HC Deb 27 March 1991 vol 188 cc1057-76 10.16 pm
Mr. Alistair Darling (Edinburgh, Central)

I beg to move, That the British Nationality (Fees) (Amendment) Regulations 1991 (S.I., 1991, No. 183), dated 4th February 1991, a copy of which was laid before this House on 8th February, be revoked. The Government are proposing substantial increases in the fees for naturalisation and registration. Those increases would be substantial even if the Home Office offered a speedy and efficient service, but the service is neither speedy nor efficient. It may be for the convenience of the House if I state now that I shall not seek to press a Division on the regulations, but it is important that the House debates what is an extremely important matter to many British citizens living in this country.

Delays are part of the immigration system of this country. Some suspect that delays are deliberately used as an instrument of control. Efficiency in the immigration and nationality department has been one of the many casualties of the Government's term of office. The Government, as the operators and employers of those who work in the immigration and nationality department, must accept the blame for that inefficiency.

In some ways, this debate is about value for money or, rather the complete lack of it. Last year, the Select Committee on Home Affairs, in its fifth report of the 1989–90 Session, paper 319, published another damning report on the work of the immigration and nationality department, condemning the Home Office's quality of service, especially for the very services for which the public will now have to pay more as a result of the regulations. The Select Committee said that the delays were "indefensible". That is how the all-party committee described the situation now prevailing in that department in Lunar house, in Croydon.

Mr. Keith Vaz (Leicester, East)

Does my hon. Friend realise that, if completions of naturalisation and registration cases continued at their current rate of 28 a month, it would take until the year 2084 before all the cases were completed? Does my hon. Friend agree that that is disgraceful?

Mr. Darling

I agree with my hon. Friend. This matter worries many of my hon. Friend's constituents and other Opposition Members. As I said, the Home Affairs Select Committee said that the delays were "indefensible". That Committee was not impressed by the explanations which the Government offered in evidence or by the promises that the Home Office would try to do better—for good reason, as it turns out.

The position has not improved over the past few months—indeed, it has deteriorated further. The delay in dealing with claims for naturalisation was, on average, about 27 months in June 1990, when the report was published. By Monday this week, 25 March, the delay had increased to 36 months—three years to deal with an application. In no other service would that be tolerated or be considered remotely acceptable.

On the same Monday, the delay in dealing with registration matters was two years, yet the Government propose that the fees for that service should rise—from £60 to £85 for registration, and from £60 to £135 for some naturalisations. It seems that the Government are charging more for a poorer service, yet they say that they model themselves on the private sector and operate in the marketplace. Surely they must realise that the immigration and nationality department would be out of business within weeks if it operated in any marketplace.

I look forward to hearing what the Government propose. This public service lies entirely within the Government's control. They operate the department and could improve services if they chose. I think that I can safely say that in no other service is there such a glaring example of Government complacency and Government inefficiency. Perhaps other hon. Members or even Ministers can point to another example, but I am not aware of one.

The Home Affairs Select Committee said: Delays are particularly unacceptable in a fee-based service. Yet we have greater delay and higher fees. It is ironic that this service is presided over by the ex-chairman of the Conservative party. The fees are paid up front and, in effect, the Home Office receives an interest-free loan from the applicants. The deposit is quite substantial.

One effect of the regulations is that, if applications are unsuccessful, a substantially increased part of the fee will be forfeited. It is unreasonable that a person who applies for registration or naturalisation should find, after two or three years, that he has failed and loses quite a substantial sum.

Whoever wrote the explanatory note which accompanies the regulations certainly had a way with words. The explanatory note says: The fee payable in respect of an application for registration as a citizen … is increased from £10 to £60, while the fee payable in respect of such registration itself is reduced from £50 to £25. Although there was a small increase in one respect, one would think that there was a reduction. However, the amount of money that will be forfeited in the event of an unsuccessful application has been increased considerably.

The Home Affairs Select Committee identified several problems in Lunar house, where the immigration and nationality department is based, for which the Government should take some responsibility and which they should put right. About a year ago, when I visited Lunar house, I was struck by the considerable staff turnover. By and large, the work is not particularly pleasurable, in that more often than not the Home Office tends to say no. In addition, certainly a year ago, there was a large amount of office space in Croydon and it was found that other employers could offer more attractive employment than the Government. Understandably, anyone who was sitting in Lunar house and looking around at the people going into the banks and insurance companies would realise that there was a more attractive option then making a career in Lunar house.

The Government have not dealt with staff conditions and staff training. The latter is particularly important when there is high turnover, as experience is needed to deal with applications. There could be catastrophic implications for an individual if his application failed.

