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Daniel Kawczynski: Just once.

Jane Kennedy: Just once. It certainly sounds as though she deserves it. I was surprised to hear that she spends 30-40 per cent. of her time dealing with tax credit problems. I do not disagree that, although we have made great strides in improving performance, a great deal more needs to be done. Her Majesty’s Customs and Revenue and I are working hard to improve the experience of our customers, not so that MPs receive the Rolls-Royce service that the hon. Gentleman described, but, as he suggested, so that anyone contacting the tax credit offices receives a quality service.

I know from meeting staff who work in tax credits how committed they are to that high quality service, and how disappointed they are if there are problems in the system or with the computer that prevent them from delivering that service. There is a real and serious intention among staff to provide a good service, and they will be particularly pleased to hear that some aspects of their work are happily acknowledged.

I do not have the details to hand and it would not be proper to talk about individual cases, but I receive monthly operational statistics from the tax credit office. I instituted that to monitor its work, and I assure the hon. Gentleman that the level of complaints and disputes that it receives is falling, although not as quickly as I would like, but progress is being made.

I was interested and disappointed to hear Helen’s description of the impact on some constituents of receiving communications from HMRC. It would be disappointing if there was a widespread sense of fear when an HMRC letter comes through the letterbox. In the House—although often only in the few moments that we have at Question Time—I have described how we are working hard with regular customers who renew every year and every year have problems with their renewal. The renewal is part of the annual system by which we make sure the tax credit support that families get is appropriate and is exactly their entitlement. The renewal is a necessary part of the system and tax credit offices and call centres are now instituting work through which they proactively contact customers over the period of renewals, particularly those we know have got into difficulties in previous years, not only to remind them to renew, but to assist them in the process. If errors have been made because they have not understood the form, which is complicated, or if they are unaware that details of their personal incomes need to be included, staff can talk people through the difficulties. Therefore, we hope the number of customers who get into difficulties as a result of renewing will be reduced.

I was interested to hear the hon. Gentleman mention a case in which a family had renewed as requested and then did not receive anything at all. I want to go away and study everything that he has said in today’s debate. I have a number of sources of information about the subject—not only colleagues such as you, Mr. Pope, but my staff and friends of mine who are debt counsellors in Liverpool and who work with people in such circumstances. I am kept aware of where the rubbing points are, but as I have said, the overall number of complaints and disputes is falling. I was concerned about and am interested to learn the extent to which people find the process so difficult that they decline to renew and let their claim lapse. The statistics that I have
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seen—and I have asked for more detail on this—do not indicate that that is widespread. I appreciate that to decline to renew is an expression of frustration, but for many families, particularly those in the lower income groups, tax credits are so important that people do, nevertheless, renew. Tax credits are an integral part of a family’s income.

Daniel Kawczynski: I totally agree with the Minister: it is extremely important to ensure that people renew. In Shrewsbury, we have had some cases in which people have felt unable to renew because of the problems that they have had. May I write to her with the names? I will not inundate her, but I would like to provide a sample. Will she look at some of the worst cases and get back to me?

Jane Kennedy: Yes. I was going to suggest that the hon. Gentleman might wish to do that. I would be interested to look at those examples as case studies. Officials would be grateful to learn from the circumstances that he is describing. I do not wish in any way to diminish the pressure that he has described his secretary being under, but the information that I have, shows that during the past 12 months, he and his staff have made 34 calls to the hotline about 20 different customers. That is a large number, but it would be wrong and would distort the picture to allow people to assume that that represents the majority or a significant number of tax credit customers. In fact, 9,600 families benefit from tax credits in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency. I do not offer that figure as a way of saying that he is taking a party political position; I know that he not. However, 9,600 is a significant number of his constituents. The families of 15,900 children benefit from tax credit support. Out of those 9,600, the relative number of people who come to him are small, but I accept that those who find their way to a Member of Parliament are often a small, but determined group. That is usually indicative of a problem that we, as Members of Parliament, need to take account of and be aware of. I, as a Minister, ought to be listening to such problems.

Daniel Kawczynski: On that point, I appreciate that, as an efficient Minister, the right hon. Lady obviously has the details of the cases with which we have been officially involved and that we have raised through the MP’s hotline. I am sure that she will appreciate that because of the experience that my secretary is getting in dealing with these matters, much work is done on other cases, about which we do not necessarily phone the MP’s hotline. Some of the problems are in certain cases very small and we do not need to approach the MP’s hotline because, after three years, my secretary has experience of the issue. Although the figures that the Minister quotes are correct, they are just the tip of the iceberg of the other issues that my secretary is involved with.

