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UK Borders Act 2007 (Commencement No. 7 and Transitional Provisions) Order 2011

Volume 729: debated on Thursday 7 July 2011

Motion to Regret

Moved by

That this House regrets that the UK Borders Act 2007 (Commencement No. 7 and Transitional Provisions) Order 2011 (SI 2011/1293) changes the law that applies to appeals that have already been lodged.

My Lords, I am very grateful for the opportunity to discuss this Motion, which relates to an order that brings into effect Section 85A of the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002, inserted by Section 19 of the UK Borders Act 2007. The title of Section 19 is “Points-based applications: no new evidence on appeal”, and that is a succinct description of its effect. The general rule that applies to immigration cases is that the immigration tribunals have power to consider any evidence relevant to the substance if the UKBA decision is under appeal, except in entry clearance cases—that is, cases relating to applications from abroad. In such cases, if there is a new development, the individuals have to make a new application to UKBA.

Section 19 makes provision for a new exception: all points-based system cases dealing with people either coming to or remaining in the UK for the purposes of work or study. A good deal was said about the substance of this section in the debate in Committee on the Bill which became the UK Border Act 2007, although there is no point in recapitulating the arguments against it that were deployed in both Houses, including in your Lordships' Grand Committee, on an amendment which I moved on 1 July 2007. If anyone is interested, it starts at col. GC 70, but I am afraid that the arguments are now only of historical interest.

In this short debate, I invite your Lordships’ attention to the specific reason for this Motion: namely, what I consider to be the unlawful retrospective effect of the commencement order. On Thursday 19 May, the immigration Minister, Damian Green, made a Written Ministerial Statement, announcing that this change would come into force the following Monday, 23 May, and advancing as an argument that around two-thirds of successful points-based system appeals were those at which further evidence had been submitted after the dismissal of the initial application. At some point on Friday 20 May, the commencement order was placed on the website www.statutelaw.gov.uk and printed copies were available in Parliament some time on that day.

There was hardly any time for your Lordships or Members of another place to consider the merits of the order or its lawfulness, let alone to consult with persons who might be affected by it or their legal representatives. On the Localism Bill, we have just had a discussion on the unwisdom of allowing discussions on the further edges of that Bill to be channelled into the Recess, the only opportunity between the last sitting day and the first day that we come back—it is a similar case. Your Lordships are not being given adequate opportunities for discussions on what may be very important details or of consulting with outside experts or lawyers on the way in which these matters are being dealt with.

This is not the way to treat Parliament and I would be grateful if the Minister could explain the reason for such unseemly haste when Section 19 has been lying unused on the statute book for the past four years, during which time six commencement orders relating to other sections of the 2007 Act have been approved by Parliament. It could not have been for the reason sometimes given for orders changing immigration law being brought in with little notice, which is to prevent a spike in applications before the change comes into effect. In this case the only persons affected were those who had already received a refusal from the UK Borders Agency and had either lodged an appeal or were within the 10-day working window for deciding whether to lodge an appeal.

The Immigration Law Practitioners Association, ILPA, wrote to UKBA protesting about the lack of notice and, in its reply, UKBA said:

“The order is not required to be laid before Parliament and it is not subject to the 21-day rule, as such no parliamentary conventions have been ignored in the introduction of this measure”.

No doubt that is true, but your Lordships still have the right to consider these orders, by tabling a Motion before they come into effect, as I have done. I respectfully suggest that, to table these Motions on a Friday when generally neither House sits in the hope that no one will notice them on Monday when they arrive for a busy week, is a sneaky way of preventing any parliamentary scrutiny. This case is not only an insult to Parliament, but it creates major problems for the affected applicants, their legal representatives and tribunals.

Looking at the order, the new provisions on evidence do not apply to appeals that were part heard on 23 May, but they apply to appeals that were pending before the tribunal on that date; in other words, when a person has lodged an appeal and is waiting for it to be heard. The gravamen of my Motion is that it is a violation of the principle of legal certainty when a person has gone to the trouble and expense of lodging an appeal on one legal basis only to find the rug pulled from under their feet by a change in the legal basis, which has come into effect without warning or notice. Indeed, they would have had every reason to believe that, as Section 19 had been dormant for the past four years, they would be very unlucky if it suddenly came to life during the interval between the refusal of their application and the hearing of their appeal. Such a person may have concluded or may have been advised that their prospects of an appeal succeeding were good because there was substantial new evidence available, but they would have those expectations dashed because that evidence was instantaneously disqualified.

