Family Visitor Visas Debate

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Department: Home Office

Family Visitor Visas

Caroline Nokes Excerpts
Monday 9th July 2018

(2 years, 2 months ago)

Westminster Hall
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Home Office
Afzal Khan Portrait Afzal Khan - Hansard
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) - Hansard
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.

Thangam Debbonaire Portrait Thangam Debbonaire - Hansard

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.

Caroline Nokes Portrait Caroline Nokes - Hansard
9 Jul 2018, 5:40 p.m.

The hon. Lady is correct to pick that up. I was specific in what I said, which was that, in total, 2.1 million visitor visas were granted. I do not have the number for family visitor visas in front of me, but I am happy to write to her after the debate with that.

The petitions we are discussing focus on visitor visas, and I will begin by setting out why we must have them. The first duty of the Government is to keep citizens safe and the country secure, and visas are one of the effective means we have in that regard. They are a good tool for reducing illegal immigration, tackling organised crime and protecting our national security.

Nationals of some non-European economic area countries need a visa to visit the UK. However, the requirements that must be met are the same for everyone whether there is a visa requirement or not. All applications, whether lodged at a visa application centre or at the UK border, are assessed case by case according to individual merits and against the part of the immigration rules that relates to why someone is coming to the UK. Visitor visas are available with validities of six months, two years, five years and 10 years, which allows those wishing to visit the UK regularly or at short notice to do so without having to apply for a new visa each time they wish to travel.

Thangam Debbonaire Portrait Thangam Debbonaire - Hansard
9 Jul 2018, 5:42 p.m.

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.

Caroline Nokes Portrait Caroline Nokes - Hansard
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 - Hansard
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 - Hansard
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.

Stuart C McDonald Portrait Stuart C. McDonald - Hansard
9 Jul 2018, 4:37 p.m.

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.

Caroline Nokes Portrait Caroline Nokes - Hansard
9 Jul 2018, 5:50 p.m.

Speed is important, but also when someone receives a refusal the reasons are given and can be addressed in a fresh application.

The removal of the right of appeal for family visitor visas was regarded as a proportionate measure to ensure that a right of appeal was available in the most significant and complex cases and that another avenue—that of making a new application taking into account the reasons for refusal—was available in visitor visa cases. However, I accept that sometimes mistakes are made and I take the distress caused very seriously. I reassure hon. Members that if a customer is unhappy with any aspect of the service they receive, there are routes to provide feedback, request a refund or lodge a complaint. Those are all made clear in the communications that go out to customers at every point of their application. Locally, teams rigorously interrogate complaints data and respond to arising issues.

I reassure Members that the Government are absolutely committed to welcoming genuine visitors to the UK. I take seriously my duty to balance border security and the priority of having a high-performing, customer-focused and continually improving visa service.

Helen Jones Hansard
9 Jul 2018, 5:29 p.m.

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.

Resolved,

That this House has considered e-petitions 206568, 210497 and 201416 relating to family visitor visas.