No fees for applications under appendix EU to the Immigration Rules

Immigration and Social Security Co-ordination (EU Withdrawal) Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 3:30 pm on 5th March 2019.

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“(1) No fees shall be chargeable for any EEA or Swiss national making an application for leave to remain (whether for settled status or pre-settled status) under appendix EU to the Immigration Rules.

(2) No fee shall be chargeable for any EEA or Swiss national seeking an administrative review of a decision to reject an application for leave to remain under appendix EU of the immigration rules (whether for settled status or pre-settled status), or to exercise a right of appeal against any such decision.

(3) No fee shall be chargeable for any new or alternative scheme introduced for EEA or Swiss nationals in place of appendix EU to the Immigration Rules.”—

This new clause would ensure that the Government’s commitment to scrap the settled status fee, and extend the principle to any review or appeal, or any alternative scheme set up to replace appendix EU, is legally binding.

Brought up, and read the First time.

Photo of Graham Stringer Graham Stringer Labour, Blackley and Broughton

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

New clause 38—Visa fees—

“(1) A fee or charge on an EEA or Swiss national applying for a visa may be imposed only if that fee or charge is equal to or less than the cost of providing the visa.

(2) No child with an entitlement to register for British citizenship shall be required to pay a fee to register for British citizenship.

(3) A fee or charge on an EEA or Swiss national making an application to naturalise as a British citizen may be imposed only if that fee or charge is equal to or less than the cost of processing the application.”

New clause 39—Immigration skills charge—

“No immigration skills charge introduced under section 70A of the Immigration Act 2014, or by regulations thereunder, may be charged in respect of an individual who is an EU national coming to work in the EU.”

This new clause ensures no skills charge can be levied in respect of EU nationals coming to work in the UK.

New clause 45—Registration as a British citizen—

“(1) No person, who has at any time exercised any of the rights for which Schedule 1 makes provision to end, may be charged a fee to register as a British citizen that is higher than the cost to the Secretary of State of exercising the function of registration.

(2) No child of a person who has at any time exercised any of the rights for which Schedule 1 makes provision to end may be charged a fee to register as a British citizen if that child is receiving the assistance of a local authority.

(3) No child of a person who has at any time exercised any of the rights for which Schedule 1 makes provision to end may be charged a fee to register as a British citizen that the child or the child’s parent, guardian or carer is unable to afford.

(4) The Secretary of State must take steps to raise awareness of people to whom subsection (1) applies of their rights under the British Nationality Act 1981 to register as British citizens.”

This new clause would mean that nobody whose right of free movement was removed by the Bill could be charged a fee for registering as a British citizen that was greater than the cost of the registration process, and would abolish the fee for some children.

Photo of Stuart McDonald Stuart McDonald Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Immigration, Asylum and Border Control)

The new clauses highlight in different ways the concern over significant increases in costs relating to the use of the migration system. Scrapping the settled status application fee was very welcome. New clause 32 would simply enshrine that in law and ensure that any replacement scheme did not attract a fee. That territory has largely been covered by the hon. Member for Sheffield Central earlier, and I will not repeat what he said.

Will the Minister confirm that there will be no fee for seeking an administrative review of any refusal of settled status? What assessments have been made of the costs of future centres that people are required to attend if they need help to scan documents, for example?

New clause 39 allows for a debate on the skills charge of £1,000 for an employee for 12 months and £500 for every subsequent six months. This is a significant tax on employing a worker from overseas. It is not a subtle tax and seems to be based on the false premise that firms that recruit from overseas are the ones that fail to invest in training at home. That is not the case. Comparatively few businesses recruit from outside the EEA currently. Are we really going to impose a significant levy on many thousands of additional businesses, simply because it is proving impossible for them to recruit locally?

Finally, new clause 45 concerns an issue that I have raised with the Minister on a number of occasions and that I feel strongly about: the system of charging people who are entitled to British citizenship by registration, but who are struggling to meet the exorbitant fees, which have escalated to over £1,000. If they are entitled to register as British, that would give many EEA nationals a more secure status than settled status. It is important to emphasise that when Parliament changed the rules on nationality so that birth in the UK was no longer enough to secure British citizenship, it was careful to seek to protect those who would not qualify automatically, but for whom the UK was genuinely home. The debates from the British Nationality Act 1981 show that Parliament envisaged a straightforward automatic grant if certain criteria were met. The fee at that time was just £35. We are not asking for a return to that level, but simply for a level that reflects the financial cost to the Home Office, which is in the region of £300,000, although I do not have the exact figure to hand.