Jane Kennedy: The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point and I take on board what he says. As I have said, I accept that there have been serious difficulties and that in the early days, they were very serious indeed. I hope he accepts that matters have improved since then. Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs now provides a much better, if not good, service—although I am the first to recognise that there is always room for improvement. The improved performance of the tax credit system has meant that fewer overpayments are caused by IT or
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administrative errors. Again, that is demonstrated by improvements to the accuracy in processing and calculating awards, which increased from 78.6 per cent. in 2003-04—during the opening days when the systems were being set up—to around 97 per cent. in 2006-07.

There have been a number of significant changes in the past year, and I would like to mention briefly two important developments. One development that the hon. Gentleman might know of was the reform of code of practice 26, which is the policy that defines how HMRC should respond to disputes and complaints about recovery of overpayments. Previously, an overpayment was written off if there was an official error but it was reasonable to expect the customer to believe that their award was correct. That allowed for a huge area of disagreement between HMRC and the staff. I know that the reasonable belief test caused concern because people’s perception of what is reasonable can vary greatly. Before I was the relevant Minister, I saw many tax credit cases involving my constituents, but when answering letters to Members of Parliament as a Minister, I bear in mind, as I always do, that what I see is the smallest wedge of complaints, and I ask myself, “Does HMRC’s response feel reasonable to me?” Out of that discussion, work that was already under way with HMRC to review the reasonable belief test and code of practice led to a more straightforward set of questions and responsibilities, some of which HMRC also took on board. From the end of January this year, we replaced the reasonable belief test with a clearer test that sets out the responsibilities of HMRC and the customer for checking factual information.

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Although we may not all be very good at doing it, if we are paid through pay-as-you-earn, we accept without question the responsibility that we have as taxpayers to ensure our pay slip is correct and to check our end of year tax statements and codes. We have a responsibility in relation to that and that is carried through into tax credits. The tax credits transformation programme, which started in 2006, aims to improve the service that families receive. Often, when I get the opportunity at Question Time, I mention the changes that are being introduced as a result of the work of this excellent group of HMRC officers. As I said, one change that has been made regards contacting customers at some of the most difficult times in their lives. When a family breaks down, we now have a system that is spread throughout the administration of tax credits. In the past, if a customer contacted the office to tell someone that their relationship had broken down, their joint claim would have been cancelled, a new form would have to be sent out, and it would have taken about six weeks to renew and get the person back into receipt of valuable tax credits at a time when the family needed it most. Now, we make the change during the phone call, so that the customer should not see a break in their receipt of payments. That is important to maintaining the confidence of our customers in the service.

I hope that the hon. Gentleman agrees that the service is getting better and that he welcomes our plans to improve the service further. I would be grateful to receive some of the detail of what he has mentioned if it is available, and I thank him again for securing the debate.

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Commonwealth Immigration Visas

1 pm

Mr. Austin Mitchell (Great Grimsby) (Lab): I am grateful for this opportunity to raise two issues relating to Commonwealth migration. The first is the proposal to curtail the visa-less period during which tourists coming on holiday, visitors and people coming for family reunions can stay in this country from the current six months to three months. I do not know whether the British Tourist Authority was consulted on the proposal, but that is the aim of the immigration and nationality directorate.

The second proposal is to abolish ancestral rights—the ability of people from Australia, New Zealand, Canada and South Africa to enter the country and be eligible for settlement after five years and to work. That is a remnant of the old patriality situation. People could claim British citizenship if they had a grandparent who was born in this country. Incidentally, that still seems to be the case in Ireland. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister can comment on that. People with Irish grandparents can still claim Irish citizenship, whereas we are curtailing that right in this country.

On both issues—curtailment of the visa-less period from six months to three and abolition of ancestral rights—there has been a consultation or a consultation is in progress. The first has finished and the second will be completed in mid-May, but to my mind “a consultation” is what we might call Blair-speak for getting rid of those provisions. People do not hold a consultation unless they want to get rid of the provisions. People have a consultation to show that they have listened and then do what they wanted to do in the first place, after the consultation. That is a very British way of doing things—polite and meaningless consultation.

