Immigration Applications: Fee Structure

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 11:00 am on 14th May 2019.

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Photo of Hywel Williams Hywel Williams Shadow PC Spokesperson (Work and Pensions), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Brexit), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Cabinet Office), Shadow PC Spokesperson (International Trade) 11:00 am, 14th May 2019

That is certainly the conclusion I have drawn in this particular case. I will refer later in my speech to the income threshold that is applied, which acts differentially in different parts of the country, and surely that pertains to Northern Ireland as it does to north-west Wales.

According to the Minister, the subsidy for the 2.5 million short-term visas issued each year for tourists costs in the region of £90 million per annum. While I accept that tourism is vital to the UK—it certainly is to Wales and my part of north Wales—and I understand the principle of making the UK as accessible as possible to tourists, I do not agree with making non-EEA spouses and other migrants shoulder the burden, particularly when the fee is four times what it should be, as compared with the real cost.

I was in business before I became an MP. Had I charged a fee for a service I was providing that was four times my costs, that would have amounted to profiteering, even allowing for a reasonable profit. Slightly tangentially, does the Minister have information to hand on where those tourists who apply for subsidised short-term visas end up visiting in the UK? Whose economy are we subsidising? Who benefits? Of course, the vast majority of tourists visit London. In fact—this will interest you, Mr Paisley, and Jim Shannon—there were four times as many visits to London as there were to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland combined. According to the Office for National Statistics and VisitBritain, almost 20 million tourists visited London in 2017. If we compare that with the 372,000 who visited Cardiff, hon. Members can see the point I am making. Who benefits from the subsidy, and who benefits disproportionately?

The Home Office has set itself the target of the immigration system becoming self-funding. Any below-cost offers would need to be balanced elsewhere within the system, either through fees that were higher than unit cost for other application types or through cost-saving efficiencies, or perhaps both. The principle of self-funding seems to disproportionately penalise some of those who interact with the system. After all, they are paying more than they would reasonably expect. The report recommends that the Home Office runs a wide-ranging public consultation on charging for borders, immigration and citizenship system functions to be completed and published in time to inform the 2019 comprehensive spending review, which I understand we are still waiting for. I wholeheartedly agree that an overhaul and a comprehensive review are needed to avoid the continuation of what I see as gross overcharging, especially if BICS continues with its self-funding ambition.

In response to the report’s recommendation, the Home Office has said it will be reviewing the ambition in the context of the 2019 comprehensive spending review. I understand that that is pending. I have no idea when it is due or, for that matter, when the Minister will be reviewing it, so perhaps she inform us. The Home Office expects there to be greater linkage on the basis of three key principles in the setting of all fees: providing funding stability, instilling fairness throughout the system, and promoting prosperity and UK interests. I have no problem with those principles; the problem is with the application of the system in instilling fairness, because I do not think it is fair.

I have written to the Minister asking for a meeting to discuss the charging framework for visa and immigration services, but perhaps she can answer a few of my questions in this debate and we can avoid using her valuable time for a meeting. What progress has she made on reviewing the self-funding ambition, especially in line with the principle of instilling fairness throughout the system? Will she commit to holding a comprehensive review, as the chief inspector recommends?

In a previous Westminster Hall debate, the Minister stated:

“The charging framework for visa and immigration services delivered £1.35 billion of income in the last financial year, 2017-18. That helped to fund more than £620 million of costs associated with other immigration system functions”.—[Official Report, 4 September 2018;
Vol. 646, c. 20WH.]

It seems to my constituent, and I agree with her, that the British Government treat some parts of the immigration system as a profit-making wheeze, churning out and charging people according to their net financial worth, when what really matters is people’s rights and their dignity—people’s right to live together as a couple. If the Government are intent on using business-like jargon, what has the Minister’s Department done to promote cost-saving efficiencies—the other part of what I mentioned earlier—as a strategy for the future? It seems an obvious avenue worth exploring.

When constituents of mine are subjected to fees four times the unit cost, the system is obviously fundamentally flawed. For many people, the process of bringing over a spouse from abroad to live together here in the UK is complicated, arduous and costly. For the British Government, however, immigration bureaucracy has become quite the money spinner. Such a policy fits neatly with the Government’s unjust £30,000 immigration threshold, which I mentioned earlier in response to an intervention. It has a clear differential impact on areas of low wages, such as in my Arfon constituency. A £30,000 annual income might seem reasonable here in London, but in Arfon it is a small fortune that many people cannot even hope to achieve. The £30,000 threshold and the fee structure have been thrust on us by an Executive that know the price of something, but have no idea of the actual value, reducing everything, even the institution of marriage that they purport to support, to bean counting.

For the Government to charge spousal immigration applicants for administration costs is at best a burden, but to profiteer from it is unconscionable. The Home Office is pricing out couples who cannot afford an inflated charge of £1,523. The Immigration Minister must take a long, hard look at the visa fee structure system. We need an immigration system that abolishes arbitrary charges and instead treats people with the dignity that they deserve and to which they have a right.