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Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy) (PC): I support the hon. Lady's contentions fully. She referred to the large number of international students whom we welcome. Even on the Government's figures, at least 25 per cent. of international students' appeals succeed at the moment. Secondly, it is awful to give out the signal internationally that such young people may be criminalised for wanting to stay on in the course of their legitimate studies. The situation is utterly appalling.
Mrs. Gillan: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his words. I hope that he will make a contribution to the debate, certainly about Government amendment No. 27, which relates to monitoring. If we were dealing with a situation in which few mistakes were made and the process was not subjective, we might feel more comfortable. Unfortunately, that is not the case, which explains the concerns being expressed in all quarters of the House.
Let me continue to put the matter in context. Education and training exports are worth £10.2 billion a year. I do not know whether the Minister is aware that that is more than the amount for food, tobacco, drink, insurance, trips and aircraft. The Chancellor predicted that the figure could be twice that by 2020. If we send out the wrong messages abroad, we will jeopardise that income to UK plc.
The consequence of the changes might not be addressing the mischief with which the Government intend to deal. There is mischief because there have been examples of bogus colleges, institutions
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and courses. It is perfectly proper not to want someone to keep applying to come back again and again when they never pass any exams and are still here seven years after they first came. However, surely reputable, recognised and accepted universities, colleges and other places of learning that offer recognised and accepted qualifications are doing all the right things that Opposition Membersand many Labour Memberswould support.
That amendment deals with his point. No one wants to encourage bogus educational establishments and we know that there has been such abuse. With respect, however, the provisions in the Bill are not the best way of dealing with the problem.
Mr. Roger Gale (North Thanet) (Con): I would hate it if the wrong impression were given. Does my hon. Friend agree that the Home Office's track record on determining whether an educational institution is bona fide is not terribly good, as I hope to demonstrate if I catch the Speaker's eye later?
Mrs. Gillan: I hope that my hon. Friend will manage to catch the Speaker's eye because he can cite a pertinent and personal example from his constituency that should be brought to the Minister's attention. The Government's track record is far from perfect, hence the problems that we are encountering.
Let me return to the point about engineering made by the hon. Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Sir Robert Smith). Some 39 per cent. of postgraduate research students who are here are international. There are especially high proportions of such students in science, engineering and technology subjects. As the European Commission tells usgoodness knows why I believe the European Commission on this occasion, but I think I probably doEurope is 700,000 scientists short of meeting what was originally the Lisbon goal of making Europe into a competitive and dynamic set of knowledge-driven economies.
The Prime Minister launched an initiative in 1999 to attract an extra 50,000 international students to higher education and another 25,000 to further education by 2004. I understand that the Government plan to renew that initiative, but at the same time they are sending out conflicting messages through the Bill.
The UK attracts 13 per cent. of all international students, with the US attracting 31 per cent. However, we are losing market share. As I said, according to the OECD, the UK lost 3 per cent. of its market share between 1998 and 2002. That was the fastest decline of any OECD country. I admit that the US also lost market share after tightening up on visas following 9/11. It suffered a 2 per cent. drop in 200203, but it has learned its lesson and eased up on its visa restrictions. The UK could learn a lesson from the Americans on this matter.
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Amendment No. 6 would delete clause 4 in its entirety. Depending on the Minister's response to the debate, I might be forced to press the amendment to a Division. If that happens, I hope that Members of other Opposition partiesand, indeed, some Labour Memberswill join me in the Lobby. The amendment is an attempt to address the heart of our concerns about the Bill. The removal of rights of appeal is opposed on principle and on practical grounds by such a wide range of organisations that I wish to focus the Minister's mind clearly on the problems.
The Minister has argued that when the new points system on which the Government have been consulting is introduced, it will represent a new and better system. However, the details have not even been finalised yet, let alone road-tested and proven to be effective. In Committee, the Minister repeatedly asked us to trust him. He said that he was confident that the new points system would improve initial decision making. He implied that if we just wait and see, we shall understand that the Government are correct to predict, as they appear to do, that the right of appeal will be rendered unnecessary by improvements to the immigration system.
The Minister also said that clause 4 was unlikely to commence immediately. I have read carefully what the Minister said in Committee about amendments to clause 4. His words on the timing of the abolition of appeal were not exactly reassuring. He said:
"I cannot say absolutely that clause 4 will not be introduced until after the points system. To be helpful to the CommitteeI say this on a personal level, so do not put me up against a wall and hold me to thisI think that it is very unlikely that clause 4 will be implemented before, at the very least, the transition period between the absolute points system and the introduction of elements of the system . . . Do not shoot me should some of clause 4 be implemented before the points system is introduced, but in all likelihood it may not."[Official Report, Standing Committee E, 20 October 2005; c. 116.]
That was as clear as mud. Quite frankly, on the basis of that performance, I would quite like to put the Minister up against a wall and shoot him, because that was probably one of the most inarticulate utterances that we heard from him in Committee.
We need to focus on amendment No. 6, because the quality of initial decision making is so low that an adequate independent appeals system is essential to the credibility and fairness of our immigration system.
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I am sure that the Home Office view is that appeals are expensive and time consuming for the applicant and especially for the Government, but they would be far less expensive and time consuming if there were not so many basic errors in the initial handling of cases.
Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): My hon. Friend makes a good point about initial decisions being incorrect. Is not that a theme in all the Government's major agencies, including those administering tax credits, child support and immigration?
Mrs. Gillan: My hon. Friend tempts me to go down an enticing route. Yes, the performance of many Government agencies is sadly lacking, especially the Child Support Agency, which has an appalling record. I had an Adjournment debate on that very agency only the other day: a constituent of mine felt that she had been very badly treated.
The problem is reflected in the statistics. In 200304, 65 per cent. of the 225,030 applications for student visas were successful, but 32 per cent. were refused. There is a considerable body of evidence to suggest that the reasons for refusal are frequently inappropriate or based on a simple misunderstanding of the facts of the case in question. In 2003, we were told that 52 per cent. of all applicants who had been refused initial entry clearance appealed successfully. In cases relating to international students, the official proportion of successful appeals is 25 per cent., but the Immigration Advisory Service states that the appeal was successful in 49 per cent. of the cases in which it acted on behalf of students.
In 90 per cent. of the cases involving international students who had accepted offers from the university of Sheffield and who were refused visas, either a successful appeal was made or, more commonly, the entry clearance post reconsidered the case before it reached appeal. Professor Bob Boucher, vice-chancellor of the university of Sheffield, has repeatedly made the point that without the right of appeal the incentive for entry clearance officers to reverse a visa refusal following representations will no longer exist. He is echoing a point that is extremely familiar to the House. In 1992, the then shadow Home Secretary opposed a similar measure in the Bill that became the Asylum and Immigration Appeals Act 1993, which removed the right of appeal for rejected visitors and short-term students. He said:
"When a right of appeal is removed, what is removed is a valuable and necessary constraint on those who exercise original jurisdiction . . . The immigration officer who knows that his decision may be subject to appeal is likely to be a good deal more circumspect, careful and even-handed than the officer who knows that his power of decision is absolute."[Official Report, 2 November 1992; Vol. 213, c. 43.]
I ask the Minister the question I that asked in Committee, to which his answer then was not satisfactory: what has changed since then? Was the right hon. Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair) wrong, or merely naive at that stage?
For the benefit of the House it is important that I give some examples to illustrate my arguments, although I expect that other hon. Members will offer examples of their own. A prospective student with a place at a highly regarded university was told:
Unbelievable. Another university reports considerable difficulty in recent months with the visa application process, especially from China and South Asia. It said that on one academic linkage between the university and a partner institution in China, out of 25 applications only 10 were successful in obtaining a visa and then only after two or three attempts. Only as a result of the intervention of senior university staff and Ministry staff in China was a higher level of success achieved, despite it being a joint programme. It said that there appeared to be little appreciation that students had studied two years in China prior to application with the specific intent to transfer for the third and final year to a UK university. The university believes that it loses between 200 and 300 genuine students each year due to careless screening, inappropriate questioning and unsympathetic consideration by some visa clearance officers sending the signal of fortress Britain, where students are not necessarily welcome.
Another university reports difficulties with visas. For one student, doubts were expressed about the student's ability to maintain and accommodate herselfnotwithstanding the fact that she had a grant from her own home Government to cover all of her costs. The immigration officer in the case also said that there was no reason for her to experience the British education system, which runs contrary to the spirit of the Prime Minister's initiative. There seems to be scope for further training of ECOs on the importance and quality of UK education. One institution reported that a prospective student from China was told that the course he proposed to study was widely available in China, led to the same qualification at significantly cheaper cost, and said that he could not satisfactorily explain why he did not undertake the course in China.
Difficulties for sponsored students have been reported by other institutions. Two students were refused on the basis of insufficient funds despite both producing evidence of scholarships that covered the full cost of living and studying in the UK; the decisions in their cases were overturned by entry clearance managers on review following institutional representations.
I think that I have given the House the flavour of the problem. We are in danger of damaging our reputation further. I do not know whether the Minister has read the article in The Independent of 20 October, which stated:
"The drop in overseas students becoming obvious this term is affecting old and new universities alike. The big boys such as Warwick and Birmingham are experiencing falls, just as Derby, Greenwich and Southampton Solent are. We won't know the exact figures until mid-November . . . so we don't know yet whether overall overseas student numbers will be down. But we do know that a substantial number of universities are worried. Overseas students have kept British universities afloat, particularly in some subjects. Universities cannot afford a meltdown.
The reasons for the fall are complex. According to . . . the director of education and training at the British Council, huge competition is building in the overseas student market. Australia, New Zealand, America and Canada have raised their game, and new competitors are emerging, such as Singapore and Malaysia. And China, which used to send large numbers of students abroad, is now recruiting overseas students to its shores."
I have probably spoken for far too long on this group of amendments, but I feel strongly about the subject. I shall listen carefully to the Minister and if I am less than satisfied by his response, I hope to register our protest against the measures by dividing the House.
My final comment is on Government amendment No. 27, to which the Minister did not speak. I am pleased to see at least some response to our concerns about the quality of entry clearance decisions, but I ask the Minister to make it clear whether the monitor mentioned in the amendment is a new person, what case load is envisaged and what resources will be allocated to the role. Although I welcome the post, it should not be seen as a plaster to cover the wound of the removal of the appeals system; a monitor will in no way substitute for that system.
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