I want to make it clear that I oppose both proposals, because they weaken a Commonwealth tie to which I and many other hon. Members are strongly attached, to which the Government say that they are strongly attached and to which a large section of our population is attached. I am referring to people with relatives or other ties, particularly to the old Commonwealth—people, incidentally, who vote.

That Commonwealth attachment works both ways: the other countries are attached to us as well, and New Zealand, which I want to concentrate on today, is more attached than most. It is a relationship from which we all benefit—both the Commonwealth country and we in Britain. In fact, we benefit more than most. I would like to remind the House of the contribution made to this country and this economy by New Zealanders. One goes back to people who could have claimed the same patrial rights and the same ancestor rights. I am thinking of Katherine Mansfield, Ernest Rutherford, Dan Davin, Sir Geoffrey Cox, Len Cook—the former national statistician—and hundreds of lawyers, teachers, accountants and doctors, from McIndoe downwards, all of whom have made a big contribution to this country. Do we want to close off that free market in people, from which we and the other countries benefit?

Let us consider New Zealand literature. Practically everybody I find on the Wikipedia list of great New
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Zealand writers—I also have a long list of great New Zealand artists; of course, those lists are subject to revision, like everything else on Wikipedia—has spent a period in this country learning their craft, working with British authors and perfecting their skills, because London has been a focus for writers from New Zealand, Australia, Canada and so on, from Janet Frame downwards.

Do we want to curtail that type of contact? Should we not be strengthening those ties, rather than weakening them? IND officials—Home Official officials—seem to me to want to weaken the ties, because they have been saying to Commonwealth diplomats who have been consulted on the proposals, “The concepts of immigration and Commonwealth that this visa”—the ancestral visa—“route is linked to are outdated.” I do not think that they are outdated. They are important, they are living and they are vital. However, Home Office officials claim that their Ministers periodically ask them why those visas remain and they say that, when they are asked, they do not have “a robust answer” on the unique value added for the UK. That is more a comment on the IQ or the experience of the officials than it is on reality.

Mr. John Spellar (Warley) (Lab): First, I declare an interest as someone who, like many of us, has relatives in Australia. Does not this measure show, as my hon. Friend is rightly explaining, a lack of understanding of history? Both Australia and New Zealand have always been there for this country when we have been under threat. It also shows a lack of understanding of the real dynamic of the current relationship at all levels—he has mentioned culture, business and sport. It goes right the way through the economy and is growing even further under the excellent premiership of Helen Clark in New Zealand and as a result of the very welcome election of Kevin Rudd as Prime Minister of Australia.

Mr. Mitchell: I am most grateful to my right hon. Friend. Both those Prime Ministers, but particularly Helen Clark, are concerned about this development. A robust answer to Ministers’ questions would involve not only the contribution that people make in that two-way trade, but the flexibility, skills and adaptability that people who come here from Australia and New Zealand contribute to our work force.

That contribution does not seem to be recognised by Home Office officials. It is reported that diplomats were “left in no doubt that neither officials nor Minister Byrne considered themselves bound to New Zealand by any historical ties.” It is clear that none of them was at the opening of the New Zealand war memorial in 2006 by our then Prime Minister, Mr. Blair, and by the Prime Minister of New Zealand, Helen Clark, which affirms those strong emotional ties. I find it appalling that such a comment can be made in the process of the discussions, because there are ties not only of ancestry and history but in the form of the contributions made by Australia, New Zealand, Canada and even South Africa in two world wars and in other wars since. That may be felt more strongly by an older generation. I represent the “wheeze” generation, whereas the Minister represents the whizzkid generation—I am a “wheeze” kid. The feeling that I have described may appeal more to an older generation, but it is still strong and still important and it is still felt across the board in this country, but each of the proposals is an affront to that feeling.

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Let me examine first the proposal to reduce the visa-less period for visitors from six months to three. We must not forget that the New Zealand visitors who will be affected by that come a long way. It is a journey of 13,000 or 14,000 miles; it is not a day trip with a pensioner’s pass, such as the ones that I am now beginning to make around the country. It is a long journey and it merits a long stay. For many people it is often a retirement journey—a renewal of roots and contacts, a renewal of family connections.

Above all, those who come here are paying for themselves. They are not coming here to live on the system. When I first came back from New Zealand with a New Zealand wife, we were deluged with streams of visitors who all said, “Don’t worry, I’ve brought a sleeping bag. I’ll sleep on the floor.” Clearly, there is a great deal of living on the land, but there is no living on social security. After all, they are paying for themselves and they will want to go back to their home country. They are visiting this country, and it is unnecessary to curtail those visits from six months to three.

