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14 May 2008 : Column 438WH—continued

The Government have introduced a number of legislative and policy changes to tackle rules relating to marriage and to combat sham marriages taking place in the UK. Under the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999, we required registrars to report their suspicions about any sham
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marriages. In April 2003, the probationary period for those seeking settlement on marriage was increased from one to two years with a view to limiting further the possibilities of people pretending that they were married when they were not. In addition, we introduced a no-switching rule for marriage applications, which meant that anyone in the UK on a visitor visa would not be able automatically to switch in country to a marriage visa, but would have to return to their country to apply for an entry visa. The Government believe that the two-year probationary period helps to protect the system against abuse. At the end of that period, if the UK Border Agency is satisfied that the marriage is subsisting and that the parties involved wish to live permanently together, we will grant leave of status. We have introduced the certificate of approval scheme, which is a key policy that has reduced the number of sham marriages dramatically.

We have taken important steps to tackle some of the abuses in the system. However, my hon. Friend raises some important points about cultural attitudes to marriage and issues around documentation. Some of the people to whom he refers are often vulnerable, young, unable to speak English and inexperienced in the ways of the UK, including in respect of property ownership and other issues that my hon. Friend mentioned.

At the moment, applicants for leave to enter or remain in the UK as spouses have to be 18 or over. We have to be satisfied that they have recourse to public funds. We are consulting on whether we should raise the age to 21 and insist on a level of English for any spouse to enter the UK.

Under the immigration rules, a person wishing to remain in the country as a spouse is normally granted leave to enter or remain for two years in the first instance. I may take a slightly different view from my hon. Friend on the issue of late submission of a passport. Although I appreciate what he says about passports often being put away in a safe place, it should be made clear—perhaps we should make it clear when a visa is given—that the application needs to be submitted a month before the two-year deadline arises. I think that the rule is reasonable and clear and that exceptions to it can lead to confusion and potential abuse. It is a basic rule that will not change, because it is important not just for marriages but for other applications. We need a cut-off and a deadline to apply the rules fairly.

My hon. Friend raised the important issue of documentary evidence. As the MP for a multicultural constituency, I, too, see that providing documentary evidence of cohabitation can pose a challenge to couples. As my hon. Friend rightly says, the lists of documents are in the form SET(M). He makes a fair point about the point at which someone gets hold of that form. It is unlikely that when someone applies for a visa they will also apply for their SET(M) form. It would be a good two years before they would need to use it. Perhaps we should consider providing better information when a visa is granted. My hon. Friend’s suggestion that we provide a leaflet in other languages is something we could consider.

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I assure my hon. Friend that we want a robust system. It is important that we have some documentation to prove that marriages exist, but we must also ensure that people are well able to meet those requirements and that they know they need to meet those requirements at the point at which they enter as a spouse. The guidance about the required evidence is clear on the application form. Someone with the right advice is able to provide the right evidence, as many couples do.

I am aware that my hon. Friend has raised a couple of cases with the UK Border Agency. I will not go into them because of lack of time and because I do not normally talk about individual cases in such a debate. However, if someone has genuine difficulty in providing the documentation, it is open to them to provide a detailed explanatory letter. We probably need to consider more closely how the rules around that will work.

We are considering the issues in respect of marriage. We are planning a review of the marriage route and we are awaiting a judgment on the Baiai case; the hearing is scheduled for 23 and 24 June. After that we will consider certificates of approval for marriage.

Mr. Godsiff: In instances such as the ones that I have referred to, in which the spouse forgets to send in the application until the two-year period has passed, and when documents cannot be provided retrospectively with the joint names on, does the Minister accept that there is a case for allowing an interview to take place with a representative from the Border Agency? Those couples cannot go to appeal because they are outside the two-year period, but an interview would enable the representative to satisfy themselves officially that the application is genuine and that the couple have lived together for two years. I accept that there is a public cost, but the cost of such an interview should be borne by the applicant on the basis that they did not send in the application before the end of the two-year period. Does my hon. Friend accept that it is wholly unreasonable to say, “Sorry, you cannot provide the document, go back to Pakistan or Kashmir and apply again.”

