Caroline NokesMain Page: Caroline Nokes (Conservative - Romsey and Southampton North)
Department Debates - View all Caroline Nokes's debates with the Home Office
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.
The Minister is generous in giving way. Will she clarify something? I think she said that in 2017, 2.1 million visitor visas were granted, each in less than eight days. Is that figure for family visitor visas or for visitor visas, full stop? If the latter, does she know how many were family visitor visas? There are aspects specific to those visas.
The Minister is being terribly generous in giving way, but I must press her. The debate is specifically about family visitor visas, which are for a specific group of people whom the Home Office often seems to suspect will stay on because they are family visitors. That is not the same as general visitor visas.
I do not think it is fair to say we are asking for an appeal right instead of the ability to put in a second application; it is about having the choice. If there is urgency about it, someone can make a second application. However, if they receive two or three refusals, surely the only way they will ever be able to challenge that is through an appeal.
I thank all those who have spoken today, for despite what the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald) kindly said, I am not an expert on the subject of the debate. In fact, the only family in my constituency that I can think of, currently, who have someone abroad are called Lingard—but I think we will let Jesse back in.
It is important that Members have spoken about individual cases. We have heard a record of poor and inconsistent decision making and failure to read documents properly. I am sorry that the Minister is not taking that on board as she should. It is not possible always to get things right in any visa system, but there are systemic problems that affect British residents, taxpayers and citizens.
We have raised the individual cases not in the expectation that the Minister will comment on them—of course she cannot—but to illustrate the problems. In her response, she confused visitors to this country with those who need visas. They are not the same thing, as we all know. She needs to take the problems with visas for families more seriously. The mistakes are not occasional. They happen frequently, as we have heard, and cause distress to people in this country who are denied contact with their families. The vast majority of people the Committee has heard from are respectable, decent British citizens who simply want to have contact with their families. That is not a big ask.
I am sorry that the Minister does not seem to see the problems, and that she does not see that there is a problem in having no appeal system. That reduces the incentive to get things right first time. It means people do not learn from mistakes because, as has been said, there is no feedback loop. I am sure that we shall return to this problem, because it affects many citizens of this country and causes them anxiety. I hope that, in time, the Home Office will recognise that and separate the issue of immigration from that of visitor visas. That is not happening now but it needs to happen fairly urgently.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered e-petitions 206568, 210497 and 201416 relating to family visitor visas.