Skip to main content

Immigration and Nationality (Fees) (Amendment) Order 2014

Volume 751: debated on Tuesday 28 January 2014

Motion to Consider

Moved by

That the Grand Committee do consider the Immigration and Nationality (Fees) (Amendment) Order 2014.

Relevant document: 17th Report from the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments.

My Lords, this is a draft amendment to the Immigration and Nationality (Fees) Order 2011. The order is an enabling power concerning charging for visa, immigration and nationality services. It enables the Home Office to specify applications, processes and services for which it intends to set a fee. Specific fee levels will be set out in separate legislation to be brought before this House shortly. For applications and services where we charge more than the administrative cost of delivery, the regulations are subject to the affirmative procedure. Noble Lords will have the opportunity to ask searching questions—and I am sure they will—about fee levels in that debate.

In accordance with our legal powers, this amendment to the Immigration and Nationality (Fees) Order 2011 sets out new applications and services for which we intend a fee to be paid in future, and clarifies the powers under which some existing fees are set. First, the order enables us to expand our premium services. These are optional services, offered to customers who want faster processing or more convenience. It will allow premium service fees to be charged for all applications where the Home Office is able to offer such a service. It will also allow us to charge for services offered at locations other than Home Office premium service centres—for example, at business or university premises.

It will also bring fees for certain Border Force premium services within the immigration charging framework. As a result, these services may be charged to generate additional revenue, rather like other optional premium services provided by the Home Office. For example, it will enable fees to be charged for the registered traveller scheme, in operation as a pilot since September 2013, which will speed up the processing of frequent travellers from low-risk countries.

The order will also enable new fees to be introduced for the process of conducting a review of a refusal decision for certain applications. Such reviews are likely to form an increasingly important part of our service as a result of changes to the current appeals process being proposed under the Immigration Bill 2014. The Bill will reduce the range of immigration decisions that attract a right of appeal. However, applicants will be able to request a review of a decision to refuse leave. The order will allow a fee to be charged to those who request such a review. The fee will be refunded if it is decided that the initial decision was incorrect. The order is not seeking to predetermine the outcome of the Bill in any way; that will be resolved in separate debates.

We also wish to take this opportunity to make clarifications to the current fees order. First, we want to clarify the basis on which fees are charged for residence and registration documentation issued to European Economic Area nationals and their families. We also want to make clear that fees charged by our commercial partners overseas are within the scope of the charging regime. We recognise the benefits that managed legal migration can bring to the United Kingdom and seek to ensure that the fees for visa, immigration and nationality services demonstrate that the UK retains its position as an attractive destination to work, study or visit.

As I have said, the order provides the enabling powers to set fees and 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 by Section 20 of the UK Borders Act 2007.

I believe noble Lords would want to ensure that the immigration system controls migration, commands public confidence, serves our economic interests and is paid for in a fair and sustainable manner. The order will ensure that we can continue to strike the right balance between the contribution made by taxpayers and by those who use and benefit most from the immigration and border services provided by the Home Office. I commend the order to the House. I beg to move.

My Lords, I know that we will be debating the Immigration Bill very shortly, but I should like to comment on this matter of fees and the premium services that are being offered—presumably to try to make it easier. Speaking as the founding chairman of the UK India Business Council, if there is one complaint about the United Kingdom and our relationship that I hear when I go back to India, as I do regularly, it is about visas. This is particularly true of students, and of the business community. We have serious problems in that the UK Border Agency, as it was, was not fit for purpose and has now been dismantled. Can the Minister confirm that the levying of fees is a caseworking function and falls within the remit of UK Visa and Immigration and not that of the UK Border Force?

Furthermore, it is quite clear when I come in and out of Heathrow in particular that it is very difficult; the queues are very long. We are not adequately resourced to cater for the passengers arriving in the UK. With this system, I presume that the Government are trying to make it easier for someone, by paying a premium fee first, to get a visa and then, once arrived, to get in quickly and escape the queues. Can the Minister confirm that? It is very off-putting, whether you are a tourist or a business traveller, to be confronted by those queues at Heathrow.

Quite apart from this, the Government—as I have said before—should surely be thinking about joining Schengen, which is much better value for money. It would encourage many more visitors to come. This government measure is a step in the right direction but it is completely avoidable if we join Schengen. That would hugely enhance the number of tourists and increase the number of business visitors. It would be much better value for money.

