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Visa Processing Times

Volume 724: debated on Wednesday 14 December 2022

[James Gray in the Chair]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered visa processing times.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. This is a short debate on an important but, I believe, ignored issue. Routine processing times do not excite the public or, arguably, cause a ruckus in the media, but MPs and our caseworkers see day in, day out the stress and misery that they cause.

The Government like to talk about “illegal” and “legal” migration. The Minister will appreciate that that is not a division that I generally support, but for the purposes of today I want to talk about what his Department deems to be legal migration: the families and workers who want to live in this country but have been left in legal limbo because of the Home Office.

I have spoken to my colleagues, some of whom are here today, and I can tell the Minister that this is not a one-off issue that constituents of North East Fife just happen to experience; the problems I will outline are systemic ones faced by people across the entire UK. If he speaks to his own staff, he might find that they have similar experiences.

Let me start with the most obvious issue: the pure length of time it takes for visas to be processed. The most egregiously delayed case currently in my case load will have been waiting for an outcome for an entire year this coming Sunday—not a birthday that those involved want to recognise. I will not use their names, as the applicant is a minor, but a teenage girl, the stepdaughter of one of my constituents, is currently living in a state of limbo, with her previous visa expired and without an outcome on her family visa. Let me make this clear: it was the Home Office that advised that she should apply for a family visa in November 2021—and she did so in December last year, well in advance of her student visa running out—but now, a year later, the Home Office is unable to tell her whether she is going to get her visa.

I ask the Minister to imagine for a minute that he is a teenager—I do not know whether his teens were longer ago than mine—settling into a new country and a new school, and making new friends, with a half-sibling who has an automatic right to be in the UK, only to be left not knowing whether he will be told that he has to leave. That has the potential to be incredibly damaging to both the young person and their family. We are always told that the Home Office has to carry out checks—rightly so—but what on earth could a teenager have on their record that means their mother can get a visa but theirs gets held up for this long? It certainly does not make sense to me. Let me make it clear that this is not their fault; it is the Home Office’s fault.

The Home Office’s standard response is that their resources have been incredibly strained since the Homes for Ukraine scheme opened earlier this year. I do not think anybody will dispute the hard work done by the Home Office and UK Visas and Immigration staff in processing those applications. Our staff worked with them day in, day out for months, and we saw at first hand the efforts that were made. But here is the key thing: delays with standard visa processing predate the invasion of Ukraine. I supported a constituent in 2021 who, after having lived here legally for five years, wanted to apply for indefinite leave to remain, and it took her almost a year to get a response.

Both the cases I have mentioned have been classified by the Home Office as private life applications, although that has been disputed by my constituents. That means that the Home Office can hide behind the fact that it has not set itself a processing time goal. Other visas have expected processing times; private life visas, where someone applies for the right to live here to be with their immediate nuclear family, just like the Minister and I do, can exist in the system endlessly. The previous Immigration Minister, the hon. Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster), intervened in a serious case that I raised in early 2021. I was grateful for his intervention, but we MPs should not have to intervene at that level to make things happen.

There are three points that I hope the Minister will respond to. The first concerns how the Home Office designates a case as a private life case. The experiences of my constituents suggest that decisions are often made to designate applications as private life applications, whereas the applicants believe they should be processed under other routes. Often no information is given as to why that is the case. The system is opaque and, as a result, the Home Office can effectively designate cases as low priority, which I can only presume helps it to meet targets it might otherwise miss.

A constituent recently contacted me to ask for assistance with his family’s visas. He had recently received indefinite leave to remain, having arrived from Iran. His wife and two young children were still in Iran. Sadly, his wife passed away, leaving his two very young children alone in Iran without a guardian. It took three months to get them visas so that they could join their father in the UK. In that case, the visas were granted under “urgent and compassionate” dispensation, but even then it took three months. Does my hon. Friend agree that three months falls far outside what should be considered an urgent timeframe?

I absolutely agree. Clearly, there were specific circumstances in that case. I am looking for a response from the Minister about the more standard cases, but that case highlights how much of an issue we have in this area, and I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention.

I commend the hon. Lady for bringing this matter forward. I spoke to her in the Chamber before, knowing that the debate was coming. Working visas take over eight weeks to extend, so many workers who are asked to stay on and extend their contracts, perhaps for another three months, are unable to do so because of the waiting time. Should the Government not aim for a shorter process to allow those working and paying tax here to continue to do so while that is mutually beneficial for everyone?

I thank the hon. Member for his intervention. We know how tight the labour market is, and we know there is a need for a degree of immigration to help with some of the labour shortages we see. Later in my speech, I will talk about some particular issues that the University of St Andrews faces.

