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Baroness Warwick of Undercliffe: My Lords, I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, and the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, on two powerful speeches. The Bill contains issues of concern to this House, and many in the education world outside this House will be grateful for the tenacity with which Her Majesty's Opposition and the Liberal Democrat Front Bench, in both this House and another place, have
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pursued the concerns expressed by universities and colleges on the Bill's impact on international students. I want to concentrate my remarks on that issue. I declare an interest as chief executive officer of Universities UK.
I should also like to place on record my gratitude to the Government and to the Minister, my noble friend Lady Ashton, for their equally dogged pursuit of improvements to the immigration system. As a member of the Home Office's joint education task force, I can say that there has been a marked change in the vigour with which the Government are now working with the education sector to ensure that there is a much enhanced dialogue about the way to achieve these improvements. I salute the efforts of my noble friend in that endeavour.
That positive climate, however, cannot disguise the fact that many in the education sector are deeply concerned about two provisions in the Bill. The first relates to the creation of a one-stop appeal system for leave to remain and variation of leave applications. There is no disagreement about the principle of introducing a simplified system, although there are some differences of view about how that should be achieved. The scheme proposed by the Government would allow unsuccessful applicants to appeal only once they have left the UK. The scheme also risks making unsuccessful applicants illegal overstayers if they learn the outcome of their application after their existing leave has expired. This cannot have been the Government's intention. I cannot believe it was deliberate. I think that the Government have recognised the problem, and I hope that when these issues are debated in detail in Committee an appropriate solution can be agreed upon.
The other issue will be more familiar to the House. The Bill will abolish the right of appeal for international students, and others, who are refused a visaor "initial entry clearance", to use the parlance. Universities UK, the Association of Colleges, the National Union of Students, the Immigration Advisory Service, the Council for International EducationUKCOSAthe Immigration Law Practitioners Association and the CBI all take the view that this measure is unjust. That point has been made forcefully by both the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, and the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, but I make no apology at all for making it again.
Decision-making in entry clearance cases is often subjective, and often wrong. Universities UK has gathered a large number of examples of inappropriate and subjective refusals, all subsequently overturned. To give your Lordships just a flavour, one university told me that an applicant had been refused because:
That is a totally inappropriate, subjective judgment. In fact, the student was in receipt of a UK Government-funded scholarship covering the whole of his tuition fees, plus a maintenance award of £5,000 a year. The award letters were submitted with his application.
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Another university cited a case in which a student was told there was "no reason" for her to experience the British education system. She was refused entry because the entry clearance officer also had doubts about her ability to maintain and accommodate herself, despite the fact that she had a grant from her home government to cover all her costs.
Several institutions have told me about applications rejected on the basis of academic judgment, which entry clearance officers are not qualified to make, and which is not an appropriate basis for refusal. One institution gave the following example:
"Your proposed course of study is unrealistic because it is inconsistent with your previous pattern of study [and] previous job experience and does not represent a progression in your education . . . and you have been unable to give me a satisfactory explanation for this change of direction".
The course in question was actually designed specifically to facilitate a change of career.
I have quoted these examples at some length because I believe it is important that this House understands why the education sector believes that the right of appeal is so necessary. Indeed, although she is unable to be in her place this afternoon, I know that my noble friend Lady Blackstone, herself Vice-Chancellor of Greenwich University, would have added other examples, and would have echoed my concerns.
Yes, there is a point of principlethat the right of appeal is important for reasons of natural justice where there is a possibility that an unfair decision might be made. But just as important, the right of appeal is important in this case and at this time because of the often poor and variable quality of initial decisions in entry clearance cases. We have evidence of that not only of the anecdotal kind which I have just described but also in the form of figures on the number of successful appeals. At the University of Sheffield, 90 per cent of visa refusals are overturned on appeal or before that stage. The Immigration Advisory Service reports at least a 59 per cent success rate. That indicates the scale of the problem. If 90 per cent of decisions are overturned, that means quite simply that a very high proportion of refusals are wrong. Universities, colleges and others protest against the measures in Clause 4. They protest not only because it would be unfair to deprive potential students of the right of appeal when they might have been refused entry for entirely inappropriate reasons; they protest because removing the right of appeal at this time would simply mean that many talented students who might have come to study in the UK will go elsewhere.
The House has debated the importance of international students to the United Kingdom on countless occasions over the past few years. Those debates have been occasioned in large part by a growing appreciation of the benefits that international students bring the UK and of the increasing challenges we face in maintaining our position as a world leader in international student recruitment. In the context of increasing competition for international students and evidence from a great many institutions of a decline in numbers, the fear that large numbers of students who apply to the UK may be prevented from coming by
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poor decisions by entry clearance officers with no right of redress is deeply troubling. The Minister in her opening remarks talked of the new points-based system and will no doubt echo the views of the Minister of State with responsibility for immigration in another place that the Government plan to introduce this new system and that will solve the problems with the quality of decision-making. That may be so and indeed I sincerely hope it will be so, but the improvements have yet to be fully designed let alone implemented and proven to work.