We are advised by ILPA that the terms of the order are not lawful. It argues that unless the language clearly indicates a contrary parliamentary intention, a statutory provision has to be construed as not interfering with existing accrued rights. There is a presumption against retrospectivity which can be displaced only by clear statutory language and there is nothing in Section 19 or in Section 59 of the parent Act 2007 dealing with commencement that displaces the presumption in the case of Section 19. It is particularly telling that Section 59 displaces the presumption in the case of other sections of the Act, such as Section 26.

Without going through all the consequences of what Section 19 will mean in practice, there is one on which I seek an assurance from the Minister. This is the refusal of appeals on the grounds that mandatory evidence is missing or faulty. UKBA has issued a notice to its consultative forum, the employers’ task force, stating that a validation stage is being trialled in which applicants are contacted when mandatory evidence is missing and given the opportunity to provide it before the decision is made. Those with pending appeals on the date on which this order came into effect had not had the benefit of that validation stage and I ask my noble friend to check that none of them had their applications rejected solely on the ground that a mandatory document had not been produced. As we all know, when dealing with complicated applications, it is easy enough to omit accidentally some piece of information that is required and we would expect to be reminded of the omission rather than to be told that the service requested would not be granted to us because of the omission.

Entry clearance appeals have always been held under the law which applied when a negative decision was made by UKBA and before that by the Home Office on the application, going right back to the original immigration Act 1971. Not surprisingly, challenges to the lawfulness of this order are coming before the courts, a situation which could have been avoided if the Government had made transitional provisions for the small number of points-based system cases where the application had been refused but the appeal had not yet been started when the order came into effect. The wording of the order could simply have been amended so that it applied to appeals against decisions made on or after 23 May.

For the sake of this handful of cases, the Government are breaching a fundamental principle of law and it is the duty of Parliament to warn them of the enormity of what they are doing. We ask them to lay orders in proper time to allow Members to judge whether they are lawful and never again to scurry them in furtively over a weekend. We ask them never again to fail to make it clear in primary legislation where it is the intention to make the commencement of a section or sections retrospective. I beg to move.

My Lords, I will not repeat the arguments that my noble friend made so powerfully. I have one point and one question for the Minister. My noble friend mentioned the validation pilot. Before hearing about that, it struck me that the problem may lie in a lack of clarity about the evidence required, and in poor initial investigation. Can the Minister say anything about that?

I will not talk about making rods for our own back, but as a country we owe it to those who are applying for visas to be as clear as possible about what is required. We have talked in many debates about immigration and the importance of warm feelings on the part of other countries towards this country—the reputational area. I will mention that in this context.

I will follow on from that sentiment, but first I feel that it is important to congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, on raising this matter. In this House, there is sometimes—shall I say?—exaggerated and even slightly operatic flattery, but it is impossible to overdo our appreciation of the noble Lord. Throughout his parliamentary career, he has been a model of what disciplined, detailed scrutiny is about. We may have big and emotional debates and focus on sensational issues, but the noble Lord has demonstrated that for Parliament, doing scrutiny well requires a great deal of detailed application and thoroughness. He does not easily let points of principle escape his attention, and we should all be grateful to him.

The issues on which it would be important to hear comments from the Minister include retrospective legislation of any kind. I deprecate retrospective legislation because on the surface it always casts doubt on the principle of legal certainty. From that standpoint, there has to be a very special case for anything that involves retrospective legislation.

My second point is one that the noble Baroness has just emphasised, namely that we spend a lot of time preaching to the world about the absence of the rule of law. Immigration policy puts us in the front line of relationships with people from other countries. It is terribly important that in our policy we demonstrate an absolute commitment to the rule of law. There is a perception—we could debate this more fully on another occasion—that what we take as important in the general administration of law does not always apply to immigration; that the task of immigration is to say no and to get people to go home rather than to find the truth behind the application; and that it is not to put ourselves in a position to understand a person’s desperate plight and to determine that no stone shall be left unturned in ensuring that justice is fulfilled in their case. From that standpoint, what the noble Lord has put before us today is an applied illustration of why it is so important to take these matters seriously. I hope that the Minister will deal fully and convincingly with what he has put before us.

