Family Visitor Visas Debate

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Department: Home Office

Family Visitor Visas

Afzal Khan Excerpts
Monday 9th July 2018

(2 years, 7 months ago)

Westminster Hall

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Home Office
Stuart C McDonald Portrait Stuart C. McDonald (Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East) (SNP)
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9 Jul 2018, 5:16 p.m.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dame Cheryl.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Warrington North (Helen Jones) on the way in which she introduced the debate. I was tempted to accuse her of misleading the House, because she said that she was not an expert, but by the sound of her speech, she certainly is now. In fact, we have had four excellent contributions so far.

I also congratulate the petitioners sincerely on securing a parliamentary debate on this important issue. The numbers signing the petitions have been remarkable—the first petition, in particular—and that indicates clearly how strongly the rules impact on people and families and how strongly people feel the need for change.

An important preliminary point to make is that I suspect that one reason why so many have been attracted by the petitions is that, increasingly, many people find that a family visit is the only way they get to see their partners, husbands, wives, children and parents—close family members—as well as distant relatives. Why? The reason is that we have some of the most draconian family immigration rules in the world. Tens of thousands of families are split apart, all in the name of the net migration target.

Almost half our population would not be able to meet the maintenance requirements imposed by the coalition Government, and the rules have a disproportionate impact on young people, women and those living outside London and the south-east. One reassurance that the Minister could give us today is that she has—I hope—ditched the proposals in the Conservative party manifesto to make those rules even more draconian by increasing the thresholds for various family visas.

We should not pretend, however, that improvements to the family visit visa rules would be the big fix or the final outcome that we are looking for. Such improvements would be welcome, but fundamental reform of the family migration rules is needed. Whether we look at the report of the all-party group on migration or of the Children’s Commissioner on the so-called “Skype families”—they included 15,000 children in 2015, according to the commissioner, so how many thousands more are there now?—or various other critiques, the pain that the rules are causing cannot be ignored.

Compared internationally, the UK is an outlier with its severe family immigration policies. One 2014 comparison of 38 western countries on facilitation of family unity put the UK in last place. UK requirements are difficult to meet, not only in the substantive rules but in the impenetrability of the evidence rules that must be met.

Family visits have therefore become even more important. That is not to say, of course, that they were not already important, and they certainly remain important for people who want to visit more distant relatives. As the hon. Members for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) and for Warrington South (Faisal Rashid) pointed out, the sense of injustice and heartbreak that many feel in such circumstances would be compounded if the result was missing a special occasion such as a wedding, a special birthday, a baptism or a passing out ceremony.

A number of colleagues have highlighted some very sad individual cases—elected councillors, doctors, transplant donors, charity visitors, long-serving nurses, grandparents and wedding guests all being denied visit visas—and I join the hon. Member for Bristol West (Thangam Debbonaire) in paying tribute to the caseworkers who do so much of the hard work in such cases. I could mention a handful of examples, but I think we have heard enough about the sorts of decisions that are too often being made.

Mistakes happen, and there will always be decisions with which we disagree. I recognise that entry clearance officers have a difficult job, but, as a number of hon. Members pointed out, there are deeper issues. Some of them were touched on in the 2015 inspection by the chief inspector of borders and immigration, which the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston highlighted. Those systemic issues, as she put it, included a lack of proper reasons being kept on file and, too often, the ignoring of positive evidence by decision makers, so that more than 40% of decisions were considered by the inspector to be imbalanced. Requirements were, in essence, made up by individual entry clearance posts. The inspector found quality concerns in 25% of entry clearance management reviews. The hon. Members for Bristol West, for Warrington North and for Stretford and Urmston were also right to highlight the danger of making decisions based on the country of origin alone.

It must be heartbreaking, especially for those who face the double whammy of being excluded from having their loved ones—husbands, wives and partners—join them here permanently, and being excluded from even having their loved ones come to visit on a temporary basis. In response to the points raised in the three petitions, there is a very strong case for arguing that there should be at least a strong presumption in close family cases that in the absence of specific, individual information to the contrary, an applicant who has shown that he or she can afford the visit and has suitable accommodation should be taken to be just that—a visitor, who will leave again in accordance with their visa. There must be an end to the deep-seated culture of disbelief and the failure to take into account things such as positive immigration or visit histories. Too often, decisions have been made because something is not clear or a document is missing. Why not pick up the phone instead of simply reaching straight for the refusal paragraphs?

