Clause 34 - Appeals against refusal of entry clearance to visit the UK

Crime and Courts Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee at 3:30 pm on 5th February 2013.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Stella Creasy Stella Creasy Shadow Minister (Home Affairs) 3:30 pm, 5th February 2013

I beg to move amendment 83, in clause 34, page 33, line 42, at end insert—

‘(5A) After section 50(2)(c) (Procedure) of the 2006 Act insert—

(2A) In respect of any application or claim in connection with immigration (whether or not under the rules referred to in subsection (1) or any other enactment) the Secretary of State may make provision for the communication of an immigration officer with the applicant before a decision is taken in respect of that application or claim.

(2B) Provisions under (2A) may include communication with the individual so as to obtain additional information relevant to their application or claim.”.

(5B) Before the coming into force of this section, the Secretary of State must make provision for communication between an immigration officer and the applicant for the purposes of obtaining further necessary information not included in the original application, as provided for under sections 50(2A) and (2B) of the 2006 Act.’.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, as always, Mr Caton. We come to the part of the Bill that contains the Government’s proposed changes to immigration legislation and immigration officer powers. This amendment and clause 34 do not necessarily speak to the debates on what is right for this country on immigration, but how we manage it and the concerns that many of us have about the processes governing the immigration system. All Governments have struggled to get the issue right, but the debate before us is about process, rather than the policies behind who is entitled to come to the UK.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw) always says that there are a number of divisions within this House, first and foremost, on  political and ideological grounds, but also between those Members who have a large immigration case load and those who do not. I put myself in the former category. As MP for Walthamstow I have dealt with a huge number of constituents about a number of issues to do with the immigration service over the past two and a half to three years. Indeed, when the Minister was in his former role I had cause to write to him about a number of people. I will not comment on his response rate or its implications.

All of us have to deal with the complexities of our immigration system. Those Members who were listening attentively in previous sittings will have heard me talk about the Amosu family. One of the reasons I feel very passionately about that family is that I have had cause to deal with them on a number of occasions. The first was when I helped a member of their family who had been refused a visit visa to come to the UK to resolve the issues around his ability to enter the country. That gave me a tremendous amount of pride—although that is probably the wrong word—as an MP; just three weeks later, a member of the family, Ezekiel, was killed and by resolving the issue around the visit visa, I was able to enable Ezekiel to meet the young gentleman who was seeking that visa. That was of tremendous comfort to the family at the point when Ezekiel was cruelly taken from us in a gang-related incident.

The problems that Ezekiel’s family faced were not unique. Countless constituents have come to me who are bemused and bewildered by the immigration system, particularly the family visit visas. That is why many of us are deeply concerned by the Government’s proposals, and are questioning whether those proposals are the right way to resolve some of the challenges in the system. We all understand the issue around the visit visa system, and in particular that it is only for family visit visas that applicants have a full right of appeal. We are dealing with taxpayers in the UK who want to bring family members over to the UK, so it is right that we have a system that deals with their concerns. However, whether the visa is a family visit visa, a student visa or a work visa, everybody has to satisfy the same conditions. The issue is how those conditions are set up, in terms of whether people are genuinely seeking entry to the UK for the purpose for which the visa is being issued.

Damian Green indicated dissent.

Photo of Stella Creasy Stella Creasy Shadow Minister (Home Affairs)

The Minister is shaking his head, but that is the general principle; visas are issued for a certain purpose.

Photo of Damian Green Damian Green The Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice, The Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice

The hon. Lady has corrected herself. She initially said that everyone had to satisfy the same criteria. That is simply not true. The criteria for a visit visa and for a student visa are radically different.

Photo of Stella Creasy Stella Creasy Shadow Minister (Home Affairs)

The Minister is getting ahead of himself. My point is that there are a series of criteria that everybody has to satisfy for a visa, so it is worth looking at what those criteria are for a family visit visa. In particular, those criteria are that the applicants are genuinely seeking entry to the UK as a visitor; that they do not intend to remain for more than six months; that they intend to leave at the end; and that they have sufficient arrangements for their maintenance and accommodation without needing access to public funds.  The issue then is how those criteria are managed and applied by entry visa officers. We know that there are great concerns among certain communities in the UK about how the process is managed, because of the variation in the way in which those criteria are applied. For that reason, the Government have proposed to delete the ability to appeal a decision that has been refused and propose instead simply to encourage people to make repeat applications.

On Second Reading, the Minister said:

“People who are refused visit visas may reapply as many times as they like, and may provide further information in support of their applications…. Removing the full right of appeal from family visitors will save £107 million over the 10 years following enactment.”—[Official Report, 14 January 2013; Vol. 556, c. 706.]

There was also an implication that, because the fee for an appeal is £80 but the fee for an application is slightly cheaper, such a scenario would be better for everyone. That simple reasoning belies the problems that people are facing and the challenges that we have to address within our immigration system. I remind the Minister that when the right of appeal was first introduced, in the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999, Members on both sides of the House supported it. The Opposition’s grave concern is that removing the right of appeal could disproportionately affect a number of communities within the UK because of the way the visit visa system is managed across the world. We already know that 38% of appeals are determined as successful; that is a huge amount and suggests that the way in which decisions are being made is not appropriate.