My Lords, I support the Motion of the noble Lord, Lord Avebury. Like the noble Lord, Lord Judd, I thank him for his persistence on this issue of justice for those coming to or remaining in this country, in particular to work or study. That includes a significant number of people who come at the invitation of churches and other faith communities, as well as academic bodies, to be a part of the life of churches, universities and so on in this country.

The points-based system has proved problematic for many long-established relationships with other countries. It is in some danger of causing the lack of warmth to which the noble Baroness referred moments ago. The order adds to the perception that we are more interested in obtaining decisions in favour of UKBA than in achieving justice for applicants.

I stress again the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Judd. Why do we move so fast on immigration law? Why does it appear to be different from other laws that we consider in this House? I would like the Minister to indicate as clearly as she can what we are doing here. What we should be doing is seeking justice for claimants based on all the evidence that we can possibly have at a particular moment. Any legislation that looks as though it is seeking to exclude available evidence must be dangerous and problematic. The order also appears to ignore the fact that many of those applying have little in the way of resources, and that new applications, which would be possible, will add significantly to the costs.

There ought to be an absolute rule, first, that our legislation is not retrospective, and, secondly, that commencement orders such as this should provide proper notice to those affected. As the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, indicated, this order applies to appeals already in the pipeline, and there was only a weekend between it being published and coming into effect, so it fails the test on both counts. I, too, regret this unnecessary threat to justice being done and being seen to be done for those applicants whom it affects.

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, made a very strong case, and we are all grateful to him. I will ask one question. Will the Minister tell the House how many appeals were still pending on 23 May of this year? That would be very helpful in indicating the scale of the problem.

My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, for tabling this Motion of Regret and enabling us to probe the reasons for the Government’s actions in relation to the retrospective effect of this commencement order, which brings into force Section 85A of the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002, inserted by Section 19 of the UK Borders Act 2007. The noble Lord, Lord Avebury, explained in some detail the background and significance of Section 19 of the 2007 Act. I do not intend to repeat all the ground that he covered, although inevitably there will be some repetition, for which I apologise.

The noble Lord raised the issue of the retrospective effect of the commencement order and, as a result, its legality. Section 19 is entitled “Points-based application: no new evidence on appeal”—which is exactly what it is about. As the noble Lord said, in immigration cases the general rule is that immigration tribunals can consider any evidence that is relevant to the substance of the UK Border Agency’s decision, including evidence from after the date of the decision.

An exception to this is entry clearance applications, and Section 19 makes provision for a new exception; namely, points-based-system cases which relate to cases about people coming to or remaining in the UK for the purposes of work and study.

As the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, said, Parliament had no proper opportunity to consider the order since the change was announced on a Thursday in May this year to be effective from the following Monday. Such haste creates difficulties for applicants, their legal representatives and the tribunals. Why such haste—not for the first time—was necessary in this instance is not clear. As has already been said, sometimes immigration provisions are brought in with little notice to prevent a sudden increase in applications before the change, but I assume that would not have applied in this case as the only people affected by the change were those who had already received a decision from the UK Border Agency and had lodged an appeal or were deciding whether to appeal within the allowable period of 10 working days.

Under the commencement order we are discussing, the new provisions on evidence do not apply to appeals that were part-heard on 23 May 2011, but they do apply to appeals that were pending before the tribunal on 23 May 2011; namely, where the person had lodged an appeal and was waiting for it to be heard. This is the issue that this regret Motion is about. The rules have suddenly been changed so rapidly and so quickly, without warning and without notice, that a person who concluded, or was advised, that their prospects of success on appeal were good, because they could challenge the reasons for refusal with new evidence, suddenly finds that their prospects of success are poor because they cannot now produce that new evidence. As I am sure the Minister must know, a clear view has been expressed by the Immigration Law Practitioners' Association that the terms of the commencement order are not lawful and that it is an abuse of the principle of legal certainty. It argues that unless the language clearly indicates a contrary parliamentary intention, a statutory provision has to be construed as not interfering with existing accrued rights and that there is a presumption against retrospectivity which can be displaced only by clear statutory language, which cannot be found in Section 19 or in Section 59 of the UK Borders Act 2007, which deals with commencement.