There is so much we can learn from Canadian immigration laws and policies, which tend to be based on evidence and respect instead of random targets. The hon. Member for Bristol West rightly said that there seems to me to be real merit in providing family members with better access to the country than random tourists would generally get. I note the concerns that the hon. Member for Warrington North raised, and I will have to look at them.

The hon. Member for Warrington North made a persuasive case for a proper appeal right, and I absolutely agree. That would simply recognise the importance of these visits and the challenge that it poses to family relationships if there is no ability to pay short visits. It would also help, as the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston said, to concentrate the minds of the decision makers and improve the quality of decision making. Most importantly, it would simply be a way to access justice.

In conclusion, I welcome these petitions and I am happy to provide my broad support to them. However, the Government should be in no doubt that fundamental reform of their outrageous, outdated and inhumane family migration rules is urgently required.

Afzal Khan Portrait Afzal Khan (Manchester, Gorton) (Lab)
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9 Jul 2018, 5:23 p.m.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dame Cheryl. I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington North (Helen Jones) for opening this important debate and for so eloquently and forcefully putting the case forward. I thank all my colleagues for their contributions. It is also appropriate to thank all the tens of thousands of people who signed the three petitions. I am glad that we are debating this important topic.

The petitions we are considering raise two questions. First, do we want an immigration policy that respects the right to a family life, or one that breaks up families and prevents British citizens from being able to see their loved ones? Secondly, do we want a process that is effective, fair and transparent? I believe the answer to both questions should be yes. Our family visa system is not working. Too many visas are routinely rejected on false or unfounded grounds. Removing the right of appeal has meant that decision makers are not being held to account for poor performance. Where there is no accountability, prejudice and unequal treatment can flourish unchecked.

There are three main grounds on which family visa applications are unjustifiably rejected. As an MP with probably one of the largest immigration case loads, I can say this from personal experience and from evidence provided by campaigners and lawyers. First, the Home Office will claim an applicant does not have the means to support themselves while they are in the UK, when in fact they have proven that they can or that someone in the UK will take care of their expenses. My constituent’s mother wanted to visit her children in the UK after the passing of her husband. Clearly, it was an extremely emotional time when we would all want to be able to mourn our close family members. Her application was rejected because the Home Office claimed that she could not provide evidence that she was able to support herself while she was here, even though both her sons had agreed to support her for the duration of her stay.

Secondly, the Home Office will claim that it is not confident that the applicant will leave the country after their stay, even when they are here for a specific purpose or event, they have booked a hotel only for a certain period and possibly even a return flight, and they can prove they have permission from employers to leave work only for a limited period. Another constituent wanted her aunt to come and visit her. Her aunt has seven sons, two daughters and 10 grandchildren who she takes care of as a housewife in Pakistan. It is clear from her case file, and from my conversations with my constituent, that she fully intended to return after her visit, yet her family visa application was rejected because the Home Office did not believe she would go back at the end of her stay.

Thirdly, possibly the most infuriating and outrageous grounds for the Home Office to reject an application is because it has made a mistake. The case of Chinwe Azubuike was reported in The Guardian. She had not seen her family for 14 years when she invited them to London for her wedding. All of her seven applications on behalf of her family were rejected on the grounds that they did not “have sufficient funds available”, a claim that her immigration lawyer called

“unlawful, spurious and plainly wrong”.

As well as ignoring the fact that Chinwe and her husband had committed to pay all her family’s expenses, the decision was based on a basic error by Home Office decision makers, who confused yearly with monthly income. The accusation that the couple were lying about their income was therefore particularly insulting.

Basic errors resulting in outright rejections are not unique to the visitor visa system. I will discuss later wider failings in the Home Office, but from highly skilled migrants to the Windrush scandal, the Home Office cannot seem to get even the most basic information and checks consistently correct. The rate of refusals for visitor visas cannot be blamed solely on mismanagement and inefficiency. The assumption behind many of refusal letters is that, given the chance, nobody from Africa or the Indian subcontinent—such as Pakistan, Bangladesh, India and Sri Lanka—could possibly want to return home at the end of their visit to the UK. That is deeply offensive, not to mention plainly wrong.

