|Asylum and Immigration (Treatment of Claimants, etc.) Bill
Beverley Hughes: First, let me put the charging of fees into context. Some rebalancing is required, because, unlike many countries—Australia, New Zealand, Canada, the United States, France, Germany, the Netherlands and others—that offer education and other services for people who enter the country for various purposes and have charged for a considerable time, the UK has not previously charged. Countries' charging structures vary and there is a range of charges. Some are levied on entry clearance, some in country as we propose.
In many respects, people who enter this country, particularly students, are being charged in a competitive global market. We want to encourage people to come to the United Kingdom to study and work, where that supports our labour market. We have to compete with other countries that want those particular incomers. However, given that the United Kingdom has previously not charged anything to cover the cost of administering its system, whereas other countries charge substantial amounts and have done so for a considerable time, it is in the wider interests of the British public to introduce into the equation a factor that relates to our potential to recoup some of the cost of administering the system.
We need to strike a balance between not jeopardising our position in international markets, being fair to students and other groups, and not charging at a level that would constitute a disincentive, because that would not be in our interests. We must be fair to the British taxpayer and must use the additional income to improve service standards—that was one of the starting points mentioned by the hon. Members for Woking and for Winchester.
The investment that has been made on the back of the increased charges has enabled us to improve the service standards. We now complete same day service applications in 99 per cent. of cases, compared with 87 per cent. last year. In the case of postal applications, 49 per cent. were completed within three weeks last year and 80 per cent. are now dealt with in that time. In terms of our overall service
Column Number: 385standard, almost all cases—99 per cent. compared with 81 per cent. last year—that arrive by post are processed within 13 weeks. Those that are not completed are complicated or are missing some details.
Hon. Members might care to visit the new public inquiry offices, particularly the one in Croydon which has changed beyond recognition since I first saw it on becoming Minister and vowed to change it. It is a customer-focused, customer-oriented, pleasant environment with the modern system of numbering—visitors are seen speedily and, if they have all their documents and their money, can make their applications over the counter and get them sorted out straight away. The measures have resulted in real benefits to students and others.
The provision in clause 20 is an enabling measure, to allow for the revision of the way in which charges are made. We have made no firm decisions on how the powers in the clause should be exercised in the immediate or long term. The powers should be as flexible as possible. Many points raised by hon. Members about particular groups will be considered when implementing the additional provisions in clause 20. The clause does not set out how the provisions should be exercised, nor does it stipulate time limits.
I accept the point made by the hon. Member for Woking about amendment No. 78, which refers to the consultation process. I understand his concern and was apologetic in the debate. Notwithstanding previous commitments about specific forms of consultation, charging provisions were included in the 1999 Act. We announced our intention to implement them in the White Paper published in February 2002. The White Paper constitutes a consultation process. We are bound by the provisions of existing legislation to recover only costs. Treasury rules allowed us no flexibility over the level of fees. The potential to consult was limited, as was what we could consult on.
I accept that I am on the back foot and I assure hon. Members that we will consult widely when considering how to use the additional powers. Those additional powers could allow recovery over and above costs. We would not be bound by Treasury regulations and would have to consult widely and on a time scale that conforms with normal Cabinet Office standards. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will accept my assurance that, because the powers are wide-ranging, we will try and get the consultation right.
Amendment No. 76 would limit the potential scope of the enabling power. The clause does not prevent the Secretary of State from excluding certain categories of applicant from a cost charge or from setting differential rates for certain categories. Indeed, the existing fee setting powers referred to in the clause already allow him to do the latter. Those provisions allow the setting in secondary legislation of different provisions for different circumstances. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will accept that primary legislation is not appropriate for such exemptions. The secondary
Column Number: 386legislative process is the correct process through which to prescribe the detail.
I take on board the hon. Gentleman's points about students and the occupations highlighted in the amendment. Many of those jobs are in the public sector, and we would not want to overburden the public sector by transferring the cost of the fees on to it. We want to take all of those issues into account.
Amendment No. 77 would have a similar impact in reducing potential income, because it would limit the number of times that a person might have to pay a charge. Students do not have to make successive applications for extension. I have taken great care to ensure that students know that they can apply for entry clearance outside the UK—a student visa costs £36. They can apply for the full period of their first course of study, whether it be one, two or three years, so would face no in-country charges. Some people arrive as students and are able, if they obtain their qualification, to switch to other categories, such as an employment-related category. They would be on a higher salary income and we do not think it right to exclude the potential of a further charge in such circumstances.
New clause 2 would amend the original charging legislation in the 1999 Act. Fees have been prescribed for applications for leave to remain, variation of leave, transfer of an indefinite leave stamp and so on. There is no facility to waive fees in the charging legislation. Other than the very few people who are legally exempt from the charge, everyone must pay for their applications to be processed.
However, that does not mean that we cannot deal with cases of maladministration. Certainly in the charging regime, they do not occur with any significance, but I can understand the wish for some remedy if an error does occur. The power to make an ex gratia payment in cases of maladministration exists independently of the charging regime. It is used and would be used in relation to this power if necessary.
I hope that the hon. Member for Woking feels that I have covered his points. I know that Opposition Members have reservations about this issue. I say to the hon. Gentleman that we are trying to strike a different balance that reflects the interests of the UK generally in attracting the people whom we want to attract; that does not disadvantage those people unduly; and that recognises the interests of the British taxpayer and does not require the taxpayer to foot the total bill for the administration of the fees and charges. With those comments, I ask the hon. Gentleman to withdraw the amendment.
Mr. Malins: At one stage, the Minister said that she found herself on the back foot, but one of her many qualities is that she can make a comment such as that without appearing any the weaker—indeed, quite the reverse. I, for one, value that sort of observation and regard her even more highly for it. I think that she understands the points that hon. Members are making, and she had something quite helpful to say about consultation before matters are set in stone. I also think that she understands that various education bodies take these issues very seriously.
Column Number: 387
We have had a useful debate. These are probing amendments, and I am sure that we shall return to the issue in due course, not only on Report and in another place, but in further debates down the line as the months roll by. I thank the Minister for her response. It was not 100 per cent. satisfactory—I would never say that—but it went a good way towards persuading us that she understands the nature of the problems and will consider them carefully. On that basis, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Clause 20 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
|©Parliamentary copyright 2004||Prepared 22 January 2004|