On my point about the Home Office designating cases as low priority, perhaps I am being sceptical, and perhaps there are perfectly good reasons for cases to be designated as private life visa applications, but it would be highly beneficial if the Minister could set those reasons out. That would help us to give proper feedback to our constituents. It would also be helpful if the Home Office set out the reasons clearly to applicants when their cases are being processed.

On the point about transparency of criteria, my constituent, Catherine, who is a British citizen, applied for a spousal visa for her husband to come over. She applied back in July, when she was five months pregnant, because she wanted her husband, Donald, to be with her for the birth of their first child. In November, just days before the baby was due, the Home Office said that his case did not meet the criteria for expedition, because it was not “compelling compassionate” or a health circumstance. He missed the birth of his first child and was not there to support his wife, and he has missed the first four precious weeks of his baby’s life. Does my hon. Friend agree that the Home Office needs to review its service level agreement times, and review and be much more transparent about its criteria for what it considers worthy of expediting?

I entirely agree. If that does not qualify as compassionate grounds to expedite a visa, I do not know what does. That brings to mind my urgent question in the last Session about visa processing times in relation to Ukraine. It seems that people are treated as clients or customers, and sometimes we forget that there are families and real people behind these cases.

The second point on which I would like a response from the Minister is whether any visa processes should take place without a target processing time. That gives the Home Office nothing to aim for, it gives us no way of holding the Home Office to account, and it gives applicants absolutely no certainty whatsoever. We know and understand that some cases will be complicated and might take longer than a standard processing time, but surely the Home Office should justify that, rather than leaving all applicants in a form of legal limbo.

My third point is about communication. I appreciate that providing updates takes up time and resource, but that has to be balanced against the immense stresses that people live under while they wait for months on end with no news. As human beings, we need to feel that we are grounded in our homes and communities—that is fundamental to feeling safe. Leaving people for months without any news as to whether they can stay in their community destroys that. MPs know from the constituents who contact us that people are often under so much stress that it is making them physically ill. When a rare letter does arrive, usually after the intervention of an MP—I am always of the view that so much of our casework is the result of processes not working properly in the first instance—the words we usually get are, “It is under consideration but we can provide no timeframe in which you can expect a response.” That is hardly a comfort.

The Homes for Ukraine drop-in centre in Portcullis House earlier this year provided a different form of interaction with the Home Office for our staff; we could be told, “Okay, I can see that the application was last worked on so many days ago.” Obviously, it is not practical to set up a drop-in centre like that in the long run. No one wants to see those queues across Portcullis House or the hours wasted in them—my caseworker would come in an hour early to sit in the queue, waiting for the centre to open—but those snippets of information gave people comfort and meant they did not feel so lost in the system. Especially as the Home Office moves further and further towards a digital system, surely there must be some way of replicating that and letting people have some insight into what is happening to their applications. In the meantime, I urge the Minister to look at what can be done to improve communication with applicants as they sit through these horrendous waiting times.

So far I have focused on delays with visas with no target processing times, but there are also significant delays with visas with target times; often, the delays go far past those targets. North East Fife is home to the University of St Andrews, which is The Guardian’s top-rated university in the UK. It is a hub of research and teaching and it attracts some of the brightest minds from around the world. The projects they work on are wide-ranging, but encompass medical research and energy. If we have learned anything from the last three years, it is that we need solutions in those areas and that we want to be at the cutting edge of progress. There is absolutely no doubt that there are increased challenges and barriers to ensuring that progress following our departure from the EU, so it is immensely disappointing to find that, when the Home Office sets itself an eight-week target for skilled workers’ visas, it ends up missing it by 10 weeks.

I am sure the Minister knows how employment contracts work and about the need to book airline tickets, find accommodation and so on. All those things need some element of certainty. If the delays continue, I worry that top academics will simply stop wanting to come here. We will fall behind and we will lose research funding and contracts. I am sure that is not a legacy the Minister wants to be involved with, so will he explain why these routine delays are happening? Is it that there are problems with the system that mean that eight weeks just is not possible—a degree of honesty would be fantastic—or is it that the system is just under-resourced, with bones cut so bare of fat by this Government that they are barely creaking on?

While I think about the University of St Andrews, I have a side point that I would like to get the Minister’s views on. This is not the responsibility of the Home Office, but it is definitely something that it has an interest in: the academic technology approval scheme. Where researchers have contracts to come to work at St Andrews in sensitive fields, such as energy, they are required to go through additional Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office checks. Visas are applied for at the same time and, if the ATAS certificate is delayed—as they generally are, to be quite honest—there is a risk that the visa approval has to be voided and the process must be started all over again.