An early-day motion on this topic achieved extensive cross-party support, as did a Backbench Business debate, which I believe happened last year. Again, I ask the Minister to simply listen to colleagues from both sides of the House. We are talking about people who are entitled in law to British citizenship, and they should not be prevented from obtaining that citizenship merely by an exorbitant fee. The Home Secretary himself recognised that it was a heck of a lot of money to be charging children, so I hope the Home Office will stop charging that sort of sum.

Photo of Afzal Khan Afzal Khan Shadow Minister (Home Office) (Immigration)

We support all these new clauses. I will speak briefly on new clause 38, which is in my name.

New clause 38 has three distinct provisions. The first would ensure that EEA and Swiss nationals applying for a visa are not charged above the cost price for that visa. As with many of our amendments, we would prefer that this apply to all migrants, but the scope of the Bill required us to narrow the new clause. The Home Office makes a profit of up to 800% on immigration applications from families, many of whom will not be well off. These applications will often be turned down on technicalities, forcing families to apply and pay again. As EEA nationals join migrants from the rest of the world coming into the UK under work visas, the risk of debt bondage increases. If workers are required to pay high fees for work visas, they will be vulnerable to exploitation and may be left working to pay off debts to recruiters.

The independent chief inspector of borders and immigration has completed an inspection of policies and practices relating to charging and fees. According to his website, he sent the report to the Home Office on 24 January. It would have been helpful to have it in preparation for this discussion. Can the Minister tell us when her Department will publish the report?

The second part of the new clause stipulates that no child with entitlement to register for British citizenship should be required to pay a fee. The principle is that those children, given their entitlement to British citizenship, will not be required to pay fees to realise that entitlement. This was the intention of the British Nationality Act 1981, which ended the principle that being born in the UK in itself makes someone British, when it gave no discretion to the Secretary of State, other than the formal role of registering the citizenship of any person with the entitlement.

The third part of the new clause would require that anyone naturalising as a British citizen should not pay above cost price. It is important to keep the questions of immigration and nationality separate, and to keep entitlement and naturalisation separate as well, despite the Government’s attempt to blur that distinction.

The fees are now £1,012 for children and £1,206 for adults. That is an enormous amount, and it disproportionately affects BME people and children under local authority care. The effect of being unable to pay these fees is that British people are subject to the hostile environment, including detention and temporary deportation, which is wholly unjust.

Photo of Caroline Nokes Caroline Nokes The Minister for Immigration

I am grateful to the hon. Members for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East, for Paisley and Renfrewshire North and for Manchester, Gorton for having tabled new clauses 32, 38, 39 and 45.

It may be helpful to provide some background on this issue. Fees for border, immigration and citizenship products and services have been charged for a number of years, and they play a vital role in our country’s ability to run a sustainable system that minimises the burden on taxpayers. Each year, income from fees charged contributes enormously towards the running of our border, immigration and citizenship system. The charging framework for visa and immigration services delivered £1.35 billion in income in the last financial year. It is therefore true to say that fees paid by users play an absolutely critical role in this country’s ability to run an effective and sustainable system, and as I am sure members of the public rightly expect, to minimise the burden on UK taxpayers.

I also want to explain from the outset that we already have a legislative framework in place that governs fees. Fees are set and approved by Parliament through fees statutory instruments made under powers in the Immigration Act 2014. As hon. Members will be aware, the Prime Minister publicly confirmed that

“when we roll out the scheme in full on 30 March, the Government will waive the application fee so that there is no financial barrier for any EU nationals who wish to stay”—[Official Report, 21 January 2019; Vol. 653, c. 27.]

We will be amending existing fees legislation to implement that decision.

Outside of applications made under the EU settlement scheme, immigration and nationality fees legislation has always provided for some limited exceptions for paying application fees for limited and indefinite leave to remain. However, those exceptions are limited to specific circumstances, such as for those seeking asylum or fleeing domestic abuse, or where the requirement to pay the fee would lead to a breach of the European convention on human rights. Fee exceptions do not extend to applications made by individuals who are seeking to register or naturalise as a British citizen. That is because becoming a citizen is discretionary and not necessary to enable individuals to live, study and work in the UK, or to be eligible to benefit from appropriate services. Other exemptions are provided by separate regulations governing the immigration health surcharge.

To make provisions that are specific to certain nationalities as part of this Bill would be unfair to all users of the border, immigration and citizenship system.

Photo of Stuart McDonald Stuart McDonald Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Immigration, Asylum and Border Control)

There have been a number of amendments where the Minister has made the point that it would be unfair to apply the provisions to EEA nationals only. We are, of course, constrained by the Bill, but if any unfairness arises from our new clauses and amendments, it is open to the Government to amend the Bill further, and even to amend the long title of the Bill. I am sure the Minister would have support from across the Committee in doing so.

