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

I appreciate that, as a former Home Office Minister, the hon. Lady might think that “soon”, “nearly” and “shortly” can have different meanings—I can see you smiling as well, Mr McCabe. We are concerned about this, and the hon. Lady will appreciate that we need to make sure we do it correctly and properly, so we will not simply chuck out a timetable from the Dispatch Box today. However, as I say, we are progressing and looking to promptly respond to the court judgment.

It might be helpful if I come on to fees and exceptions, the process of which was raised by numerous hon. Members. To be clear, the Home Office has always provided for exceptions to the need to pay application fees for leave to remain in specific circumstances. The exceptions ensure that the Home Office’s immigration and nationality fees structure complies with our international obligations, such as in relation to refugees, and wider Government policy, such as the protection of spouses from domestic abuse and the protection of vulnerable children.

The hon. Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch asked whether we have looked at fee waivers in recent times, and we have. We recently broadened the fee waiver policy to ensure that considerations of affordability and prospect of destitution are taken into account when assessing applications. The overseas fee waiver policy is also being revised to include an assessment of the criterion of affordability for specified applications under the article 8/human rights route. The revised policy is expected to be in place from August this year. In the meantime, we will consider urgent applications for an overseas fee waiver, although I am sure the hon. Lady will appreciate that with the strong limits on international travel at the moment, the number of people potentially travelling is much lower, for reasons beyond immigration.

In addition, we have also introduced a waiver that will allow for fees to be waived in exceptional circumstances, providing the Department with more flexibility in circumstances where a number of individuals have been significantly impacted by circumstances beyond their control, rather than having to assess each case individually for the fee waiver where there is a group that needs to be accommodated.

Various Members raised the immigration health surcharge. We were clear in our manifesto that it is right that all who may benefit from NHS healthcare have made a contribution to it in line with their immigration status. We recognise that although some who migrate to the UK will pay tax and national insurance contributions from arrival, they will not on average have made the same contribution to the NHS that most UK nationals and permanent residents have made or will make over their working lives. It is therefore fair to require them to make an up-front and proportionate contribution to the NHS, the cost of which compares quite favourably with the type of medical insurance or healthcare charges that those migrating to other countries may face.

The hon. Lady rightly said it is hard to make a direct comparison. For example, many countries, including in Europe, do not provide the comprehensive level of free-at-the-point-of-need healthcare that the national health service here in the UK provides, including to those who have what we deem as a temporary migration status.

We can make a quick comparison. For example, New Zealand requires international students to take out a form of health insurance. Ireland charges for visits to A&E where attendance is without a referral letter from a doctor—of course, there are no charges for urgent and emergency care here in the UK—or charges to see a family doctor and has some hospital charges. Non-EU international students in Ireland are not covered for free medical attention off campus and must have their own private health insurance. And that is to leave aside examples such as the United States of America, where, as all of us recognise, the cost of health insurance to obtain provision that is not even close to what the NHS provides is extreme.

Again, we believe that it is appropriate that this system is in place, although we of course have, with the introduction of the health and care visa and the refunds policy, looked to exempt those who work on the frontline of health and social care, in recognition that their contribution is made through working in such roles.

The Government remain committed to maintaining support for the vulnerable who come into contact with the immigration system and ensuring that they are treated fairly and humanely. By setting fees at the level at which we do and by putting the onus to pay on those who benefit from our services, we reduce the burden on the Exchequer and the wider taxpayers of this country. To be clear, the Home Office does not make a profit from application fees. Fees account for about 70% of the cost of operating the border, immigration and citizenship system, with funding still required from the taxpayer more widely to support the system. Decisions on how the system is funded are complex and require several factors to be carefully balanced to ensure that we can maintain an effective immigration system. In making those decisions, we must also, of course, be mindful of the lessons learned from the Windrush scandal.

Immigration fees have, in the main, remained static now for some time; the last increases were in April 2019. In addition, the Government have introduced comprehensive measures to support people and businesses, including wide-ranging financial support, throughout the global pandemic. Many were available to people working in the country, even with their migration status, given that they were not classed as public funds. For example, the furlough scheme could be used to support someone working on, for example, a skilled worker visa.

As we go forward, the Home Office is committed to playing its part as the world recovers from the devastation of the global coronavirus pandemic. As I touched on earlier, we have introduced the health and care visa. We have also introduced changes to the minimum income and adequate maintenance requirement for those applying to enter or remain in the UK on the basis of their family or private life, so they are not disadvantaged if their income has been affected by the impact of the coronavirus. For example, with those on furlough, we consider them, for immigration assessment purposes, as if they were on 100% of their salary, even if they are receiving only 80% under the furlough scheme. In addition, we have introduced a new points-based system, which we believe is firmer, fairer and works in the interests of the UK, alongside the benefits that simplification of the rules can bring, as I outlined earlier.

We recognise that immigration fees will always be a subject for debate, but they play a vital role in ensuring that we have an effective border and immigration system. We are committed to keeping fees for visa, immigration and nationality services under review, including by taking account of the issues raised in this and previous debates on this matter.