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10.20 pm

The Minister for Citizenship and Immigration (Beverley Hughes): I congratulate the hon. Member for Guildford (Sue Doughty) on securing this debate, and I do not blame her for seeking it, certainly on the basis of the case with which I am familiar and about which she has written to the Department.

I am pleased to have the opportunity to make our position clear. I have to say that the person in the case with which I am most familiar—the one that I have investigated—was treated unacceptably. Although the hon. Lady raised several other cases, that treatment is not typical, but I want to set out our general student policy and some of the difficulties that have affected a number of people, as well as to say something about that case.

In the time left to me, I probably cannot deal with all the questions that the hon. Lady asked me at the end of her speech, but I will write to her following the debate to deal with anything that I do not cover now. She is right to say that the United Kingdom welcomes overseas students and wants to welcome them. More than 300,000 students entered the UK in 2000, up from about 200,000, 10 years previously. So there is clearly a growing trend, which we very much welcome.

We recognise, as does the hon. Lady, the mutual benefit of attracting overseas students to the UK. That benefit is to the students and certainly to our country. For the students, the UK can offer—as it does at the college in her constituency—high-quality and competitively priced education in a stimulating environment. Those who experience UK education and training tend to become lifelong friends of the UK, with all that that implies for

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future political, trade and economic benefits in the UK. They also generate significant income for the UK and the wider economy.

One of the aims of the Prime Minister's initiative, launched in 1999, to attract more overseas students, to which the hon. Lady referred, was to make visa and entry arrangements more user-friendly for students. After her experiences, she may think that that has a hollow ring, but that was certainly one of the intentions. We have tried to make the visa application process as simple as possible: we have produced more information for applicants; we have tried to reduce waiting times; and we have ensured that, wherever possible, leave to enter or remain is granted for the full duration of a course.

However, I have to tell the hon. Lady that this is a question of balance. I do not say that to justify the treatment that she has described, but people have to recognise that we genuinely want to minimise inconvenience and delay to genuine students while ensuring that we have the necessary checks in place to identify and deter those people who would otherwise try to use that avenue to circumvent the controls. That could have been an issue in the case that she has raised, with which I shall deal in a moment.

Students are free to take part-time work while studying in the UK, including during sandwich courses and internships. Those who have completed degrees here may be eligible to obtain work permits and to stay on in employment. I shall write to the hon. Lady on her specific question about nurses.

For most of the period since the launch of the Prime Minister's initiative, the initial decisions on all applications for extensions of stay in the UK were generally made within three weeks. Of late, however, some applicants, including students, have had to wait much longer than we would have wished for a decision on their applications for further leave to remain. I assure the hon. Lady that we are doing everything possible to ensure that students can study here without encountering immigration problems.

Many overseas students come to the United Kingdom with a student visa. That is a mandatory requirement in the immigration rules for all visa nationals wanting to come here to study. It does not, however, apply to non-visa nationals. Many come here as visitors and apply to stay on as students.

In 2001–02, more than 370,000 general and settlement applications were made by post and in person. That was a 20 per cent. increase on the previous year and reflects the year-on-year growth that we have experienced. Of those, student applications represent the largest single category. At peak periods, they account for about 40 per cent. of all applications. The IND's target is to complete 70 per cent. of all general and settlement applications on initial consideration and within the three-week period. That target applies to all categories, including students. Because of an exceptionally high intake during the second half of 2001, however, and the implementation of a new database—[Interruption.] I hear laughter from a sedentary position, but unless we get the information technology right we will never succeed in dealing with the huge volume of applications in the kind of time scale that we want to achieve and that people expect. Those two factors therefore resulted in an increase from three weeks to eight weeks by the end of that year. That coincided with the

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peak period for student applications—September and October—with the result that many student applications were affected.

The very high intake of cases has meant that those cases that cannot be decided on initial consideration, because they are not straightforward, have taken up to nine months to consider. That was one of the cases that the hon. Lady cited, and I shall deal with the reasons in a moment.

