It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr McCabe. Thank you for calling me. I thank Meg Hillier for securing this important debate and for her opening speech, which set the scene brilliantly.
Members have eloquently and powerfully raised some strong examples of fees applied by the Home Office that are unreasonable, unfair and sometimes frankly utterly extortionate. We have heard about citizenship fees right across the board. Some have mentioned the immigration health surcharge, which my party opposes outright. Members also spoke powerfully about NHS and other frontline workers, to whom we owe so much.
We have heard a lot about fees for children, including those in the care system, and several hon. Members raised the fees that families face. Many family members are forced apart by them, and others have to make awful calls, such as which child they can afford to put forward for citizenship and which they have to leave behind—what an awful choice to have to make.
We have just heard about some of the other associated costs of applications, from legal fees to biometrics and the travel that is involved for some. Other hon. Members raised the quality of service provided in response to payment of those fees. My hon. Friend Alison Thewliss rightly continues to champion the case of highly skilled migrants.
There are many other causes that we could have mentioned today. One is the fees faced by former members of the armed forces who want to settle in the United Kingdom. I support all those complaints, but in the time available I will focus on two issues that impact on children in particular, as others have done. I will close by suggesting that all these various complaints mean that it is time that we rethink the statutory scheme that guides the Home Office when it is setting fees.
As it stands, the Home Office is entitled to think about only the following factors when setting fees: processing costs, the benefits that will accrue to the applicant and others, the cost of other immigration and nationality functions, economic growth, international comparisons and international agreements. There are problems with that framework and how the Home Office is currently applying it.
I will start with the fees that are charged to children who are registering their right to British citizenship. These are kids who are born here but are not automatically British and are subsequently entitled to register as such, either because their parents become settled or become citizens or because they are here for the first 10 years of their lives. Those rights were set out by Parliament in 1981 when it repealed automatic citizenship by birth alone in the United Kingdom. Those rights are there to protect kids for whom the reality is that the UK is their home and, de facto, their country of nationality. Unlike those of us who are British at birth automatically and pay no fee for the privilege, those kids, as we have heard, are required to pay just over £1,000. The cost to the Home Office of processing the application is approximately one third of that.
In essence, what we have here is a horrendous, great big poll tax on the British citizenship of certain children—one that brooks no waivers or exceptions, and one that Home Office lawyers have acknowledged in court has
“a serious adverse impact on the ability of a significant number of children to apply successfully for registration” as British citizens.
That said, his predecessor met with the equally brilliant Project for the Registration of Children as British Citizens and, in the absence of any action or response, PRCBC successfully persuaded the Court of Appeal that these fees breach the statutory duties of the Home Office regarding the best interests of the child. The Supreme Court will, if required, go on to determine whether the fees are also illegal on the grounds that they render the statutory rights impossible for so many.
I appreciate that the litigation may mean the Minister cannot say too much today, but the fact that these fees need to be looked at again means it is all the more important that, as cross-party MPs, we re-emphasise the opposition to them—and there is cross-party opposition. This is a grave injustice. As Members on both sides have said, citizenship is not just a matter of the colour of one’s passport; it has profound implications on a sense of identity, belonging, community integration, and so on.
If litigation forces a different approach, that would be brilliant, but it would be so much better if the Home Office and Treasury just listen to the arguments and made the change themselves. These kids are entitled to British citizenship, and fees should not stop them from accessing it.
The other distinct issue that I want to raise is one that others have touched on: the long route to settlement. This is a 10-year process that people with strong ties of family or private life are put through by the Home Office. The whole design of this route, not just its fee, is cruel, but the expense is especially outrageous.
As we have heard, including the final indefinite leave to remain application, this route requires five applications, currently costing a total of over £12,500 in fees and health surcharges for each individual before they will ever have secure, permanent status. A family of four must pay around £10,000 in fees every two and a half years, and only a little over 10% of that covers the actual cost of the Home Office processing these applications.
In normal times, three quarters, or more, of fee waiver applications are refused by the Home Office, and that then means that applicants have only 10 days to stump up the cash before the whole application is rejected. That puts many back to square one. Indefinite leave applications do not attract a fee waiver at all, leaving many stranded on precarious short-term leave for a long, long, time, so slashing these fees is absolutely essential. Colleagues have spoken powerfully about the impact they are having on the lives of families and children in their constituencies. The immigration health surcharge should be removed from this route. These are people for whom the reality is that the UK is their home, and it will continue to be; the Government should acknowledge that.
In conclusion, Mr McCabe, I want to touch upon the issue of whether or not we need to rethink the overall framework, and I think that we do. I will make two quick points, although I could make many more.
One fundamental problem is that the framework treats all types of application as if they are of the same nature, and that the same considerations should apply. However, issues around citizenship have a profoundly different nature to visit visas, student visas or other types of work visa. Even within citizenship, the right to a nationality in one’s de facto home country is a completely different issue to naturalisation fees for adults who have made a proactive choice to come here and to take up that nationality.
Economic growth or subsidising other parts of the border system might be relevant to certain work visas, but it is absolutely not appropriate or fair to apply those considerations to applications by children for citizenship in their home country. That is why we need to rethink the framework.
Secondly, when considering the benefit that will accrue to the applicant, which is required by statute, it seems to me that the Home Office approach is always “the greater the benefit to the applicant, the more that we should charge them”, but it should not be. Citizenship confers the most profound benefit of any of the applications that the Home Office deals with. We should want the children who have that right to be able to access it. The consequences of them not being able to are really quite troubling, so, in fact, the benefit that will accrue to them is a reason for lowering the fee, rather than trying to squeeze every last penny from it.
There is so much more that could be said in this, but I hope that the Minister will listen, both to the complaints made about specific fees and to the suggestion that we need to look more broadly at the framework that surrounds the process for setting them. Once again, thanks to the hon. Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch for securing such a crucial debate, and to Members for engaging in it.