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(1) the matter of the scope for a Bill of Rights in Northern Ireland, being a matter relating exclusively to Northern Ireland, be referred to the Northern Ireland Grand Committee;
(2) the Committee shall meet at Westminster on Thursday 27th June at 2.30 p.m.; and
(3) at the meeting
(a) the Chairman shall interrupt proceedings at 4.30 p.m.; and
(b) at the conclusion of those proceedings a motion for the adjournment of the Committee may be moved by a Minister of the Crown pursuant to Standing Order No. 116(5) (Northern Ireland Grand Committee (sittings)).[Mr. Jim Murphy.]
Sue Doughty (Guildford): I am grateful for the opportunity to bring a matter of great concern to me to the attention of the House. In brief, the Government promise great things to foreign students who study here, but fail spectacularly to deliver when they arrive, not in the nature of their studiesour universities and colleges do a fine jobbut through a series of extraordinary hassles with their passports and visas. I have had many examples in my constituency. The immigration and nationality directorate of the Home Office appears to be the main culprit. It makes Railtrack under the right hon. Member for Tyneside, North (Mr. Byers) look like a shining example of efficiency by comparison. The story that I shall tell shows a saga not so much of joined-up government as of one Department frantically working to undermine the work of another.
The background to the problem is this: British universities and further education colleges, supported by the Department for Education and Skills, have much to offer overseas students, who, at the same time benefit the economy and education funding. We hope and expect that students gain not only an excellent education but a positive impression of this country which is of benefit to international relations as well as our international trading position. We hope that they will tell their friends what a good place the United Kingdom is to study so that more will come and extend that benefit.
Figures produced by the Higher Education Statistics Agency for the academic year 200102 show that nearly 240,000 overseas students were studying in the UK. In total, they represented 11 per cent. of all students in these institutionsan increase of about 17.5 per cent. above 199596 levels. The income to higher education institutions in 19992000, the most recent year for which figures are available, was £672 million5.2 per cent. of the total income for that sector.
The Prime Minister is aiming to increase the number of overseas students, and in June 1999 he launched a campaign to make the UK a world-class leader in international education and lifelong learning. Two key objectives were set for further education and higher education institutionsto be the first choice for quality among international students at higher education level, with an increase of 50,000 non-European Union international students by 2005, and to be the world's leading nation for international students to undertake further education, with an increase of 100 per cent. in full-time students by 2005.
To help achieve these targets, the Government put in place a four-element package of measures, consisting of a £6 million investment in the development and three-year promotion of a new UK education brand, led by the British Council, with enhanced marketing in priority countries, including India, Pakistan and China, the streamlining of visa arrangements for students applying to study in the UK, the easing of procedures on permission for students to work part time and in vacations and the expansion of the Chevening scholarship scheme.
Our further and higher education institutions have risen to the challenge that the Government have set with these new measures. The provisional data show a fall, as requested, of 6 per cent. of students from other EU countries, and an increase of 12 per cent. of students outside the EU. Moreover, there will be additional income from off-campus spending by overseas students.
This should be a good news story. Guildford college of further and higher education and Surrey university have marketed strongly in these countries. However, what should be a purposeful and pleasant visit to the UK by overseas students has been turned into forced exile for some and misery for many.
Like other right hon. and hon. Members who have the privilege of serving constituencies with higher and further education establishments, I regularly see cases in which an application for a student visa has resulted in an unacceptably long time before a passport is returned.
An example lies in the events that led up to my calling for this debate. A student at Guildford college, a Hungarian national, contacted me last October. She had first applied to the Home Office for a visa in April 2000 when she came to start a course of study at Chelsea. She then applied for an extension in good faith, having gained a place at Guildford college. I know that she is studying hard: her English has come on in leaps and bounds since I first met her. She has been here quite a while now.
The student submitted her passport and trusted that all was in order. She registered her home address as that of her English relatives, to be absolutely certain that documents would reach her. She lives in Guildford. A member of my team telephoned the Home Office on 14 November and was assured that the matter would be looked into. We made follow-up calls, and having heard nothing by December, I wrote to the then Minister, enclosing further documentation and evidence of her current course, as requested. We asked for a progress report but got no reply. A member of her family also wrote to the Home Office.
We followed up the problem in early February, having given the Home Office the opportunity to find the file, which we were told was in Becket house. We were promised a return call but never received it. On 27 February, we followed up again and were told that the file was with the Minister's correspondence officer. Meanwhile, the student was concerned that, after all this time, with my intervention, she should get her passport back. She wanted to go home for a visit before her exams. Having originally applied in April 2000, she thought that the passport would turn up and she booked a return ticket home.
We were told that the passport was not in the Minister's office but with the immigration control inspectorate. The student rang Lunar house and was told that the papers were there and she should go there at 6 o'clock the next morning. This is like Kafka. She duly got up at 4 o'clock, but when she got there she was told that the passport was not there and was probably in Becket house, so she came back. We followed up and the Home Office said that it had probably been lost and she should apply to the Hungarian embassy for a replacement. She was really
By the end of March, we had learned from the Minister's office that the entire application had been lost and the student would have to start the whole process again. By the end of April, she received a new passport from the Hungarian embassyit was rather more efficient that the INDand by 8 May we were following up yet again and, lo and behold, the original passport turned up in Becket house. By late May, her file was back with the Minister. I am afraid that that is my fault, because with all that was going on we had by then requested this Adjournment debate.
