Consistently the most popular article on Free Movement, somewhat depressingly, is the list of immigration and nationality fees. The fees charged by the Home Office for processing visa, settlement and nationality applications are high, set far above the actual administrative cost to the department. Fees constitute a significant source of revenue for the department and exemptions are very difficult to come by. Ex-soldiers, victims of domestic violence and children trying to register as British are all tapped up.
What does the Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration have to say about this? The inspector is an ex-M15 man whose remit is operational efficiency, not solidarity with migrants. Nevertheless his report on Home Office charging and fees, published today, recognises the burden that the fees regime represents.
Impact of fees on poor and vulnerable migrants
David Bolt received 600 responses to his call for evidence, far more than for any previous report. He takes the trouble to acknowledge the “many personal stories of hardship and suffering” recorded in these cahiers:
faced with having to pay thousands of pounds to renew their leave to remain, typically every 30 months, some families who are trying to regularise their stay in the UK are “constantly in debt to friends, family, mosque or church members, and in the worst cases loan sharks”. Many are “reliant on charity for their everyday needs”. Some are homeless, “staying with friends, sleeping in churches or on night buses”, some are forced into “exploitative situations”. Uncertainty over their long-term status hampers their access to services, including to employment as some employers are reluctant to offer permanent contracts to employees with time-limited leave. In short, they are unable to lead “a normal life”, and this can adversely affect their mental and physical wellbeing, creating feelings of anxiety, humiliation, isolation and inferiority.
The inspector was never expected to issue a clarion call for reform, though. That is not his job. Mr Bolt’s overall conclusion is sober, but critical:
while the Home Office has successfully managed to move closer towards its aim of a self-funded immigration system by 2019-20, it has not paid enough attention to explaining individual fees and increases to its customers, particularly those seeking settlement and nationality, leaving it open to accusations that its approach is not truly transparent or fair, that its services are not reliable, and that its fees do not represent ‘value for money’.
In terms of the impact on children and other vulnerable groups affected by fees, the inspector is limited to a recommendation for official equality assessments to be made public. That way, the public can see whether “the social and welfare impacts on children, families and vulnerable persons” have been properly factored in. The Home Office says that it will consider this on a “case by case basis going forward”.
Pressure for substantive reform of immigration and nationality fees — such as the £1,012 cost of registering a British-born child as a British citizen — will quite properly need to come from other quarters. Don’t hold your breath on the political front, though. The main opposition party has boasted that “Labour will end this rip-off. Charges will be reviewed so that they closer reflect the actual cost”. But Mr Bolt’s review shows that when orders setting maximum fee levels were put before MPs, Labour did not oppose them. The relevant orders were waved through after 6 minutes of debate in 2017 and and 18 minutes of debate in 2018.
Refunding fee surpluses where applications are refused
It turns out that the swinging fee increases of recent years have been part of a Home Office master plan set in 2016. Under the plan, fees for visas considered to contribute to economic growth (visit, work and study) would rise by 8% in total over several years. “Non-growth routes” such as settlement and nationality would increase by a whopping 47.5%. (The good news here is that the increases have been front-loaded, so all fees should be frozen in the 2019/20 financial year.)
The Home Office justifies the higher rate of increase in settlement and nationality fees routes by pointing to the “considerable benefits and entitlements available to successful applicants”. Mr Bolt points out the logic of this position:
that where the fee is set above cost because it includes the ‘benefits that are likely to accrue’ if the application is successful, as with nationality and settlement fees, the ‘surplus’ should be refunded where the application is refused.
But this is not what happens. If an application is refused, the Home Office keeps the whole application fee despite the applicant accruing no immigration “benefits” for their money. As such, one of Mr Bolt’s 12 recommendations is that unsuccessful nationality or settlement applications should be refunded, with the Home Office retaining only the administrative cost (unless there was fraud involved). The department has already rejected this recommendation without much by way of explanation. The inspector comments:
The Home Office has said that it will “carefully consider” my recommendations “in the context of the next Spending Review”. I am disappointed that the Home Office does not recognise that this is a question of basic fairness, which should not have to wait on discussions with the Treasury about the department’s future funding.
Similarly, the inspection concluded that “the Home Office had made little effort to articulate in terms that non-experts (including most customers) would readily understand how its processes resulted in specific fee levels or annual increases”. It recommended publishing a breakdown of how the “benefits” to an individual migrant has been calculated for each fee. This was perhaps mischievous, as it is unlikely that the department calculates any such thing, and this too has been turned down flat. The Home Office says that “as the actual benefits to any given applicant are also likely to vary depending on their personal circumstances, it is not possible to attribute specific amounts to benefits experienced by a successful applicant”.
The report also reveals that the Home Office had been “mischarging” people (overcharging, presumably, although this is not made clear) for replacing biometric residence permits and reported itself to the government’s internal auditors last year.
In total the inspector makes 12 recommendations for change, of which the Home Office has accepted or partly accepted 10.