So I believe that Ministers should introduce the new immigration system and demonstrate that it works before legislating to remove appeals. As things stand, the appeals system is a very necessary constraint on a system that would otherwise fail thousands of potential students and indeed fail the universities who seek to attract them. I hope that the Government will be persuaded to reconsider.
Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville: My Lords, it is a particular pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Warwick of Undercliffe, for reasons which this brief speech will unfold. I speak in this debate under false pretences and I need to get them off my chest immediately, though on the ill-wind principle the debate will be a little shorter because of them.
There are varying motivations to speak in Second Reading debates. One such is the intended, as against unintended, consequence that everyone outside interested in the subject will put you on their individual mailing list for briefings in anticipation of the remaining stages, let alone the Second Reading. Thanks to the admirable synod of interested parties assembled for collective briefing by Amnesty International yesterday under the chairmanship of my noble friend Lady Anelay, who opened this debate so admirably on behalf of the Official Opposition, I now already have a sheaf of briefing papers from at least 10 sources. So the motivation I mentioned a moment ago for speaking was satisfied even before this debate began.
Less felicitously, I managed to leave my locker keys at home this morning, so every piece of paper that I possess on today's subject is immured in the Library corridor, and it is temporarily beyond my power to recover it. When I say, therefore, that I look forward to Grand Committee stage, a phrase with which one often concludes a Second Reading speech, I do so on this occasion with unusual feeling. My remarks at Second Reading will thus be brief.
I said that it was a pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Warwick, as she and I used to spar two decades agoshe, acronymically, on behalf of the AUT, myself on behalf of the then HMG in general and the DES in particular. Twenty years later I declare an interest as Pro-Chancellor of the University of London, though I am not speaking on its behalf today. But the issues of the Bill as they affect universities were accurately and initially identified by my noble friend Lady Anelay, and the noble Baroness, Lady Warwick,
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has just amplified them. I shall not repeat what either of them have said, relying instead on the 18th century speech, following a characteristically comprehensive speech by Edmund Burke in the Commons, when the next speaker simply said, "Ditto to Mr Burke".
The noble Baroness, Lady Warwick, invited me in the Summer RecessI quote this anecdotally to indicate what lies ahead of us in Grand Committeeto chair a fringe meeting at the Conservative Party conference on the very subjects that we are discussing in the Bill. The meeting was inadvertently a little less well advertised than it might have been but a roomful assembled to hear the vice-chancellor of Liverpool, a senior spokesman from the British Council and a shadow home affairs spokesman from the Official Opposition Front Bench in the Commons, and in that hour there was never the faintest likelihood of our running out of questions.
I doubt if we shall run out of questions in Grand Committee either, especially, if I may say so to the Minister, against the background of Her Majesty's Government ostensibly supporting the further recruitment of foreign students by British higher education institutions. We shall welcome the noble Baroness, Lady Ashton of Upholland, to that same Grand Committee. This is, I believe, the fourth Home Office Bill now running simultaneously, if not concurrently, in your Lordships' House. The Minister has admirably earned the reputation by her performance on past Bills that objective referees on other Benches will always give her the benefit of the doubt on the Treasury Bench, whatever she chooses to say. But she has a further advantage on this Bill: she is potentially less personally embarrassed than are some other Ministers on these subjects by words used in earlier debates, which I fear will haunt the Treasury Bench during the remaining stages of the Bill.
I come to the Bill with the unique experience of Conservative MPs in the 1997 Parliament of having held an inner-city seat with a major immigrant and asylum-seeking population. Indeed, before 1997, I had what might be described as "form" with the Whips in another place on this species of legislation. I am not suggesting that Her Majesty's Government are less competent on these matters than the administrations of other countries. In the late 1960s I had to wait 10 months for a green card to work in the United States, during which I had to assure the American Embassy on behalf of my youngest one year-old son that he had never, at least as yet, lived off immoral earnings.
But that negative qualification of not being worse than others is not enough for this country. In the Soho part of my former constituency there were in 1685 no fewer than 16 Huguenot churches. We pride ourselves on the haven we provide. Such pride demands that our legislation should be the best rather than in the middle of the pack. I am sure the same ambition applies to Her Majesty's Government. But on one of the other Home Office Bills going through Parliamentthe Terrorism Billthe Home Secretary rolled the wicket to opposition Peers in the Moses Room by saying that
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there had been adequate time to discuss that Bill in the Commons. I do not think the Government can make the same claim on this Bill, at least as yet, as to the amount of time available on Report in the Commons to discuss the new material that the Government introduced at that stage. Just as we are not likely to run out of questions in Grand Committee on higher education issues, so we are not likely to run out of subjects on other aspects of the Bill. I reiterate, from my documentless present, my anticipation of future debate.
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