There has been no indication of problems being caused by New Zealanders staying for the full six months. Are they growing and selling illicit kiwi fruit on some sort of black market? Are they preparing and merchandising their own brand of Spates beer? That beer was always labelled as “Man of the South”, a tough image, but calling a beer “Man of the South” in this country would make it seem effeminate: it should be “Man of the North”.

There is no indication that they have been indulging in that kind of illicit activity. They are not even going underground, hiding from the authorities and fomenting discontent by telling people that there is a better land. It certainly is a better land far, far away—so why should they stay here? A certain degree of disgruntlement is justified, but there is no indication that those people are a threat or abusing their time here. No evidence has been produced to that effect, and there is every indication that they want to go back to that better land because it is indeed better.

The length of visit seems not to suit the convenience of the immigration and nationality directorate. However, if it is curtailed it is certain to produce retaliation on British tourists in New Zealand and Australia. There is no indication of a problem, but there is every indication of huge benefits resulting from the relationship.

I turn to the ancestral visa, which produces the same kind of benefits. Descendants of British citizens have the right to come here, the right to work and, after five years, the right to become citizens. Again, there is no indication of a problem, so why is it being reviewed—unless it is a kind of administrative tidying up?

Ms Diane Abbott (Hackney, North and Stoke Newington) (Lab): When one considers the number of such visas being given, nine out of 10 go to white Commonwealth citizens. That cannot be fair. It rests on the old patriality clause, which ensured that white Commonwealth citizens were spared the rigours of increasing immigration enforcement. A provision that indirectly allows white Commonwealth citizens rights that black Commonwealth citizens do not have is not fair.

Mr. Mitchell: Those are our ancestral rights, and they are quite specific. I agree with my hon. Friend on equality; it is unfair, but there has always been an
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ancestral right. I am asking for its maintenance, but it is already attenuated. It is a right to work, and a right to citizenship after five years, and I want it to be maintained. I am talking about our relationship with the older Commonwealth, and particularly the benefits that we get from such countries as New Zealand.

I have to point out that one cannot speak of being swamped by ancestral visitors; there were only 8,490 of them in 2006, a 3 per cent. increase on 2005. Admittedly, those figures were prepared by a New Zealander, but that does not detract from the figures given by Len Cook. I do not see how it can detract from their accuracy. The figures may be small, but in terms of long-standing Commonwealth relationships they have an enormous emotional impact.

What is the reason for the proposals? My answer—I hope that the Minister will comment on this—is that this piece of what I might call perfidious Albion, or perfidious pommery, is happening because the poms are scared that immigration is becoming a major issue. The number of immigrants, particularly from the European Union, which now has 25 member states, is rising rapidly. In 2005 there were 117,000 immigrants, and in 2006 there were 145,000. That was not expected. The numbers were underestimated. It is clearly causing problems and concerns. However, those problems and concerns have arisen because of pressures on social services, education and the health service. It is an indication that we are not spending enough locally, not an indication of major problems with immigration.

Local authorities, particularly, complain that they have not been provided with adequate funds to cope with that influx. However, we have a Government who need to show that they are doing something. They want to do something but cannot do anything about the major component because they cannot stop it—it is caused by people with European citizenship—so they are going to deal with it by taking it out on old and new Commonwealth countries. That will lead to a number of problems. For instance, with Pakistani and Indian doctors and ethnic restaurant cooks all being controlled, the two problems that I have raised today will occur. The proposals are totally unreasonable. The problem is caused by European immigration. I do not criticise such people. Poles are hard-working. We even have a Polish chief executive in Grimsby; we, too, move rapidly with the times.

It is as if the middle of the dam has broken and collapsed and the tide is coming in, and the Government propose repairing the side walls by trying to exclude Commonwealth citizens. I hope that I am wrong. I hope that the Minister can explain why it is being proposed. I hope that he will disown those views on the Commonwealth that I cited, and that he will tell us that, after consultation, the two policies will be rejected and will not go ahead.

Ms Abbott rose—

Mr. Greg Pope (in the Chair): Order. I would call the hon. Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington, but she needs the permission of the hon. Member whose debate it is and the Minister.

Mr. Mitchell: Certainly.

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