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House of Lords Hansard
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UK Visas and Immigration: Customer Charges
18 October 2018
Volume 793

Question

Asked by

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To ask Her Majesty’s Government how much UK Visas and Immigration charges its customers applying from outside the United Kingdom for making enquiries by (1) telephone, and (2) email; and how much money they have collected from those charges since 1 June 2017.

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My Lords, forgive me. This is like buses: nothing happens and then two come along at the same time.

For overseas customers, UK Visa and Immigration has a chargeable call rate of £1.37 per minute and a £5.48 email charge. The Home Office has a contract in place with Sitel UK Ltd for the provision of contact services for both UK and international inquiries. It is not possible to provide data requested on how much money has been collected since 1 June 2017 due to commercial sensitivity.

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My Lords, £1.37 per minute plus the carrier costs and £5.48 for an email? This issue was drawn to my attention by a postgraduate researcher based in India seeking to clarify their visa position. The costs are not insignificant to such a person. The Minister mentioned commercial sensitivity because this is a privatised service. Presumably that means that, in this case, a graduate student would not even be talking to Home Office officials to get the answers they wanted. Can she place on record the equality impact assessment that was carried out when this was introduced, and tell us where the liability lies in the event of bad advice being given? Is it with the Home Office, the contractor or the graduate student in India?

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My Lords, certainly if a quality impact assessment has been done we will make that available. To be clear, I should say that the Government believe that it is right for those who use and benefit directly from the UK immigration system to make an appropriate contribution towards meeting the costs. Fees set by the Home Office border, immigration and citizen services are set at a level that partially funds the immigration system; the remainder is funded through general taxation.

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My Lords, does UKVI see itself as a service? Also, large as these sums may be to the individual, as the noble Lord said, they are very small in the context of government. What is the cost of collecting such amounts? Can that be shown as a set-off against the income derived? Indeed, does UKVI successfully collect that income?

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My Lords, it is a service, and many people believe it is a good service. International call and email charges are levied to fund the commercial contract, and the new service is delivered at a much lower cost to UKVI than previously. Before 2014, there were 32 centres fragmented across the country. The new contract offers a modern, streamlined service which service users find helpful.

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Why do not the Government run this inquiry service directly themselves instead of outsourcing it? Presumably the claimed difficulties over commercial confidentiality would then not arise over answering questions about the income arising from the charges made and the cost of providing the service. The reality is that the arrangements into which the Government have entered deny the public information and, conveniently for the Government, reduce their accountability.

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I do not agree. There is accountability for the service. UKVI set up clear quality standards to monitor the service offered. I hope that the noble Lord will be pleased to hear that 98% of the targets for quality, timeliness and responses to issues are met. I will give an indication of the number of cases that come in: the volume of calls to the contact centres exceeds 100,000 people making inquiries per month. That is an awful lot of people wanting to come to the UK who are prepared to pay for the service.

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My Lords, has the Minister done any sensitivity tests? Would doubling the charges reduce the number of people who inquire and may want to come here? Is that not what the Government’s policy is all about?

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Absolutely not. It is about streamlining a service, providing good customer service and building on the digital platform for UKVI to provide an improved service. From January next year, it will provide services across the country where people living in the UK who want citizenship can have their visas or documents updated. Individuals can even be visited at their business premises or in their home. That is an exceptional service.

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Would it be possible for the applicant to use communications such as FaceTime, thereby saving them any cost at all?

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That is an excellent idea, which I will take back to my department.

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If this is such a good service, why are 40% of Home Office decisions on immigration overturned in the higher courts?

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The Question relates to charges and not appeals that individuals make, so I am afraid that I cannot answer the noble Lord’s question.