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24 Mar 2010 : Column 354

Suffice it to say that relationships with South Africa are very important to us. The high commission in Pretoria has 216 staff to provide political, consular and visa services. The visa section employs 82 of those staff-some UK people, and some locally employed. There is also a consulate general in Cape Town. We did the global visa waiver test in 2008, and in March 2009 we introduced the visa requirement for travel from South Africa. The problem that we previously faced was the Zimbabwean problem that the right hon. Lady has highlighted. There was significant evidence of abuse, with Zimbabweans presenting South African documents in the UK. That was a major challenge and required the implementation of a visa regime in relation to South Africa. That was not peculiar to South Africa, as we did the same thing with a number of countries.

For the past few years, all visa applicants have been required to enrol their biometrics, and the way in which that is done may be at the root of this issue. We have agents-organisations and companies to which we franchise-to take the initial visa applications, but that is not done initially at the high commission. So although anyone who has a British passport has an absolute entitlement to service at the high commission, the initial stages of visa applications are done through agents. We have invested £4 million in extending the facilities in Pretoria to provide that service. The commercial partner that provides that front-of-house service-I hate that phrase, but I think the right hon. Lady knows what I mean-in South Africa is a company called VFS Global.

We have implemented what we call a hub-and-spoke arrangement, whereby visa applications can be made in one city or posting and then decided and processed in the continental hub. Pretoria is the African hub, so its operation is particularly important to us. I shall not list the benefits of that arrangement now, because I suspect that the right hon. Lady would fall asleep. She can read them elsewhere, and I am quite prepared to discuss those issues if necessary.

Let me give the House an idea of scale. In 2009 the British high commission in Pretoria processed 122,609 visa applications, of which 101,200 were from South African nationals. Since the introduction of the new visa requirement for South African visitors, the British high commission has offered exceptional levels of customer service. In 2009 more than 95 per cent. of all visit visa applications were resolved within five days, two thirds of all settlement applications were resolved within 10 days, and 97 per cent. of all South African visa applications were issued. Of the 101,200 visa applications from South African nationals, 88,098 were in the visitor category. In the settlement category, 86 per cent. of the applications from South African nationals were issued. In other words, there is an exceptionally high volume of applications and, I would argue, a very good service within the commitments that we make.

The entry clearance officer or the in-country official will consider the application carefully to ensure that the correct decision is made. However, the onus rests on the applicant to demonstrate that they meet the requirements of the immigration rules.

Miss Widdecombe: I am sure that this lady would have been hugely grateful to have got anywhere near an entry clearance officer. The family was habitually turned away, and only on the production of 50,000 rand would they have made any progress at all.

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Mr. Woolas: As the right hon. Lady has intervened, let me turn to the specifics of the case. We do not recognise the 50,000 rand figure. We assume that it has come from an agent independent of either the high commission or the agent that we employ. There is no correlation between that figure and the visa fee, given the number of people in the family involved. I must also make the point that a visitor visa was issued, and the application process for such a visa involves producing evidence of return arrangements, so I assume that they were in place, although I will have to get back to the right hon. Lady about that. That must have been done through the agent, with the application processed through the hub arrangement in the high commission, so the situation is puzzling. While I do not recognise the 50,000 rand figure for a visa fee, which I understand translates to about £4,500, the visitor visa will have been issued on the assumption that the relevant family members would return to South Africa, but given the evidence that she has provided, I assume that that was not the intention, which raises difficulties for my officers in this case.

Although I have no doubt whatsoever about the family's intention or integrity, the rules-and indeed the law-state that one cannot apply in country. Indeed, I cannot envisage any Government allowing such an in-country application for settlement or citizenship, and the advice that the right hon. Lady reports that the family was given is consistent with that position.

Miss Widdecombe: I absolutely agree that there is a clear rule that if someone wants to enter the country on the basis of marriage, they must apply from outwith the country. The Minister will know that I have upheld that rule consistently, and that I have advised constituents to go back. However, the point that I keep making is that the family tried that, and Mrs. Acott simply says, "What happens if I go back? I will be exactly where I was when I was trying to leave."

Mr. Woolas: I understand the point that the right hon. Lady makes, which was also made in the letter to her office and the written representations that I received. That is the point about which we are puzzled, because a visitor visa was processed, and it is odd that the option of applying for a spousal visa was not available, yet an application for a visitor visa was processed. I think that we will have to come back to that point.

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I know that the right hon. Lady appreciates that I have to uphold the rules. I have no intention of hindering the family-I understand that the father is a British citizen-and obviously they have made a choice about their future lives, but I have to apply the rules.

On the subject of courtesy, the right hon. Lady referred to several stages involving the high commission, and perhaps the visa application office and a private agent, and she also mentioned Lunar house. Information with which I will provide her after the debate will feed into our understanding of the situation. Although I am not saying that I do not believe the account that has been given, some of it is puzzling. Individual circumstances vary, however, and misunderstandings occasionally arise while processing visa applications. The basic rules on applications are, as she acknowledges, that an application for a spousal visa must be made outside the country and that an in-country transfer is not usually allowed, although there are exceptional circumstances in which that may happen. A visitor visa was issued in this family's case and, as I said, it is logical that that must have involved an appointment, an application and the processing of documents. I am therefore puzzled as to why the application for spousal and family visas was not made at that stage.

The assumption throughout this debate is that the lady in question-the wife-is the primary applicant. There are children involved as well, who would be entitled to apply for British citizenship by virtue of their father's British citizenship. [ Interruption. ] The right hon. Lady says from a sedentary position, "From here?" The issue that we would have been dealing with is the wife's application. The right hon. Lady raised the issue of the children this evening. Of course I will come back to her. Some aspects are puzzling, and I hope the illumination that I will be able to shed on the case will satisfy her.

The right hon. Lady refers to the good intent of the family. My experience is that all applicants claim, or have, good intent. Unfortunately, the rules are the rules, and I must apply them. She does not need me to tell her that; I think she did this job at one stage in her rather formidable career, as I knew already-but learned even more about from my research. If I may, I shall write to her with the details that I can give her, to reassure her and her constituents that I take this matter seriously.

7.36 pm

House adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 9(7)).

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