Considered in Grand Committee
My Lords, this fees order is to be made using the charging provisions in Sections 68 to 70 of the Immigration Act 2014 and its purpose is to make only a relatively small number of changes to the Immigration and Nationality (Fees) Order 2016, which, along with the Immigration and Nationality Fees (Amendment) Order 2017, remains in place. The changes are needed to ensure that the charging framework set out in secondary legislation for immigration and nationality fees remains current and supports plans for the next financial year.
The Committee will wish to be made aware that there is an error in the draft order and its Explanatory Note. Following further review of the section of the order that deals with circumstances in which a fee may be set in respect of the provision of biometric identity documents, it has been identified that the change we were seeking to make by Article 2(4)(a) has no effect. This is because of the way in which the related legislation—the Immigration (Biometric Registration) Regulations 2008—operates. The intention was to permit the Home Office to charge a fee when a person fails to collect their biometric residence permit within the required time limit, which is not intended as a penalty or fine, but is in line with fees charged for replacement biometric residence permits, where the department incurs extra production costs. However, the Immigration (Biometric Registration) Regulations do not in fact require an application in those circumstances—hence there is no service for which a fee could be charged. Though the Explanatory Note states that Article 2(4)(a) does have an effect, this is incorrect. Before such a change can take effect we will need to amend the Immigration (Biometrics Registration) Regulations 2008. In the interests of transparency for all, the accompanying Explanatory Memorandum has also been amended to clarify the issue.
The 2016 order continues to set out the overarching framework and maximum amounts that can be charged for immigration and nationality functions over the current spending review period, as previously agreed by Parliament. Changes made by this order are intended to clarify existing powers in connection with entry clearance to the Bailiwick of Guernsey, the Bailiwick of Jersey and the Isle of Man. The order will update powers to charge fees when offering premium services in relation to the islands and also make clear that the current definitions of a “sponsored worker”, “unsponsored worker”, “sponsor” and a “certificate of sponsorship” apply in respect of applications to the Isle of Man. Two further changes will delete obsolete provisions, for which no fee is currently set within regulations.
The 2016 order also permits a fee to be set for the acceptance of applications at a place other than an office of the Home Department. This provision currently allows the Home Office to charge a fixed fee when delivering an entirely optional, premium service to enrol biometrics at a place of convenience to service users. Under plans to modernise services offered, the order will now allow for fees to be set at an hourly rate. This will provide greater flexibility and allow a fee to be charged at a level that is commensurate with the time taken to deliver such services.
To be absolutely clear, this change does not affect the Home Office’s basic services, for example, as provided to applicants who enrol their biometric information at a local post office. The amendment is applicable only to those who seek to enrol their biometrics at a place of convenience that they themselves want to specify.
Finally, the order will also update the power to charge for services offered on behalf of certain Commonwealth countries and British Overseas Territories, where such services may not be offered within consular premises.
To recap, we are seeking to make a small number of changes to the 2016 order and maintain the framework for immigration and nationality fees. We are not seeking to make changes to the overarching charging framework, nor to the maximum fee levels that were agreed by Parliament and set out in the 2016 order, other than in respect of the premium service fee about which I have spoken. Individual fee levels to be charged over the course of the next year will be set by new regulations that are due to be laid before Parliament in March 2018.
I commend the order to the Committee.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for explaining the order and for her confession about the error in it. We have a fundamental objection to the approach that the Government are taking to move to a position where fees are charged to cover the costs of providing border, immigration and citizenship services. The security of the UK border is one of the most important mechanisms by which the Government keep us safe and we should not expect those who want to do the right thing and apply for leave to remain and, eventually, citizenship, some of whom come to this country as destitute refugees, to be forced to fund what is fundamentally the duty of the Executive.
Having said that, I understand that these regulations make only one change to the overall fee structure, where the biometric capturing part of an application comes to you and where the eye-watering fixed fee of £10,500 is to be replaced by an extraordinary hourly rate of £2,600. Will the Minister confirm that this is not the actual cost of providing the service, but a fee based on what the market can bear? Will she also explain why the Home Office is not maximising the profit from such a service to enable it to reduce fees in other areas, rather than giving this lucrative money-earner away to a private company? I understand that there needs to be two people to carry out the biometric capture, but if this is purely on the basis of cost recovery are we paying Home Office officials £1,300 an hour? Can I apply for a vacancy?
We support these regulations as far as they go and we look forward to the main event, when the actual fee levels for 2018 are set out in the forthcoming regulations next month. I give the Minister notice that those regulations are likely to be a completely different ball game.
My Lords, I too thank the Minister for setting out the reasons behind this order and for the clarification she gave in her opening remarks. I too was fascinated by the level of fee charged changing from an overall maximum fee of £10,500 to a fee of £2,600 per hour. Some of us have occasionally done per diem work—I suppose we are not unused to it now—but our eyes can only water at the thought of such an hourly rate. It would be good to know where the justification comes from.
I also add to a point made by the noble Lord, which is that essentially a commercial provider is going to do the work. Although the Home Office will retain full oversight and jurisdiction, the relevant fee will relate to the cost associated with the commercial partner travelling to the location of choice as requested by the applicant. The mind boggles. Can they go anywhere? Without detracting from the quality of the people who will be applying for this service, it makes one wonder what exactly the commercial provider is there to do. Is this rate seriously based on the cost of that commercial provider? Does it build in a profit? It must. I must say that the Explanatory Memorandum begs more questions than it answers on those details.
I thank the noble Lords, Lord Hunt and Lord Paddick, who both asked questions about the rather lucrative £2,600 hourly rate. I absolutely understand why the noble Lords asked that question. It is not the actual fee; it is the maximum. The actual fee will be set in regulations later this year, but it is important to understand what the amount is modelled on. It is modelled on existing costs and location of customers using the current service. The average time is two hours and for security reasons it requires two members of staff actually to do the work. It is a maximum amount and that needs to be borne in mind in the context of what noble Lords are asking.
As regards the organisations working with vulnerable people suggesting that the destitution assessment applied to those who make applications on the basis of private and family life is too stringent, our policy states that a fee waiver will be granted to applicants who demonstrate with evidence that they are destitute. That may well bring in the point that the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, made. The onus is on the applicant to demonstrate by way of evidence, which I am sure that a refugee or asylum seeker could, that they meet the terms of the fee waiver policy. It is open to such individuals to re-apply for a fee waiver on the evidence that supports their request.
The question about the supplier ensuring that they give value for money and account strictly for the time taken in each case was a very valid one. The Home Office’s chosen commercial provider will be required to demonstrate a clear and transparent method of calculation of the service cost, based on the applicant’s location, to deliver an on-demand service. This is an on-demand and premium service to a customer at a location of their choice. The contractual clauses will require that partner to undertake open book accounting to allow visibility of costs and charges for services provided to customers, which in turn will be reviewed by robust commercial oversight. I hope that that answers the noble Lord’s two very simple questions.
Committee adjourned at 7.42 pm.