In connection with the Prime Minister's initiative, a batch scheme was introduced in August 2000 for universities and publicly funded colleges of higher education affiliated to the United Kingdom Council for Overseas Student Affairs. Under that scheme, which has worked very successfully, applications can be submitted in batches by universities and colleges with a promise that they will be processed within two weeks if everything is straightforward. The majority of student applications are straightforward, but a number require further investigation or inquiry before a decision can be made.

Applications are considered on their individual merits. In many cases, inquiries have to be made to establish whether the requirements of the immigration rules have been met, for example. These may be to check whether the student or the sponsor has sufficient evidence of financial support for the duration of the studies. Some applicants wait until the end of their leave to enter in some other category under the immigration rules before applying to remain as students. That has to be checked out. Inquiries need to be made to check whether the applicant is a bona fide student. For example—this was an element in the case quoted by the hon. Lady—a person can enter the UK as a visitor or, in this case, as an au pair. One of the requirements of that leave of entry is that the person will leave at the end of their permitted stay. If the person applies at the end of that period to remain as a student, further inquiries need to be taken into account.

In some cases, the study quoted is at private education institutions. Again, that was a feature of the case cited by the hon. Lady. In fact, an investigation was under way at the particular college at which that person had proposed to study. Some colleges, we believe, are set up simply to be fronts for that kind of application route. As the college was being investigated, the person's application to study there could not proceed until the investigation had been concluded. Visits and reports by the immigration service may also be necessary. There are an increasing number of such cases so, unfortunately, the necessary inquiries mean that some applications take longer to complete than expected. However, every effort is made and will increasingly be made to keep students informed although I accept that that was not a factor in this case.

The hon. Lady mentioned the return of passports, and I agree that it is another important issue. The applicant's passport must be included with the application so that the decision can be endorsed in it. As I am sure she will appreciate, the passport is also needed as evidence of identity. The practice of the IND is to retain the passport until the application has been decided, but if it is needed for urgent travel, arrangements will be made for it to be

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returned. However, that means that the application will be deemed to have been withdrawn, and that creates a difficulty for some people who want to leave. I accept that the person in the case that the hon. Lady described was not dealt with well. The passport appears to have been mislaid by Becket house before it was refound. That should not happen, and we will have to deal with that point.

The hon. Lady cited a number of issues in which there has been general frustration in dealings with the IND. I accept that there were problems earlier this year in contacting the immigration and nationality enquiry bureau—the INEB—but the situation is now much improved. The bureau had modern, state-of-the-art call centre equipment installed in March this year and many staff have been recruited and are now fully trained. The bureau answers more than 22,000 calls a week, and our aim is that no caller should have to try more than three times to make a successful call and be given the information that they want.

At the moment, the bureau can provide general information but, as we develop the software and the database, it will also be able to say more precisely what stage a particular application has reached. A new computer system called the general casework information database is also being developed and installed. When it is fully operational, it will enable the bureau's agents to give much more detailed information. All those measures will help to continue the improvement that has been started. I accept that we have got nowhere near the position that we want to reach, but we are working very hard.

The hon. Lady mentioned correspondence, and we are instituting a tracking system. My predecessor had no knowledge of the fact that the hon. Lady had written three times, because that information had not penetrated as far as his office. We need a system that will enable us to track the letters that Members have written because Ministers need to know about them.

I am very sorry that the hon. Lady's constituent experienced difficulties. Inevitably, such cases are not always as straightforward as they appear at first sight, and I have explained some of the ways in which that case was not straightforward. I have had the position of the constituent reviewed, particularly in the light of the fresh application that she has made to study at a different college. I am pleased to say that I have instructed my officials to grant her leave to remain in the UK as a student for 12 months in the first instance as I understand that her course will last for that long.

If the hon. Lady, has other cases that she would like me to investigate, I will certainly do so. However, I hope that she will accept that we are engaged in a big task. The volume of cases is enormous and they are sometimes complex and not straightforward. When that is the case, there will be delays. However, we are trying very hard to improve the system overall.

Question put and agreed to.

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