Given that the rest of this debate is focused on delays and under-resourcing in UKVI, that seems a huge waste of time and resources. I am told by the university that delays are pretty much universal, but it gave me some typical examples: instead of the mooted processing time of 20 days, we are looking at 65 days, 75 days, and 102 days and counting. Is the Minister having conversations with his colleagues in the FCDO about this? Is there anything that can be done to streamline the process, or at least to better align the visa and ATAS processes to avoid reapplications? That would be incredibly helpful for universities across the UK, not just my own in St Andrews.

Finally, let me turn to turn to some Homes for Ukraine visa cases that my office still has open. Earlier, I praised the hard work of the UKVI staff in dealing with the influx of applications, and I fully stand by that, but my office currently has 11 unresolved cases of people left in a warzone because of delays at our end. The first 10 of those visas were applied for by one sponsor in June; the processing time now stands at 25 weeks. We have tried to escalate the cases, but we keep being told that they are under consideration.

The 11th case is a separate application. The complication comes because the applicant initially applied to come to Scotland under its super-sponsor scheme. Unfortunately, she was told in September that, due to operational difficulties in the scheme, her application was on hold. She then applied again through the UK-wide route to stay with a family. It has now been almost 14 weeks since she sent in that application. Our office has been given conflicting information about the application. At one point, we were told that it was deferred, but with no explanation. That is incredibly worrying for someone who has been waiting six months to reach safety.

As I said earlier, this should not take a Minister’s intervention, but I have a list of cases; if the Minister is willing to look at those that I have raised today so that we can at least find out what the delays are, I will be incredibly grateful. I have raised a few specific cases, but it is clear from my experience and the experiences of my colleagues that these are systemic issues. I would be hugely grateful if the Minister would look at the specific cases that we have raised today, but more than that, I hope that he can give me some reassurance that the Government are addressing the broader issues that I have raised, and that he will go back to the Home Office and effect some change.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I am grateful to the hon. Member for North East Fife (Wendy Chamberlain) for securing the debate and to hon. Members from across the House who have joined us, no doubt sharing the hon. Lady’s concerns.

My door is always open for individual cases. If the hon. Lady would like to give me the details of the cases she raised after the debate, I would be happy to look into them, but she is right that it should not take a request to a Minister to get the good service that the Home Office and our agencies should be delivering routinely. The concerns that she has raised are important to me and to the team behind the visas and immigration service.

In my short time in the Home Office, I have been impressed by the good work that the team has done in recent months to turn around some of the delays that we have experienced in recent years. The hon. Lady very fairly mentioned that two huge events have affected the performance of UKVI. First, the pandemic affected productivity in all areas of the public sector and the private sector. It has taken us time, as it has other developed countries, to regain the level of customer service that we would like to offer. In most areas, the UK is actually in a better position than our direct competitors around the world, but of course we aspire to be in that position—or, indeed, to go further.

The second factor is Vladimir Putin’s illegal invasion of Ukraine. My predecessors made the right decision to transfer a great deal of the workers in the Home Office and UKVI to work on the Homes for Ukraine scheme so that we could get those visas issued as expeditiously as possible, but that did come at a cost to some of our other visa customer standards. It is now our hope that we can quickly recover that lost ground and bring each of the visa categories into line with the service standard as quickly as possible. The good news is that in most cases that has now happened. In the small number of cases in which it is not happening, it will happen very soon. I have been meeting regularly with Marc Owen, who leads the service, and have been impressed by the work that he has done to turn it around in recent months.

I will go through a couple of the principal areas that have been raised, just to give some comfort that we are very alive to these issues. Despite the need to take resource off the emergency situation in Ukraine and restore the service that the rest of the visas and immigration service needs to deliver, it remains important that we process applications under the Homes for Ukraine scheme quickly. If the hon. Member for North East Fife gives me details of the cases she mentioned, I will happily take them forwards, but we are generally processing applications in a matter of days. If some are taking longer, that is clearly concerning; it may be that there is something specific about those cases, but I will happily look into them.

Before my arrival in the Department, an entirely reasonable decision was taken to make work and study our national priority. We need to get the economy going again after the pandemic, and we needed to get students who had left because of covid back into the country, in order for universities to get going again. Resources were put in place to ensure that those visas were decided quickly. The number of cases was very high, as can be seen from the net migration statistics, which were published recently. The number of foreign students who have entered the UK in the past 12 months has been exceptionally high, and more than 590,000 study visas had been processed by the end of September 2022.

I am interested in the hon. Lady’s example from St Andrews University. The national statistics show that we are meeting the study route customer service standard. The 15-day service is being met. In fact, it is averaging 11 days for a standard study visa. For leave to remain—the more complex and longer-term settlement cases—we have an eight-week standard, and that is at six weeks currently. In general terms, therefore, we are meeting the standard, but that is not to diminish the cases that she raised, which again I will happily take up.