Indeed, widespread evidence of bad decision making within the UK Border Agency has been identified by the chief inspector of the UKBA. Taking the entry clearance decisions that are not currently subject to a full right of appeal—the situation that the Minister wants for all family visit visas—in 33% of the 1,500 cases that the inspector looked at, it was clear that the entry clearance officer had not properly considered the evidence around the criteria that have to be implemented. This is not simply an issue about non-family visit visas; in a sample reviewed by the chief inspector, one in three family visas were also found not to have been determined appropriately.

New evidence was the only thing that was considered in 63% of the allowed appeals. The Minister will argue that it is for people making the application to provide the information at the first point of application. One of the concerns that we all have is that the process itself is not clear about what information is required. Many of our constituents who come to us about these issues do not understand what is missing because the refusal letters suggest that they should be providing information that they were not told that they needed to provide in the first place.

Crucially, removing the right of appeal would deny those people the right to challenge the consequences of a refusal of their application. The fact that so many applications, when appealed, are successful on second reading shows that there is a need to look again at these problems. First and foremost, people are not told what information to submit to make an application. It is rare, in my experience, with constituents and their relatives abroad, for people not to try to produce the evidence and to get it right first time. Often, they are people trying to bring relatives over for family occasions. I have spoken to many people whose family weddings and  funerals have been ruined because they were not able to bring important family members over for that period of time. They are not people applying on a whim. They are desperate to get it right so they can bring somebody with them. Time and again, the people who come to my office have submitted evidence that has either been overlooked by entry clearance officers, or has been lost. In most circumstances, even if they applied for a right of appeal, it is too late to meet the deadlines for family events, so those special occasions are ruined by process problems.

It is not just about not being told what to submit. There is widespread evidence that management of cases and the way in which they are managed in different areas are haphazard. In 2011, the inspector’s report found that of the cases handled by the visa section in New York, only 19% failed one or more of the decision making quality indicators. In contrast, the figure for Africa was 37%, and 50% for the region covering the Gulf, Iran and Pakistan. Those are the also the posts with the poorest records of document retention.

In 2010, John Vine discovered that the managers of entry clearance officers were dismissive of decisions made by immigration officers. They are therefore not learning from the problems that people experience with the system. More importantly, he found that of the cases that went to Abu Dhabi, where many of the decisions about Pakistani cases are determined, people from the Gulf received better treatment from the immigration system than people from Pakistan. It took John Vine’s intervention to highlight that this is not an appropriate way for a system to be managed, and that things need to be changed.

Given disproportionate evidence about where appeals come from, and where problems might lie in the way in which entry clearance officers are operating the system, it is clear that some communities in the UK will be hit much harder by the decision to remove the right of appeal than others. We know that Pakistan, India, Nigeria, Bangladesh and Iran are the five nationalities with the highest volume of refused family visitors in 2010. Indeed, 48% of applications from Pakistan are refused. Yet when we look at the appeal rate and see the challenges that come forward, a question is raised about how these applications are dealt with.

The independent inspector systematically identified errors in the way in which processes are dealt with. The standards of evidence are not being met and there are inconsistent approaches to how applications are dealt with. It is also clear that the internal review process that the Minister might seek to bring in would not address those problems. When the independent inspector looked at the way in which cases were reviewed, he found that in 30% of cases the entry clearance manager failed to pick up on poor decision making by the entry clearance officer.

The amendment is designed to try to deal with some of the problems in the process. We all understand the need to make the process right, above all for family members in the UK trying to bring somebody here, and to make sure that we have efficiency within the systems that we operate. We all understand the difficulties of trying to get a standardised service across the world for dealing with entry clearance officers. We must understand that the problems come from within the system itself, rather than from the applicants. We must look at the  system itself and ask what we can do to improve it. The amendment does exactly that. It learns from something the hon. Member for Cambridge said. I am not often one to quote Members of one half of the coalition, but I thought he had it right when he said,

“It seems that there are two possible solutions: the first is to have better decision making by UK Border Agency, and the second—the option the Government have chosen to adopt—is simply to stop appeals happening. We need the Border Agency to be much clearer about the information it requests and give people the opportunity to provide extra information that was not initially required. That could solve the problem in a far simpler and less draconian way.”—[Official Report, 14 January 2013; Vol. 556, c. 697.]

Often, if someone brings me, as a local MP, a letter of refusal, I will go through with them what information they have provided and try to explain to them what information is being sought by the entry clearance officer. It is often a simple question. Members of my local community want to go to immigration appeals because they have more confidence in immigration judges to be fair in scrutinising information that they provide, and also because that ensures that they have the opportunity to put the information forward and that therefore they are not potentially hampered by having had an application refused. It is worth noting that if someone’s application is refused, that could affect their ability to apply again for up to 10 years, especially if they are accused of producing false documents. I have brought a sample of some of my case work involving precisely those scenarios.

