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Fifth Standing Committee on
Thursday 13 November 2003
[Mr. David Taylor in the Chair]
Immigration (Leave to Remain) (Fees) Regulations 2003
Mr. Humfrey Malins (Woking): I beg to move,
That the Committee has considered the Immigration (Leave to Remain) (Fees) Regulations (S.I. 2003, No. 1711).
I begin by welcoming you, Mr. Taylor, to the Chair. It is good to see you in your place.
The regulations introduce charges for applications for leave and variations of leave to remain in the United Kingdom. No reasonable or constructive Opposition—we are both reasonable and constructive—could object to the principle of charging. There are good reasons why the service should not be paid for by the general taxpayer. Nevertheless we have some serious objections. We object to the way in which the charges have been introduced, the timing of that introduction and the level of the charge. We also object to the payment system, the lack of a speedy means of redress in cases of clerical error and the lack of consultation by the Home Office in an area where wide and early consultation would have been greatly appreciated.
I am most grateful to a number of bodies, in particular the United Kingdom Council for Overseas Students Affairs: The Council for International Education and Universities UK, both of which are concerned about the impact of the regulations on foreign students. I am grateful to them for their persuasive arguments. There are strong objections because the Government have significantly failed to deliver on their pledge that international students would usually be granted leave for the whole of their course in the UK, plus some time for packing up, tourism and so on. If implemented, that pledge would have significantly reduced the numbers of international students needing to apply for variations of leave and hence having to pay these charges.
A number of my comments on the regulations will be specifically about students. During the Committee stage of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999, the then Minister of State, the hon. Member for North Warwickshire (Mr. O'Brien) said:
''we are looking for ways to encourage more students to come . . . We shall consider proposals for students in due course when regulations are introduced. It would be appropriate to discuss the detail of specific categories of fees and the figures in a debate''.—[Official Report, Special Standing Committee, 15 April 1999; c. 555–563.]
Contrary to the spirit of what was said then and after a long period of silence on the matter, the Government introduced the regulations just before the summer recess. There was no warning or prior consultation and no publicity. It was at the worst possible time from the viewpoint of students entering or re-entering the UK in the autumn. Flat fees for all
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were imposed with no consideration for individual or compassionate circumstances.
Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry): Although my time as a Minister with responsibility for higher education was broadly a good experience, I bitterly recall how Ministers were excoriated for publishing proposals on any education matter, particularly a higher education one, before a recess, both parliamentary and university. It meant that the consultation period was more or less confined to that recess. It is a very foolish practice and much to be deprecated.
The Chairman: That was rather a long intervention.
Mr. Malins: My hon. Friend is right. He has a range of expertise and knowledge from years spent on such matters, and I am grateful to him for making that point.
As I was saying, there was no consultation or publicity prior to the introduction of the regulations at what was the worst possible time for students. As a direct result of the abrupt and hasty introduction of the charges and the instructions given to ports, students returning from summer breaks, who would have routinely expected an extension of leave to be stamped on their passports, were given no extra leave. They were told that they had to apply and pay the charge even if, in the meantime, that technically made them an overstayer.
I believe that the charges are unreasonably high, although I do not know the basis on which they were calculated. The charges will be £155 for a postal application and about £250 for an application in person, compared with £36 for an initial student visa. The Immigration Law Practitioners Association, which has given me a helpful brief, reminded me that, during the passage of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999, it was expected that charges would be on a sliding scale and would be about £95, so why are they £155 or £250? An application for a full UK passport costs only £45, and a driving licence costs £18. Compared with that the charges seem high, but I have not received a breakdown or justification for why they should be at that level. If it costs £155 to process an application at Croydon, that is a reflection of the incompetence and inefficiency of the bureaucracy.
Mr. John Randall (Uxbridge): Why is there a disparity of £95 between applying in person and by post?
Mr. Malins: It is a conundrum, and I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that. Why is there such a difference? I am tempted to think that the Government are introducing the heavy fees to raise money from one aspect of the system to try to improve other aspects of the system. That is not a fair approach; indeed it penalises people who do not deserve to be punished with extra bills.
Surely, most student applications would require only a few minutes' work by a relatively junior official. To a qualified lawyer, £155 represents two and a half to three hours' work. A relatively unskilled or unqualified junior official dealing with an application could not build up costs of as much as £155. The charge is more than the costs incurred, so will the
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Minister tell us how the figures were calculated? Will the Minister be more flexible on charging, for example on compassionate grounds? If a UK relative of a student falls ill, and a short extension is required, surely flexibility would be good.