Next, from the point of view of students from abroad, Britain is a very expensive country to study in. They want to study in Britain—our higher education, along with that of the United States, is the best in the world—but both the fees and the cost of living in the UK are high. This has not helped countries such as India, for example, where the exchange rate has deteriorated rapidly and the rupee is now much weaker, making it even more expensive for Indian students. Having to pay an even higher fee for a premium service makes it that much more expensive for them to come to this country. The number of Indian students has dropped by 25%. Our economy desperately needs the income from foreign students—what they spend on fees and what they spend while they are here—which is estimated at possibly £14 billion a year. This is quite apart from the generation-long links that are built.

Moreover, while we are focusing on the fees, the Government are completely ignoring—again, we will address this in the Immigration Bill—the introduction of exit checks when people leave the country. It is very simple, with today’s technology, to scan every passport as people leave the country, whether they are EU or non-EU. Then we would know who has left the country and who has come into the country, which would also help to address the huge problem with illegal immigrants.

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for his explanation, which certainly addressed a couple of the points I wanted to ask him. I found it extremely helpful. I appreciate that this is not the order that sets the level of fees, which will come before us again. However, there are a number of questions on this.

First, I entirely agree with the point made in paragraph 7.1 of the Explanatory Memorandum, which states:

“The Home Office believes that it is right that those who benefit directly from the border and immigration system should bear a higher share of the cost of running the system and therefore reduce the contribution made by the UK tax payer”.

Noble Lords will recall that I addressed that principle in the anti-social behaviour Bill on the issue of firearms licences. The Government did not agree with me in that case and the taxpayer is shouldering a huge burden of millions of pounds every year for firearms licences. Given that it establishes a principle here, I hope it will apply to other areas of government policy, such as those I have raised previously, when appropriate.

The new provisions here talk about the new services that can be provided at a cost. The Minister said something about this but it seems to me that there is still an area of flexibility. He talked about the new optional premium service and where it could be provided. Can he can say anything more about that, or am I wrong and there is no flexibility? However, from what is here and what he was saying, it is implied that there is some flexibility in the services that can be charged for. I am interested to see whether there is a definitive list of those services that are not being charged for now but would be charged for in the future. That would be a useful list to have.

I was looking at the debate yesterday in the other place and one of the areas that struck me, and is something that I have been looking at, was the consultation. I did not think there was a consultation on these proposals. It has closed but it has never been published. As a matter of principle, it is always helpful if information on consultations is published prior to the debates on the issue because presumably the consultation was to inform policy and this debate is to help form policy. I would have greatly appreciated having the responses, or a summary of them, and the details of that consultation prior to today’s debate. Given that the discussion on fees will continue, it would be helpful if the noble Lord could circulate, at least to those interested in today’s debate, or place in the Library, details of that consultation and the Government’s response to it. We will not oppose the order today or pray against it because of that, but I do not think it is a good principle.

As I understand it, part of the proposal is that what the Government call “commercial partners”—and most people call contractors—would be able to charge for services they provide, particularly visa applications. They would also be providing new services and new fees. I hope that, when we discuss fees at a later date, more information can be given to your Lordships’ House on the method of calculation if we are talking about three new variables: new services, new fees and contractors.

I am curious about what appears to be an extended role for contractors in visa applications. Can the noble Lord can say something more about what work contractors will be undertaking that the Home Office is currently undertaking? Will there be a transfer of responsibilities or of work? I am not clear exactly what the contractors will be doing under the terms of this order. Does the Minister know which contractors will be used? Will there be new contracts to bid for? Who are the contractors, if that information is available? What will the process be and what will the work be? How long will any contracts be given for? The key point is that presumably there has to be careful monitoring and high expectations of the standards to be reached by contractors. There have been issues with some big contracts, such as security for the Olympics, which the Minister and I and debated on the Floor of the House. Recently, we have seen security concerns raised over one of the private prisons and problems with electronic tagging. I think there are multimillion-pound paybacks from some companies that the Home Office has employed to undertake work on its behalf. If this is an extension of contractors, we need some very clear assurances on what the monitoring arrangements will be and how they will be enforced to ensure high standards, especially if new fees are coming in to pay for those services.

That sums up the standards that we expect in the work being done by contractors. We also want to know a little more about the fees and what services will be covered by them. I hope that the Minister can answer those questions. If he cannot, I shall be happy for him to write to me. I have asked for a fair bit of detail, particularly on the contractors. If he could give me an overview now and then write to me, I would be equally happy with that.

