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Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Lord Bassam of Brighton moved Amendment No. 36A:

“(ua) may make provision, for the purposes of section 85A(4)(a), about the circumstances in which evidence is to be treated, or not treated, as submitted in support of, and at the time of making, an application;”.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Clause 19, as amended, agreed to.

Clause 20 [Fees]:

Lord Avebury moved Amendment No. 36B:

(a) be satisfied that the increase is no greater than is required to maintain the value of the amount in real terms; and(b) in doing so, must have regard to the All Items Retail Prices Index Excluding Mortgage Interest Repayments published by the Office of National Statistics.”.”

The noble Lord said: It is certainly a relief to hear that there are fewer Home Office Bills coming down the track, although I believe that there is at least one in the legislative list that has just been published by Mr Gordon Brown, so we cannot escape altogether from the perpetual succession of Home Office Bills that has plagued us for the past 10 years.

I want to draw attention to Section 51 of the Immigration, Asylum and Nationality Act 2006, which allows the Secretary of State to charge a fee in connection with any application or claim in connection with immigration or nationality. In the Immigration and Nationality (Fees) Order 2007 which was discussed in your Lordships’ House on 8 March, the Government set out the range of services for which fees would be charged under Section 51, replacing those which had previously been set under various pieces of legislation. That order prepared the ground to set fees for most of the services provided in connection with nationality and immigration at levels that reflect the benefits that the Secretary of State thinks are likely to accrue to the person making the application or for whom the process is undertaken in accordance with Section 42 of the Asylum and Immigration (Treatment of Claimants, etc.) Act 2004.

In Clause 20 the Government are proposing to extend the power to set fees at any level that the Secretary of State thinks fit to applications or processes in connection with the sponsorship of

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persons seeking leave to enter or remain in the United Kingdom. That means that excess fees on top of the fees that the applicants are already paying are to be charged to universities sponsoring students, employers sponsoring workers and individuals bringing in children, elderly dependent relatives or spouses.

When the Immigration and Nationality (Fees) Order was debated on 8 March, we said that we had no objection to charging fees as such. On the other hand, when the enabling clauses were debated in the proceedings on the Immigration, Asylum and Nationality Bill in early 2006, we had no idea that in some cases the fees were to be almost doubled. We said that it was unfair to load on to current applicants for the services of the BIA the heavy costs of transforming the immigration system over the next four years. I wrote to the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Scotland, drawing her attention to the charges that were to be paid by a British citizen for his foreign wife’s visa, her permanent residency and her citizenship. Under that order, the total was increased from £1,102 to £2,059. I pointed out that legitimate entrants are already contributing to the economy under the tax system. It was clear that although the Government had been through the motions of consultation on the charges, they had not listened to what some of the respondents had said.

5.30 pm

With that unfortunate experience of the way in which the Government used the power in Section 42 of the Asylum and Immigration (Treatment of Claimants, etc.) Act 2004 to levy extortionate fees on certain applicants, we urge the Committee not to give carte blanche to charge sponsors whatever the traffic will bear. Universities are already losing students to foreign competition because of the fees that they have to pay to come here. Now the sponsoring universities are going to be charged and they will have to recover that cost in the fees that they impose on the students. The person who wants to bring a spouse here will be confronted with an extra bill on top of the £2,059 already imposed. The employer will have to find an unknown amount on top of what he is paying now.

As we saw with the order mentioned earlier, once the order reaches Parliament we have no option but to accept whatever increases the Government decide to impose. All we could do on that occasion was to call attention to the discrepancies between the responses to the consultation and what was in the order. In the case of the fees to be charged under Clause 20, there is not even a consultation. We beg for that as a small mercy. Realising that there is no chance whatever that the Minister will accept the amendment, we beg that the Government will engage in a consultation. Not in hope or expectation, I beg to move.

Lord Roberts of Llandudno: I support my noble friend’s amendment. What is the basis for the increase from £350 to £750? It is an increase of more than 100 per cent. Why is it so much above the rate of inflation? Are the Government taking into consideration the fact that those who are applying are from poor areas and from countries that have very

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low incomes? We understand that 30 per cent of applicants are African and 25 per cent are Asian. For those people, £750 is often far beyond what they can be expected to pay. Is this not going to restrict applications from poorer people?

