Clause 59 - Processing of visa applications from nationals of certain countries

Nationality and Borders Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 3:15 pm on 2nd November 2021.

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Photo of Paul Blomfield Paul Blomfield Labour, Sheffield Central 3:15 pm, 2nd November 2021

I beg to move amendment 151, in clause 59, page 52, line 33, at end insert—

“(3A) The Secretary of State must publish impact assessments on the effect of the provisions in this section on—

(a) nationals from countries falling within subsection (3), and

(b) the United Kingdom’s economy and trade.”

This amendment would require the Secretary of State to publish impact assessments with regard to the effect this clause might have on both nationals from countries in subsection (3) and the UK economy and trade.

Photo of Siobhain McDonagh Siobhain McDonagh Labour, Mitcham and Morden

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

Clause stand part.

Government amendment 80.

Government new clause 9—Removals from the UK: visa penalties for uncooperative countries.

Government new clause 10—Visa penalties: review and revocation.

Photo of Paul Blomfield Paul Blomfield Labour, Sheffield Central

The amendment would require the Home Secretary to publish impact assessments on the effect of clause 59 both on nationals from the countries in subsection (3) and on the UK’s economy and trade.

The Government plan to replace clause 59 with Government new clauses 9 and 10. This is a slightly more developed version of the proposal to punish the nationals of countries if the Government consider their Governments to have been unco-operative on returns. The explanatory notes for clause 59 do not explain its purpose—because it was a placeholder clause, there was no detail—so I assume it is to act as an incentive for countries to co-operate with returns, but I hope that the Minister will seek to provide some evidence of that.

The explanatory notes do state that

“a very small number of countries do not cooperate”

with returns, suggesting that penalties would apply only to a limited number of states. However, a report in The Daily Telegraph on 15 October—presumably briefed by the Government, which is the way we seem to get information these days—said that

“Pakistan, Iran, Iraq, Sudan, Eritrea and Philippines”

are countries understood not to co-operate with returns. We know that the majority of those on that list have conditions that mean returns are unlikely anyway, as there are strong asylum cases from them, so we know that the deterrents will not work. So, I would like to press the Minister a little bit more on what the Government expect to achieve with these revisions.

Photo of Robert Goodwill Robert Goodwill Conservative, Scarborough and Whitby

Surely what the hon. Gentleman says defies logic. If we are going to give visas to nationals of a particular country and we know there is a risk they may overstay, surely we can be more generous and more engaged with that country if we know that those overstayers can be removed. In the case of visas, we will have biometric data, so that there is no doubt about a person’s identity.

Photo of Paul Blomfield Paul Blomfield Labour, Sheffield Central

I hear what the right hon. Member is saying, but the scope of this provision seems to go much wider than that. It seeks to introduce punitive measures, including on visa charges and so on, for individuals who may be applying, and I will develop that point. It is nothing to do with overstaying. This is about countries that are unco-operative on returns in other contexts.

I want to press the Minister on what the Government expect to achieve by this. For example, it is not in our interests to sanction doctors, nurses or engineers who have been recruited to the UK from one country with longer visa processing times or higher charges, and that would be deeply damaging for our diaspora communities. Again, it feels as if we have proposals picked from headlines, which are not in the country’s interests.

Photo of Robert Goodwill Robert Goodwill Conservative, Scarborough and Whitby

It might help some of these countries if we did not plunder their health professionals, who have trained at the expense of that country, and actually trained our own instead.

Photo of Paul Blomfield Paul Blomfield Labour, Sheffield Central

I am interested in that observation, and I hope the right hon. Gentleman will lead the charge to persuade the Government to allocate far more resources for the training of health professionals and to tackle the crisis they have created within our health service over the past 11 years.

Amendment 151 will try to ensure that the Government are clear-eyed about the impact of their policy and the trade-offs they are prepared to make, as well as the impact on UK public services, communities and businesses. The amendment would allow the public to examine that trade-off, too. It would ensure that the Government track the impact of their policy, and are transparent with business and trade over the impact any visa penalties might have, either through reduced travel or through deteriorating relationships with those countries.