I represent the great city of Manchester where, every two years, we have an international festival. Festivals up and down the country have difficulties.

Kate Green Portrait Kate Green
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9 Jul 2018, 5:29 p.m.

My hon. Friend will know because the Gurdwara is in his constituency, although many of the worshippers are my constituents, that there is particular difficulty in getting visitor visas for members of the Sikh community to come to participate in religious festivals.

Afzal Khan Portrait Afzal Khan
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9 Jul 2018, 5:30 p.m.

I am aware of that difficulty. There are similar issues when events are going on at the mosques. Manchester International Festival invited Abida Parveen, a renowned artist of international calibre, but it was a struggle—we all had to get involved to make sure she could get here. Only about a month ago, I got involved with another incident concerning an international artist. Many people, including my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington South (Faisal Rashid), I am sure, enjoy listening to Abrar-ul-Haq. He struggled to get a visa for a charity event and the whole event had to be cancelled. There are issues here that the Minister should consider.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bristol West (Thangam Debbonaire) touched on the introduction of e-visas in India, which is proving effective. I hope the Minister will elaborate on that and tell us whether e-visas will be rolled out to Pakistan, Bangladesh and other countries.

Let me turn to my first question: do we want an immigration policy that respects the right to a family life? Article 8 of the European convention on human rights states:

“Everyone has the right to respect for his private and family life, his home and his correspondence.”

The Labour party believes that right should be protected. We are committed to allowing spouses to come to the UK without a minimum income requirement, we will not force children to pay more than £1,000 to obtain citizenship just because their parents were not born here, and we will allow all reasonable requests for visitor visas.

An estimated 15,000 children live without a parent because of restrictions on family visas. When a reasonable request for even a visitor visa is turned down, families can be devastated. Children grow up used to the possibility that they may never see their parents, even for a short visit. The Government’s spouse visa rules have already been found to breach article 8. The Government have tweaked the wording of their policy since that ruling, but the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants argues that that has not made a difference to decision making. The right to a family life will be a guiding principle for Labour as we review our immigration system in government.

Does the Minister believe that charging £1,000 for citizenship is in the best interests of a child and their family? Does she think denying people the right to come for family visits—for weddings and funerals—respects the right to a family life? Family visitors are tourists, who contribute to our economy by visiting our great sights. Does she believe it helps her colleagues in the Department for International Trade sell the idea of a “global Britain” post-Brexit for it to be almost impossible to sustain family ties across borders? How does the fact that anyone who comes to Britain runs a high risk of not being able to have their family visit them while they are here help to build trade links?

My second question is: do we want an immigration process that is effective, fair and transparent? The right to appeal in family visa cases was removed in 2013—a move the Labour party opposed. Before their abolition, one in three appeals was successful, which raises concerns about how decisions were—and still are—made. The Minister must address the underlying issues with the application process and reinstate appeals so that her Department can properly be held to account.

In a recent report, the Select Committee on Home Affairs made a powerful and convincing case that the “refusal culture” in the Home Office is in dire need of root-and-branch reform. It pointed out that the removal of legal aid and of the right of appeal removed a

“valuable legal check on decision-making within the Home Office despite no obvious signs that the quality of decisions had improved”.

That lack of vital checks and balances was a strong factor in the Windrush crisis.

A system that sets people up to fail, coupled with the removal of checks and balances, has caused the wrong people—some of them British citizens—to be caught up in the hostile environment. On top of that, there is no evidence that any of those policies achieve their apparent aims. The chief inspector of borders and immigration said that the right-to-rent scheme

“had yet to demonstrate its worth as a tool to encourage immigration compliance, with the Home Office failing to coordinate, maximise or even measure effectively its use, while at the same time doing little to address the concerns of stakeholders.”

The Government’s approach to visitor visas is part of a refusal culture and a punitive hostile environment, which work against people who want to come to the UK, against British citizens who want to maintain family ties and against our country’s best interests. The chief inspector of borders and immigration and the Home Affairs Committee—independent bodies that spend significant time and resources investigating the Home Office—are united in saying that the effectiveness of the hostile environment has not been proved, and the Government have consistently ignored legitimate concerns that it hits the wrong people.

