It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley. I thank Hywel Williams for securing this debate on the fee structure for immigration applications. I have listened carefully to his comments and can assure him that I am in no doubt about his strength of feeling on the topic, and I am of course aware of representations made by other Members, both in previous debates and in writing and through written questions. Before I respond to the specific points that he has raised today, I want to set out the current landscape for the fees that we charge for visa, immigration and nationality services.
The Immigration Act 2014 approved by Parliament set out the governing factors that must be given regard to when setting fee levels: the costs of administering the service; the benefits that are likely to accrue to the applicant upon a successful outcome; the costs of operating other parts of the immigration system; the promotion of economic growth; fees charged by or on behalf of Governments of other countries for comparable functions; and any international agreement. That is important because not only do those factors play an important role in our nation’s ability to fund the borders, immigration and citizenship system, but they are the only matters that can be taken into consideration when setting such fees.
In addition, there is a further layer of fees legislation by way of an order that sets the fee maxima that could ever be charged, which is laid in Parliament subject to affirmative resolution procedures. Finally, individual fee levels are then set out in regulations that are presented to Parliament and subjected to the negative procedure. I emphasise that as it is important to recognise that the Home Office cannot amend fee levels without first obtaining the approval of Whitehall and Parliament. A comprehensive system rightly ensures that there are a number of checks and balances in place to ensure that there is proper parliamentary oversight of the fee regime.
Fee levels are calculated in line with managing public money principles and the powers set out in the Immigration Act to reflect the value that people get from the services they receive. The powers that were agreed with Parliament in 2014 bring significant benefit to the borders, immigration and citizenship system and to the UK in the form of effective and secure border and immigration functions, reduced general taxation and the promotion of economic growth.
I recognise that there is significant interest in how fees are calculated, and we publish details of fee levels and estimated unit costs, as well as background information, on gov.uk to cover what is included and excluded from unit cost calculation. It is important to recognise the significance of the charging framework in funding visa and immigration services. For example, in the financial year 2017-18, £1.35 billion of income was delivered, which helped to fund the costs associated with other immigration system functions. That helped to maintain their effectiveness and security, and investment in ongoing service improvement.
Setting fees at such a level, putting the onus to pay on those who benefit from the services, reduces the burden on the Exchequer and on the general taxpayers of this country. A responsible Government have to balance the books. The loss of income resulting from any reduction in specific fees or drastic changes to policy would need to be balanced by rises elsewhere, or an additional taxpayer contribution. The Government remain focused on driving efficiencies throughout the system and on improving services. Our fee levels allow us to attract the brightest and best to the UK while enabling the Home Office to work towards its ambition of a self-financing borders, immigration and citizenship system.
Our fees are competitive. They compare favourably with key competitor countries and offer good value, particularly when considering the benefits and entitlements of a successful application. We expect future spending reviews—the hon. Gentleman referred to this—to influence our approach on fees, but we will want to ensure that, overall, we strike the right balance between funding the system, instilling fairness and promoting prosperity and UK interests.
The hon. Gentleman raised the chief inspector’s recently published report on the Home Office borders, immigration and citizenship system’s policies and practices relating to charging and fees. We certainly welcomed the recommendations made by the independent chief inspector of borders and immigration, and accepted the majority of them. Our published response sets out in detail which recommendations the Home Office has and has not accepted and why, so I will not go through them now. We recognise that improvements can be made across the system in increasing the transparency in how we charge and the service standards that our customers can expect where we charge a fee.
We expect the forthcoming spending review to influence our approach on fees, but we will want to ensure that, overall, we provide funding stability, instil fairness and promote prosperity and UK interests.
The hon. Gentleman raised some specific points. I will talk briefly about the income threshold. There is a level of confusion regarding the proposals in the Government’s White Paper, published last December, which spoke of the future borders and immigration system—not scheduled to come into play until January 2021—and which referred to a £30,000 threshold. That is not for a spousal visa, but for people seeking to come to the UK to work under the equivalent of our current tier 2 system.
That figure was not plucked out of thin air arbitrarily by the Government, or thrust upon us, as the hon. Gentleman suggested; it came from a long and detailed piece of research carried out by the independent Migration Advisory Committee. When the committee’s report was published last September and incorporated into our White Paper last December, we made it very clear that that would commence a year of engagement on this subject.
I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will be pleased—perhaps relieved—to learn that over the last five months or so, Home Office officials have undertaken more than 70 separate events, in every region and nation of the United Kingdom and across every sector of industry. I have taken the time to speak to Scottish and Welsh Ministers, and at meetings with members of the civil service of Northern Ireland.
When we consider the future border and immigration system, it matters that we listen to voices from across the United Kingdom and across industry, and understand how we can interact as between the suggestion of expert economists that a £30,000 threshold for a tier 2 visa was about right and the concerns of certain sectors of industry. Of course, different parts of the United Kingdom have average salary levels that are different from those in, say, London and the south-east.
That is an important ongoing piece of work. I am sure that Members will be delighted to hear—there are two Members from Northern Ireland and one from Wales in the Chamber—that this summer I will again spend time in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, listening to the voices of those devolved nations and industries operating within them.
Importantly, the salary threshold for those wishing to bring a spouse and/or dependants into the country is not set at £30,000. The eligibility threshold to apply for a spousal visa is set at £18,600. That is designed to ensure that families can support themselves financially, and we ask for evidence that the sponsor can meet a minimum income threshold. There are additional requirements depending on the number of children. If the spouse has one child, the threshold rises to £22,400, and then by £2,400 per additional child.
The principle was to ensure that there was no dependency on our benefits system, and the threshold was set at a level at which people could be expected to be able to participate fully in society, and integrate into our communities. We in the Home Office, alongside the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, continue to play an important part in ensuring that our system enables people to integrate into communities and play a full role in society. The principle has, of course, been consistently upheld by the courts, and has been tested rigorously.
As the hon. Gentleman alluded to, I have committed to keeping fees for visa, immigration and nationality services under review, and to take account of the issues raised in today’s debate and previous ones, in the light of the independent chief inspector’s recommendations. The Government are committed to ensuring that we have an effective border and immigration system that is not a burden on the Exchequer and the country’s general taxpayers. Decisions on how the system is funded are complicated and require a number of factors to be carefully balanced, as I have set out. However, I reiterate that the Government remain entirely dedicated to maintaining support for the vulnerable who come into contact with the immigration system, ensuring that they are treated fairly and humanely.
Question put and agreed to.