Allowing entry clearance officers to go back to people to ask questions about the information that has been submitted and to seek clarification would be a simple and cost-effective way to address the problems in the system—telling people that there is an opportunity to put their case forward and to clarify the information that the entry clearance officer is asking for, which is the additional evidence that should have been submitted first time because they have been asked to provide it, rather than wait for an appeal or a refusal letter telling them that they had not submitted something that they never knew they had to submit.

That is why experts who deal with the immigration system on a daily basis call for revisions to the system rather than the removal of the right of appeal. The immigration law practitioners association contends that there are often valid reasons why applicants submit additional evidence on appeal: they were told that they needed to bring information that they were not told about in the first stage of the process, or that the visa officer’s reasons for refusal became apparent only on appeal.

That is why, in November 2012, the Joint Committee on Human Rights called on the Government to provide Parliament with evidence of the proportion of appeals that succeed as a result of new evidence, where the applicant should have provided the information at the initial application, rather than evidence that was required due to UKBA error. We have not seen that information as yet.

The Minister has not provided clarity on why he believes the onus to get the system right should be on our constituents’ families, rather than on the ability of  entry clearance officers to be consistent with the applications. We know that there are consequences for a person who then applies for a new visa; the fact that their first visa application had been refused will be taken into account, without an opportunity to explain why that application was refused. Taking away the applicants’ right of appeal could have huge consequences for people who seek to bring their family members here—quite reasonably and fairly. They come not to stay, but to take part in family events and see family members. They want to be able to enjoy visiting Britain, be part of our tourism industry, and go home. There are huge consequences, just as with Ezekiel’s family, as they would not have been able to put Ezekiel and Xavier together so that they could have a short time to know each other. There are consequences to reducing the ability of people to come here and visit their families, which is what the amendment tries to prevent.

Photo of Charlie Elphicke Charlie Elphicke Conservative, Dover 3:45 pm, 5th February 2013

Does the hon. Lady think that there is no abuse at all and that there are no issues with overstaying?

Photo of Stella Creasy Stella Creasy Shadow Minister (Home Affairs)

That is not the case I am making. The point I am making is that having a system where 38% of rejections are overturned on appeal tells us that there is something about the way in which the system makes decisions. The independent inspector has identified a number of problems about the way in which decisions are made.

If the hon. Gentleman had to deal on a daily basis with the refusal letters and with the bewildering situation that many of our constituents find themselves in, trying to help family members come to the UK to visit, he would understand the concern that all of us have. If we take away the right of appeal, taking away someone’s ability to clarify the information that is sought, and simply say to them, “Apply again,” when that new application will say that their first application had been refused, with the suggestion that they might have provided misleading documents, it could have huge consequences for the justice in our system as well as for the family members in the UK.

Photo of Charlie Elphicke Charlie Elphicke Conservative, Dover

I appreciate the hon. Lady’s understandable concern. It is good to meet people and talk. Nevertheless, there is an issue with overstaying. Does she take that seriously? What would she do about it?

Photo of Stella Creasy Stella Creasy Shadow Minister (Home Affairs)

We will come on to the powers of immigration officers. The clause will do nothing about overstaying. It is about the process of people applying for visas in the first place and how we get that right. The hon. Gentleman has an understandable concern about overstayers, but that is not what the amendment is trying to get right. The amendment is trying to get right the process through which people come to the UK.

If the hon. Gentleman reads the kind of requests that entry clearance officers are making for information, which frankly should have been clearer at the start of the process, he will understand the concerns that all of us have. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would not want somebody who is trying to come to the UK to visit family members—this is not about working or studying—being repeatedly refused the opportunity without being able to understand why. People find that making one  application after another influences their ability to get a visa, and they get stuck not being able to see family members as a result. None of that is to do overstayers; that is a separate issue about how our immigration service works when people are in the UK. Were the right of appeal to be retained, there is no evidence to suggest that that would somehow increase the number of overstayers, unless the hon. Gentleman has information otherwise. It is simply a non sequitur in the debate.

What does the Minister have to say in response to our amendment? I hope that he recognises that we are genuinely trying to understand where is the best place within the process of family visit visas to get things right in the first place. I hope he will acknowledge that such visas are not always dealt with correctly in the first place, which could have severe consequences, particularly for those communities applying in areas where there is widespread evidence that the independent inspector has identified poor-quality decision making.

If the Minister does not believe that giving entry clearance officers the ability to talk to applicants before they make their decision is the appropriate way to deal with these system challenges, will he set out where else he believes that that opportunity for challenge and redress can be introduced in a simple and cost-effective manner? He must accept that removing the right of appeal actually closes down the opportunity for clarification within the system and could lead to further process problems and further cost to the public purse in the long run.