We clearly need to re-examine the visitor visa system and immediately reinstate appeals. It took too long for Ministers to realise the extent and devastation of the Windrush crisis. We need proper checks and balances to avoid a repeat of that scandal.

Caroline Nokes Portrait The Minister for Immigration (Caroline Nokes)
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9 Jul 2018, 5:36 p.m.

It is, as ever, a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dame Cheryl, and I congratulate the Chair of the Petitions Committee, the hon. Member for Warrington North (Helen Jones), on introducing this important debate.

I thank Members for their contributions and echo the comments of the hon. Member for Bristol West (Thangam Debbonaire) on the work of not only Members’ caseworkers, but UK Visas and Immigration decision makers. I think everyone in the Chamber would agree that their job is not easy.

I am not going to pretend that we at the Home Office always get things right. Although I am not in a position to comment on the individual cases that hon. Members raised, it is of course perfectly true that, both as a constituency Member and as Immigration Minister, I see cases where mistakes have been made. I am painfully conscious of the human impact of those mistakes—the missed graduation ceremonies, births and marriages at which families had wished to come together and celebrate, and the occasions when families had wished to come together to mourn. I know how difficult those situations are.

I do not wish to come across from the outset as unsympathetic, but I am going to point out the scale of visitor visa applications and of the visa and immigration service more generally, and the rate and average speed at which visas are granted. In the year to December 2017, UKVI received just over 3 million visa applications globally, of which 2.7 million were granted. Some 2.1 million visitor visas were granted last year—an increase of 10% on the previous year. The average processing time for a non-settlement visa globally was less than eight days. Some 97% of non-settlement visa applications were decided within the standard processing time of 15 working days.

[Stewart Hosie in the Chair]

It is important to reflect that UKVI works hard and at scale to process the number of visas it processes. It is completely incorrect and misleading to suggest that visa decisions are based on nationality bias. All applications are and must be considered on their individual merits and in line with the immigration rules, regardless of the nationality of the applicant.

The Government of course welcome genuine visitors to the UK. We want people to come here on holiday and to visit family, to study and do business here. It is a key Home Office goal that, as well as keeping the country safe, we should contribute to the prosperity of the United Kingdom. In 2016, more than 38 million people visited the UK. Those visitors in combination spent more than £22.5 billion. VisitBritain forecasts that in 2018 we will welcome close to 42 million visitors, who are projected to spend almost £27 billion. More specifically, the Government recognise the importance of family ties. Families should be able to spend quality time together, take part in important family events and build strong connections.

Break in Debate

Caroline Nokes Portrait Caroline Nokes
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9 Jul 2018, 5:49 p.m.

If the hon. Lady will be a little generous with her patience, I will come to the point of the three petitions we are considering. I did think it important to give a little context to begin with.

I am absolutely committed to ensuring that the UK visa service is high performing, customer focused and continually improving—that last point is important—in terms of both products available and the route to apply for them. There is always room to improve and—as we respond to evolving demands and requirements, harness new technology and reflect customer experiences and needs—we have a good story to tell.

As I said, 99% of non-settlement applications were processed within 15 days and the average processing time last year was just under eight days. Overall, customer satisfaction remains high. Comparisons are not straightforward, but we continue to believe that our visa service stands up well against key competitor countries. Having said that, I accept that we occasionally make mistakes, and I will address that later.

We continue to innovate, and our mission to deliver world-class customer service is informed by customer insight. For example, Access UK, a new intuitive online application service, has been successfully rolled out. Within the next few months, almost all customers worldwide will be able to apply for their new visa, visa extension or change of visa type via the new digital platform. UKVI also offers premium services, which mean that a visit visa can typically be processed in five days, and in some locations there is a super-premium service.

I am pleased that the hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Afzal Khan) referred to e-visas. I have much enthusiasm for the introduction of electronic travel authorisations, which I very much hope to see when the immigration Bill is introduced. Perhaps I might be able to look forward to his support on that.