Photo of Caroline Nokes Caroline Nokes The Minister for Immigration

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that kind invitation. He will be aware that it is part of my duty under the Bill to make sure that we end free movement. The scope of the Bill is pretty much limited to that. As he highlighted, I do not want us to lead to a position where the Home Office discriminates against people on the basis of nationality.

I want to address some of the specific points relating to each new clause. Subsections (1) and (3) of new clause 32 provide that no application fee shall be chargeable under the EU settlement scheme, or for any successor scheme. While I am sympathetic to the intention behind subsection (1), I do not consider it necessary. We have a clear legislative framework in place for fees payable under the border, immigration and citizenship services. Therefore, new clause 32 would cut across the existing statutory framework for fees and would risk undermining the coherence of the current system.

Secondly, new clause 32 provides only for the removal of the application fee under the EU settlement scheme, which will only come into effect for applications made after the Bill is passed. As I have said, we are going further than that, and the announcement the Prime Minister made on 21 January makes it clear that the changes we are working to introduce through the fees regulations and the immigration rules will enable us to refund all EU settlement scheme application fees that have already been paid. The new clause is therefore to be unnecessary.

I will now turn to subsection (2) of new clause 32, which provides that EEA and Swiss nationals should not be charged a fee to appeal, or to administratively review, a decision not to grant settled status under the EU settlement scheme. I shall deal with administrative review and appeals separately. We have already discussed administrative review of a decision under the EU settlement scheme, for which the fee is set at £80 per review—the same fee that applies to administrative reviews of other immigration decisions. Where an administrative review is successful because there was a casework error in the original decision, the applicant will have their fee refunded.

In the context of applications under the EU settlement scheme, the right to an administrative review goes even further. An applicant who has been granted pre-settled status, but who believes that they qualify for settled status, can submit additional information that will be considered as part of their review. However, if the applicant cannot or does not wish to pay the fee for an administrative review, they have the alternative option of submitting a fresh application under the EU settlement scheme, which will be free. I therefore consider this part of the amendment to be unnecessary, because remedies that are free of charge are already available and if the administrative review is successful, the fee is refunded.

The Committee has already debated appeals, and I do not propose to reopen any of those debates. Court and tribunal fees are needed to contribute to the funding of the wider costs of the court and tribunal system; without that contribution, the cost would have to be met by the taxpayer.

New clause 38 relates to visa and citizenship fees. Subsections (1) and (3) would limit the Secretary of State’s power to charge a fee to EEA or Swiss nationals applying for a visa or applying to be naturalised as a British citizen to the cost of processing that application. I remind the Committee that EEA nationals do not require visit visas, and that remains our long-term intention, as set out in the immigration White Paper. The new clauses would require us to differentiate between EEA and non-EEA nationals, and that would undermine our ability to deliver a future system that does not do so.

Subsection (2) of new clause 38 would provide that all children who are entitled to British citizenship—not just those affected by the ending of free movement under the Bill—are not required to pay a fee to register. Although the subsection appears to extend more widely than just to EEA nationals, I will take it as applying only to EEA national children, given the scope of the Bill. Child citizenship is, without doubt, an important matter. We have already committed to Parliament that we will keep under review our approach to setting fees for all visa, immigration and nationality services, especially those charged to children. However, I do not consider the Bill to be the appropriate place to deal with this, particularly without considering the implications for other elements of the fees regime. The removal of this fee is unnecessary, given that becoming a citizen is discretionary and not necessary to enable an individual to live, study and work in the UK.

Photo of Stuart McDonald Stuart McDonald Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Immigration, Asylum and Border Control) 3:45 pm, 5th March 2019

We are talking about children who are entitled to UK citizenship, and it is wrong to say that alternative ways—long routes to settlement, costing many thousands of pounds—are an adequate alternative. We are talking about something that is precious to those children, and I urge the Minister to give us some indication of when the ongoing review might conclude.

Photo of Caroline Nokes Caroline Nokes The Minister for Immigration

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. He is aware that the Home Secretary has said that he is keen to review the situation and keep our fee structure under careful consideration, but I regret that I cannot give the hon. Gentleman a deadline.

It is right to point out that we already provide exemptions for eligible individuals who apply for limited and indefinite leave to remain in the UK. That is a reflection of the fact that in some circumstances, grants of such leave are necessary to enable an applicant to enjoy his or her human rights—for example, where a person is destitute or there are exceptional financial circumstances, often relating to the welfare and best interests of a child.