The Government talk a lot about global Britain, but through our examination of the Bill we have seen many threats to that and a lot of ways in which they plan on sowing discord with other nations around the world, damaging our reputation in the international community. I know that the Minister will not vote for clause 59 stand part, but I would welcome his thoughts on the wider impact of the replacement clauses, along the lines of my amendment. I would appreciate it if he could tell us whether any such impact assessments are being considered.

I have an important point to make about new clauses 9 and 10, to which I hope the Minister can respond. There is significant concern that these clauses will prevent people from joining refugees in the UK through the family reunion route. Let us consider the countries cited in The Daily Telegraph again: Pakistan, Iran, Iraq, Sudan, Eritrea and the Philippines. Since the start of 2019, 8,480 people from Iran, Iraq, Sudan and Eritrea have been granted refugee family reunion visas to join loved ones in the UK. That equates to just over half—53%—of all family visas granted over that period. Some 3,584 of those visas were for children and 5,771 for women or girls. The new clause, as drafted, would potentially apply to visas for refugees coming to the UK under one of the Home Office’s resettlement schemes, including the relocation scheme for Afghan nationals who have previously worked with the UK Government or applicants from Hong Kong for British national overseas visas.

So, if the Government are determined to proceed with these new clauses, at the very least new clause 9 needs to be amended to include an exemption for refugee family reunion and other protection routes. I should be grateful if the Minister would indicate whether the Government are willing to do that.

Photo of Anne McLaughlin Anne McLaughlin Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Justice), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Immigration, Asylum and Border Control)

We support amendment 151 for the self-explanatory reason that we need to know the impact of these actions. We are not saying that visa penalties should never be imposed in any circumstances, but we share many of the concerns voiced by the hon. Member for Sheffield Central and I will focus on a couple of them.

The Government say this clause will incentivise other countries to co-operate with the UK Government to remove those who have no right to be in the country, but they have presented no evidence that this will be the case. Saying it is one thing, but if they are so confident of it they should do some work and, as the hon. Member for Sheffield Central asks in his amendment, publish a report examining the impact on our relations with other countries.

The Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants says that this clause will affect, among others, workers, including key workers. Have not the Brexit restrictions on key workers coming into the country taught us anything? There are also tourists and their massive contribution to our economies; performers; students—who pay thousands of pounds to study at our universities, many of which would struggle to survive without them—and academics, among others, including the family members of British citizens. Again, we are punishing the wrong people.

Specifically, I want to express the concerns of Elizabeth Ruddick of the UNHCR about the impact on family reunion. The UNHCR’s concern is that although the clause gives the Home Secretary flexibility on the type of penalties to impose, nothing explicitly prevents the imposition of penalties on applications for refugee family reunion. Elizabeth Ruddick says that delaying refugee family reunion on that basis is likely to violate their human rights, particularly under article 8 of the ECHR. Will the Minister do that thing that his colleague has done a lot in Committee, which is to reassure us that that will not happen? For the record, I am not reassured, but reassurances have been offered throughout the Committee and it would be good to hear his thoughts at least.

Will the Minister consider a scenario that could arise from the clause and reassure me about it? I might be taking this too far, but let us take the case of two asylum seekers who arrive irregularly by boat. Perhaps the Home Secretary is feeling generous and decides that, rather than offshoring them or jailing them—both options that the Bill allows to be considered—she will simply return them to their countries of origin, from which they fled. Country No. 1 has not signed an agreement and does not agree to take the person back, perhaps because—I will be generous—its Government recognise that they cannot protect that person, for whatever reason.

Country No. 2, however, is Afghanistan. We have talked a lot about Afghanistan in considering the Bill, and we are not currently returning people to Afghanistan, but that will not always be the case, so bear with me. The second asylum seeker is to be returned to Afghanistan and the Taliban men in charge are ready to welcome refugees back with open arms, primarily because they have been hunting them down anyway. For obvious reasons, Afghanistan complies, signs the agreement and accepts its citizens back. Does that mean that country No. 1 could have restrictions placed on its students, key workers and tourists who wish to visit the UK, while by comparison the Taliban could have free rein? I am not asking whether that is likely to happen; I am just asking whether the clause means that it could happen.