I am not a lawyer, and I am not qualified to offer a legal opinion, but I understand that challenges to the lawfulness of the commencement order are likely to be coming before the courts. I would like to put some specific points to the Minister to which I hope she will respond. The first is a question that she has already been asked: what is the Government's estimate of the number of people who had lodged an appeal before the tribunal on 23 May 2011 and were waiting for it to be heard? What is the Government's estimate of the maximum number of people who on 23 May 2011 could still have been deciding whether to appeal within the allowable 10 working-days window? Why was it necessary to announce the change on a Thursday and make it effective just four days later, including a weekend, on the following Monday? Why could it not have been implemented over a timescale that would not have left people who had gone to the time and expense of lodging an appeal on one basis finding that the legal basis had been changed without warning and without notice? Is it the Government's intention to follow the practice on implementation in this order in future, or do they intend to give Parliament a longer period of time to consider the implications and legality of such orders? Is it the Government's intention to make clear in future Bills that some measures will be introduced with a retrospective element so that this issue can be debated?

I appreciate that it is unlikely that the Minister will disclose the legal advice the Government received on whether the retrospective effect of the commencement order is lawful, but can she confirm in words of one syllable that it is the Government's judgment that this commencement order is not open to successful challenge in the courts? I look forward to the Minister’s response to the points I have raised and to those raised by other noble Lords, not least by the noble Lord, Lord Avebury.

My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Avebury for the opportunity to debate this Motion, and I am also grateful to him for correspondence relating to this debate that he has made available to me. A number of points have been raised, and I will do my best to deal with the issues to which they give rise.

The Motion deals with a distinct subject: the manner of implementation of Section 19 of the UK Borders Act 2007. As we have heard, the UK Borders Act 2007 (Commencement No. 7 and Transitional Provisions) Order 2011 commenced Section 19 of that Act and introduced a new Section 85A into the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002. That section introduces a restriction on the new evidence that can be presented at points-based system appeals so that only evidence considered by the UK Border Agency caseworker can be taken into account.

The Government believe that migration has enriched our culture and strengthened our economy, but that it must be controlled so that people have confidence in the system. In today's global economy, we need to be able to attract the best and the brightest to ensure that our companies remain competitive and our standard of living remains high. We have already pledged to transform the immigration system so that it does the best by the public. People have a right to know that the Government are protecting their jobs, keeping a firm grip on those who come here and sending home those who break the rules.

The UK Border Agency is committed to improving the quality of initial decision-making across all case categories, overseas and in-country, and has already made good progress with a dedicated programme of work under way to make such improvements. However, where evidence is not supplied with an application, caseworkers are unable to take it into account. They are then seeing their decisions overturned on appeal when appellants submit new evidence. It cannot be said that the PBS application process is complicated. A customer satisfaction survey found that around 85 per cent of applicants are clear about what evidence they need to provide and that up to 92 per cent of applicants find the application process easy to understand. I particularly draw that to the attention of my noble friend Lady Hamwee.

The Government commenced Section 19 to help ensure that applications, and therefore decisions, under PBS are made correctly first time. Before Section 19 was commenced, 63 per cent of allowed PBS appeals were allowed because appellants were submitting new evidence at the appeal hearing that was not provided to the UK Border Agency with their application. Such documentary evidence, for example, relating to a person’s level of funds or demonstrating their English-language ability, will be taken at face value by the immigration judge and cannot be validated by the UK Border Agency. There simply is not time when that new evidence is submitted at the appeal stage. I stress that that sort of information is required at the time the application is made and should not be submitted at a much later date as part of an appeal procedure where no validation can take place.

Section 19 will also help to end unnecessary appeals. Applicants should submit all necessary evidence to allow the caseworker to reach the right decision in the first instance. An expensive and publicly funded appeal is not the remedy for those who fail, deliberately or otherwise, to submit the required evidence with their applications in the first place. Evidence can continue to be presented at PBS appeals where it is in support of a human rights, race relations, asylum or EEA ground of appeal, is provided to prove that a document previously submitted is genuine or valid and is provided in support of grounds that do not relate to the acquisition of points.

