Stuart C McDonaldMain Page: Stuart C McDonald (Scottish National Party) - Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East)
Department Debates - View all Stuart C McDonald's debates with the Home Office
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.
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.
Break in Debate
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.
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.