Immigration and Nationality (Fees) (Amendment) (No. 2) Regulations 2023 Debate

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Department: Home Office
This is an incredibly complicated debate, but to alienate young British citizens by telling them that they are not really British, despite being born and having grown up here—despite having lived all their lives here and trying to make a contribution to our society—and that they are not the same as you or me, simply because they cannot afford a huge fee, cannot be right. The Government need now to give an undertaking to this House to revisit the question of citizens’ rights—I hope that the Minister will feel able to do that—and whether they can separate that registration of a right from their general immigration policies. I might have views on those policies, but I will not touch on that today because I want to concentrate only on how importantly I value my citizenship. I think it means that people identify and contribute. At our peril, we tell people who are really British that they are not. That is what these regulations are in danger of doing.
Baroness Altmann Portrait Baroness Altmann (Con)
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My Lords, I too congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, on her persistence, her perseverance and her dedication to this issue. She has raised it time and again, and I hope that my noble friend on the Front Bench will listen carefully, particularly to the contributions that we have just heard from my noble friend Lord Moylan and the noble Baroness, Lady Primarolo, on the specific matter of citizenship and charging citizens a fee at such a high level for a right that they already have.

But I agree that being British is a hugely valuable commodity, and the Government are right to say that those who can afford to pay for that privilege should be asked to do so. Of course, one would ideally like to cover only the cost and not to have some excess revenue from this source. But if there is an opportunity for some people who can afford it to be asked to pay, and contribute to the general well-being of the Exchequer, in such circumstances where they will receive this valuable right, I believe that is okay.

I am also delighted that there is a fee waiver scheme. I congratulate the Government; I think they recognised the need for this. The problem, as we have heard, is that many people either are unaware of their entitlement or find the process extremely complex. It is also somewhat narrow in scope. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chichester and the noble Baroness, Lady D’Souza, pointed out the ways in which we might identify children who will be severely disadvantaged by the extraordinary level of fees that someone who cannot afford this kind of money is expected to pay.

The problem is that there is such a huge disparity between the cost of the current proposals and the fee waiver scheme, which potentially has zero cost. Covering the cost is important. Could my noble friend tell me if the Government would consider some kind of in-between category at a reduced fee rate, which covers the cost without the excess, in certain circumstances? It would not be the full fee or full waiver for certain groups, especially for some of the children who might manage a lower amount.

I would be grateful if my noble friend could give us updated estimates of the excess revenue the Government expect to bring in, in excess of the cost of administration, from this scheme. What is the Government’s latest estimate of the potential damage to business from the current proposed level of fees? I agree that we need to make reasonable charges for applications to grant citizenship and migration and nationality rights, but I hope my noble friend takes on board the strength of feeling expressed around the House about the possibility of some off-setting or mitigating measures.

Lord German Portrait Lord German (LD)
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My Lords, these Benches are grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, for bringing these issues to us and discussing them. Particularly important is the impact on younger people and those who have no way of making that payment, and the poverty into which some of these people will fall.

I will give noble Lords some indication of the size of this SI and what its impact will be. The Government have been very honest about it; it is in paragraph 12.2 of the Explanatory Memorandum. I quote:

“The impact on the public sector is also likely to be significant—a net benefit to the public sector in the order of hundreds of millions of pounds per year, predominantly due to increased revenue being generated”.

We are talking about a huge amount of money, which is being generated not just to fulfil the costs of the scheme, but to add to the Exchequer and the volume of money coming in.

One of the people who objected to this and who wrote to the SLSC posited that these fees were some of the highest in the world. In reply, the Government said that it is very difficult to make judgments but

“we believe that UK visa fees are broadly competitive when compared with comparable countries globally”.

That is an assertion, as was the statement by the other group in the other direction. However, for the Government to say this, they must have some working out. When you do a maths sum of that sort, there must be some working out. Will the Minister provide for the House some of the indications that give the Home Office the right to believe that the fees are broadly competitive so that we can understand them? There are two factors here: a huge increase, worth hundreds of millions of pounds to the public sector, and an assertion that they are high compared with everywhere else.

I reiterate and amplify the points about this House’s 21-day rule made by the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, at the beginning. It is a discourtesy to this House that the rules we apply to the Government have not been followed—not just once or twice but three times in the last month. It strikes me that the SLSC’s polite language is really saying that the Home Office’s procedures are rubbish, because it is discounting this Parliament’s view in observing and looking over the legislation before us. That stands in direct opposition to the Minister’s Statement to this House two weeks ago, on the treaty that the Government were negotiating with Rwanda, which said that the full details of the treaty and the full time that this House requires to examine it would be allowed and provided for. I am grateful for that assertion, because that means that the rules will be followed, but I think that we in this House would like to know whether the Home Office will in future follow all the rules that this House lays upon it.

On the waiver scheme, I note the points raised by the noble Lord, Lord Moylan, and the noble Baroness, Lady Primarolo. I will look particularly at fee waivers for applications for limited leave to remain. There may be questions about their effectiveness, but I raise with the Minister the fact that fee waivers for applications for indefinite leave to remain for young people on the five-year route to settlement are not satisfactory. This is a cohort of people who either are under the age of 18 and have lived in the United Kingdom for at least seven years or are aged between 18 and 24 years old and have spent half of their lives in the United Kingdom.

The Government have already recognised their specific position and offered them a more affordable five-year route to settlement, but this offer cannot be accessed by many—I note the age of this cohort—as they are unable to afford the indefinite leave to remain application fee. These are not incoming migrants; they have been accepted as having a right to settlement, and we need to give young people every opportunity to be and feel part of our communities, rather than putting barriers in their way. With the 20% increase in the indefinite leave to remain application fees, will the department give this matter further consideration?

Of course, if more people are unable to afford the indefinite leave to remain application, people will attempt to put in a waiver. Waiver schemes are available, but some people posit that, because they are so complicated, it is necessary to employ a lawyer to work your way through them. Of course, people cannot afford a lawyer, so they do not apply for a scheme and do not apply at all.

The Minister projects—and we heard the figures—that more people will be acceptable for waiver applications, so what is the projected cost of that additional workload for the Home Office from those who have waivers? We need to measure that against the hundreds of millions of pounds a year being sought and brought about by extra revenue.

On the cost to business in this country, the Government have again been honest, saying that, for the changes to the fees mentioned,

“the impact on business, charities or voluntary bodies is likely to be significant—we believe there will be a cost to business in the order of tens of millions of pounds per year”.

That is tens of millions of pounds that business will be asked to find. I thought that this Government were not in favour of increasing the taxes on business but, clearly, I have got it wrong. Could the Minister tell me whether that fact that they have placed in their document—that there will be tens of billions of pounds extra that businesses will have to pay the Government—is essentially another tax? The rate that they are asking is far beyond the increase we would expect to see with simply just the cost of living added to it. Any increase in costs, especially at a time when recruitment in specialised roles is already so difficult for many, will have the inevitable outcome, maybe, of driving companies as far as falling out of business. How will the Treasury reconcile lost revenue from small and medium-sized enterprises that are no longer able to afford the fees and recompense them so that they are able to sustain their business?

These are very complex regulations. We are grateful for the opportunity to have this debate, but we are in a position where significant amounts of money are being made from people who can ill afford it and businesses are being asked to fund part of this scheme in a way that will certainly not help the development of our economy.