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Session 2008 - 09
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Public Bill Committee Debates

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairman: Dr. William McCrea
Brake, Tom (Carshalton and Wallington) (LD)
Burns, Mr. Simon (West Chelmsford) (Con)
Evans, Mr. Nigel (Ribble Valley) (Con)
Gilroy, Linda (Plymouth, Sutton) (Lab/Co-op)
Green, Damian (Ashford) (Con)
Gwynne, Andrew (Denton and Reddish) (Lab)
Havard, Mr. Dai (Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney) (Lab)
Huhne, Chris (Eastleigh) (LD)
Liddell-Grainger, Mr. Ian (Bridgwater) (Con)
McCabe, Steve (Lord Commissioner of Her Majesty's Treasury)
Sharma, Mr. Virendra (Ealing, Southall) (Lab)
Shepherd, Mr. Richard (Aldridge-Brownhills) (Con)
Smith, Mr. Andrew (Oxford, East) (Lab)
Stuart, Ms Gisela (Birmingham, Edgbaston) (Lab)
Thornberry, Emily (Islington, South and Finsbury) (Lab)
Woolas, Mr. Phil (Minister for Borders and Immigration)
Chris Stanton, Committee Clerk
† attended the Committee

Fifth Delegated Legislation Committee

Wednesday 25 February 2009

[Dr. William McCrea in the Chair]