When we recently debated the Bill in the House, I quoted the words on the Statute of Liberty:

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free”.

I said that these are people whom we would have welcomed, and the United States would have welcomed, a century ago, but now we are closing the door. The poor, the tired, the huddled masses cannot afford fees of this sort. What is the justification for this large jump in the amount payable?

I know from experience that a fee of £750 is £200 more than the monthly basic state pension in the United Kingdom. How much do the Government hope to realise from this large increase? Are Home Office accounts subject to strict audit? I am sure they are. Is the Audit Commission involved in any way? Is there an independent inspectorate that says, “Yes, this jump from £350 to £750 is justified”?

I am very suspicious of the financing of the Home Office at present. People probably think that I am very boring on this subject. There are to be 69 passport personal interview offices, of which three—I am glad that the figure is now three: Newport, Belfast and Glasgow—are active. Last week I received a Written Answer from the noble Lord, Lord West, in reply to a Question on the cost of the 69 passport personal interview centres. I was absolutely astonished. The cost is £69 million—£1 million per office. However, as only three offices are currently active, the cost per office is much higher. Are the Government satisfied that their bookkeeping is of the highest order? Today we are talking of an increase from £350 to £750. That was not simply decided by the Minister; it was worked out. We must realise that the very poorest could never meet that amount.

Lord Hylton: I follow the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Roberts of Llandudno. Do the figures quoted by the noble Lord, Lord West of Spithead, include both the capital costs of the new offices and the current cost of running them for a year? I do not know. I would dissent ever so slightly from what the noble Lord, Lord Roberts, said, because I do not consider that this country is one of primary immigration, as the United States was in the last century and perhaps still is to some extent now. However, I have always stood up for the principle of family reunion. By that I mean that when a person is entitled to reside in this country, he should be allowed and encouraged to have with him his wife and children—his close family. I am also strongly in favour of the principle of monogamy. That would perhaps prevent people who are entitled to be here having a plurality of wives.

Lord Bassam of Brighton: We have had an interesting short debate, covering monogamy, passport personal interview centres, replies by the recently ennobled Lord, the noble Lord, Lord West, and a plea for

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family reunion. It is amazing what can be squeezed into a Lords Committee debate. I congratulate noble Lords on their ingenuity.

The amendment has been tabled in response to the scale of the fee increases that were introduced in April. It is worth registering that there are no fundamental objections to the principle that those who use the immigration system should pay most towards the costs, including fees that are set above normal cost-recovery levels. We believe that the safeguards in the Asylum and Immigration (Treatment of Claimants, etc.) Act 2004—that is the Act that Clause 20 seeks to amend—are sufficient. Those safeguards require the Secretary of State to consult with such persons—those whom she deems appropriate—before making an instrument prescribing fees above cost-recovery levels and that the instrument is subject to the affirmative processes in both Houses.

The Act also states that fees set above cost should reflect the benefits that the Secretary of State thinks are likely to accrue to a successful applicant. I think we should focus some of our attention on that. We believe that in order to set fees at fair and sustainable levels in the future we need to maintain flexibility. The measure in the amendment proposing an acceptable increase to the fees would not, of course, allow us to amend the fees to reflect wider policy changes that affect the entitlements and benefits of a successful application. It would also limit our ability to correct anomalies in the charging structure, should those arise over time. For those primary reasons we are not able to accept the amendment.

Members of the Committee asked for further and better particulars. The noble Lord, Lord Roberts, asked why we thought that the increase from £335 to £750—in this example, for postal applications—was right. We did it to bring us more into line with similar fees charged in other countries, as we are considerably less costly than most, and to reflect the administrative costs of determining settlement and to ensure compliance with our immigration laws. I make the comment that settlement brings with it rights to access the labour market and the benefit system for applicants and their dependants. We think that the fees charged to users of the system, who benefit from the services that we offer and from living in our country, reflect a good offer. It is right that the charge is a fair reflection of those benefits.