Photo of Damian Green Damian Green The Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice, The Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice

I will address all the questions that the hon. Lady asked and, indeed, the amendment. To help her and the Committee, I stress that the Government of course understand that family visit visas can help to maintain family links, which is why this country granted some 370,000 in 2011. However, the full appeal right for those refused such a visa is anomalous. It is the only form of visit visa that attracts such a right of appeal. Moreover, the appeal right is not of great benefit when people are seeking to come to the UK for a specific family event—a point that is often made in debates on the issue. At present, the appeal process can take up to eight months to be concluded, by which time the event is more than likely to have passed. In contrast, the UK Border Agency will normally make a decision on a fresh application within 15 days, which is a much more practical choice for those who feel that they deserve a visit visa after an initial refusal. Every refusal is accompanied by a detailed letter setting out the reasons for the refusal, which can be addressed in a reapplication. My hon. Friend the Member for Dover made the point that we cannot assume that all applications are genuine, because experience tells us that they are not. As long as no deception was involved, however, each subsequent application is treated entirely on its own merits.

Photo of Valerie Vaz Valerie Vaz Labour, Walsall South

Could the Minister give us figures for the cases that are, as he says, the result of deception?

Photo of Damian Green Damian Green The Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice, The Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice

I shall give lots of figures in a minute in response to the questions of the hon. Member for Walthamstow.

For the taxpayer, removing the full right of appeal will result in savings of £107 million over the 10 years after enactment. It will free up resource in the UK  Border Agency and Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service, allowing greater priority to be given to cases that have far-reaching impacts for the individuals involved and society, such as asylum claims or the deportation of foreign criminals.

The hon. Member for Walthamstow argued that the appeal right should be retained, because decision making by entry clearance officers is poor. Of course, the UK Border Agency does not get it right every single time, but it is important not to exaggerate deficiencies in the quality of decision making. We need to be careful not to draw the wrong conclusions from the statistics for successful appeals. Our analysis suggests that the vast majority—around two thirds—of family visit visa appeals allowed were on the basis of new evidence submitted after the original application was made. In many instances, the tribunal was quite simply making a different decision based on different information.

The hon. Lady asked about appeal rates. In 2011-12, the UK Border Agency won 44% of appeals and 32% were allowed, which was an improvement on previous years. Analysis of a sample done in April 2011 showed that new evidence produced at appeal was the only reason for the tribunal’s decision in 63% of those cases. In only 8% was new evidence not at least a factor in the allowed appeal.

Photo of Stella Creasy Stella Creasy Shadow Minister (Home Affairs)

We all accept that new information is being produced at appeal. As the Joint Committee asked the Minister to break down the information, it would be helpful to understand what was new information asked for at the initial application, as opposed to what was new information required due to UKBA error. Clarity is needed about what people could reasonably have been expected to provide at an application process, and what they were not told they needed to provide.

Photo of Damian Green Damian Green The Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice, The Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice

The information that they need to provide does not change at every stage. The hon. Lady made the point that entry clearance officers should specify what documents are required. The immigration rules for family visit applications do not specify documents that applicants must submit to support their applications. The rules instead lay out a set of requirements that applicants must meet. There are a number of different types of documentation that an applicant could use to demonstrate that they have met the immigration rules and the credibility of their application, depending on the context in which they are applying and their individual circumstances. Always insisting on a specified set of documents could place an unreasonable or disproportionate obligation on some applicants, given the diverse range of situations it would need to cover.

The hon. Lady asked a number of other questions. In particular, she made the point, which I partly accept, that clearly the decision-making process is not perfect. Indeed, she quoted various reports of the chief inspector, some of them, to be fair, going back to 2010, since when there have been significant improvements, although there is always more to be done. The UKBA is publishing supporting documents guidance specifically for family visitors. It provides extensive guidance on the type of documents that customers should consider submitting and is regularly updated.

Photo of Stella Creasy Stella Creasy Shadow Minister (Home Affairs)

I want to quote to the Minister from a piece of casework I received. It is a letter of refusal for entry clearance in which the entry clearance officer says that

“it is unclear whether the notary is attesting that the contents of the documents are as reflected in government records or whether the translation is true and accurate.”

Does the Minister agree that had the person applying for the visa been offered the opportunity to clarify what document they were providing at the time of application, it would have saved everybody a great deal of expense in terms of scrutinising the application? Asking for clarification, as part of the refusal, of what the document presented is or the translation is, is rather too late in the process.

Photo of Damian Green Damian Green The Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice, The Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice

If the applicant failed to meet the requirements, as presumably they had in that case, it is perfectly reasonable for the entry clearance officer to refuse.

Photo of Stella Creasy Stella Creasy Shadow Minister (Home Affairs)

The letter is from an entry clearance officer who does not understand the information presented. I am asking whether the Minister thinks it would be fair and proper for the entry clearance officer to be able to contact the applicant and ask about the document in front of them before refusing.

Photo of Damian Green Damian Green The Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice, The Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice

It is obviously quite difficult to comment on an individual case. I have not even seen the documentation, let alone the exchange of correspondence. Entry clearance officers are experienced and see many documents from a particular country. I can tell the hon. Lady from my own experience as Minister for Immigration that the variety in quality of documents from different parts of the world is quite startling. Entry clearance officers develop an eye for documents about which they are reasonably suspicious, in particular documents they have never seen before. Understandably that might well excite them to activity.