The Government carefully considered the best way to introduce this legislation and decided to apply it to all appeals heard for the first time on or after 23 May, the date of commencement. Doing so creates a clear cut-off point.

The view that introducing the legislation in this manner is unfair on those who have already lodged their appeals, because they did so in the expectation that they would be able to introduce new evidence at the appeal stage but are now prevented from doing so, is contrary to the way in which the law was established in the first place. We considered very carefully the manner of introduction of this measure, which is shown in that there are transitional arrangements included in the commencement of this provision. Any appeal where a hearing has already taken place or part heard at the First-tier Tribunal will not be affected by this measure.

I would remind the House that this provision has been on the statute book since October 2007, with a clear intention that it would be implemented once PBS became established in order to give applicants and legal representatives the chance to become familiar with the process. The provision is widely known among applicants and legal representatives, and it can hardly be a surprise that the Government have now chosen to implement it.

The legislation as it stood prior to 23 May did not entitle applicants to delay submitting evidence until the appeal stage. It is the applicant’s responsibility to submit any and all relevant evidence with their application. I would remind the House of the statistics that I gave at the beginning of my remarks. Applicants say that it is easy to undertake that exercise and to understand the paperwork involved. Supplying this information at the time of application will enable caseworkers to make the right decision in the first place and to avoid that unnecessary process of expensive appeals funded by the taxpayer.

The Immigration Rules, the UK Border Agency website and associated policy guidance make it clear that all relevant evidence should be submitted at the time of application. The commencement of Section 19 does not change what is already expected of applicants. The immigration system’s integrity relies on UK Border Agency officials being able to conduct all necessary checks on applications to ensure that the right people are allowed to stay in the United Kingdom. It is vital that all relevant information is given in order to enable them to perform these checks. Simply presenting additional information at appeal, which effectively circumvents those checks, is not acceptable. The practice needs to be stopped as soon as possible.

My noble friend suggests that a better way to have implemented Section 19 would have been to exempt all those who had already lodged their appeal. I realise that this may sound reasonable but I believe that it would in practice have created confusion in the system. A person refused under PBS has 10 days to lodge an appeal. Two persons refused on the same day a week prior to 23 May could have lodged an appeal either side of 23 May, one being caught by the legislation and the other not. Implementing in that way would have led to considerable confusion on behalf of appellants and the courts.

Several noble Lords have asked for precisely the number of people in that situation on 23 May. I do not have the exact figure and I will not give a guesstimate. I think that the House would like the exact figure: I promise to write to noble Lords and to lay a copy of that figure in the Library of the House.

The UK Border Agency is working hard to improve the overall appeals system. The commencement of this legislation is just one element in an overarching appeals improvement plan which, through a mix of operational changes and longer term policy solutions, focuses on reducing the number of appeals in the system, on improving representation and organisation, and on working in partnership with Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service to modernise the system over the next 12 to 18 months. For example, we are committed to embedding a right first-time, every-time approach to decision-making in the agency and we use information we learn from appeals heard to make continuous improvement to our processes. We have already increased representation at appeals from 74 per cent last year to 83 per cent so far this year by making more flexible use of our resources and increasing productivity.

Prior to this debate, my noble friend raised some specific issues with me, which have been raised by other noble Lords. It might be helpful to the House if I touch in some detail on those points. As I have said, this provision has been on the statute book since October 2007 with a clear intention that it was to be implemented once a points-based system had bedded down. For that reason, we do not consider that this has been rushed in. The commencement order exercises a power approved by Parliament to appoint the day on which Section 19 should come into force. The commencement was publicised through the UK Border Agency website and by proactive communication with stakeholders and organisations—for example, via the points-based system employers’ taskforce.

