Immigration Bill — Second Reading

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:55 pm on 10th February 2014.

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Photo of Lord Clement-Jones Lord Clement-Jones Liberal Democrat 4:55 pm, 10th February 2014

My Lords, it is a huge pleasure to follow the excellent speech of the noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria. I declare an interest as a member of the Council of University College London.

Many aspects of the Bill have already been subject to debate today. I want to concentrate on its impact on overseas students, an aspect that the noble Lord touched on. I heard the Minister’s assurance today, but I have been unhappy with the direction of travel of government policy towards overseas students throughout the past few years and believe that the Bill exacerbates the impact of previous policies. Of course, nothing in what I say is designed to condone fraud of the kind uncovered in today’s “Panorama” programme, which the noble Lord, Lord King, referred to. I shall be drawing in particular on the briefings of both Universities UK and the National Union of Students, which are united in their views on the adverse impact of the Bill.

First, however, I join others in expressing my sympathy and regret at the honourable resignation of Mark Harper as Immigration Minister. I always found him extremely painstaking and courteous in carrying out his role. As the noble Baroness, Lady Smith of Basildon, pointed out, this shows the difficulties inherent even among the most scrupulous people in complying with immigration legislation.

As noble Lords, with all their university links and responsibilities, will be well aware, international students in higher education alone contributed more than £10 billion to the UK economy in 2011-12, according to BIS. Their contribution to the local economies of university cities is enormous. The UK is the second most popular destination for international students. They are a crucial way for us to build cultural and academic links and to build global trade and investment relations for the future—soft power, in other words. They are a crucial resource for our higher education institutions and the UK as a whole yet, as UUK points out, new figures show that the total number of international students in UK universities fell for the first time on record by 1% in 2012-13—4.5% if China is excluded from the figures. Our share of a growing market is falling. We have yet to understand the precise causes, but many of us in this House have been warning the Government of the likely consequences of their changes to visa policy, particularly relating to post-study internships. We have already seen a marked reduction in students from India, as the noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, has pointed out.

No one quarrels with measures designed to prevent abuse of the immigration system, but if we do not redress the impression that students are not welcome then we will see further reductions from other countries. The key areas where this Bill creates that impression, and bears down counterproductively on overseas students, are threefold. First, there is the removal of visa appeal rights. The removal of their remaining rights of in-country appeal against the refusal of leave to remain is under Clause 11. In 2012-13 there were 98,800 decisions on Tier 4 extensions. Of those, I am informed that around 13% were refused yet, as we heard earlier, 50% of appeals are successful, which means that decisions were not correct in the first place. Sheffield Students’ Union says that 99% of its appeals are successful. It says that many of these decisions relate to family members. The loss of these appeal rights will also affect postgraduates such as academics and researchers.

The new administrative view that is being offered in certain circumstances will not be independent, and in some cases will in fact be carried out by the official who made the original decision. How can that be right? How on earth can overseas students have confidence that these decisions will be reviewed fairly? Surely, as they say, instead of abolishing the right of appeal in this way the Home Office should lay emphasis on improving processes and decision-making so that the number of appeals is reduced. If that is not possible, why can there not be an explicit exception for overseas students?

Then we have Part 3 of the Bill, which deals with the provision of services. The Bill introduces a new requirement for landlords to check a prospective tenant’s immigration status, except for halls of residence.

International students already face difficulties in securing accommodation and are often made to pay large advance payments of rent. Bookings of accommodation for students often have to be made well in advance at a time when overseas students cannot prove their immigration status. Landlords will be discouraged from letting accommodation to international students and staff, and they will be relegated to the back of the queue in the search for accommodation.

How can causing this kind of anxiety to young people coming here for the first time be the right way to welcome them? How can this lack of certainty encourage overseas academic staff to come and work in our universities? The fear of the student bodies that have briefed Members of this House is that this will lead to more discrimination against black and ethnic minority students when looking for housing.

Why are additional provisions required for students in the first place? Surely being vouched for by their university when the accommodation is occupied should be enough. After all, the risk of losing highly trusted sponsor status, as the NUS says, means that higher education institutions with virtually no exceptions are scrupulous in their monitoring of overseas students. The Residential Landlords Association and the British Property Federation have pointed out the problems, and the noble Lord, Lord Best, illustrated them in considerable detail. The NUS survey this month showed that 40% of international students believe that these landlord checks will negatively impact on their decision to study in the UK, and the figure was greater in the case of PhD students concerned about their spouse and children.

Last but not least, there is the proposed imposition of NHS charges on overseas students under the Bill. Granted that there will be a lower rate for overseas students under these proposals compared to the full £200 per annum, but why are we charging when, as UUK says, they are already making such a big economic contribution? The charge, it points out, will need to be paid upfront for the full duration of the visa. As the noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, pointed out, for an academic with a number of dependants, this could be a significant amount of money, far more than in other countries, and a real deterrent to taking up employment here. On its own, charging for NHS services would not necessarily have been a major disincentive, but in combination with other aspects of the Bill, it certainly will be. Indeed, it will take away one of the attractions of coming to the UK. Why cannot overseas students and staff be totally exempt from the charges?

So this is a triple whammy and causes more damage to our reputation. A recent NUS survey of more than 3,000 students conducted this year found that half of non-EU students found the UK Government not welcoming towards them, and the number for postgraduate students was greater. We need to alter the perception that overseas students are not welcome in the UK. As the Minister knows, I and many Members of this House have argued that the inclusion of students in the net migration figures sends out all the wrong signals, especially considering the fact that these students are only temporary migrants. Even if the Home Office does not accept that argument, why can we not exclude overseas students from the provisions of this Bill to prevent further reputational, cultural and economic damage? I look forward to the Minister’s reply.