The noble Lord, Lord Avebury, asserted that we were not listening to consultation. The majority of respondents agreed that the fees should reflect the value of the entitlements to a migrant from a successful application and should support the Government’s position. It is certainly not the case that we did not undertake consultation—that much is clear. There is a statutory duty to do that, as I have already said. The consultation ran from 30 October to 22 December last year. The consultation document was sent to over 3,000 people and stakeholder groups and was published on the Home Office website. We received some 340 written responses: 51 per cent were educational establishments, 35 per cent employers and 14 per cent arts and entertainment organisations.

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Additional consultation was undertaken through sector-based events—that is, meetings—with different organisations and bodies, through the education, employer and arts and entertainment organisations and task forces. Over 400 people attended one event: 87 per cent agreed that we should set fees flexibly to take into account wider policy objectives and 79 per cent agreed that fees should reflect a range of factors, not only those of value to migrants.

I believe that I have answered most of the points. If there are any other issues that Members of the Committee feel I have not touched on, I shall happily endeavour to respond to them.

Lord Avebury: We have been diverted into a discussion about previous fees that were set under the order that has already been passed and how those were determined. I wrote to the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Scotland, pointing out that the consultation to which the Minster has referred included no persons or groups that were representative of spouses and that when spouses discovered the level of the fees, as given by my noble friend, for indefinite leave to remain, they were horrified. I cannot imagine how the Secretary of State determined that the level of benefits accruing to someone who brought a spouse into this country had suddenly increased from £350 to £750, irrespective of the means of the applicant.

The Minister has said that they compared this fee with comparable levels in other countries. I challenge him on that, and I challenged the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Scotland. I sent her a list of countries which I had checked. In every case, the fee was less than the £750 that we were charging. I could not find a single country where the fee for indefinite leave to remain was more than £750. I am afraid that the Minister has been wrongly briefed, and he should go back to the department and find out what fee levels are charged for indefinite leave to remain in a number of other countries.

5.45 pm

The point of raising this was that, by giving the Secretary of State carte blanche, we have absolutely no idea what he is going to charge under Clause 20. The fees are not to be paid by the applicants, but by the sponsors. Here, for example, we have a spouse who is bringing his wife into the United Kingdom. He is already going to pay £2,059 when, suddenly, another fee is going to be charged on top of that; but nobody has any idea what it is. I urge the Minister to at least try to find some organisations representing the interests of spouses so that they are not missed out of the consultation that he undertakes on this occasion. However, I am pleased to hear that he will consult other interests. The universities may well have something to say about this; it may be the straw that breaks the camel’s back. I pointed out that the universities are already anxious because the fees paid by incoming students are already making them less competitive than some of the institutions in, say, the United States. If the universities are now to be asked to pay a sponsor’s fee on top of the rest of the

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expenses associated with students coming to the United Kingdom, they will have to load that on to the fees and become even less economic than they are already.

I appeal the Minister to ensure that, when he undertakes the consultation on the level of fees to be charged under Clause 20, he brings in both universities and organisations representing families—not just spouses, of course. As the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, said, this applies also to people bringing in elderly dependent relatives.

Lord Bassam of Brighton: The noble Lord challenges us over universities. I am prepared to accept that there might be something of a mixed picture in terms of overseas applicants to UK universities, but I think that the case is broadly that we are competitive and we have been extremely successful over the past few years in attracting overseas students to the UK. We certainly operate competitively against our main competitors in the field, which are US and Australian universities.

I remind the Committee that when the announcement was made—it is worth putting on the record—Universities UK said:

The National Union of Students also commented on the announcement:

They may not absolutely like everything we have done and said on this, but they recognise, first, that we consult, secondly, that we look at the broader international case and, thirdly, that we listen to representations when they are made to us. I cannot entirely accept what the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, has said on that issue. It is important that we focus on what is actually said and what actually happens as a product of policy and how we approach these issues.

Baroness Carnegy of Lour: It seems that large numbers of overseas students who apply to go to university are accepted and then never turn up. Does the Minister have any information on that? I saw it suggested—admittedly in the press—that those people are finding a way of coming into this country and then not going to university. Will the university have paid for them? One university talked about several hundred such people. Does the Minister know anything about that, or has he not been briefed on it?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: I am not briefed on all aspects of visa applicants or the fees that are charged, although I believe that we are broadly competitive.