Surprise, surprise, having written three letters to the then Minister with no response to any, since securing this debate I have received a response from the current Minister. It came by fax at 1.20 pm last Friday. Half the information in it is wrong. Information requested has already been supplied, and other information about the history is simply inaccurate.
I shall not go into the detail of the letter here, and I would not have brought the matter to the House if that was the only problem, but it shows the complete lack of competence in the handling of some applications. There is a fast-track scheme, and it works brilliantly. I have a student who does some cleaning for me who is really pleased with it, but when a student application is not allowed within the scheme and has to go through the standard route, there are problems.
The system is unacceptably slow. Delays of six months are commonplace, and Surrey university and Guildford college have examples of delays of more than a year. The standard letter of reply mentions a likely delay of nine months. To deny a person his or her passport for so long is completely unacceptable and possibly an abuse of human rights. A person cannot travel or use the passport for identification, for example to set up a bank account or get part-time employment or concessionary student cards. Students without their passport feel insecure. They are brought up to have identification and expect to have it if asked by the police. They have a constant nagging feeling that they are doing something wrong. When we raised some of those points, we were told that a student could get their passport back by withdrawing their application, but that is fatuous because the student would have to start all over again thus prolonging the delay, or return to their own country to await the renewal of their visa there, thus interrupting their studies.
I can understand the IND's concern about citizens from certain countries of the world. Among the student population it is strongly believed that applications from Libyans, Iranians, Pakistanis and Zimbabweans will never go through the fast-track system. That can be due only to suspicions that they do not desire to return home on completion of their studies, and the IND may want to check the facts. However, to create anxiety among people does no good; it does not help relations with their countries and makes a lasting impression on those people.
Furthermore, there is deep suspicion among many students that those from more affluent families experience longer delays because money might change hands. I cannot substantiate that suspicion as I have no evidence, but it is a common belief.
The university has regularly called on me and on my predecessor to untangle problemsas has Guildford college. I shall quickly refer to other cases, to show that the situation that I described earlier is not a one-off.
A Libyan student wants to spend a short period at a French university, with which her department has had contact, as part of her PhD programme. Her passport has been with the IND for six months and she cannot go to France.
Two Turkish Cypriots sent separate visa applications in October and November 2001. Despite their requests, the visa stamps were put in their passports, rather than their identity cards as required by their home country. One ID card was never returned, while the other was returned without a stamp and had to be sent back. All the documents were mislaidthey are still missing. The students experienced great problems in travelling to their home country and incurred considerable expense in obtaining replacement documents.
An Indian who visited my surgery made an application in December 2001. He had heard nothing by May when he was anxious to return home for a family wedding. His presence was urgently required as a close relative had been involved in a car accident and was in a critical condition. I managed to get that passport returned, but it needed my intervention.
It is embarrassing to have to apologise on behalf of my country for the way that we treat people who are not only our honoured guests but are also customers of education UK, yet I have to do so regularly in my surgery. I am repeatedly told that these events occur not only to students but to others, although we do not have time to deal with those cases.
The purpose of the debate is to find out what on earth is happening and to get to the bottom of it. Will the Minister tell me how things have got so bad? Why has it taken so long to do anything to sort out the mess? I am sure that it is not a Guildford special.
Will the hon. Lady tell me why we are advertising courses in other countries even though we know what will happen after students arrive in the UK? Do they know the hell that they will have to go through to sort out their documentation?
Is the Minister aware that many new students from Pakistan and Indiapriority countries according to the Prime Ministerwho are expecting to start courses in September and October are being denied access to entry clearance services and will not be able to take up their places? We are trying to sell courses to such people.
Is the Minister aware that, although international postgraduate students are crucial to our economy and to the academic viability of many universities, the Home Office often takes more than eight months to process applications for extensions of leave? During that time students do not have their passports and cannot go home for vacations or travel elsewhere.
Is the Minister aware that, although China has been identified as a priority one country by the Prime Minister, the majority of Chinese students experience delays of many months in the processing of their extension applications,
Is the Minister aware that, despite the Prime Minister's initiative to recruit more international students to the United Kingdom, passport stamps and vignettes have still not been amended to reflect students' rights to work as accorded as part of that initiative? Is she aware that students who succeed in appealing against the refusal of entry clearance will usually be delayed in joining their courses for the whole academic year? Is she aware that the Home Office's public inquiry office in Belfast is now closed, leaving international students studying in Northern Ireland with no way to make applications in person?
I know of many more examples from Guildford college that relate to the IND's friendliness. Getting the IND to do somethingfriendly or notwould be a good thing, but being helpful to those people and making them feel good while they are here might help to sell education UK. In short, we are trying to get joined-up government, but the IND does its best to undermine education UKthe British Council and the Department for Education and Skills in their work in attracting foreign students to our country. The situation is bleak. Can the Minister give me any hope for the future?