Family Visitor Visas

Stuart C McDonald Excerpts
Monday 9th July 2018

(2 years, 2 months ago)

Westminster Hall
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Home Office
Kate Green Portrait Kate Green - Hansard
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) - Hansard
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) - Hansard
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.

Break in Debate

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.