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There may be any number of reasons why someone who applies to come to the UK to study may not take up the course for which they originally applied. I do not think that the cost of a visa will be the most determining factor. I would have thought that all the other costs, such as the cost of living and the cost of travel, would play a more important part because they are larger costs to the individual. However, we have been, and continue to be, extremely successful in education in comparison with our international competitors in that field. Not only do some of our universities work with foreign students here, but they are locating abroad and are extending their range of services in that direction, which I am sure we all welcome.

Lord Avebury: The noble Baroness, Lady Carnegy, may be thinking of the situation that used to be prevalent, whereby people applied to bogus institutions in this country as a means of entering the country illegally, and then disappeared underground. However, because the Government have limited the number of approved institutions for overseas students to come to, and because they are very rigorously checked and must sponsor a particular applicant, people are far less likely nowadays not to take up the places that they have been granted.

Baroness Carnegy of Lour: I know all that. I am talking about specific universities to which students have applied and to which they have been accepted and who come to this country to attend the university but do not turn up. One very well known university in Scotland quoted the figures.

Lord Henley: May I add to what my noble friend has just said?

Lord Avebury: I need to answer that point. The noble Baroness will recall that, in earlier legislation, we also obliged universities or institutions of higher education to report students who did not attend their courses. A student must attend a minimum number of hours a week—I think it is 20—to qualify as a student in higher education. If for any reason, even sickness, the person does not turn up for a particular percentage of the lectures or practicals, the university must report them to the immigration authorities. So although what the noble Baroness describes might have happened in the old days, she will find that the steps that have been taken to reduce abuses of the system have been reasonably successful. One institution in Scotland may have had a particularly unfortunate experience, but I hope that it has collaborated with the BIA in ensuring that those people who have abused the system by coming in, ostensibly as students, and then disappearing into the woodwork, have been reported and removed from the country.

Lord Henley: The noble Lord, Lord Avebury, talked about students having to do 20 hours a week. I am not sure that I ever managed 20 hours a week, but that is another matter. More seriously, on the point

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made by my noble friend Lady Carnegy, the reports also referred to universities in England. One such university was Newcastle. A large number of students had applied to it and did not show up, and it looked very much like an immigration scam. If the Minister is not briefed on this, his department should be aware of it and should be aware of the allegations that have been made. He and the department should respond on whether this is happening. Certainly, it is a very serious allegation about what was happening in this field.

Lord Avebury: Far be it from me to come to the defence of Minister—that is not my job. This question is a long way wide of the amendment, which concerns the fees that a sponsor pays to bring someone into the United Kingdom. While it is perfectly legitimate for the Minister to be asked questions about irregularities in universities, that should be done offline and not as part of the proceedings of this Committee.

Baroness Carnegy of Lour: I do not want to go on with this, but I asked the Minister whether universities have to pay the fees for those people who never turn up. That was my point in linking the question to the amendment. Perhaps the Minister will find out more about this, because I suspect it is not a small issue. It is being dismissed by the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, but he should probably wind up his amendment now.

Lord Bassam of Brighton: The noble Baroness has asked for more information. It might assist the Committee if I ask the officials to provide more background to circulate to Members of the Committee who are interested in this issue. I can see that security in universities is of concern, not least because of recent events. Perhaps it is just worth putting on the record that there is a contact point for universities to seek proper advice, to provide information to the BIA and to report students who have not turned up for courses and who are failing to attend. The noble Lord is reminding me that he has made that point, which is fair enough. That process is in train. We take this issue extremely seriously because, clearly, it is in our interests in terms of security.

Lord Avebury: I was in the process of winding up, and I hope that we can bring this matter to a conclusion. Before we leave universities altogether, like the noble Baroness, Lady Carnegy, I have read the papers and looked at the consultation, and I am perfectly well aware of what the universities said. I point out to the Committee that all the responses to the consultation were given before people knew the level of the fees. While universities may have been satisfied that the students coming to them would not be deterred by those fees, that certainly is not applicable to everyone else covered by the previous order.

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