Family Visitor Visas Debate

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Department: Home Office

Family Visitor Visas

Kate Green Excerpts
Monday 9th July 2018

(2 years, 7 months ago)

Westminster Hall

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Home Office
Faisal Rashid (Warrington South) (Lab)
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9 Jul 2018, 4:49 p.m.

I thank my hon. Friends the Members for Warrington North (Helen Jones) and for Bristol West (Thangam Debbonaire) for putting the case very eloquently and for giving us information and examples. We are debating this petition because, across the United Kingdom, the relatives of British citizens, who want nothing more than to visit their family, are being prevented from doing so. My hon. Friends have given examples of constituents who have contacted them, and I have been contacted by many constituents who are victims of the Government’s cruel and inhuman approach to immigration. I am pleased that we have the opportunity to raise their plight today.

My constituent, Mr Sul, came to the United Kingdom in 2006 to study for his masters. He has worked in the United Kingdom ever since and was granted citizenship in 2015. He owns a home in the United Kingdom and his children were born here. How did the Government choose to thank him for making this country his home, for contributing to our economy and for his family’s contribution to their local community? They denied his wife the opportunity to have her mother present for the birth of their first child, and they denied his father the opportunity to travel to the UK to meet his grandchildren and take pride in the home his eldest son had built. That is absolutely inhuman. My constituent is not alone; many others have contacted me and my hon. Friends.

Unjustly refusing visas causes unnecessary emotional distress and keeps families apart, preventing them from sharing important moments together. The practice of preventing visitors from entering the country is not only deeply unfair to those UK citizens and their families, but harmful to the UK’s tourism industry. Those people are potential tourists who would spend their money on local goods and services, boosting the local economy.

We all recognise the need to secure our borders, reduce illegal immigration, tackle organised crime and protect national security, and I commend the work of the vast majority of Border Agency officials who work hard daily to do just that, but let us be clear: denying those visas is not about border security. It is an ideological choice by the Conservative Government to create a hostile environment for immigrants and their families, which was first launched by the Prime Minister. The Home Office is misusing immigration rules to prevent honest people from visiting the country, and is so afraid of any challenge to its unjustifiable decisions that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol West said, in 2013 the Government removed the right of appeal for family visitor visas. They have allowed the Home Office to become judge, jury and executioner in relation to the lives of the families of British citizens. This gross misuse of immigration rules is similar to an issue we debated in Westminster Hall last month, at which the Minister was also present—the use of paragraph 322(5) of the immigration rules to deport honest, hard-working immigrants.

The rejection of family visit visas and the refusal to hear appeals in cases such as that of my constituent are yet another manifestation of the hostile environment policy. We have a new Secretary of State, but we appear to have the same old problems. Will the Minister tell us that things will be different under the new Secretary of State? Will he tackle the hostile environment policy, which has infected the Home Office since the days when the Prime Minister was Home Secretary, or should we expect more of the unfair mistreatment of British citizens and their families that we have witnessed since 2010? I second the positive suggestions made by my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol West and urge the Minister to look at them seriously.

Kate Green Portrait Kate Green (Stretford and Urmston) (Lab)
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9 Jul 2018, 5:09 p.m.

It is a great pleasure to participate in this debate under your chairmanship, Dame Cheryl. I draw the House’s attention to my declaration in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, in respect of the research support I receive in my office for the work I do on immigration and asylum matters.

My constituents’ experiences are similar to those that my hon. Friends have related this afternoon. There is, to a degree at least, a sense that there is a culture of disbelief in the Home Office when cases come forward for decision. I am sure the Minister will wish to address that. The consequence is often heartbreak for families: relatives miss important family occasions and celebrations. As we have heard, they miss the births of grandchildren and come too late to visit terminally ill relatives. Sometimes they worry that there is little hope that very elderly relatives will ever have the chance to see family members again. Even if a favourable decision is eventually made, they may have had many months and years of heartbreak, during which time the family members remained apart.

I am sure the Minister understands that, in many such cases, timely decision making is of the essence, because the events are often one-off, significant occasions that cannot be repeated. The first question that I want to put to the Minister is, how can the process be made speedier, as well as more reliable and compassionate?

Thangam Debbonaire Portrait Thangam Debbonaire
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9 Jul 2018, 5:09 p.m.

Are my hon. Friend and the Minister aware of the speed with which the Indian e-visa system now operates? One can fill in a form on Sunday and have an e-visa returned by Wednesday.

