Afzal KhanMain Page: Afzal Khan (Labour - Manchester, Gorton)
Department Debates - View all Afzal Khan's debates with the Home Office
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.
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.
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
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.
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.