Draft Immigration and Nationality (Fees) (Amendment No. 3) Regulations 2008

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Tom Brake: I would like to echo briefly some of the points made by the hon. Member for Ashford. Clearly, I would also welcome clarification regarding the reason for the speed with which we are having to revisit the fees, because those changes look not only incomprehensible, as the ILPA has suggested, but badly thought through. As a habituĂ(c) of these occasions, I would also like to mention a matter that we have raised in previous statutory instrument Committees. We would like to hear the Government’s current position regarding the recession’s impact on the amounts that will be levied, which we discussed the last time we were here debating fees.
I turn to a matter set out in ILPA’s e-mail that the hon. Gentleman did not mention. There is a need to know the actual cost of processing a particular type of application because that will give us, for example, a clear picture of the financial contribution that some applicants are making towards the cost of the transitional effects of migration. That will also enable us to assess carefully whether that contribution is changing, because one would expect the cost of processing to reduce as the system beds in, and thus expect people’s financial contribution to increase over time. Knowledge of the actual average cost would be significant. Perhaps the Minister will come forward with some figures for us—not now, as the calculation is clearly quite complex, but later, in writing.
4.50 pm
Meg Hillier: As ever, the hon. Member for Ashford made some important points, and I want to deal with them in the order in which he raised them.
First, for the record, I stress that I have described nothing about incompetence in relation to the Government’s approach, but I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s support for fees in principle and for end-to-end cost recovery. We recognise that there are complications with our immigration regulations. We have put forward lots of different bits of legislation, regulations and rules over the years, which is why we are attempting, through legislative plans for the future, to simplify our immigration regulations and to make it a lot easier for case workers to deal with these things. Indeed, we are trying to simplify what is, in many cases, law that is working, but something on which people have to look for advice from several different sources.
As I suspected, the hon. Gentleman is surprised by the exemption and the change to 90 per cent. He asked whether the number of applications had increased from the countries concerned. No, they have not, but it is important that we manage risk. We also gain around a third of a million pounds a year through introducing fees. When we look at the overall cost, we need to get that balance for the UK taxpayer. If we do not get that from these countries, we need to get it from somewhere else. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is not suggesting that we go to the UK taxpayer for the money. I think that we get the balance right here, and it fits in with our obligations under the treaty.
The other points raised by the hon. Gentleman were about help. I mentioned simplification, and we intend to publish the consolidated regulations that I mentioned when we make amendments in the future, some of which will be made in April next year. Separately, we are also looking to simplify the legislation that we use to set fees and charges, and at how to consolidate the current fees order and the fees regulations into one statutory instrument, which will make things easier. However, we all know that government is not as clear cut as we would like. Different Governments over time change immigration law and rules, and it grows like Topsy. We have now got to the point at which we need to simplify, but not to change. We have already made some major changes through the points-based system and electronic borders—counting people in and out of the country. A lot of changes were steered through by my right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Mr. Byrne), and that is now being done by his successor, the Minister for Borders and Immigration. It is important to recognise those achievements, while also recognising that historical legislation needs to be tidied up so that things are improved.
The hon. Members for Ashford and for Carshalton and Wallington both raised the effect of the economic downturn. It is important that we regularly review fee income from migrant applications. We include a wide range of factors, including border economic conditions and policy changes impacting on application numbers. We now have the Migration Advisory Committee, which also affects our approach to the number of people in any category that we shall allow in. For example, we have suspended tier 3 of the points-based system—non-skilled migrants from outside Europe—on its advice, which will affect the number of people coming at any one time. We use our reviews, including the advice from that committee, to help to determine our priorities for the overall allocation of resources. However, estimating the specific impact of the current situation is very complex, and it depends not just on the scale of any downturn in the UK, but on the performance of competitor economies. I would not wish to speculate without proper facts and analysis on what this might mean at some point in the future for fees. As a Government, we always need to be responsible and to keep an eye on the situation, and in doing that, we get a lot of advice and support from independent bodies.
The hon. Member for Ashford suggested, quite rightly, that fees are set by tier. Yes, we do that. The system is clear and transparent; frankly, it is much clearer and simpler than the previous system, which was by country. We have a special relationship, in a sense, with the European social committee countries, because the reduction is in line with our obligation under article 18(2) of the European social charter—we need to bear our legal obligations in mind. I stress that there are no plans to vary fees by country. It is important that we base our fees on the value to the individual, as well as on international competitiveness.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned a cap. If the cap fits, wear it, I say, but it does not fit this Government. The hon. Gentleman’s cap is arbitrary, but our fees are not—they are well worked through and well thought out. With regard to details on cost and the end-to-end process, we need to recognise what is included, and that is the wide range of enforcement issues that hon. Gentlemen have raised. To pull out an average would distort the issues. We need to be careful before we simplify things to such a level.
Tom Brake: I must intervene at this point. The Government are saying that some categories will be making a contribution towards the transitional costs of migration. The Minister seems to be saying that there is no way of calculating the actual cost of processing their applications. Therefore, how can the Government ascertain the financial contribution towards those transitional costs of migration?
Meg Hillier: That is an unfair characterisation of what I was saying. Let me be clearer. As I have stressed, we work on the principle that those who gain the most value will pay the most for that value. Therefore, there is a transactional issue between individuals applying to enter the country and what they pay for those benefits. We then have to balance that with the situation in the international marketplace. We have to try to cover the costs of enforcement across the piece. Enforcement includes airline liaison officers who are posted abroad. They have stopped more than 200,000 people from boarding aeroplanes with the wrong documents. We need to include all those costs. If we are to enable people to enter this country and benefit from what the UK has to offer in the job market and, in some cases, from access in part to the national health service, which is a very big benefit and well worth paying for, we need to ensure that we get balance across the piece.
I have already pledged to the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington that I will consider what we can provide, but I am very wary of providing an average that is plucked out of the air just by doing maths, because the situation is not as simple as that. To boil it down to such a level of simplicity underrates the complexity of the immigration system. We need to be fair and transparent, and people need to know what the fees are at the point at which they apply.
Tom Brake: I thank the Minister for giving way again; she is being very generous. By enumerating a long list of benefits, she has highlighted the need for work to be done so that we can have a degree of confidence that a transitional contribution is being made.
Meg Hillier: I should finally stress that Treasury rules do not allow us to overcharge. We are allowed more than £100 million a year above some of the costs, but we have paid for many things, such as fingerprint checks before people arrive for visas and identity cards for foreign nationals. That particular matter is wrapped up for those who will be getting them at the end of this month with their visa fee, which is a useful added benefit. We ensure that the burden does not fall entirely on the UK taxpayer. I have pledged to provide further information to the hon. Gentleman, but I want to guard against us thinking that we can boil it down to the simple maths of dividing the total by the total number of applicants and think that that represents the actual cost. Other aspects of the immigration system have to be paid for. I stress that the fees that we get do not always cover the total cost, but we are allowed to recover slightly more than the cost to the UK Government.
Question put and agreed to.
Committee rose at one minute to Five o’clock.
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