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2.45 pm

The Parliamentary Under–Secretary of State for the Home Department (Angela Eagle): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, East (Mr. Mudie) on choosing to debate this important issue.

The UK receives many applications each year from people who wish to visit our country, and the vast majority are approved. Last year, for example, nearly 1.3 million applications were made for short-term entry clearance; 93 per cent. were successful. However, the right of appeal for those who are disappointed was taken away by the then Conservative Government in 1993. As my hon. Friend pointed out, that was of particular concern to people wanting to visit relatives, and it caused a great deal of resentment among many of his constituents whose relatives were unable to attend events such as funerals, births and weddings and had no redress against the decision of the entry clearance officer. In our White Paper "Fairer, Faster and Firmer—A Modern Approach to Immigration and Asylum", published in July 1998, the Government made it very clear that we would implement a change in order to restore appeal rights.

I hear what my hon. Friend says about fees. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, then the Home Secretary, substantially reduced fees after robust representations—not least from my hon. Friend. However, the principle of charging a fee was approved by Parliament in the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999. As part of the changes to the appeal system announced on 11 January, the Government also decided to establish an official team—as my hon. Friend pointed out—to review other aspects of the scheme. I thank my hon. Friend for raising the four issues that he has set out in the debate.

The team's terms of reference cover other aspects of the system raised by hon. Members and by non-governmental organisations, especially on the new appeal rights. The team is currently analysing information about the use of the scheme and assessing the impact of the appeal fee.

The team found that there was little empirical evidence on which to base any views about the impact of the fee on the appeal rate. The team has thus asked the Home

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Office research, development and statistics directorate, which is independent, to undertake research to assess, among other things, the reasons why unsuccessful applicants decide to appeal or not to appeal. An outside consultant has been seconded to undertake that work.

The team is also reviewing the procedures for lodging and handling appeals and, in particular, for paying the fee, to ensure that those procedures are as accessible and responsive as practicable to the needs of the appellant. My hon. Friend vividly pointed out some of the practical difficulties. The requirement to pay the fee in local currency was recognised as a potential difficulty at an early stage. My hon. Friend is aware of instances, and has shared them with the House, where that has been a real problem. For technical and accounting reasons, it is not possible for overseas posts to accept the fees in sterling. However, the team has suggested, and we have agreed in principle, that a system should be introduced to enable sponsors in the UK to pay the fee in sterling in this country. I can assure my hon. Friend that once the mechanics have been sorted out the regulations will be amended.

There is also a need to investigate the feasibility of relaxing the test for allowing a group of family visitors to rely on the outcome of one appeal. Currently, as hon. Members may know, a family unit for that purpose is the spouse and dependent children. That means that visitors travelling in a group face the prospect of a large loss of fee if they are refused. Clearly, lower fees have helped, but we are still looking into the issue.

My hon. Friend has rightly raised the outcome of appeals as well as the Government's initial estimates of the numbers who would exercise their appeal rights. Our first estimates were that most—at least 80 per cent.—of applicants would choose the cheaper, paper appeal. We recognised that the lower fee would result in more using the oral appeal route. About 50 per cent. have done so since January. As my hon. Friend has pointed out, there is a marked difference in the success rate for those opting for an oral appeal: about two thirds, as opposed to one third for paper appeals. The research project will look at the reasons why that is happening—not least the implications of a 69 per cent. success rate at oral hearings.

The team is continuing its work. It has met the non-governmental organisations that expressed an interest in appeals for family visitors refused visas. Those organisations have included the Commission for Racial Equality, the National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux—clearly, we are well aware of its report on the issue—the Immigration Advisory Service and the Transport and General Workers Union.

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The NGOs supported the decision to undertake research and offered some helpful suggestions about what should be included in it. My hon. Friend has also offered some helpful suggestions. The next step is to produce a discussion paper for my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and other ministerial members of the review team to look at and approve. The input of the NGOs will be of great help in producing that paper. It will be set out in chapters that deal with the main issues raised during the debates and by the NGOs, and will meet the terms of reference of the review. We hope that it will be published in September and widely distributed. A copy will be placed in the Library.

Throughout the process, hon. Members have raised concerns in letters and by way of parliamentary questions—and, of course, in Adjournment debates—about our decision to charge fees for appeals in these cases, the level of the fee and the various arrangements for the operation of the scheme. The first two issues are not within the terms of reference of the review; but the research findings, in particular the findings on the impact of the fee on the appeal rate, will inform the Government's thinking.

It is still early days and I would not want to second-guess the outcome of the consultation. From a low starting point, there has been a steady increase in the number of appeals received. The figures on appeal numbers are being made available to the NGOs for the duration of the review and they will be published in the discussion document. They have risen from 117 in January 2001, the beginning of the scheme, to 513 last month. That is substantially fewer than we estimated last year, but the trend is firmly upwards. The target times are being met by the immigration appeals authorities, which is good news.

I know that in some individual cases things have not gone as smoothly as we would all have hoped. Indeed, my hon. Friend has given me much pause for thought with the example that he has raised. The review team is seeing what can be done to make the scheme work better. It is too soon to draw any firm conclusions, but it was timely of my hon. Friend to have the debate today, allowing me to give an interim report before we get to the consultation.

I hope that we shall return to the debate—in fact I am almost certain that we will return to it—when we publish the final report and when there are facts and figures showing trends which can be relied upon, which are available to us all and on which to base our conclusions. I thank my hon. Friend and hope that he has been reassured by my comments.

Question put and agreed to.

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