Immigration and Nationality Application Fees — [Steve McCabe in the Chair]

Part of Backbench Business – in Westminster Hall at 2:29 pm on 25th March 2021.

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Photo of Holly Lynch Holly Lynch Shadow Minister (Home Office) 2:29 pm, 25th March 2021

It is a pleasure, as always, to serve under your chairmanship, Mr McCabe. I join others in congratulating my hon. Friend Meg Hillier on securing this important debate and opening the contributions.

My hon. Friend did an excellent job in setting out the different fees, their cumulative effect and how they make us one of the least competitive countries in the world if we want to attract the brightest and the best, even through options like the global talent visa. She has enjoyed a great deal of cross-party support this afternoon.

I begin by reflecting on how immigration and nationality fees have increased over the past 10 years. Others have paid tribute to the wonderful organisation We Belong, which is led by young people who have made the UK their home. They are right to say that the cost of leave to remain for those who came to UK, which was a focus of my hon. Friend’s opening speech, has increased by 331% in the past six years alone. Just imagine if the same could be said about nurses’ pay, as my hon. Friend Ian Byrne said.

The 10-year route to permanent settlement through leave to remain requires five applications totalling £12,771 per person. That statistic is made even more staggering when we consider that it costs the Government just £142 to process those applications. The fact that the Government seek to make a profit from people who grew up in this country and who simply want to establish a future here in the UK is unacceptable. It denies them the security and certainty that they deserve. My hon. Friend Imran Hussain is quite right when he says that the fees paid are not reflected in the experience that people have in their service from the Home Office.

As my hon. Friends Tahir Ali and for Bradford East, and Stuart C. McDonald, have already said, the Court of Appeal found that the requirement for children who are entitled to be registered as British citizens to pay a fee of £1,012 fails to take into consideration the children’s best interests. The Government have yet to respond to this decision, and therefore I call on the Minister urgently to reconsider this issue when they respond to those concerns. Once again, it is disappointing that it has fallen to the courts to pull up the Government with a judgment that said the fee would leave children feeling “alienated, excluded, isolated” and “second-best,” when instead some compassion and common sense would go a long way.

Others have raised the challenges facing this country as a consequence of the pandemic. Immigration fees are a significant barrier to many migrant and overseas healthcare workers, as has been highlighted during the last year. I found myself unexpectedly cheering the contribution from Rob Roberts when he said that NHS workers should not be in debt to pay their fees and that we are the ones who should be indebted to them.

My hon. Friend Siobhain McDonagh gave a heartbreaking speech about the contribution of her local migrant healthcare workers, which reflects the fact that 169,000 or 13.8% of NHS staff reported a non-British nationality in January last year. Migrant workers currently make up 16% of our social care workforce. Many of those workers face the psychological and financial burden of immigration application fees. I believe the pandemic has made us all recognise beyond any doubt that we absolutely need these people—there’s no two ways about it.

We welcome the decision to extend the visas of doctors, nurses and paramedics that were due to expire before October and then March, even though that second extension came late in the day. It has been a battle to ensure that those extensions recognise all those that they should. We were also delighted that the Government listened to our calls to offer an exemption from the immigration health surcharge to those working in healthcare, even though the delivery of that has been far from as simple as it could have been, with many still waiting for refunds. As the Minister will remember, we were keen to stress during the passing of the Bill that became the Immigration Act 2020 that it is not that we are doing those workers a favour by extending their visas; they are doing us a massive favour, by staying and working on our frontline.

How else can we recognise that contribution? In addition to the fees paid by individuals, the Minister will also remember that we called on the Government to rethink the immigration skills charge for NHS trusts, which is a fee paid by hospitals back to the Government; they often face no choice other than to recruit from overseas for specialist clinical skills, because we have failed to train staff domestically. My local hospital trust, which runs Calderdale Royal Hospital and Huddersfield Royal Infirmary, paid nearly £163,000 back to Government in the 2019-20 financial year alone. That money could have been better spent on services and improving health outcomes. We are aware of at least three trusts that have paid out over £1 million since 2017, with Portsmouth Hospitals NHS Trust paying £2.7 million since 2017. I urge the Minister to reflect on that, as it surely does not make any sense.

