Monday 4th December 2023

(6 months, 3 weeks ago)

Lords Chamber
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Lord Coaker Portrait Lord Coaker (Lab)
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My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lady Lister for her regret Motion, the moving and articulate way in which she put her case and the very serious questions that she raised and points that she made. We owe her a debt of gratitude for bringing it forward.

As many noble Lords have pointed out, we have before us a very important SI of many pages, which raises many significant issues for us to think about and discuss. It is only with a regret Motion that this Chamber gets this opportunity to do that—and there is a wider question for us about how secondary legislation has huge impacts on our country and the people in it.

Many noble Lords have made significant and important points. The noble Lord, Lord Moylan, logically and methodically pointed out the distinction between the naturalisation process and the process of citizenship. I know that the Labour Government to whom he referred tried to address that in the British Nationality Act 1948, which became law in 1949. It was in reference to that that I was nodding. He made the important point that the Minister will have to look at how the Government are distinguishing between those two things—or are they just ignoring it?

My noble friend Lady Primarolo logically and movingly put the case for what citizenship means, the rights of someone born here, and how that generates citizenship rights that we should respect. She talked about the difference between that and somebody going through the other process, which the noble Lord, Lord Moylan, mentioned. That is a very important matter, which we look forward to the Minister explaining to us. I congratulate my noble friend on that—and, to be fair, the noble Lord, Lord Moylan, who brought it up as well.

As has been pointed out, this policy of immigration fees has been used for many years, but that does not mean that the proportionality and fairness of, or the rationale for, these significant rises in fees payable for most immigration services cannot be questioned or debated. The fee increases that we are looking at have been very significant, with a 15% or 20% increase for most fees and many facing a much bigger increase. For example, there is a 35% increase for student visa fees, for applications made outside the UK. There are also arrangements for a new electronic travel authorisation for all non-British or Irish passengers visiting or transiting through the UK who do not need a visa, who have to obtain permission first and pay a fee of £10. It is important for the Government to say whether they will assess the impact of that new ETA arrangement. Although the immigration health charge increase of 66% is not included in this instrument, can the Minister update us on any progress with it?

The Home Office tells us that the rationale for changes is to

“significantly increase the income generated through immigration and nationality fees for the purpose of meeting costs within the wider migration and borders system”.

Can the Minister explain that in more detail? Can he also say why the overall increase is well above the rate of inflation? The Home Office justification is to say “Well, we haven’t raised them significantly since 2018”. Why have a policy of small increases for a number of years followed by a huge increase in another year? Why not increase them proportionately, rather than have the massive increase that we see this year?

What assessment have the Government made of the various groups affected by these changes? A number of noble Lords made that point. In other words, what is the human cost of the changes that the Government are bringing forward? Can the Minister clarify, for the avoidance of doubt, another question that has been asked: how much do fees currently raise? What is the unit cost for the processing of an individual application compared with the fee charged? How much additional income will the rise in fees actually raise? What is the total cost of the system this year and the predicted cost next year? It is very difficult to find, in any of the information I have looked at, the exact figures the Government are using to justify the fees and the overall cost of the system.

Given the impact of fees on various migrants, how many applicants are currently covered by the fee waiver scheme and what numbers are predicted in future? This was another point made by a number of noble Lords.

As the noble Lord, Lord German, and others pointed out, the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee makes considerable criticism of the Home Office for breaking the 21-day rule by bringing the SI into force on 4 October—19 days after the laying of the instrument rather than 21 days. I think your Lordships can understand why a proper process is so important, given the interest in this debate. I point out to the Minister that 21 days is not a maximum but a minimum, so that noble Lords can discuss this. Can he explain why this happened, given that it is, I think, the third time it has happened? Which Minister signed it off, and have they been told that it is unacceptable? The Minister will get up and say, “We’re very sorry and we need to do something about it”, but it is a process that seems to be happening time and again. It is simply not good enough.

Alongside that, can the Minister explain why the Explanatory Memorandum and the equalities impact assessment were not published in time to go alongside this SI? They have now been published but they were not published at the appropriate times. These failings of process are happening time and again. I think the Minister will agree, because I know he understands the importance of process and frankly, to be fair to him, does his best to ensure that the proper process is followed, that this is extremely important given the various points made in this debate.

As we discuss this important SI, there has been yet another statement on migration. Are the Government sure that their assessment of the impacts on vulnerable migrants is accurate? Are they sure that these fee changes will not have an adverse impact on skills shortages for UK businesses, including in the NHS and in care sectors, for example? As I said, fees have long played a part in the overall immigration systems, but they need to do so in a fair, principled and proportionate way, which means that many of today’s questions need full and frank answers from the Government.