I congratulate the hon. Member for North East Fife (Wendy Chamberlain) on securing the debate. I have had a case in my constituency of a sixth-form student who was already studying at a sixth-form college, but who ran foul of the visa rules and had difficulty re-entering to continue their course. It is not necessarily about the easy cases here; it is about how we deal with what was called the long tail of casework. Some cases are still taking several months to clear up, which is interfering with student studies and sometimes with the supply of staff. I wonder what the Minister might be able to do to address that issue.

I will happily look into that. As I say, the overall standard is being met and indeed exceeded—that was not always the case, but it is where we are now—but my hon. Friend is probably right that there is a longer tail of complex cases, which clearly take longer. It is important that the Department looks after those individuals to the same standard.

I thank the Minister for giving way—he is being generous with his time. There is absolutely no doubt that the student situation has improved massively, and my casework team would acknowledge that, but the issue is the work visas of people coming for research or employment with the university. It will degrade the university’s reputation if people coming to deliver courses to students cannot get here.

Without repeating myself, I am happy to look into those cases. There is a conflict here between the standard practice and the cases the hon. Lady is raising. Again, that is not to diminish what she is saying, because there are without doubt cases where we are not performing as we would wish.

It is fair to say that the overall picture for work visas is mixed. For non-sponsored work visas, we are falling below the standard that we aspire to, which is 15 days; we are averaging 36 days, according to the latest statistics that I have seen. For the sponsored routes, which have been given priority by the Department for understandable reasons—this is where an employer is actively seeking for a person to come to the UK as swiftly as possible—the opposite is true. Our 15-day target is being exceeded; we are processing those claims in eight days on average. However, we would like to bring all those categories into line with our service standards as quickly as possible.

For visitors to the UK, we are also now in a much better position that we were recently, which helps with the return of international tourism to the UK. Generally, we are now at or exceeding the customer service standard that we aspire to, which is between 14 and 21 days to turn around an application.

The area where I think there is still room for improvement is family visas, which a number of hon. Members raised today. For the settlement visas, we are about in the position that we would like to be in, which is that we are turning cases around in 93 days. That is still a long time in the real world for someone who wants to get a loved one into the country for important reasons, so I appreciate that, although we might be achieving our customer service target, it is probably not the target that we as a country aspire to. We would like to improve on that.

I will, but let me just finish the point. For spouses and partners looking for either leave to remain or indefinite leave to remain, the overall picture is much better. For leave to remain, we have a target of eight weeks. We are currently processing claims in three weeks. For indefinite leave to remain, we have a much longer target, of 26 weeks, but we are processing those claims within 10 weeks. Overall, the team has done a good job of turning around those times, but I appreciate that the hon. Member for North East Fife has some examples that tell a different story. Perhaps in the time remaining she would like to intervene one last time.

I appreciate the Minister giving way for a final time. It is interesting that he admits that family visas are where the poorest performance is. That goes back to the very first point I made at the start of the debate: the Home Office does not have a target time for those visas. It is very good that the Minister is giving us data that shows that some tracking is happening, but perhaps if he agreed to set a target the performance would improve.

We do have targets for those claims. I have been happy to read some of the targets today. For each visa category, we set our own internal customer service target, and as Ministers we push the team to deliver on it. Those targets can progressively be improved, now that we are out of the long shadow of covid and are able to move some of the resource that was on the Homes for Ukraine scheme back on to business-as-usual processes. I hope that, in the early months of next year, each visa cohort will be brought to, or will exceed, our customer service standard. Then I, as the responsible Minister, will be able to work with the team to set better targets that provide an even better quality of service to the hon. Lady and all our constituents across the country.

On the length of time the Minister cited for spousal visas, in our experience 26 weeks is much closer to the reality on the ground. Will he clarify for our constituents and caseworkers what the criteria for getting a case expedited are? The example I gave was not considered worth expediting.

I do not have the exact criteria with me. I am happy to have a conversation with the hon. Lady to give her some further guidance, but it is fair to say that some of the cases that we receive cannot be expedited, even though they relate to what many of us would regard as important life events, such as an individual’s decision to get married. It is the Home Office’s advice that someone should get their visa before setting the date for their wedding. The issues that we take most seriously are obviously those of life and death, where individuals need to come into the country for a funeral or to see a relative or loved one just before they pass away. A high standard has to be applied, because we receive thousands of requests for expedited cases that relate to important life events and heartfelt issues. We have to set a high standard to ensure that we can truly prioritise important events.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for North East Fife for raising this matter. As I said, I will be more than happy to look into the specific cases that she, or indeed other Members, raised.

Question put and agreed to.