I am grateful for the contributions from the noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, and the noble Baroness, Lady Smith of Basildon. It is helpful to have an opportunity here to discuss some of the detail that lies behind this. The more exciting event perhaps follows when the level of fees is discussed, but this is the framework against which we might discuss those matters.

The noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, referred to queues at airports. Certainly from my own experience, while queues are still a feature, they are nowhere near as great a feature as they were. None the less, there will be people who wish to avoid any queueing and, for them, a premium service facilitates that. Part of the reason for fee-charging is to make sure that income generation is available to help resource UK Visa and Immigration, which is the body responsible for this aspect.

The noble Lord asked why we had not joined Schengen. This is a matter that frequently comes up in debate. Our view is that, while we can work as closely as we can with Schengen, we need to protect our own borders—that has been a policy decision under this Government and the previous Government—and we should continue to do that.

We take note of the level of student fees. We are well aware of the pressure that people wishing to come from India are under because of the fall in the purchasing power of the rupee. It is quite right to say that the number of students coming here from that country has fallen. We regret this, but this does not challenge our overall policy because student numbers from elsewhere in south-east Asia and China are up and, overall, the number of overseas students is increasing. I expect, and as the noble Lord rightly suggested, that this matter will feature in debate when the Immigration Bill arrives in this House. Indeed, the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, has already advised me that he intends to raise it.

Exit checks are included in the Immigration Bill and will be debated as part of that. I think that it is well known that it is the Government’s intention to introduce e-Borders where possible.

I shall take up the noble Baroness’s invitation to write. I shall include the noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, in that and place in the Library a copy of anything that I am not able to answer on my feet here today. I hope that I have covered the majority of the issues that the noble Lord mentioned.

I should say that the cost of production of a UK visa is £136; the fee charged is £80. We are still a long way from recovering costs on student visas, for example. However, we are in a competitive market and we do not wish to have a fee level that discourages people from coming to study here.

I have a note on the contractors, which the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, chose to ask about. Overseas visa applicants can choose to take up a number of added-value premium services provided by processing partners on a commercial basis alongside their application. Many of these services have been offered on a small scale and developed over time. We plan to expand these services, so it would bring greater clarity and transparency to have fees. All these services are set out in the legislation. I think the noble Baroness was asking about the nature of the arrangements with contractors. It may be advantageous to write to her on that point.

I must clarify my question: I was probing further on the nature of the arrangements. Will any new services be undertaken by contractors that are currently undertaken not by contractors but by the Home Office?

We have two principal contractors at the moment, VFS Global and CSC. These were retendered in 2013. From 2014, there will be two new contractors. VFS Global is reinstated but Teleperformance UK has been re-engaged. These were open-tender contracting arrangements. However, if the noble Baroness would like more information on them, I am prepared to write to her about the services they supply. I will make sure that that is done. I have some of the information here.

I thank the Minister for giving way. I wish to make two points. He said that the number of overseas students has increased. However, if I may correct him, according to the Times Higher Education Supplement of 16 January, the number of non-EU students at UK universities fell by 1% last year—the first such decline ever recorded. In the Government’s defence, the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, asked if there had been consultation. My understanding is that targeted consultation took place.

My point was that it has not been published and we were not able to see it before the order came before us.

I will comment on the consultation after I have described the services. The services provided by the contractors are priority visa services, user-pay visa application centres, prime-time appointments, passport passback, mobile clinics and international contact centres, so there are a variety of things, all designed to facilitate people’s applications. What goes on under these headings is probably best put in the letter rather than my reading it all out.

I must correct myself. I said that the £80 fee is for a short-term study visa; it is actually £298 for the points-based system, but the comments that I made still apply.

The Government held a limited consultation on this. There had been a previous consultation, as my honourable friend Mark Harper announced yesterday. A full public consultation took place in 2009-10 on the whole business of charging and a more limited consultation was carried out. We received 78 responses, mainly from representative bodies. The document will be published. I will ensure that we write to the noble Baroness with details of the consultation and, indeed, the Government’s response to it as soon as it is available.

I say to the noble Lord that we do not want to bandy figures about but the Government’s intention is clear: we do not want to impede students coming to this country. Our figures show that sponsored visa applications for university students rose by 7% in the year ending September 2013. Genuine students are indeed welcome to the United Kingdom.

As I said, I may not have been able to cover all the ground. The noble Baroness mentioned firearms. One day I hope to shoot her fox on that particular issue, but not at this juncture, so I have to take her chiding in good heart. I hope that noble Lords will allow me to write on the detailed questions I have been unable to answer.

Motion agreed.

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.