Kate Green Portrait Kate Green
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9 Jul 2018, 5:10 p.m.

I did not know about the speed of the Indian e-visa system, but I am sure the Minister will want to comment on that comparison.

The decision making often seems irrational and random, in terms of the way factors determine the outcome of applications. As we have heard—I have experience of this from my constituency—people who have previously been granted visitor visas, made a visit to this country and then returned to their home country find that when they submit subsequent applications to do exactly the same thing, often with exactly the same facts, their new application is rejected. As we have heard, visas are often refused because they lack some key piece of information. It has often never been made clear to the applicant that it is necessary, so it is hardly surprising that it is not supplied. Again and again in my constituency, I have heard examples of very clear evidence of an intention to return that has seemingly simply been ignored.

We heard about the reports of the independent chief inspector of borders and immigration. The 2015 report found considerable evidence of the systemic problems mentioned by my hon. Friends and of the rules not being applied appropriately. In one overseas visitors section, in Jordan, the inspector found that evidence was overlooked or misinterpreted in more than 10% of applications, and that 43% of refusal notices were “not balanced”. In a wider report, again by the inspector, 30% of visit visa cases sampled failed the Department’s own quality standards. I know that the Minister will not be satisfied with that kind of performance, and we need to hear what she will do about it.

In cases from my constituency, applicants have provided evidence of land ownership and substantial personal wealth, or income statements from their employers, only for such evidence of resources seemingly to be ignored. In other cases, children, grandchildren, the spouse or other family dependants have remained at home—clearly an applicant will want to return to them—but cases have simply been dismissed for not demonstrating strong enough family ties. It is hard to think what more an applicant can do than to demonstrate a tie to a spouse, child or grandchild.

I have heard of refused cases of applicants who have held responsible roles in their home country. In one case I have been dealing with recently, the visitor was a councillor—an elected member of the local legislature—and in another, a doctor and university professor was deemed likely, for some reason, not to return home. I have seen the Home Office dismiss what it characterises as “claims” to be in employment, implying that an applicant is lying in the application. Applicants feel very offended, hurt and alarmed about that. I have heard of cases in which families have been forced to make multiple applications, as they receive refusal after refusal, costing them thousands of pounds and going on for years and years. None of that is satisfactory or acceptable, and I do not think that the Minister will tolerate it either. I look forward to what she has to say.

The Minister is aware of my particular concern, because I have expressed it to her directly in the past: family members seeking to visit who are resident in refugee camps. I understand how difficult such a situation is for the Government to assess but, by definition, such people cannot demonstrate an immediate intention to return to their home country, because that country is not safe. Often they will not have documentation because they have fled, leaving everything. However, she knows—I have discussed a particular case with her—that those families are as desperate to visit as any. Family members have gained asylum in this country successfully, which is greatly to this country’s credit—for example, under the community sponsorship scheme—but, having given that initial welcome to such desperate people, we cannot agree to their family members making visits at a time of important family need. Will the Minister look at what can be done in this situation—I recognise that it is difficult and challenging—to ensure that when applicants are resident in refugee camps we have the most flexible and compassionate approach possible to give them the chance of family visits, too?

We heard from all my colleagues about the problems that have arisen following the removal of appeal rights. Not only is that unjust and worrying for applicants, because they feel that the refusal of an administrative application will taint a future one, but it is disingenuous of the Home Office to advise that a fresh action is quicker and more straightforward than making an appeal. I have heard cases of constituents who have had to go through the process again and again.

Equally importantly, however, the lack of an appeal process might remove any route or incentive for the Home Office to learn from and improve on poor and wrong decision making. The lack of such a process removes the feedback loop that might drive up quality standards. With my colleagues, I urge the Minister to look again at some reinstatement of appeal rights.

In conclusion, we are clearly not talking about isolated incidents; the system is poor, irrational and painful for families, and none of us can see any sign of things getting better—indeed, we fear that they are getting worse. As my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol West (Thangam Debbonaire) said, in the context of global travel, of it being more common for families to live in different countries, and of Brexit—whatever happens about settled status, in future more European visitors will visit family members who may not qualify for settled status—and when, as we understand, the Home Office faces so many pressures, to streamline and simplify the visitor visa system would surely be an early win for the Government, and one that would make an enormous difference to families who simply long to see their loved ones at times of important family events.

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.