The UKBA is constantly trying to improve the service it provides. It now translates visitor visa guidance into six languages: Arabic, Chinese, Hindi, Russian, Thai and Turkish. If the application is refused, the refusal notice contains full and clear reasons for the decision. There are more changes to come to the family visit application form, setting out even more clearly information needed from customers and to help visa officers. Improvements to the online visa application process are being developed that will enhance the customer journey and provide for additional translated guidance to assist applicants through the application process. Those improvements will be implemented in May.

On top of that, the UKBA holds regular workshops for entry clearance officers on decision quality and has increased the number of interviews of both sponsors and applicants as part of the assessment process. The agency is currently assessing how and where it can extend that programme. Recent reports by the chief inspector, John Vine, have commented on the improvement.

The hon. Member for Walthamstow specifically mentioned problems in the past in Abu Dhabi. The Abu Dhabi visa section has also piloted a new approach to  refusal decisions since November 2011, precisely to meet the complaints rightly raised by the chief inspector. The aim is to improve further both the quality of decision notices and the consideration of available evidence.

I am absolutely not denying that there have been problems, but the UKBA is making strenuous efforts to address the practical problems and within that system, the anomalous right of full appeal stands out as an expensive and unnecessary difficulty. If applicants have additional information, they can always reapply. The appeals system should not be used as a second application. It is more time consuming and can be expensive.

The effect of the amendment would be to introduce an additional stage in the process of considering an application for a family visit visa. It would require that the decision on an application is delayed while the immigration officer contacts the applicant to seek any necessary further information. I am not persuaded by the case for the amendment. It is simply not needed. Immigration officers, including entry clearance officers, already have the power to contact an applicant at any point in the application process, including if there is specific information absent from an application. However, while the power is already available to entry clearance officers, and is exercised in appropriate cases, it is important to bear in mind that family visit visa decisions are made on the balance of probabilities, and the onus is on applicants to satisfy the visa officer that they meet the requirements of the relevant immigration rules. It is applicants’ responsibility to prepare their application properly and to submit whatever evidence they think is necessary to satisfy the visa officer that they meet the rules.

The UK Border Agency publishes supporting documents guidance specifically for family visitors to help them. The vast majority of applicants are able to understand the application process and the requirements for evidence. I can only pray the facts in support. In 2011, of the 452,200 applications received for a family visit visa, 79% were issued at the initial decision-making stage, so four in five visa applications go straight through the system with a yes. There is no sense in which the system unduly seeks to stop people who have a perfect right to be here from making a visit to this country.

If the amendment was made, it would effectively impose a requirement on entry clearance officers to make inquiries of all applicants who do not provide sufficient information with their application. I am not persuaded that such a general requirement, which would clearly have significant resource implications, can be justified. It would also mean that the current fast service that the overwhelming majority of applicants receive would be degraded. Having regard to the guidance provided by UKBA and the fact that the vast majority of applicants are successful, it is disproportionate to impose that additional burden on entry clearance officers.

Photo of Stella Creasy Stella Creasy Shadow Minister (Home Affairs) 4:00 pm, 5th February 2013

The Minister talks about the numbers of people who are successful. If we look at the full figures, there were 444,373 applications, of which 85,151 were refused; 44,809 appeals were then made and 16,783 were allowed. In terms of percentages, almost one in five applications refused are discovered on appeal to have been refused wrongly. The Minister will accept that is quite a substantial problem with the process. Those are the figures for 2011. While we all appreciate  that investment is going into trying to iron out some of the entry clearance issues at different geographical locations, there is obviously still some way to go. Removing the right of appeal will not deal with any of the issues about the application process; it will simply make the frustrations worse for the almost 20% of people who should have had their application approved in the first place.

Photo of Damian Green Damian Green The Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice, The Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice

First, I am not sure that 20% is an appallingly high figure. It seems to me that there are often genuine differences of opinion, and that is why legal systems have appeal processes. I can only repeat the point that reapplying is much quicker than going through the appeal process; in particular, if somebody is coming for a specific event, that is a quicker way of ensuring that they can get to the relevant family event than going through what is a lengthy, and therefore expensive, appeals process.

Photo of Stella Creasy Stella Creasy Shadow Minister (Home Affairs)

I want to press the Minister on this because there are a number of people whose applications are refused on general grounds, so it is difficult for them to understand what they got wrong in their first application. It is often only when they get to appeal that they have the opportunity to discuss what the entry clearance officer was looking for and their concerns become apparent. That is particularly an issue when people are accused of providing false documents or documents that cannot be substantiated. Those are serious allegations and they can influence people’s ability to get a visa in the future. What can the Minister say to all the people who are refused on general grounds for refusal about how they can move forward under this system?

