students’ consultation. However, it is worth noting that not all students return immediately: 21 per cent of students who entered in 2004 were still here after five years. The noble Lord asked about consultation and my understanding is that there will be consultation internally with Government but not externally. If I am wrong on that I shall write to him. I hope I have answered all of the noble Lord's concerns.

Motion agreed.