With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 133, in clause 43, page 24, line 11, at end insert
‘provided the fee is not greater than the actual cost to the Home Office of dealing with application made’.
No. 134, in clause 43, page 24, line 13, at end insert
‘in particular when leave is granted for a shorter period than requested, provided that the period requested does not exceed the maximum permissible for such an application, the fee may be reduced’.
I was looking at the old list, which put the amendments under clause 44, and looking forward to hearing the general comment on that clause.
Clearly, that is correct. As soon as I heard the amendment being called, I saw the new list and it became clear that this is what we do. I have no problem with that.
There is a debate to be had about fees, but I am concerned, given people’s wish to make progress, about how far we can go into that without coming back at half-past 8 unnecessarily—or necessarily—for only a short time.
Therefore, I will launch straight into an explanation of amendment No. 132. It proposes to leave out subsection (2)(c), which states:
“the provision on request of advice in connection with immigration or nationality, or”.
Leaving that provision out would simply preserve the current situation, whereby the Home Office does not officially give advice to individuals and does not charge for that advice—the advice that it does not officially give. Its telephone inquiry bureau and public caller officers may give information about the rules and evidence required but we would all accept that it is wholly inappropriate for them to advise on whether to make an application. On that basis, if it is inappropriate for the Home Office to give advice as a party to an application or appeal, it must be wrong for it to charge for it.
There is no intention under this bit of the clause to charge individuals for any advice given in terms of their individual cases or mandatory requirements. We reserve the right in terms of representatives or agents, but not in relation to individuals.
There is a question to respond to, although I understand the point that the Minister is making: should the Government make a profit or a net return from those fees? As I understand it, when the Home Office first introduced charging for applications, the then Home Office Minister wrote on 23 September 2003 to the Immigration Law Practitioners Association. The letter said:
“The fees are set under Treasury rules to recover the full administrative cost entailed in considering applications and no more. This is calculated by taking the overall costs of processing applications divided by the number of decisions we expect to make.”
I shall be grateful if the Minister will confirm that there is nothing in the clause that changes that.
Let me do it now. There would need to be an express power in legislation in order to recover more than the full cost of the application. The important thrust of the hon. Gentleman’s comments is entirely right and there would need to be legislative change for that to be otherwise.
I am grateful to the Minister. We seem to be doing things in a relatively efficient way.
The reason why I am seeking to probe on amendment No. 134 is to ensure that people who are granted shorter periods of leave, and therefore need to apply for more frequent extensions, are not penalised in the sense that they have to pay disproportionately for that. The immigration rules, as the Minister will know, state the most common periods of leave for which people will be allowed to stay. For example, a student on a degree course should be given leave for the whole of the course, which is normally three years. A person with a work permit will normally be given five years. If students are given a one-year stay instead of three years, they could end up paying the fee three times over, which would not be the case otherwise.
Purely for completeness rather than to prolong the ping-pong, I must say that it costs the same amount to process a failed application form, an application form that in the end gets less than applied for, and one that gets the full amount applied for. If we are recovering full costs, the amendment makes no logical sense.
Given the answers that I have received, and on the understanding that nobody else wants to discuss this group, I think it is best to say that I will not put the amendment. I do not know whether I must formally seek leave to withdraw the amendment, because I could say that I am not putting it.
After my false start in our debate on clause 42, when I thought that
“may direct the manner in which a fee is to be paid” might have covered what I was going to say, I shall make only two quick points.
I understand that the fee for making any immigration application in person at the Home Office is currently about £500, and that applications by post are £335. I am sure that the Minister is familiar with the scale of the charges.
It is worth mentioning that the Legal Services Commission generally allows solicitors to charge for up to three hours’ work for preparing immigration applications and for advising those who are making them. The fee is £172.05 in London and £157.65 outside London. In most cases, checking the application documents after the application has been submitted is actually a lot less complicated than preparing them, and is done by someone who is less qualified than a solicitor, as I am sure the Minister will acknowledge.
The Minister should examine the scale of the charges and satisfy himself that he is happy with them, for the simple reason that there must be enormous economies of scale within the Home Office. Will he assure us that he will do so, and that he will see whether there is any possibility of ensuring that the charges are regularly monitored so that they remain affordable rather than exorbitant, which they currently seem to be?
Lastly, there was tremendous lobbying about waiving fees for people granted exceptional discretionary leave up to their 18th birthday. Fees were also waived for children in the care of local authorities and for spouses who have been victims of domestic violence—an issue in which I am particularly interested.
Have the Government considered making a similar provision for no charges to be levied in any other categories? I am thinking particularly of any application made by a child in his or her own right, of an application that is made under the Human Rights Act, the European convention on human rights or any other international convention, or any application made by a person who receives means-tested benefits.
I am conscious of the time, and I shall shorten my remarks. As the Minister might expect, I want to express alarm about the level of the fees, as the hon. Lady has just done. From April 2005, postal applications have cost £335. That is a huge amount, and the cost is significantly higher, as the hon. Lady said, than we envisaged it would be in 1999.
“reflect the cost of processing applications ... I do not yet know the number of categories of fee, or the exact fees, but our current estimate for applications for leave to remain and similar applications is £90.”
An increase to £335 suggests that the initial estimates were very wrong.
Finally, there is the question of racial discrimination and the impact on ethnic minorities. The fees fall heavily on people from ethnic minorities, particularly when they are as high as £500, as we have heard, for an application in person. Will the Minister reassure us on that matter, too?
First, may I say to the hon. Lady, “Nice try, but I am not about to negotiate exemptions and waivers across the Committee Floor?” I shall respond to her if she wants to pursue the matter in writing.
As far as the other matters are concerned, the fees, which I do not accept are exorbitant, reflect the cost of the process, as we have just discussed. The numbers of applications and everything else across the whole business have increased significantly since the early ’90s, and the fees merely reflect that.
Secondly, I urge the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon at the very least to read the Institute for Public Policy Research report, “Beyond Black and White: Mapping New Immigrant Communities”. The notion that the fees fall disproportionately on ethnic minorities is simply not borne out by the work of the immigration and nationality directorate across the piece. In the gentle south-east, the second and third largest communities of foreign-born people are French and South African. This is not simply a black and white issue. The hon. Gentleman would do well to remember that and not feed the poisonous idea that this issue is all about race. It is not; it is about migration and border controls in this country, and it goes well beyond race. I do not accept his last point at all.