Draft Immigration and Nationality (Fees) (Amendment) Order 2009
2.30 pm
The Minister for Borders and Immigration (Mr. Phil Woolas): I beg to move,
That the Committee has considered the draft Immigration and Nationality (Fees) (Amendment) Order 2009.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dr. McCrea, for what I believe is the first time. The statutory order concerns the charging for immigration and nationality services. I thank hon. Members for attending this debate, which is a game of two halves. In the first half, we are asking Parliament to approve the power to raise fees. In the second half, which will take place on 23 March, we will debate what those fees are. Let me explain the background to this order.
In our budget for 2009-10, we plan to spend around £2.2 billion on border security and the management of the immigration system. Our policy in previous years has been to recover about 30 per cent. of that amount from fees for applications for the services that we offer. The remaining costs are met by the taxpayer. In accordance with our legal powers, the order sets out new applications and services for which we intend to charge a fee in future. The actual fee levels, as I have mentioned, will be specified in subsequent regulations.
The order before us allows us to charge some new fees. It allows us to charge a fee for applications that we currently offer for free. One example would be the issuing of a letter to confirm someone’s immigration or nationality status. Hon. Members will be aware that constituents often ask for that information. Indeed, sometimes we are asked to issue a letter to confirm that someone has not acquired British citizenship. That is often to do with property rights in countries of origin.
The order allows us to charge a fee when we provide optional services such as attendance by a representative of the Secretary of State at premises other than the office of the UK Borders Agency or the consulate, or, for example, services provided by a representative of the Secretary of State outside office hours. These services are already charged for outside the United Kingdom, but we want to be able to set a fee for this service in future within Home Office legislation and to have the enabling power to charge a fee for offering the same service within the borders of the UK.
The processes and services described in the order are provided at a cost to the UK Border Agency and we believe that it is right that we recover those costs from people who benefit directly from the immigration system. That may be migrants themselves, employers or educational institutions, and it will help to reduce the burden on the taxpayer. We welcome the contribution that legal migrants make to our country, to our economy and to our cultural life. We will continue to ensure that fees for immigration and nationality applications or services are set at levels that maintain the United Kingdom’s position as an attractive destination.
As I said, we will return to the House next month to ask for approval for further regulations specifying the fee levels in the areas that I have outlined, relying on the powers in section 51 of the Immigration, Asylum and Nationality Act 2006 and additional powers in the Asylum and Immigration (Treatment of Claimants, etc.) Act 2004, as amended, as I am sure that the Committee will be aware, by section 20 of the UK Borders Act 2007. In essence, we are asking for approval to raise fees, and we will return to the House to agree them. I think that the order is reasonable. Some of the services that we provide to facilitate the system have relatively high marginal costs, because they are not core activities—if I can put it that way. I admit that it sounds strange to ask the Committee for approval to set a fee for somebody to receive a letter stating that they are not a British citizen, but hopefully hon. Members will have had experience of such incidents.
2.36 pm
Damian Green (Ashford) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dr. McCrea.
The Minister made it clear that, as he put it, this is a game of two halves, and that today we are dealing with general approval for the setting of the fees. However, I have some questions for him that I hope can be answered after half time, as it were. The Committee might feel that this is an “in principle” debate and that we can move to the nitty-gritty of the fees afterwards, but there is no great mystery about what those fees will be, given that they appear in the explanatory memorandum. Some of them are extremely high. Under the points-based system, there is currently no fee for new applications for leave to remain made at a public inquiry office, but the maximum proposed fee next year for tier 1 general applications will be more than £1,000, when the unit costs are just less than £250. The Government are giving themselves a pretty high profit margin.
From previous debates on similar fee-setting structures, the Minister will know that Conservative Members have no objection in principle either to the concept of charging for such services or, indeed, to the explicit overcharging for them, which the Government are doing. I agree with him that those who benefit most from the immigration system—those who come to this country—should make a contribution, but my question throughout this series of statutory instruments on the secondary, practical parts of recent pieces of immigration legislation is: at what point do we reach a tipping point where we will start to discourage people whom we might wish to come to this country?
I may have slightly misunderstood the Minister, but I detected a change in policy: in previous debates, there was the explicit notion of raising £100 million from these various fees, but in his introductory remarks, he mentioned 30 per cent. of a figure that was not £300 million, so I think that the figure might have changed. Clearly, the amount of money—whether or not it is £100 million —to be raised is dependent on the number of people coming to this country and asking for such services. If the fees that are asked for discourage people, it will be much more difficult to raise that £100 million. Have we moved to a percentage target cover, because he recognises that fewer people will come?
Ms Gisela Stuart (Birmingham, Edgbaston) (Lab): I would be grateful if the hon. Gentleman helped me, because I cannot see the fees in my explanatory memorandum. Perhaps I have not spotted them, but he may have a different memorandum.
Damian Green: I may have a fuller explanatory memorandum. I am not making this up; I do not carry in my head proposed fee levels for different classes of visa and unit costs. I apologise if I have a different explanatory memorandum, and if it is the wrong one I apologise even more. I quoted from the explanatory memorandum that I obtained, I think, from the Vote Office and not from any other source—I say that before they try to have me arrested again.
Moving swiftly on, there are questions that I hope the Minister can answer, either in this debate—I will understand if he cannot do so—or in the next debate on fee levels. Has a sensitivity analysis been done on whether the Government now expect fewer visitors? Given the general economic climate, we might expect fewer people to come here either to work or as general visitors. Is any effect expected from the new large fees, and is such an effect part of the purpose of the policy? Are Ministers actively trying to discourage people either from coming to this country or from staying once they are here? My underlying worry—and the Minister and I agree on this—is linked to my belief that Britain benefits from immigration but not from any or all immigration: we want to attract people who will benefit the country. As I said earlier, are the Government not in danger of reaching a tipping point at which Britain will be seen as an unfriendly country, actively discouraging people from coming here?