Photo of Stuart McDonald Stuart McDonald Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Immigration, Asylum and Border Control)

Those exemptions are good and it is absolutely right to have them, but why not have the same exemptions for kids who are entitled to British citizenship and who are supported by a local authority, or whose families are destitute? They are entitled to British citizenship. Why deprive them of it?

Photo of Caroline Nokes Caroline Nokes The Minister for Immigration

As I have indicated, the Home Secretary is keen to keep the matter under review. We are looking closely at it, and particularly at child citizenship fees. In summary, the requirement to pay a fee for citizenship does not disproportionately interfere with human rights, because of the exemptions I have described. The requirement to pay a fee is not contrary to a child’s best interest, which is to be with their family. Not having citizenship does not prevent them from doing so. Any assessment of a child's best interests is intensely fact-sensitive, so it cannot be said, as a generalisation, that it will always be in a child’s best interests to acquire citizenship. It may, for example, be in his or her best interests to preserve links to another country. As I have set out, the proposals undermine our existing statutory framework for making provision relating to fees and charges in the Bill.

New clause 45(1) raises many of the same issues about British citizenship fees for EEA nationals as new clause 38(3) did, and I refer the Committee to my earlier comments. New clause 45(2) and (3) provide that the Secretary of State may not charge the child of a person who has exercised free movement rights, which are repealed by this Bill, a fee to register as a British citizen if that child is in receipt of local authority assistance or if that child or their parents cannot afford the fee. That addresses a point similar to that in new clause 38(2). I refer Members to my previous point: the Bill is not the appropriate place to address child citizenship fees, which we are considering in the round.

New clause 45(4) would require the Secretary of State to take steps to make persons who have exercised free movement rights aware of their rights to obtain British citizenship under the British Nationality Act 1981. Information about becoming a British citizen is already published in guidance on gov.uk, and we are committed to ensuring that information of that nature is fully accessible.

It is right that, in the run-up to and immediate aftermath of the UK’s departure from the EU, the Government’s communications focus on the EU settlement scheme and what EEA nationals in the UK need to do to secure their status. We are launching a wide-ranging marketing campaign to encourage EEA nationals to apply. We do, however, make it clear when explaining the rights afforded by settled status that they may include a right to apply for British citizenship, provided that eligibility requirements are met. I hope that that reassures the Committee that we are taking steps to make people aware of their rights.

I turn to new clause 39, which concerns the immigration skills charge. Hon. Members may be aware that the charge was introduced in April 2017 as part of a major reform of the tier 2 skilled worker route. It is designed to ensure that UK-based sponsoring employers make a contribution to the upskilling and training of the resident workforce. Investing in skills is vital to achieving our ambition to increase UK productivity.

Data shows that, on average, employers in the UK under-invest in training compared with other countries. The Government have always been clear that it is right that employers should be incentivised to contribute to the upskilling and training of workers, and we have taken a carefully considered approach to the application of the charge. That is why we have provided exemptions for employers sponsoring migrants working in PhD-level occupations, as specified in the immigration rules; students switching from tier 4 to tier 2 to take up a graduate-level position in the UK; and the intra-company transfer graduate trainee category. Those exemptions build on the Government’s strong post-study work offer for international students and are intended to protect the UK’s position as a centre of excellence for education and research.

Underlying MAC’s recommendation in its final report on EEA migration, which was published last September, is the importance of retaining the charge as a key counterbalance to the recommended abolition of the resident labour market test in the proposed future skilled worker route. This will ensure the continued protection of resident workers in the future system and will provide one element of control after free movement has ended. New clause 39 runs directly contrary to the advice of MAC, which believes that it would be appropriate to apply the charge to EEA nationals in the future.

It is important to note that in the future system, the charge will apply only to employers that sponsor migrant workers under the skilled worker route. It will not apply to individual migrants who may come to the UK to work temporarily under the transitional temporary work route, and who will not be sponsored by an individual employer.

As Committee members are aware, the Government are not complacent. We have set out our intention to engage with businesses and organisations over the next 12 months, and to listen to their concerns and thoughts in response to the proposals in the White Paper. Accordingly, for all the reasons I have given, I invite the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East to withdraw the new clause.

Photo of Stuart McDonald Stuart McDonald Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Immigration, Asylum and Border Control)

I thank the Minister for her detailed answers. There was a lot of helpful information in there, but there was also a lot that I do not agree with and am not yet quite persuaded about. I will certainly persist, particularly on fees for the registration of children as British citizens, but that is for another day. In the meantime, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Clause, by leave, withdrawn.