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UK Border Agency: Visa Applications

Volume 737: debated on Tuesday 19 June 2012


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government how they will respond to the report by the chief inspector of the UK Border Agency on the handling of visa applications to the United Kingdom from Africa.

My Lords, we take the chief inspector’s recommendations seriously. We have accepted them all and have a team working to ensure that they are implemented so that we provide a high quality service for genuine applicants while ensuring that those who do not meet the immigration rules are prevented from entering the United Kingdom.

I thank the Minister for his Answer. This is an excellent report by Mr Vine and his team, but it contains some disturbing evidence and very disappointing conclusions. It refers to the disappointing quality of decision-making, the lack of an audit trail, an inconsistent approach to the retention of documents, the manipulation of performance to meet targets, bad value judgments, the use of inappropriate language, and checks that were not performed. If this was an African country, Members of this House would be standing up asking for aid to be withdrawn. The Government need to act more quickly on these recommendations, and I would welcome an assurance from the Minister that they will act more quickly than they have in response to Mr Vine’s previous reports and recommendations.

My Lords, I join the noble Lord in paying tribute to John Vine for the work that he does and for his report. I think that he has slightly overegged the pudding—if I can put it in those terms—in his criticism. The chief inspector found some very good practice in three out of four sections that he visited. He found that they were good on timelines, although I accept the criticism that there was possibly an attempt to push things forward purely to meet targets. There was obviously some criticism about accuracy.

We will obviously move forward as fast as we can on producing responses to this, but, as the noble Lord will be aware, there have been quite a number of reports from the chief inspector’s office and we are still processing some of the others. Some of the facts that he deals with in his report relate back to as early as February or even to last year. Things have moved on since then, but I can assure the noble Lord that we are treating this matter with urgency.

My Lords, neither entry clearance manager reviews nor complaints procedures are of sufficiently high quality and cannot be relied on. Will my noble kinsman say how family visitors who are to be denied a right of appeal in the future will be able to get redress without an appeal mechanism? Bearing in mind that the ability to apply the law correctly is poor, how will the Government ensure that the errors detected in this report will not happen when decisions are made under the new rules on family immigration?

My noble kinsman is right to draw attention to the changes we are making, which we discussed at Second Reading of the Crime and Courts Bill. We will have further discussions on this in due course when we get to the appropriate stage of that Bill in Committee. However, I can say, and I think I said it at Second Reading, that someone who has been refused a visit visa can reapply and address the reasons why they were refused. A decision will be received more quickly as a result. Typically, that will take 15 days compared with going through an appeal, which can take eight months. On top of that, the application fee is cheaper when reapplying than when pursuing an appeal.

Is the Minister aware of an anxiety from the churches at the present time about African Christians responding to invitations to enter this country? It seems that a new economic test is being applied to them. Able, well qualified Africans are being invited to conferences in this country and endorsed even by bishops and the Archbishop of Canterbury, but are being turned down because their personal income is low. As most African clergy live on sacrificial stipends that are intermittently paid, we are wondering whether we can ever invite anyone again from Tanzania.

My Lords, I will look very carefully at this. I cannot believe that someone who is being endorsed by the Archbishop of Canterbury or, for that matter, by any right reverend Prelate, could be turned away. I would want to look at that and at the particular circumstances to which the right reverend Prelate has referred. Certainly, we would not want that to be the case.

My Lords, as the Minister has accepted in his responses to my noble friend Lord McConnell and the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, the findings in this report impact on the Government’s proposals on family visa applications and appeals in the Crime and Courts Bill. What concerns me most about the report is when John Vine says that despite his previous recommendations to help improve the agency, he has seen little progress in a number of areas. He says:

“This is especially frustrating considering the agency has adopted the recommendations, and yet I continue to identify the same issues”.

The quality of decision-making appears to be a key issue. The Minister says he wants to act as fast as he can, but have the Government identified the reason why so little action has been taken to correct problems found in the past? Is the problem a lack of will or a lack of resources?

My Lords, it is neither a lack of will nor of resources, and we are still trying to push these things on as fast as we can. The noble Baroness quite rightly refers to the Crime and Courts Bill; we are in the middle of its Committee stage and we will discuss those provisions when we get to them some time in July. However, it is right to make the point that we think we will be able to provide a better service to a number of people by withdrawing those appeal procedures as a result of them then being able to apply again.

I want to make clear, as I made clear in my original response to the noble Lord, Lord McConnell is that we take these findings very seriously indeed and we will continue to push them forward. However, the chief inspector produces four or five different reports a year and it takes time to push them forward. He is talking about issues that he looked at back in February, obviously changes have occurred since then and we hope things are better as a result of actions we took following his report. Obviously some things have moved on since then.

My Lords, will the Minister take into account the fact that when a visa application has been refused, the individual’s reapplication should not be considered by the same entry clearance officer the second time around?

I cannot give any guarantee that the application will be looked at by a different officer, but in most cases it obviously will be looked at by a different officer because the situation will have moved on.

As the Minister referred to the noble Lord, Lord McConnell, as having perhaps “overegged the pudding”, can he tell us which particular egg that the noble Lord sought to throw should be excluded from that mix?

The point that I was trying to get over to the noble Lord, Lord McConnell—and I think the noble Lord, Lord Tomlinson, knows this—is that he was overemphasising all the criticisms in the report without underlining the fact that Her Majesty’s inspector on these matters had pointed out that three out of the four sections he visited were performing pretty well and that he found good practice. There obviously were criticisms and, quite rightly, noble Lords opposite and the Government will focus on those criticisms. I just want to say that it was not all that bad.