My Lords, Amendment 20 in my name and that of my noble friend Lord Rosser and the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, would remove Clause 4(5) from the Bill, as suggested by the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee, unless a full justification for its inclusion can be provided with an explanation of how the Government intend to use it.
I shall not go over the arguments again, but this is another part of Clause 4 where serious concerns have been raised about the powers the Government are seeking to take for themselves, and an explanation would be appreciated as to why it is needed. This is the sort of issue that we may want to bring back on Report and to divide the House if we do not get a satisfactory answer from the Government.
Amendment 21 probes why the power is necessary. Maybe it is to reduce fees and charges and, if so, the amendment in the names of the noble Baronesses, Lady Hamwee and Lady Ludford, provides the necessary clarity. I beg to move.
My Lords, as the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, has explained, Amendment 21 is complementary to Amendment 20 in that it seeks to persuade the Government to explain how they would use this power. In the absence of that, it is hard to justify it. The Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee has expressed great concern about this clause and the breadth of the discretion it would confer on Ministers to levy fees or charges. In this Bill, we are talking about people who, before Brexit, would have had free movement rights under EU law and would not have had to pay these kinds of charges. It is, therefore, beholden on the Government to provide some proper and explicit justification, as the committee suggested, for this inclusion and to explain how it would be used.
In preparing for this debate, I recalled that Section 9 of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018, which gives the power to implement the withdrawal agreement by regulations, expressly excludes the power to impose fees. I seem to remember—although sometimes the last few years are a bit of a blur—that we had quite a dust-up about that provision. Of course, if other amendments to limit the Clause 4 delegation of powers— specifically Amendment 11—were to pass, then Clause 4(5) would drop because Clause 4 powers would exclude fees in that case.
There is, obviously, a great deal of concern about this subject, because the current fees impose costs on people far in excess of reimbursement to the Treasury. In some cases, they force people to become outside any permission to remain because they cannot afford the fees for themselves and their families. When the Minister replied to questions at Second Reading, she said that my noble friend Lord Clement-Jones, “asked whether the visa costs would be brought in line with other countries. These immigration and citizenship fees are set at a level that helps provide the resources necessary to operate our border, immigration and citizenship system. In fairness to UK taxpayers, it is only right that those who directly benefit from our immigration system contribute to its funding.”
Of course, that is right if it means reimbursing the administrative costs that cause the fees, but anything much over that starts to get into the realm of making a profit. Some might see that as a good idea, but, of course, it is problematic when we are going to be—and this is the Government’s vision—competing internationally for skilled people. The British Heart Foundation makes the point that the up-front cost of obtaining a five-year UK global talent visa is £2,608, considerably more than 11 other leading scientific nations. The total average up-front cost for a tier 2 skilled worker visa, taking the cost for the researcher and employer together, is £8,419, 540% higher than the average cost in other leading scientific nations, which is £1,316. I confess that I have not made these calculations myself, but I have no reason to think that they are not accurate.
In the current context of families struggling for work and their incomes in the Covid-19 pandemic, this is even more of a problem. We would like to hear from the Minister the justification that the Delegated Powers Committee has suggested. If it really is only to have the power to reduce fees, that would perhaps be a reasonable point for the Government to make, but in the absence of that reassurance, it is concerning that the Government would have a free hand to raise fees which are already, by international comparisons, pretty high.
My Lords, I was pleased to attach my name to Amendment 20 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, which was also signed by the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy of Southwark. I also agree with virtually everything that the noble Baroness, Lady Ludford, has just said. Essentially, as it appears in the Bill, this looks like a power-grab by the Government in a situation that is already iniquitous and utterly unreasonable. The cost of that to the UK —the denial of the skills, knowledge and ability of people who might go somewhere else because our fees are just too high—was set out by the noble Baroness, Lady Ludford, very clearly. I somewhat disagreed with her, however, when she suggested that it might be reasonable for the Government to cover the actual real cost through fees, and I will particularly focus on children.
In December 2019, the High Court ruled that the Home Office had acted unlawfully in charging £1,012 for children to register their right to British citizenship. This was a judicial claim brought by the Project for the Registration of Children as British Citizens on behalf of two children known as O, age 3 and A, age 12. They were British but could not access their citizenship because they had been priced out. The court found that the Home Office had taken no account of the best interests of the children in setting the fee. It highlighted a mass of evidence showing that the fee prevented many children from registering for British citizenship, thus leaving them,
“alienated, excluded, second best, insecure and not fully assimilated into the culture and social fabric of the UK.”
