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There then followed the usual full debate on Second Reading, most of it unrelated to visitor appeals. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department said in his winding-up speech:
Mr. Straw: It is an attractive argument, and I wish that it were true. I know that my hon. Friend does not use the same kind of arithmetic as the Liberal Democrats, who simply make promises as though they were going out of fashion. They promise to spend extraordinary amounts, knowing that the one absolute certainty that we can perceive about any election is that they will never hold the responsibility of office and have to balance competing priorities.
I will come on to equity and the assertion that there is no equivalent to this kind of charge in a moment. However, first let me say that the pressures on the immigration and asylum system are huge. Staff have to
All those factors add up to significant additional costs. Omitted from the back-of-the-envelope arithmetic of the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey is the fact that, were this to be an entirely free service, the number of appeals would obviously rise rapidly, the costs would rise significantly, and the delays in dealing with appeals would be extended.
We decided to introduce the charges because funds are limited, even--and not least--because of the prudent way in which my right hon. Friend the Chancellor has conducted the economy, and because we want to be certain of delivering a streamlined system.
Mr. Jim Marshall: My right hon. Friend refers to the number of appeals being determined by the price mechanism. Can he tell us how the figure of 19,500 appeals was arrived at by the Lord Chancellor's Department, and what fraction that figure represents of the total number of refusals for applicants seeking visas for family visits to the United Kingdom? If it is not 100 per cent., what percentage is it?
Mr. Straw: I shall certainly get that figure for my hon. Friend and the House before the debate closes, and shall give it if I catch your eye again, Mr. Speaker. However, of the total number of applications for visitor visas at British posts around the world, the refusal rate is only 7 per cent. It is higher at some posts in the Indian sub-continent, but is not much higher in, for example, Bombay. In September, I visited posts in New Delhi, Bombay, Calcutta and Dhaka. The figure is higher in the last of those, but we do not always see the large number of applications processed satisfactorily on the day on which they are made.
Mr. Straw: No, but it is an issue. We want a streamlined system, so we have set the level of the fee for an appeal on paper at less than we expected two years ago and less than the House was then told. Remarkably few--though not no--representations or comments were made on either side of the House at that time or in Standing Committee, although the House had been given full notice of the likely cost of an appeal. We have set the cost of an appeal on paper at £150, which is less than the original proposal of £200, because we believe that that is the quickest, most effective and fairest way of ensuring that appeals are processed as speedily as possible.
The previous system, run by the Conservatives, was made almost useless by the fact that, although it was free, it took so long that it was often months and sometimes years after the event for which applicants wished to visit
On comparative fees, the cost of applying for a visitors visa is £33 in local currency. The cost of applying for a visa for settlement is £240. It is true that if someone applies for a visa for settlement, he or she has an automatic right of appeal, which is, as it were, included in the £240. However, if the person wins the appeal, none of the £240 is given back. The total cost of an appeal on paper--we expect most appeals to be made on the papers--would come to £183 for the initial application and the appeal fee. That compares well--it is plainly arithmetically less--with the £240, which no one has particularly gibbed at, that people must pay at present for a visa in settlement cases.
Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East): I am sure that my right hon. Friend is aware that people who run into the sand on their first application make multiple applications--although, of course, they have to make the £33 payments. One of my constituents made a total of seven applications; happily, this summer, the relatives visited Bolton. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the cost of administration of six or seven applications--or however many have to be made--together with the involvement of Members of Parliament who make protests to Departments must far exceed the £500 that we are haggling over this evening? Would it not be cheaper and cleaner to use the appeal process? The appeal would be upheld or dismissed.
Mr. Straw: The £500 fee is for a full oral appeal. Those estimates were made by the Lord Chancellor's Department, but as I was reluctant that fees should be set at that level, I assure my hon. Friend that we pared them down as much as possible. Of course, I understand that there are circumstances in which people both apply for visitor visas and raise such matters with their Member of Parliament; I hold five constituency surgeries each month, significant portions of which are taken up by immigration casework--including visitor appeals.
The reason that I was so determined to get a fast appeal system on to the statute book and then into operation was not only the frustration of my constituents, which was paramount, but my personal frustration when trying to pin down the facts about the circumstances of the visitor and the sponsor. Although it is true that--as many hon. Members have told me outside the Chamber--in settlement applications, it would typically be said both by the immigration service and by the appeal authorities that the credibility and integrity of the sponsor go without saying, but are not directly relevant to the position of the applicant, in family visitor applications the circumstances of the sponsor in this country are usually much more