The Select Committee on Home Affairs has repeatedly pushed for the free visa extension to be applied to care workers and low-paid NHS staff in non-medical roles, which we fully support, and it has recommended British citizenship or permanent residency be granted to health and social care workers with short-term visas. We have an obligation to acknowledge the sacrifices that migrant workers have made during the pandemic, and removing the fees would be a great start. Research undertaken by the liberal conservative think-tank Bright Blue suggests that 60% of the public think it is important for immigrants living permanently in the UK to become citizens, and 75% think it would be cheaper for certain migrant groups to become citizens. We know there is a broad appetite among the general public to make citizenship more accessible, and fees are certainly one of the biggest barriers.

My constituents in Halifax know from personal experience that the measures introduced by the Government are falling drastically short. My office and I have been supporting a young woman who is a single parent and who works in social care, caring for adults with learning disabilities. She paid to extend her visa in September 2020 and had to pay over £1,000 for the immigration health surcharge. As a direct result of that payment, she is struggling financially, to the extent that we had to refer her to local food banks. We contacted the Home Office to seek clarification as to when she could expect a refund. However, I am afraid to say it has been utterly non-committal. We still have no information as to when she will receive that back. Given the pressures that my constituent has faced over the last year during this pandemic, it is deeply distressing to hear how our immigration fees threaten to leave her without even the most basic essentials. My hon. Friend Kate Osamor shared similarly powerful stories from her constituency, about how she feels that both the fees and the solicitor fees are pushing constituents into poverty and destitution.

The Doctors’ Association UK has pointed out:

“We entered this pandemic severely short-staffed, with over 10,000 vacancies for doctors, and 100,000 for nurses.”

An immigration policy that acknowledges that reality, and seeks to fix it with an accessible and affordable process that is fit for purpose, is now required from the Government.

Hon. Members will recognise from their casework that the examples I have mentioned are not uncommon, but I want to turn to the really worrying contrast reported in both The Guardian and the Financial Times recently, which relates to the investigation into the conduct of a Home Office official dating back to 2016. I have written to the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, Chris Philp, about this issue, but sources have claimed, and the Home Office has confirmed, that a senior caseworker who works on nationality applications at the Home Office was investigated by the Department’s anti-corruption unit for allegedly being paid to offer external advice to one of the UK’s largest law firms, Mishcon de Reya. Allegations also include the release of unauthorised information regarding citizenship applications. The official was taken to dinner, and gifts, including champagne, were sent to him and at least one other colleague.

I have asked for that investigation to be published, but the Minister for Crime and Policing said this week that that would not be possible. In his answer to my written question, the Minister present today also confirmed to me this week that:

“Per the Civil Service Code, Civil Servants must not accept gifts or hospitality or receive other benefits from anyone which might reasonably be seen to compromise their personal judgement or integrity.”

In its response to The Guardian newspaper, Mishcon de Reya said:

“There is nothing unusual or inappropriate about this common industry practice.”

Mishcon de Reya was aware that other law firms had similar professional relationships with the official in question. Given that we know gifts were sent to other Home Office officials, I would welcome some clear answers from the Minister. Do we know who else received gifts, and were these returned? How would he respond to the suggestion that such conduct is common industry practice? Those are questions that must be answered, and some transparency is absolutely essential.

Frankly, the news of this scandal comes as an insult to my constituents who cannot afford that level of access to officials via their lawyers, and who are struggling to make ends meet in paying the fees required. We need assurances from the Home Office that the UK immigration system is not one that works only for those who can afford to make it work for them. Over the last decade immigration and nationality application fees have risen beyond what is reasonable, often trapping people into paying fees that are beyond their means for years, just to have the security of staying where they are. My hon. Friend Helen Hayes made very clear the consequences for children, in particular, as they grow up in this country.

I know the Minister will recognise the deeply unfair contrast I have set out between those who can afford top lawyers and what would appear to be the enhanced access that comes with that, and those who cannot. We need a fairer system that recognises the contributions made by migrant workers, many of whom work in our local healthcare and who are a precious resource that we just cannot afford to be without.