The principle of legal certainty requires that the law must be accessible and, so far as possible, intelligible, clear and predictable for those who are subject to it. As already mentioned, this measure has been around since 2007. We know that applicants were aware of Section 19 as it is subject to some internet blogs. We know that in 63 per cent of the appeals that are allowed, new evidence is used that should have been provided at the application stage. That evidence has not been verified by the UK Border Agency and we believe that appellants have sought to circumvent our checks in this manner. It was important that this practice was ended. It is not right that applicants should rely on an expensive and publicly funded appeal to correct errors in their applications. Perhaps I should repeat that the Immigration Rules, UK Border Agency website and associated policy guidance make it clear that all evidence should be submitted with the application. The commencement of this section does not change that requirement.

On transitional arrangements, I have indicated that where a person had a hearing or part-hearing of their appeal prior to 23 May, the effect of the commencement order has an impact only on those who have not yet started their appeal. Those who have are not affected and will be able to complete that process.

Legal challenge has been raised, particularly by the noble Lord, Lord Rosser. It is not for me to say who will legally challenge this order but, unlike other statutory instruments, commencement orders are not subject to parliamentary procedure, which means that there is no requirement for them to be laid in advance of the date on which they come into force. Furthermore, the order is made at the time that the Minister signs it. There is therefore no opportunity under the legislation for Parliament to pray against it.

I promise to write to noble Lords and to my noble friend who has raised this debate today about the numbers involved as of 23 May. I hope that I have been able to give some background information as to the history of this legislation and why the Government have brought this order forward.

Could the Minister give me a reply to a question that I asked? Can she confirm that it is the Government’s judgment that this commencement order is not open to successful challenge in the courts, bearing in mind that the issue is the retrospective effect of a commencement order?

My Lords, I think the noble Lord has been in the House long enough to know that the Government do not comment on the legal advice that they receive. Certainly, in bringing this measure into being, as I have outlined, it is our understanding that, unlike other statutory instruments, commencement orders are subject to no parliamentary procedure. It would not be appropriate for me to comment on any legal advice that the Government have taken in this matter.

My Lords, I did not expect my noble friend the Minister to be able to respond to that question from the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, knowing that there are already actions before the courts that have not yet been heard. She obviously cannot predict the result of those actions. Nevertheless, it is worth underlining that legal advisers of some applicants believe that they have a chance of success; otherwise they would not have been able to launch their actions in the courts. The precedent and the lawfulness of the order are still under review. We will not know the answer to the noble Lord’s question until those cases have been determined.

I thank the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, and all others who have spoken in this debate—my noble friend Lady Hamwee, the noble Lords, Lord Judd and Lord Hylton, and particularly the right reverend Prelate, who made the extremely valid and useful point that to do justice to applicants, all the evidence must be heard. By this order, we deny that to many people who would otherwise be successful, as illustrated by the Government’s own figures, which were just cited by the noble Baroness. Sixty-three per cent of those who produce fresh evidence after being refused were successful on appeal. I understand perfectly well her point that 92 per cent of the applicants found the process easy to understand.

However, looking at this the other way round, 8 per cent had some difficulty with it. As I said, even those who are very used to filling in forms occasionally omit a document or make a mistake on the statement that would invalidate the whole application. These minor errors cannot then be taken into consideration at the appeal stage because the documents must stand on their own merits without exception. As the right reverend Prelate pointed out, this means that any applicant who is in that position will have to formulate a new application simply because he omitted a document or made a literal error on one of the forms. This seems an unnecessary burden on both the applicant and the tribunals.

I am extremely grateful to my noble friend for her comprehensive answer to all the points that were raised in the debate. She gave full value for money in her reply, and answered many of the points that we dealt with. We look forward to receiving answers in due course to those that she did not manage to squeeze into her time, particularly to the question about the number of people who were affected at the time.

Needless to say, I did not accept my noble friend’s point when she said that my suggestion would have led to further difficulties if it had made it into the transitional provisions. With respect, nor do I think that she answered adequately the question about why it was necessary to bundle this order before your Lordships with such haste over a weekend, with no adequate opportunity for either consideration by your Lordships or consultation with outside interests that might well be affected by it. I wish my noble friend had been able to give me the assurance that I asked for: that this would not happen again on future occasions, and the Government would not make retrospective orders unless doing so was given express authority in the parent Act. However, I look forward to these points being dealt with by my noble friend in the reply that she has kindly promised to give. I beg leave to withdraw the Motion.

Motion withdrawn.

Sitting suspended.