Meg Hillier: I want to unpack that a bit. I think that it is reasonable for people to have to apply a month before their temporary visa runs out and for the Government to have a deadline and a clear rule on that point. On the issue of documentary evidence, clearly interviews are part of the process. If we are to consider charging people extra for a detailed interview, the issue that my hon. Friend raised about the cost of returning to the country of origin could be balanced out. It could be that the cost is about the same. We would thus not be reducing the cost to the individual, and we would be in danger of introducing a loophole in British immigration rules. We have to be very careful about that. That is always the balance that we make.

We are considering the issues relating to marriage. I have listened to my hon. Friend. He has raised such issues with me and my hon. Friend the Minister for Borders and Immigration in the past. We are working on a number of elements and we will include in that programme of work a review of the issues around the evidence required. My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook and Small Heath has raised a couple of pertinent cases. However, we need to ensure
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that we have some documentation. It is reasonable in the modern world for people to have certain documentation. My hon. Friend referred to the national health card, which is something that everyone would have. There are other bits of evidence that people would have. Perhaps we need to look at the total volume.

Mr. Godsiff: I have been through all the documents listed in the guidance notes. The Minister says that there are others that would be acceptable. Will she tell me what they are?

Meg Hillier: I was only referring to the ones mentioned in the guidance notes. I am aware that time is running out, but I welcome my hon. Friend’s comments. I should also welcome his contribution to our review of marriage rules, particularly in respect of the evidence required. I look forward to having a meeting with colleagues who have a shared interest in the subject so that we can discuss the matter as we go through the review period. I know that my hon. Friend the Minister for Borders and Immigration is equally committed to ensuring that we get this right—that we tackle sham and false marriages, that there are no loopholes in the rules and that people in a genuine marriage get a fair deal.

11.30 am

Sitting suspended.

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Royal Mail and the Post Office

2.30 pm

Mr. Alan Reid (Argyll and Bute) (LD): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Mr. Weir, to discuss a subject that I know is dear to your heart. I applied for the debate after the panel that was set up to review the UK postal services sector published its initial report in response to the evidence submitted to it. I am grateful to Mr. Speaker for granting the debate.

I shall first talk about Royal Mail and later address the future of the Post Office. Royal Mail and its universal service obligation are part of the glue that holds the United Kingdom together. The delivery and collection of mail throughout the country at the same affordable price is very important. My constituency is sparsely populated and includes 26 inhabited islands, so it is definitely a beneficiary of the universal service. Small businesses in my constituency could not compete without it.

However, the interim report paints a picture of a bleak future for Royal Mail and the universal postal service if changes are not made. Paragraph 79 of the report, which is rightly highlighted in bold, states:

That is a wake-up call to all of us. The report also concludes that householders and small companies have seen no benefit from the opening up of Royal Mail to competition, but that big companies have seen clear benefits. It warns that Royal Mail’s financial stability and thus the future of the universal service, with delivery to every home in the country at the same price, is under threat.

The report confirms what I and many other hon. Members have been warning for years: continuation of the present policies will inevitably mean the end of the universal service. In recent years, the service has worsened. The first delivery, by which mail used to be delivered by about half-past 9 in the morning, has ended. Delivery times for mail are now much later in the day—in some cases, as late as 7 o’clock in the evening. The price of posting mail has risen steadily. A second-class stamp went up in price by 12.5 per cent. last month, which is well above the rate of inflation.