Lord Sharpe of Epsom Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Home Office (Lord Sharpe of Epsom) (Con)
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My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have spoken, particularly the noble Baroness, Lady Lister of Burtersett, who tabled this debate and has given us the opportunity to discuss these important issues. Before I address the points raised, I will summarise how fees are set and the role of Parliament in setting fees for immigration and nationality applications.

It is important to emphasise that the Home Office cannot set or amend fee levels without obtaining the approval of Parliament. This ensures that there are checks and balances in place and full parliamentary oversight of the fees regime. Immigration and nationality fees can be set only within the limits specified by the Immigration and Nationality (Fees) Order, which include the maximum fee levels that can be charged on each application type or service. This is laid in Parliament and subject to the affirmative resolution procedure.

Individual fee levels are calculated in line with Managing Public Money principles and the powers provided by the Immigration Act 2014. Specific fees are set out in regulations, which are then presented to Parliament and subject to the negative procedure. The regulations laid by the Government in September increased fees across a number of immigration and nationality routes, including those for people seeking to visit the UK as a visitor and the majority of fees for entry clearance and for certain applications for leave to remain in the UK, including those for work and study.

Noble Lords are aware of the Government’s intention that those who use and benefit from the migration and borders system should contribute to its funding. In that, I agree with my noble friend Lady Altmann. The burden of operating the system should not unduly fall on the UK taxpayer. To answer directly the noble Baroness, Lady Blower, that is not profiteering—it is protecting the interests of the British taxpayer.

The increases that came into effect in October were, in the majority of cases, the first substantial increases made since 2018. They are proportionate when considered against wider price trends in the intervening period, to answer the noble Lord, Lord Coaker. At a time of high inflation and record migration, it is important to ensure that the system is sustainably funded. The recent increases have led to the raising of some concerns in the House around the impact on the UK economy and the potential for people to be deterred from visiting, working in and studying in the UK. As I have already set out, the Government’s policy is that the cost of operating the migration and borders system is to be funded by those who use it. This policy is at the heart of the decision to increase fees.

The Government have published an economic impact assessment—I will come back to this—alongside the regulations, setting out their potential impacts. The Government keep fees under review and will continue to monitor the position, but there is limited evidence to date that fee increases have impacted on the number of people coming to visit, work in and study in the UK. In answer to the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, the best interests of the child were considered in the economic impact assessment.

The noble Baroness, Lady Lister, also raised concerns about the potential for people to fall out of lawful immigration status and face significant debt and precarity. Those who are in the UK on family and human rights routes can be assured that these regulations made no changes to the provision of existing waivers and exceptions from the need to pay application fees in a number of specific circumstances. That includes affordability-based waivers for entry clearance and leave to remain on family and human rights grounds, which ensures that families unable to afford the fee are not prevented from making an application to enter or remain in the UK. Additionally, for children seeking to register as a British citizen, an affordability waiver was introduced in 2022 and has improved access to British citizenship for children who may face issues in paying the application fee. I say to my noble friend Lord Moylan that I will come back to this subject in a second.

These provisions ensure that the Home Office’s immigration and nationality fee structure complies with international obligations and wider government policy. We believe it represents the right balance between protecting the integrity of the department’s funding model and helping to facilitate access to immigration and nationality products and services, including for the most vulnerable. I note the concerns raised about the potential for these fee increases to increase the operational burden on the Home Office. We acknowledge that the recent increase may see more people seeking a fee waiver, but the Home Office has an obligation to ensure that the integrity of the migration and borders system’s funding model is maintained. I hope that provides at least some reassurance that those who cannot afford the fee will not be prevented from making an application to enter or remain in the UK on human and family rights grounds.

As I said earlier, in recent years the Government have taken steps to ensure that the fee for children seeking to register as British citizens is not a barrier to them making an application, through the provision of the waiver on the basis of affordability and the fee exception for children who are looked after by local authorities. Adult registration applications do not have a waiver available, but most of the applications for registration are made by children.

On the breach of the 21-day rule, I say to the noble Lord, Lord German, that—in comparing this with discussions about the treaty—there is a significant difference between primary and secondary legislation. On this particular rule, I regret that it was late. The scheduled date of commencement of fee increases was 4 October, in view of a planned laying date of 13 September, with the commencement date used as the basis for wider communications and delivery planning activity. However, late amendment to the regulations meant that this was not possible. Given that delaying the commencement date would have cost the department an estimated loss of additional revenue of about £2 million—a significant amount, which would have impacted priority functions—and that further changes to updated front-end systems would be needed at some additional cost and delay, it was determined that the original commencement date should be maintained.