Photo of Damian Green Damian Green The Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice, The Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice

I am not entirely clear what the hon. Lady means by general grounds for refusal. As she says, the refusal letter will say why somebody has been refused and they can therefore address that in a fresh application. Clearly everyone wants a fast and efficient service for all applicants; the UKBA will need to continue, and will continue, to work to improve decision quality, but the responsibility for making an application that meets the requirements of the immigration laws must ultimately rest with the applicant. In light of those points, I hope that the hon. Lady will agree to withdraw her amendments.

Photo of Stella Creasy Stella Creasy Shadow Minister (Home Affairs)

It is difficult to listen to the Minister’s argument because we all want the system to work fairly, quickly and appropriately for people and there is a different debate to be had about the appropriate level of immigration and the appropriate system for managing people who want to come to the UK. This is fundamentally about the process that we use to deal with immigration applications and the real and widespread concerns that people have about the process, as the Minister admitted.

We all recognise that work is being done to try to improve the way we deal with immigration applications across the world; indeed, one of the problems is that we have to deal with the variations in different regions. But for the Minister simply to say that it has all been put online or to say that it is all about the way the applicant applies makes me wish that he had the level of immigration casework that I deal with. I see some people whose application I do not think is appropriate, but I also see an awful lot of people who are desperate to understand what they have to get right and desperately fearful  about the decisions being made. I do not think that he understands the disquiet among a number of communities about the proposal. Why was it that in 1999 there was uniform support across the House?

Photo of Damian Green Damian Green The Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice, The Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice

The hon. Lady has provoked me. One could almost date 1999 as the point when the immigration system in this country started to go completely out of control, and produced many of the problems that some of us have been grappling with for the past few years. I would not pray in aid 1999 as a golden era for immigration control in this country.

Photo of Stella Creasy Stella Creasy Shadow Minister (Home Affairs)

The Minister misses the point that I am making. At the time, people across the House recognised the challenges of family visit visas. It is interesting to hear him criticising his former colleagues, many of whom are still in the House. It would be interesting to see how they view his proposals, having voted for them to begin with.

Photo of Stella Creasy Stella Creasy Shadow Minister (Home Affairs)

It is interesting that the Minister now thinks that he was wrong. I encourage him to stick with his original concern: to make sure that there is a fair and appropriate process in which people have an opportunity to challenge decisions that might have long-lasting consequences for them and their family. That is what he is denying thousands of people by taking away their right of appeal.

The Minister has not satisfactorily answered the question about what will happen to people whose card will be marked by having had their visa application refused without the opportunity to query the decision and to challenge how an entry clearance officer has interpreted information. He has not said anything that will offer comfort to people who will be stuck, wondering how on earth they can move forward. I regularly see people who have been offered visas before but then find themselves having to appeal because next time around a different entry clearance officer makes a different decision. There is nothing in the process that denudes the right and responsibility of the applicant to get the application right. From the information we all have, we know there are still challenges on the way decisions are being made. The amendment is a simple way of putting that right and reducing the cost to the public purse.

If the Minister had confidence in the investments and in the changes he is making within the immigration system, he would not remove the right of appeal because he would expect more correct decisions to be made the first time around. He seems to be giving up on the idea that it can be dealt with, and instead to be saying, “People will just need to keep applying.” That is a bit like the old contention that people should just keep applying for their driving test; if they applied at the right time of the month they might get through and at other times of the month they would not. That is hugely unfair.

Photo of Shailesh Vara Shailesh Vara Conservative, North West Cambridgeshire

The hon. Lady says that the amendment will reduce the cost, but what she proposes will increase the cost to the state. It is a resources issue as well, so I cannot see how  an immigration officer having to go back to someone to seek further information—as she has just said—would reduce the cost.

Photo of Stella Creasy Stella Creasy Shadow Minister (Home Affairs)

The hon. Gentleman’s suggestion is interesting, because the Minister said that could already happen, in theory. It is not clear to me, therefore, where the Government stand.

Photo of Shailesh Vara Shailesh Vara Conservative, North West Cambridgeshire

If the hon. Lady checks Hansard tomorrow she will find that the Minister actually said that there is a huge resources issue.

Photo of Stella Creasy Stella Creasy Shadow Minister (Home Affairs)

But the Minister also clearly said that entry clearance officers could contact applicants if they wanted to. The amendment simply seeks to ensure that that is part of the process. [ Interruption. ] The Whip seems not to want the Minister to be held to account for his words.

Photo of Shailesh Vara Shailesh Vara Conservative, North West Cambridgeshire

My right hon. Friend said that they can and do contact people as and when they feel it necessary.

Photo of Stella Creasy Stella Creasy Shadow Minister (Home Affairs)

I am now completely perplexed as to what the hon. Gentleman is trying to argue. Is he suggesting that it is a good idea for entry clearance officers to be in contact with applicants? If he is, I hope that he supports the amendment, which tries to bring that element of challenge and clarification into the process earlier on, rather than seeking to get to the point at which a refusal letter has to be issued.