An example from my constituency of a significant worsening of the service relates to deliveries to the island of Mull. For many years, the mail was delivered to the island on the first ferry of the day, at 8 am. Now it is delivered on the second ferry, at 10 am, which has a knock-on effect for the delivery time to people’s businesses and homes. Royal Mail’s excuse is a European transport directive that restricts its vans to 56 mph. However, that is only 4 mph below the speed limit on Argyll roads, and people familiar with the roads will know that their winding nature and the need to avoid all the potholes means that driving at 60 mph is impossible on most stretches anyway. I am not sure why that 4 mph difference means that mail cannot be on the first ferry.

As a result, the mail is not delivered to the shop in Fionnphort, at the end of the Ross of Mull, at the far south-west of the island, until almost 6 o’clock in the
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evening. Some houses outside the village do not get their mail until about 7 o’clock. Clearly, that is far too late for businesses to deal with the mail that they receive that day, but under Royal Mail’s performance statistics, it counts as mail delivered on that day. There is no incentive for the company to deliver the mail earlier in the day—if it is delivered before midnight, it counts as delivery on that day.

The Mull and Iona chamber of commerce discussed the problem with Royal Mail, which revealed that three quarters of the mail could reach the first ferry of the day. The chamber of commerce’s view was that it would rather receive three quarters of the mail during the working day than all of it after businesses had closed for the night. However, Royal Mail said that it could not entertain that suggestion, apparently because of performance targets. As I explained earlier, the targets set by Postcomm measure the day on which the mail is delivered, in theory even if it is only delivered at one minute to midnight.

That raises questions about the performance targets. Royal Mail seems to be driven by those targets rather than by the wishes of the customer. We need to make the organisation a bit more sensible, for example by having a target delivery time of perhaps 3 pm, rather than midnight as at present. We could even have a points system, with full marks for delivery before 3 pm and half marks for delivery between 3 pm and midnight.

I always stress to managers delivering any service that the islands need a degree of flexibility. Hard and fast rules that work okay on the mainland do not necessarily apply to islands. It is possible that some people on the island may have a different view from that of the chamber of commerce, so I want Postcomm to consider the proposal that Royal Mail should be allowed to deviate from the normal rules in any part of the country, following a public consultation and with the agreement of the local council. It should be allowed that flexibility as long as there is agreement, rather than slavishly having to follow national performance targets.

Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire) (LD): I am interested in my hon. Friend’s idea about greater flexibility. He is aware of the colossal post office closure programme that is affecting my constituency and others. Does he agree that it would be better to apply the same guidelines-based, rather than rules-based, approach in that case? People like me who are trying to save post offices such as Abermule, Berriew, Castle Caereinion and Garth Owen from closure could then appeal on the basis of a common-sense local decision, taking local criteria into consideration. It sounds to me as though that is what my hon. Friend wants to do in the case of the delivery service, but it makes sense to do it in the case of the closure programme as well.

Mr. Reid: I definitely agree with my hon. Friend, who makes an important point. As far as the closure programme is concerned, Royal Mail is constrained by the Government’s saying that it has to close 2,500 post offices.

Mull is just one example of a worsening service, and there are many others throughout the country. Royal Mail’s current strategy of constantly raising prices,
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combined with a worsening service, will inevitably lead to reductions in the volume of mail posted. That will get us into a vicious circle, triggering higher prices, leading to reduced volumes and so on, eventually making the entire business untenable and threatening the maintenance of the USO.

Mr. Russell Brown (Dumfries and Galloway) (Lab): The hon. Gentleman has mentioned the increase in the cost of postage on two occasions—I arrived somewhat late, so it may have been on three occasions. Does he recognise that in comparison with other European countries, the cost is still one of the cheapest? For the service that it gives us, it is still good value for money.

Mr. Reid: I will take the hon. Gentleman’s word on the comparison with prices in other countries, because I have not made such a comparison. However, I am concerned that if there are such price rises every year, the vicious circle that I described will be triggered.