We are already in an iniquitous situation. The Government have chosen to appeal that ruling, so it is still before the courts. However, we certainly do not want a situation where the Government are not subject to full parliamentary scrutiny. I hope that such scrutiny will be applied, otherwise an utterly unreasonable situation that is bound to affect many more people will become even worse.
My Lords, I apologise—I was waiting for someone to unmute me.
I wanted to speak in this short debate, and I shall not speak for very long, because I want the clarification that noble Lords have already asked for. Presumably, this applies just to the European Union, or EEA and Swiss citizens. I have just discovered that the withdrawal agreement says that no charges will be made. Is it likely that if other countries impose charges on us, we might do it reciprocally? That is all I want to ask, and I await the response with interest.
My Lords, some very compelling speeches have already been made. The noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, talked about a power grab: maybe it is just a cash grab. The Home Office seems to have managed to modify fees and charges in the past very successfully—subject, of course, to the outstanding appeal which she mentioned. Is it the case that the Home Office could not charge any fees at all to those who fall within the scope of the Bill without this power? In other words, is this limited to the ending of free movement, and the other EU-derived rights, and the position of Irish citizens?
As I recall, and I may be wrong, originally, a fee was proposed for applications to the EU settled status scheme. That was dropped. I thought that that was because of the outcry, but I wonder whether in fact the Home Office thought it might be challenged on the basis that a charge was ultra vires.
What is envisaged? Is it that these three groups of citizens will be in exactly the same position as non-EEA citizens as regards these charges? Yesterday’s events and the UK’s attitude to the Belfast agreement adds to my worry about how we will treat our friends from Ireland after the Bill comes into effect.
My limitation to a reduction in fees, in Amendment 21, is of course to probe the need for a power.
My Lords, we have a technical problem with emailing the Table. I propose that the Committee adjourns for 15 minutes, in the hope that we can sort out the problem. If it is necessary to adjourn again, we will do that. The Committee will resume just after 3.15 pm.
My Lords, the email problem has not been resolved entirely, but we do have a short- term solution. Members, whether in the Chamber or participating remotely, who wish to speak after the Minister on this amendment or indeed subsequent ones, can use the alternative email address, relating to the Grand Committee, that is in the guidance notes that govern today’s session. If they send their request to the Grand Committee email address, that will find its way to the Table here and they should be included in the requests to speak after the Minister. Let us hope that works. We were about to hear from the Minister, so I call the noble Baroness, Lady Williams of Trafford.
My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have spoken on these amendments. If the new email system does not work—although I am not presuming that it will not work— I am very happy, retrospectively, to write to noble Lords who were going to speak, did not manage to, and therefore did not have their supplementary questions or requests for clarification answered.
These amendments obviously concern the use of Clause 4 powers to make changes in relation to fees and charges. Regulations made under this power may modify legislation relating to the imposition of immigration fees and charges only where they relate to a person’s immigration status and where that is as a consequence of, or connected with, the provision in Part 1 of the Bill. That confirms the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee. It enables the application of fees and charges to EEA citizens, who are currently exempt from them by virtue of free movement law, such as the immigration skills charge paid by employers.
The effect of Amendments 20 and 21 would be to prevent the Government aligning the treatment of EEA citizens with non-EEA citizens from January of next year. It is not our intention to use the power to increase fees. Fee levels will continue to be subject to parliamentary scrutiny via the existing fees orders and regulations.
To briefly touch on the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Ludford, we do not make an overall profit on fees. While they may be different in different countries, they go towards the operation of the border.
It is the will of the British people that we bring free movement to an end. This means ending the bias in our immigration system that favours EEA citizens over the citizens of any other country, which is the primary purpose of this Bill. Limiting the Government’s ability to apply a skills charge to EEA citizens as they apply to non-EEA citizens will mean that certain elements of free movement will not have been fully repealed by this Bill and that EEA citizens will still have an advantage in our immigration system. This is not an outcome that the Government can accept. I hope that the noble Lord will withdraw the amendment.
My Lords, I am happy to withdraw my amendment. I am sure it has not escaped the Minister’s attention that there is some concern in the House about Clause 4, not only from the Delegated Powers Committee but from every speech we have heard so far, I think, apart from the Minister’s. It will carry on in further criticism that Members will have later. I am sure the Minister understands that and will take it back. I hope that there will be some progress when we get back to these issues contained in Clause 4 on Report. With that, I am happy to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 20 withdrawn.
Amendment 21 not moved.
We now come to the group beginning with Amendment 22. I remind noble Lords that anyone wishing to speak after the Minister should email the Grand Committee address on the guidance notes during the debate. Anyone wishing to press this or anything else in this group to a Division should make that clear in the debate.