Photo of Shailesh Vara Shailesh Vara Conservative, North West Cambridgeshire

This is my last intervention. We are saying that the system at the moment is satisfactory. Immigration officers have the right to contact, and they do so as and when necessary. The hon. Lady is trying to introduce something that is already happening and for which there is a process.

Photo of Stella Creasy Stella Creasy Shadow Minister (Home Affairs)

I am interested that the hon. Gentleman seems to think that the situation is satisfactory, because the independent inspectors do not. Forgive me, but I will be guided by them as well as by my own experience of the problems that people face in the system. There is absolutely the confusion that the hon. Gentleman talks about, about whether entry clearance officers will or will not contact people. In the example I gave from my own casework, had the entry clearance officer been able to use a power to go to the person and ask, “What is this document?” we might have saved them money because they would not have had to deal with repeat claims and would have avoided the costs of a refusal notice and an appeal.

The amendment simply tries to work out the best place to improve the system, because ultimately our constituents want a fair and just system that they can understand. The Minister has not fully responded to the queries that many of us have about the system and our concerns about the implications of removing the right to appeal. I am not satisfied with the answer, and we will test the Committee’s opinion by not withdrawing the amendment.

Photo of Valerie Vaz Valerie Vaz Labour, Walsall South

May I ask the Minister to clarify a number of things? Usually when we talk about immigration there seems to be a debate about whether things are fraudulent or we talk about overstayers. That is not the case with some of the people who come here to visit. They come to see their families, for weddings and funerals. It is interesting that people from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills or any other Department can go off to India on high trade missions, wanting to see their former colonies, but they will not allow family members of people from the former colonies to come here. They consider them overstayers, or to be doing so fraudulently.

The Minister mentioned that he had figures for the number of fraudulent cases, so please will he provide them? Will he also say whether he has assessed the impact of no right of appeal on Members of Parliament who contact the Minister for Immigration about cases? I wrote to the right hon. Gentleman, in his previous guise as Minister for Immigration, about some cases, but I did not get much satisfaction; he said he could not consider many of them. Sometimes the people involved were told to appeal, even though it was way after the weddings and funerals. That seems slightly odd, but it goes to the heart of what this country is about, which is the rule of law. The right of appeal is the basis of a civilised society, as the Prime Minister himself has said. Will the Minister respond, and say how much it will cost in terms of Ministers’ time when they have to reply to all the MPs who write to them because there is no appeal process?

Photo of Damian Green Damian Green The Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice, The Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice 4:15 pm, 5th February 2013

The hon. Lady wildly overstates her case. Her remarks about colonialism were bizarre, not least in the context of her comment that we do not want those people to come back here. I have just said that 80% of family visit visas from all round the world are granted straight away, so the suggestion that there is any resistance to people coming to this country on such visas is factually wrong.

The hon. Lady’s second point was about the rule of law being the basis for a civilised society. I completely agree, but laws are changed all the time and that is what we are doing here today. As her hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow pointed out, this is a change to a law introduced in 1999. We are talking about not Magna Carta, but an anomalous right of appeal introduced mistakenly and supported by hon. Members, including Conservatives, who were in the House at the time. We should learn from our mistakes. It was not sensible to have that outright right of appeal for family visit visas alone, and we are seeking to change that anomaly.

On abuse, 22,000 asylum applications were straightforwardly refused in 2009. Some 20,000 were refused in 2010 and 15,600 in 2011, of which 3% were matched to family visit visas issued on appeal. That is the bit of the iceberg that can be measured. Those appeals were from people who came here on a family visit visa and applied for asylum, which is a pretty clear indication that the original application for the family visit visa was not genuine. It is difficult to disaggregate the figure, and that is the best indicator that we have.

I repeat the overall point that of course we need to improve the family visit visa system. It allows the vast  majority of people in quickly, smoothly and sensibly, as it should, but there is abuse of the system and it is clearly sensible to try to weed out that abuse. The right of appeal stands out as an anomaly in the wider immigration system, and is not cost-effective or time-effective in allowing redress against bad decisions.

Question put, That the amendment be made.

The Committee divided: Ayes 7, Noes 9.

Division number 6 Decision Time — Clause 34 - Appeals against refusal of entry clearance to visit the UK

Aye: 7 MPs

No: 9 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Nos: A-Z by last name

Question accordingly negatived.

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Stella Creasy Stella Creasy Shadow Minister (Home Affairs)

The Opposition have tried to propose sensible reforms to the immigration system to address people’s concerns, but the Government have rejected those suggestions out of hand.

The Minister makes a very poor case for removing the right of appeal. If it had not been a factor in the functioning of the immigration system, it would not have been so successful over the past 14 years. The Minister suggested that he got it wrong when he voted for the right of appeal the first time round, but the fact that nearly 40% of cases are upheld on appeal demonstrates that there is a problem in the system, which suggests that his original opinion on the importance of a just and fair immigration system was correct and that his Damascene conversion took him in the wrong direction.