Stepping back from the details of the order, immigration policy over the past 10 years or so reminds me of a badly driven car that was accelerating much too fast for a long time. The Minister is now slamming his foot on the brakes and trying to bring the car to a screeching halt. We are getting squeals and noise and lots of tyre smoke but that is not an effective way of slowing the vehicle down. We have gone from one extreme to the other, like a badly done stunt on “Top Gear”, and the Minister is in danger of becoming the Richard Hammond of immigration policy—upside down in a field.
Behind that metaphor is a serious point. I think that it is universally agreed that for most of the Government’s period in office, immigration policy has been uncontrolled. There are effective ways to reduce immigration and the Minister’s way is not very effective. What we have before us is a sub-set of reasons showing why that way is not effective. Placing huge fees on people who we might want to come here might discourage them, but at the same time it will not reduce the numbers in the controlled way that Opposition Members would like. I hope that the Minister will address those questions. I will understand if he does not wish to do so in this debate, but I hope that he will do so in the debate next month on the detailed figures.
2.43 pm
Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington) (LD): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dr. McCrea. I thank the Minister for his clear description of the purpose of the order and for giving us advance notice that we will be in Committee again on 23 March. I like to get statutory instruments into my diary early because I hate to miss an opportunity like this.
The Minister set out the cost—£2.2 billion—for the management of the immigration system, the aim of recovering 30 per cent. from fees, and what new applications and services the Government want to be able to charge for in the near future. As the hon. Member for Ashford said, we do not object in principle to fees, but we have an argument with the Government about whether the fees are set at the right level, whether sometimes they could be set higher for large employers, or whether in some cases they should be set lower. Nowadays, if someone applies for indefinite leave to remain they have to pay a fee approaching £1,000, which for many people is a big challenge. I am not sure whether that meets or assists the Government’s intention as set out in the Borders, Citizenship and Immigration Bill of integrating migrant workers into the country in a way that benefits both the migrants and the communities that they join. With the proposed fee levels it might be difficult for some to integrate in the way that the Minister wants.
I have a couple of questions that I hope the Minister will answer now or later in writing. How many requests are made by individuals for confirmation of their status? In what percentage of those cases is written confirmation sought? Their papers are held by UKBA, in some cases for many months or years. Is it appropriate to charge people a fee for confirmation that they could provide themselves if they had their papers? I hope that the Minister will provide clarity on that issue. If people are charged a fee, are they entitled to a prompter response or a guarantee of the time scale within which the response will be made? The fee could be waived if the time scale is not met. Will the Minister clarify whether there is any such intention? That point applies not only to fees and applications, but to the services. Will the Minister say how many requests there are for services such as home visits? That would enable us to get a feel for the scale of active intervention that is required. We will return to the issue of fees, and we will have to look carefully at whether they are punitive. As has been said about many similar SIs, we must consider whether the rates will discourage people who we want to come to the UK from doing so, which could be detrimental to UK plc.
2.47 pm
Mr. Andrew Smith (Oxford, East) (Lab): I wish to ask a couple of questions and to stress the importance of avoiding perverse incentives.
I add my voice to those who express caution over the fee levels. This is the sort of measure that can slip through a Delegated Legislation Committee quite quietly, but face a storm of protest when people are faced with the bills. I urge the Minister to think carefully about that. What assessment or market research does he have on the matter?
Tom Brake: Does the right hon. Gentleman share my concern that the Government have not responded to the decision from the House of Lords, which stated that the fee level could infringe some people’s human rights? We may already have reached the tipping point where some people cannot afford the fees.
Mr. Smith: I take the point and look forward to the Minister’s response.
As well as responding on the fee levels, I hope that the Minister will give assurances on some obvious perverse incentives that occur to me. First, it is not uncommon for people to come to my advice surgery to seek clarification of their status or to extract such information from the agency or the Minister. I am sure that that is the case for other hon. Members. If Mr. X comes to me as his MP and I write to ask whether he has leave to remain, will the Minister reply that he knows the answer but cannot supply it until the constituent coughs up several hundred pounds? If he answers that Mr. X has leave to remain, there will be a perverse incentive for people to get confirmation by going to their MP, rather than by coughing up the money.
Secondly, what happens if somebody seeks, through the Freedom of Information Act 2000, access to papers covering their status? Would not that be a cheaper way of getting the same information, even given the fee for freedom of information inquiries? Have those points been properly considered?
2.50 pm
Mr. Simon Burns (West Chelmsford) (Con): I do not intend to detain the Committee, particularly because the right hon. Member for Oxford, East has raised the main issue on which I wanted to question the Minister. Some 96.2 per cent of people in my constituency are, by ethnic designation, white. Of those who are not designated white, a significant proportion come to see me. Twenty years ago, it was noticeable if I got an immigration case once a fortnight. Now, half my fortnightly surgeries are taken up by people—it must be said that many of them have no right to be in this country—who ask me to seek clarification, from the Minister or the UK Border Agency, of their current status and what is happening to their application for indefinite leave.
Picking up on the right hon. Gentleman’s point, I would like the Minister to assure me that, when I write to the UK Border Agency rather than directly to him to find out people’s current status, I am not going to be charged for the reply to my letter. I assume that the Minister will say that I will not be charged. If so, there will be an unintended consequence. The spiv lawyers who operate mostly out of the east end of London, often on a legal aid basis, will immediately—they do this already—recommend that their clients come to a Member of Parliament. That is an absolute disgrace, because, to add insult to injury, they charge either their client or the legal aid people for advising people to go to see their MP. If they were lawyers, they would know the law, and that a Member of Parliament can do nothing more than them, save get the information required more quickly [Hon. Members: “Free”] And free. The spiv lawyers, plus those members of the community who are better attuned to how the system operates—it is remarkable how quickly people become attuned to how a system operates—will not bother to pay a fee and make an application to ascertain their status. Instead, they will come to us as right hon. and hon. Members and get us to do it free.
How does the Minister envisage stopping that loophole emerging? To all intents and purposes, within, I suspect, a fairly short period, the loophole will totally invalidate what the Minister intends to do in the next order that we discuss—namely, to impose a fee to ascertain the status of someone’s indefinite leave.
2.53 pm
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