Mr. Andrew Smith (Oxford, East) (Lab): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. Does he think that the problems he has identified—cost and lack of responsiveness to local needs—would be better or worse if Royal Mail were privatised? I understand that his party’s policy is to privatise Royal Mail and separate it from the post office network. Does he agree with that policy? If so, why does he think it would make things better?

Mr. Reid: Well, it would be inaccurate to describe my party’s policy as privatisation. I support the policy of the party, which is to bring more private sector investment into our mail services, and I will come to that later in my speech.

In the early stages of its existence, Postcomm argued that the universal service obligation was a help to Royal Mail and gave it a competitive advantage. I am pleased to read in the report that Postcomm has now woken up to reality and in its evidence to the review, it accepts that

It goes on to predict that, without policy changes, Royal Mail’s cash flow on its letters business could be in deficit by as much as £400 million a year in just four years’ time.

Mr. John Grogan (Selby) (Lab): Given the threat to the universal service obligation, does the hon. Gentleman think that there is a case for the other mail operators that are emerging to make a contribution—as Royal Mail does—to the universal service obligation?

Mr. Reid: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that intervention and I completely agree with him; I intended to mention that point later.

The hon. Gentleman’s intervention leads nicely on to the next part of my speech, which is to point out that Royal Mail is at a serious disadvantage compared with its competitors. It has to deliver mail to every home in the country. That obligation is often called “the last mile”, although in the case of my constituency “the last hundred miles” would be more accurate.

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The private sector clearly picks the profitable side of the business. There will never be competition to deliver mail to rural areas, which is the expensive side of the business. Going back to the Fionnphort example that I gave earlier, we will never see two mail delivery vans rushing nose to tail down the single track road to Fionnphort. That scenario conjures up an image of the driver of the leading van ignoring all the signs urging him to be a courteous driver and to use the passing places to allow overtaking. However, that scenario will never arise; deliveries to Fionnphort will always be left to Royal Mail.

It is evident that Royal Mail requires more investment if it is to continue to deliver the USO without constant and large increases in the price of a stamp, so there are some issues that I would like the Government, the regulator and the review panel to consider. First, there is what is known as the “access headroom” rule. Royal Mail is required by its licence to maintain a minimum gap, known as the headroom, between the prices that it charges retail customers and the amount that it can charge its wholesale customers to use its network. The access headroom regime has paved the way for the fast growth of upstream competition—a rate of growth that is far ahead of all predictions.

I understand that no other postal market in the world has an access headroom regime that imposes such competitive constraints on the universal service provider; nor is there a market that makes new entry to the upstream market so easy by enabling competitors to rely on the existing infrastructure of the universal service provider to deliver “the last mile”. The UK’s access headroom regime is something that must be looked at. It certainly appears to be very unfair to Royal Mail.

Another way of paying Royal Mail for delivering the USO relates to a point I made earlier; we should take advantage of the clause in the European directive that allows a charge to be levied on mail companies that do not deliver a universal service, and use the proceeds to pay Royal Mail for doing so. If those private companies are cherry-picking the profitable parts of the business, they should compensate Royal Mail adequately for carrying out the unprofitable parts of the business. At the moment, it appears that Royal Mail is cross-subsidising the universal service obligation from other parts of its business, which makes it harder for it to compete. Royal Mail desperately needs more investment and the Government must either provide that investment themselves or ensure that private sector investment is secured for the company.

I turn to post offices. My constituency has already suffered from the latest post office closure programme; several post offices in my constituency have already been closed, so there is no point in my revisiting that ground. Instead, I want to look to the future.

The post office closure programme in Argyll and Bute reported in January. As well as closing several post offices, the report contained one piece of good news. Post Office Ltd said that it wanted to reopen one post office, in the village of Otter Ferry, which had closed several years ago. That seemed to be good news. However, yesterday—four months further on—the Post Office told me that it was still working to try to restore the service to that community, but it was not yet in a position to confirm anything. That certainly worries me; four months have passed and no one has been found to take over the post office in Otter Ferry.

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