The Minister seems to think that there is no role for judges in the process, and he is content to allow entry clearance officers and internal reviews to be both judge and jury of a system that is patently not working to the standards that we would want if our own family members were involved. His comments about the tip of the iceberg leave a bitter taste in the mouth of those of us who deal daily with families affected by the system. I hope that he will reflect on the impression his comments give about his true feelings towards people who bring their family members into the country.

Committee members who have high immigration case loads have a completely selfish vested interest in the matter, because we know that if the clause becomes law, we will be deluged with people asking for help and we will have to approach Ministers to try to find out the information that people require.

The clause is unfair and a false economy, and the Opposition will not support it. We think that wherever people have come from, if they have settled in the UK and they want to bring family over, there should be a fair and just process to enable them to do so. They must  have full confidence that the process is fair and just, because they are taxpayers too, after all. The clause will simply remove their right of appeal, and it is not fair or right.

Photo of Damian Green Damian Green The Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice, The Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice

I disagree with all that. The hon. Lady’s contention that the immigration system has been successful since 1999 is extraordinary.

I understand the distinction that she makes, and it is correct. Regardless of the absolute numbers, however, since the change was made the tribunal system has been clogged up, vast amounts of taxpayers’ money has been spent and individuals’ angst has been increased, so I do not believe that the system has been successful at all.

I have said this several times, but I will say it again: our proposals are better for the families involved. The hon. Lady seems to be saying that only by preserving this expensive, sclerotic system can we help families who are bringing visitors over from abroad. She is absolutely dead wrong. I am concerned to ensure that people can bring family visitors to the country under a system that is efficient, fair and quick, and our proposals will help to achieve that. Those of us who have been dealing with immigration casework for a long time will know that the idea that, somehow, post-1999 things got better and less onerous because there was a full right of appeal is the opposite of the truth.

Photo of Stella Creasy Stella Creasy Shadow Minister (Home Affairs)

I take issue with the Minister, because the Opposition believe that making better decisions the first time round would save expense and distress to all concerned. We contend that the fact that so many appeals are successful speaks to the systematic problems in our immigration system, and that removing the right of appeal would not remove that fundamental, systematic problem, which the Minister must address.

Photo of Damian Green Damian Green The Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice, The Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice

Absolutely. I inherited systemic problems in the immigration system, and the UKBA has been working extremely hard to address precisely those problems. If the hon. Lady reads through John Vine’s reports over the past few years, she will see that he has identified some serious problems and that when he has gone back to re-inspect—as he does, quite correctly—the UKBA has very often addressed the problems that he pointed out. Therefore, and most importantly, the relatives of those tax-paying British citizens whom she and I both care about are getting a better service than they used to. Less divides us than she might think.

Photo of Stella Creasy Stella Creasy Shadow Minister (Home Affairs)

I certainly agree that what we all want is a system that works fairly. I have read John Vine’s reports in detail, and I recognise that some progress has been made, but the critical issue is that only some progress has been made and it is too variable across the world. Does the Minister not accept that it might be better, if he genuinely believes that we are going to get to a point where the visa applications and decisions made every single time are first class, to wait until the inspector says so rather than removing the right of appeal now?

Photo of Damian Green Damian Green The Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice, The Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice

Waiting for 100% perfection in the provision of any public service before seeking to improve it in a small way would be a recipe for permanent inaction.

Photo of Steve McCabe Steve McCabe Labour, Birmingham, Selly Oak

Aiming for 100% is perhaps asking too much, but I am sure that, like me, the Minister has been to visit entry clearance officers in various countries and heard the criticisms of what is wrong with the system in the area where they work. Why does he not give us some comfort today by telling us what he is doing to put that right? At the moment, he is taking away the one mechanism that allows us to identify what is going wrong and gives people a chance of putting it right. Why does he not go back to what he has learned and fix that first? That is what my hon. Friend is asking for.

Photo of Damian Green Damian Green The Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice, The Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice

I will not weary the Committee again, but I went through quite a long list of improvements that have been made specifically to address this issue over the course of the past two years, including much greater availability of translation services and of the capacity to read the guidance for the applications in different languages around the world, better training of entry clearance officers and responses to John Vine’s report.

Improvements are happening all the time. There will be another tranche of improvements in May 2013. The hon. Gentleman is right in his underlying thought, and it is exactly what needs to be done. What is not necessary is the preservation of the current system. I remind Opposition Members of the Labour party’s 1997 manifesto, which included a pledge to reinstate

“a streamlined system of appeals for visitors denied a visa.”

An appeal process that takes eight months to come to a decision, as opposed to 15 days to consider a fresh application, is absolutely not a streamlined system. The UKBA system is getting more efficient. The appeal system to which the Opposition seem bizarrely wedded is a recipe for delay, confusion and disappointment for all our constituents. That is why I commend the clause to the Committee.

Question put, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

The Committee divided: Ayes 10, Noes 7.

Division number 7 Decision Time — Clause 34 - Appeals against refusal of entry clearance to visit the UK

Aye: 10 MPs

No: 7 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Nos: A-Z by last name

Question accordingly agreed to.