The immigration rules set out the requirements to visit the UK, usually for up to six months. They apply to all visitors, and all applications are considered on their merits, regardless of the nationality of the applicant. Visitors must satisfy the decision maker that they are genuine visitors to the UK, that what they are coming to do here is allowed and that they will not work or access public funds. The decision maker looks at all aspects of an individual’s application and makes a credibility assessment against the immigration rules on the balance of probabilities.

I turn to the petitions, which call for a new visa category for parents of British citizens similar to that in Canada, automatic approval of visitor visas for families of British citizens and British citizens to be able to appeal the refusal of a family visitor visa. I shall address each in turn.

The Canadian super visa permits the parents or grandparents of a Canadian citizen or permanent resident of Canada to visit for up to two years, rather than for six months at a time as is usual. There are additional eligibility requirements, including minimum income thresholds, financial sponsorship guarantees from the family in Canada, Canadian medical insurance policies and medical examinations. Facts about applicants’ ties to their home country, as well as the overall economic and political stability of that country, are considered.

The UK’s long-held position is that visitors are those individuals who, in the vast majority of cases, come to the UK for a maximum of six months. We do not consider being in the UK for two years at a time as temporary or visiting, and therefore we do not intend to adopt a model like that of Canada. To do so, thereby allowing a select group of people to remain in the UK for two years as visitors, would mean that important considerations against the immigration rules would not be applied consistently, which could raise equality concerns.

Visitor visas are available with long validities, which means that people do not have to apply for a new visa each time they want to visit. Additional services are also available that reduce the processing time if, for example, people need to travel urgently. Long-term routes for family members are available; I will address them later.

The next petition calls for automatic approval of visas for family members of British citizens. Automatically approving visas rather undermines the benefits that the visa system gives us in border security. Visas are an effective tool for the UK in reducing illegal immigration, tackling organised crime and protecting national security. Automatically approving visas for a select group of people without consistent consideration could also lead to discrimination against people who do not have family members settled in the UK, but have just as valid a reason for wishing to visit. There would also be a danger of additional complexity in the assessment process around how someone confirmed that they were the family member of a British citizen. Unintended consequences could make the application process longer, more difficult and costly for everyone, due to the resources needed to undertake any additional verification that may be required.

The vast majority of visitor visa applications made are granted. Last year, the figure stood at 90%. That equates to more than 2 million visitor visas issued last year, which is an increase of 10% on the previous year. Those statistics mean little to those who do not get the visa they have applied for, especially if they feel that a mistake has been made in processing the application.

Afzal Khan Portrait Afzal Khan
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9 Jul 2018, 5:47 p.m.

Does the Minister believe that a relative abroad of anyone who lives here would fall into the same category as anyone else, or would they have a special position because family life required that relationship to be maintained?

Caroline Nokes Portrait Caroline Nokes
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9 Jul 2018, 5:48 p.m.

The hon. Gentleman asks an interesting question, but it is important that visa applications are considered consistently wherever the individual comes from in the world and whether they have family here or not. When we are seeking to attract visitors to the UK, we do not wish to discriminate against people who do not have family members here, which he pointed out was important.

That brings me to the third petition, on appeals. As we heard earlier, family visitor appeals were removed by the Crime and Courts Act 2013. At that point, no other type of entry clearance application, including those involving work or study in the UK, carried a full right of appeal in the event of refusal. The wide-ranging appeals reform introduced by the Immigration Act 2014 means that rights of appeal are now available only in cases involving asylum or humanitarian protection, human rights or rights under EU law. Where someone makes an application for a visitor visa and that application is refused, they will be provided with reasons for that refusal. It is open to those who have been refused to make a fresh application in which they can address any reasons given for the previous refusal.

There are practical reasons why a new application is a better approach than an appeal, both generally and for the individual visitor. Before the removal of the appeal right, such appeals accounted for about a third of all immigration appeals and, because of the volume of such cases in the system, they could take up to eight months to be concluded. Asylum appeals and other appeals on fundamental rights issues were therefore also delayed.

By the time the appeal had been determined, the circumstances might well have changed. For example, a document relevant to the application may have been found. There was also the possibility that the family event for which the visa was needed had already taken place, in which case the visitor, the person being visited and the appeal system—everyone—lost out. By contrast, the service standard for straightforward non-settlement visa applications is 99% processed within 15 days.