We welcome the reviews included under new clause 10, but they are not sufficient, and the powers under new clause 9 are too wide. Again, they give far too much power to the Secretary of State. It seems that nothing is off limits. The new clause encompasses three themes recurring in the Bill: first, too much power to the Secretary of State; secondly, not enough regard to international relations; and thirdly, closing down one of the few safe and legal routes, unless the Minister can reassure me that refugee family reunion is not affected by the provision—I hope he can.

Photo of Craig Whittaker Craig Whittaker Assistant Whip, Government Whip 3:30 pm, 2nd November 2021

Starting with amendment 151, I reassure the hon. Member for Sheffield Central that the penalties are there to encourage countries to co-operate. There is international precedent for countries to have the power to impose penalties on countries that do not co-operate on the matter of returns.

Both the United States and the EU have similar powers to those we are seeking. Recently, the Council of the EU decided to suspend temporarily the application of certain provisions in the visa code to nationals of The Gambia, owing to the country’s lack of co-operation on readmission of third-country nationals illegally staying in the EU. The new powers in the Bill will bring the UK into line with our international partners and ensure that we are no longer lagging behind other countries.

I assure hon. Members that, given talk of penalties and exemption, family reunion will be an exemption to the penalties, as discussed.

Turning to amendment 151, I can assure the hon. Member for Sheffield Central that the power to impose visa penalties will be exercised only after consideration of the potential economic impact on the UK, and with full agreement across Government. Contrary to the hon. Member’s assertion that there is another Government leak, there is no current list: this will be done on a case-by-case basis, based on the impact across areas such as the economy, but also taking each Department into account. I also draw the hon. Member’s attention to new clauses 9 and 10, which—as we have already touched on—set out those visa provisions in more detail. I feel that this is a fairly straightforward part of the Bill, with no need for the hon. Member’s amendment.

Turning to new clauses 9 and 10 and Government amendment 80, a key function of the Home Office is the removal of individuals who have no legal right to be here, either by deportation or administrative removal, usually to the country of which they are nationals. We expect our international partners to work with us, as they expect us to work with them, to remove such individuals, as the UK does where our own nationals in other countries should not be in those countries. This is a critical component of a functioning migration relationship, and the vast majority of countries co-operate with us in this area. However, a small number do not.

As has been said, new clause 9 is designed to give the Government the power to impose visa penalties. Countries should no longer expect to benefit from a normal UK visa service if they are unwilling to co-operate with us on the matter of returning nationals. We will be able to slow down or suspend visa services for that country, and require applicants to pay a surcharge of £190 when they apply for a UK visa. Specifically, new clause 9 sets out when a country may be specified as unco-operative and the factors that will be taken into account when imposing visa penalties. Additionally, the new clause provides detail on the types of penalties that may be applied. It is a critical step in taking back control of our borders.

Briefly turning to new clause 10, visa penalties are intended to be a matter of last resort, and must not be in place longer than necessary. The new clause requires the Secretary of State to review the application of visa penalties every two months and revoke those penalties if the relevant country is no longer unco-operative. This provision is a safeguard to ensure that any visa penalties applied do not remain in place by default. Government amendment 80 is consequential on new clauses 9 and 10, providing that they will come into force two months after the Bill receives Royal Assent.

I commend new clauses 9 and 10 and Government amendment 80 to the Committee, and by your leave, Ms McDonagh, I request that the hon. Member for Sheffield Central withdraw his amendments.

Photo of Paul Blomfield Paul Blomfield Labour, Sheffield Central

I was reassured by the commitments on family reunion, and I look forward to the Government’s bringing forward an amendment on that topic, perhaps in the House of Lords. I have taken the Minister’s other comments on board, so I will not press this amendment to a vote at this stage. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

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

Question put and negatived.

Clause 59 accordingly disagreed to.

Clause 60 disagreed to.