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

Part of Backbench Business – in Westminster Hall at 2:40 pm on 25th March 2021.

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Photo of Kevin Foster Kevin Foster The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department 2:40 pm, 25th March 2021

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr McCabe. I thank Meg Hillier for securing this debate on immigration and nationality application fees. I thank all Members for their contributions to the discussion today. I welcome any opportunity to hear the views of the House on this subject, even if we come from differing points of view.

It has been an interesting debate. I am in no doubt from the contributions made about the strength of feeling. While I will respond to the points raised today, before I do, it might be helpful to set out the current landscape for the fees we charge for visa, immigration and nationality services.

As was touched on by my SNP shadow, Stuart C. McDonald, the Immigration Act 2014 was approved by Parliament under the coalition, during the time when Mr Carmichael was in the Cabinet. It sets out the governing factors that must be given regard to and are the only matters that can be taken into account when setting fee levels. These are: the costs of administering the service; benefits that are likely to accrue to the applicant on a successful outcome; the cost 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.

In setting fees, it is important to emphasise the Home Office cannot set or amend fees without obtaining the approval of Parliament. That ensures there are checks and balances in place and that there is full parliamentary oversight of the fees regime, in addition to debates such as that we are having today. Immigration and nationality fees are set within the limits specified by the Immigration and Nationality (Fees) Order 2016, which includes the maximum fee levels that can be charged on each application type or service. That is laid in Parliament and is subject to affirmative resolution procedures.

Individual fee levels are calculated in line with managing public money principles and the powers provided by the Immigration Act 2014. Specific fees are set out in regulations, which are then presented to Parliament and are subject to the negative procedure. The powers agreed by Parliament in 2014 bring benefits to the broader immigration and citizenship system and to the UK in the form of effective and secure border and immigration functions, reduced funding from general taxation and promotion of economic growth.

I turn to the issue that the hon. Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch started with—the simplification and the linked parts of the settlement requirements. As she may be aware, I have recently written to the Home Affairs Committee following a meeting with We Belong, which was a useful opportunity to explore with them their experiences of the current system.

Following the Law Commission report on simplification of the immigration rules in 2020, the Home Office is in the process of looking to simplify the immigration rules. As part of that, we are looking at reviewing the rules on settlement and when people qualify for it. We are examining how we could improve the path to settlement for this particular group of young people. Having met them, I recognise the concerns and the wider impact of being placed on what is effectively an 11-year path to citizenship, allowing 10 years to get to permanent settlement—indefinite leave to remain—and then a year free of immigration restrictions to apply for British citizenship, having received indefinite leave to remain. From what we are hearing, and from looking at the process, we believe that too many are ending up on the 10-year route and that is something we want to look at as part of a process of simplifying the rules and requirements.

We are also clear that there are areas where we should simplify the rules to ensure that there are fewer instances where a lawyer needs to be paid for support in the process, which is a cost that we know people face. I know there are some strong views across the House on this issue, and that has been shown today. I look forward to discussing them further when we look to bring forward our proposals.

It is not just in the settlement group specifically that we are looking to simplify the impact people face. Those who have been following the changes to the rules over the last year may have seen things such as the following. On the student route, if those reapplying have been supporting themselves financially without recourse to public funds for 12 months or more, we do not now ask them to prove it as part of their next application. They can do that, having done it visibly. We have changed the English language qualifications, ending a position that was rather bizarre. Someone who went to a state school and had achieved, say, an A grade at GCSE English language or even an A in A-Level English literature was then asked to pass a secure English language test. We are starting to reform some of our rules to look at the wider impacts.

A particularly interesting one, which I am quite keen on, is looking towards the reuse of biometrics and how we capture biometrics. The right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland set out quite well exactly what a biometrics appointment can mean, and not just for those looking to make a reapplication for leave to remain here in the UK, but sometimes for those looking to get secure entry clearance. An example highlighted to me was of a couple of cultural performers who were Aboriginal Australians. Thankfully, they came within our generous visitor route provisions for the performance they were going to make. Had they been coming for slightly longer, the most expensive part of their visa application would have been the trip from the outback to their nearest visa application centre to give us their fingerprints and facial biometrics.

To reassure Members, we are looking to make a change. The first step is to look at increasing the amount of biometric reuse in our system. That means people can reapply using the fingerprints and facial images they gave in a previous application. The second part is looking at how we can remotely capture biometrics from those who are making applications for the first time. The right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland may wish to know that, for example, the vast majority of EEA nationals applying to our skilled worker route will be able to supply the biometrics using an app on their smartphone to check the chip on their passport without visiting a visa application centre.

As some may have picked up, last month we launched an enhancement to the settlement route for British nationals overseas and their households ordinarily resident in Hong Kong by allowing a fully digital application route. This is the first time we have done that for non-EEA nationals, and it allows many Hong Kong special administrative region and, we believe, virtually all British national overseas passport holders the ability to apply from home if they qualify for that route.