I was involved with the formation of the Immigration Advisory Service, which provides free legal help to those with rights of appeal under asylum law. It is another outside body that has expressed concern about the level of the fees, and believes that the fees will cause further difficulties for Britain's immigrant population, which is already socially excluded and poor. Will the Minister let us know in detail the basis of the calculation of the proposed charge of £155? On what predicted volume of applications was that premised, and what cost centres have been included in the calculation of costs that need to be recovered?
It is said that the payment system that was introduced and operates in Cannock has caused confusion and delay. Will the Minister comment fully on that operation, how it works, whether it is going well and so on? I am told that sometimes three weeks are added to processing times. There are tales of inefficiencies at Cannock: lost postal orders, mix-ups over credit card payments and the like. For the applicant at any rate, much more money has to be paid for an increasingly poor service.
What about redress when there is inefficiency? That was referred to in earlier debates. In the other place, it was suggested that no fee should be charged if an application was made necessary by a mistake of the Secretary of State. The noble Lord Falconer said that the Government would ensure when the regulations were made that appropriate provision would be made to deal with errors, but I cannot see what provision has been made. Will the Minister comment on what Lord Falconer said and on how such provision can be made from now on?
I shall refer briefly to the exemptions. It seems a little odd that when the application relates to a highly skilled migrant seeking leave to remain, there is no fee, yet that is just the type of person who could afford to pay a reasonable fee. The Government say that with the extra income generated, they will be able to deliver their new published service standards and improve on them. Will the Minister say exactly which deficiencies and shortcomings she refers to? What shortcomings are there in the immigration and nationality directorate operation? How will the money transferred towards those deficiencies improve the situation?
The next issue touches on a point that I made frequently during the passage of the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002: the urgent need for proposals to sort out the intolerable delays that then existed—and still exist—in the Home Office, where papers and files can disappear for months on end or for ever. As far as I can see, the Government have proposed nothing to deal with those delays.
I shall draw to a conclusion with specific questions, one or two of which relate to students. Is not it true that students and others who want to do the right
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thing are penalised, whereas those who simply ignore the rules and choose to stay on illegally will not be penalised or, indeed, discovered? Incidentally, has the Minister any idea how many international students arrive here each year to undertake a course and how many complete their courses? There are stories of students who do not. How many are confirmed to have left the country at the end of their courses?
Will the Minister confirm that there may be scope for differential charges in future? Will she consider the vexed issue of charges and the level of charges within a fixed time scale of, say, three months from now? In the context of the forthcoming review, will she undertake to consult fully and widely, and in particular bodies such as UKCOSA, Universities UK, the Immigration Advisory Service and ILPA?
Will the Minister consider whether there could be a fast-track system to deal with what are frequently minor applications—as opposed to major applications—to embark on, say, a new course of study? Will she be flexible and consider that issue?
Could improvements be made to the payment system? It is now common for most of us to pay our passport fee or our TV licence fee at the local post office or bank—could that facility be extended to this type of payment?
We welcome the prospect of not charging for applications made on grounds of domestic violence. However, can the Minister clarify exactly how that is to operate in practice, and define more fully the meaning of the phrase
''appears to the Secretary of State to be destitute.''
which appears in the regulations?
The Immigration Advisory Service tells me that the Refugee Council has evidence that solicitors are demanding fees from people, including children, whose exceptional leave to remain is expiring, and who therefore are required to apply for an extension for the new humanitarian protection. However, the Home Office website states that that category is excluded from being charged fees. Is there confusion in the Home Office on that issue? Can the Minister give us a firm statement today about who is to be excluded from the obligation to pay fees?
Today's debate might not have been necessary but for the fact that the Government have moved far too rapidly, without proper consultation with the right people, and without giving plenty of notice.
International students contribute a great deal to the well-being of the UK and to the balance of payments, but the Minister seems to be sending a very discouraging message to them. The Minister has also introduced charges that no one to whom I have spoken can justify. The Opposition do not object, in principle, to fees being paid, but we will vote against the regulations because the charges are so high, because of the timing of their introduction and the way in which they have been introduced, the payment system, the lack of consultation, the lack of means of redress, and the lack of flexibility. We believe that the way in which they have been introduced is wholly
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unsatisfactory, and that they will be damaging to many people.