The Minister should also consider the possibility of moving the immigration and nationality department from Croydon to another part of England—the midlands would be an obvious location. I know that that matter has been considered by the Government and other agencies, but perhaps the Minister will say something about that tonight, because that move might address the problem of high staff turnover. Perhaps the Minister could also tell us why the Birmingham office, which was heralded two years ago, was eventually acquired but did not open for more than a year because money was not available.

When one works in an atmosphere where delays are endemic and one knows that the Government hold the work done in the immigration and nationality department in fairly low esteem, it means staff morale can be low. The Government must accept responsibility for that. The service of that department is desperately needed by many of our citizens. They are entitled to a first-class service, not a second-class one.

In evidence to the Home Affairs Select Committee a Home Office official said: nationality work does to some extent stand on its feet Last year the Home Office almost made a profit on that aspect of its work, but that profit is indefensible when the Home Office is not delivering the service to match the high fees charged. Perhaps the Minister can tell us on what basis the fees are calculated. The nationality division costs about £5.9 million, which is almost covered by the fees received, yet that division's staff are engaged in other work—they are not wholly dedicated to processing applications.

The Home Affairs Select Committee has said: The principle of a cost-based service is only acceptable if a prompt service is provided. It is right to say that, but no prompt service is offered, nor has it been for some time. The Select Committee also noted: Compensation for poor service is widely accepted in the private sector. That is true, and it should be more widely accepted, particularly in the case of the immigration and nationality department.

For some time, the Labour party has accepted the principle of compensation for poor public service—we have set that out in our consumers' charter. That charter must be right and I do not believe that the Minister will condemn it tonight, because, lo and behold, the Prime Minister discovered exactly the same thing in his speech about mashed potatoes last weekend in Stockport.

We shall set targets for the Home Office for all aspects of its work. For entry clearance work, there should he strict time limits to deal with applications and similar time limits for issuing explanatory statements in the event of an unsuccessful application. Appeals should also be subject to strict time limits—similar to those that are commonplace in the normal civil law procedure of the various jurisdictions of the United Kingdom.

The delays that are part and parcel of the immigration procedures of this country are indefensible. They are bad for the public and for those who work in that sector. They should be tackled by the Government. Targets should be imposed so that the public are left in no doubt as to the quality of service they are entitled to expect. The Labour party believes that people should be guaranteed their money back, in whole or in part, in the event of failure on the part of the Home Office to honour the obligations incumbent upon it. If the Government set such targets and offer such compensation, it would be good for the pubfic, good for staff morale and good for the service.

What have the Government got to say about those proposals? Not a lot, I fear. Last week I asked the Minister to let me know when he intended to comment on the various recommendations made by the Home Affairs Select Committee. He replied: The Government undertook in their reply to the report … to issue regularly bulletins on the progress of nationality work. The first such bulletin will issue shortly."—[Offical Report, 25 March 1991, Vol. 188, c. 269.]

Nine months have elapsed since the Select Committee reported, but no bulletin has been issued and the Minister is unable to tell us when he will respond to the many useful suggestions of the Select Committee. That is yet another example of delay and of the Government's apparent inability to make up their mind how they should respond to some extremely sensible suggestions made by many hon. Members who are sympathetic to the Government.

The position on outstanding applications is particularly worrying. More than 16,000 applications for naturalisation lodged before January 1988 have still not been dealt with. Some 12,000 applications lodged between January 1988 and the end of December 1988 have not been dealt with. More than 16,500 applications lodged after January 1989 have not yet been dealt with. That is 46,000 applications which are still awaiting processing. That is clearly intolerable. Some 15,500 applications for registration have not yet been dealt with. Surely no Government could be satisfied with that. Surely no Government could rest and say that they are not prepared to tackle what is increasingly becoming an irritant to large numbers of people living in this country.

This debate is about efficiency and value for money. Unfortunately, we are getting neither of those in the service that is being provided by the Home Office. Perhaps the Minister could tell us what progress is being made with computerisation. Or are the Government being typically complacent in this branch of the service? The Minister tells us about the importance of gathering the fees and revenues due to the Home Office, but what exactly is being done to recover the large sums of money now outstanding in penalties imposed under the Immigration (Carriers' Liabilities) Act 1987? Surely those sums could help to defray the costs of the operations of the Home Office if the Government were of a mind to do something about collecting the arrears, which run to many millions of pounds.

The matter is important not only in terms of providing a service to members of the public or reducing the irritation and anger felt by many people who find that their applications are not being dealt with by the Home Office. It will be of crucial importance once the single market is completed in 1992. The Minister will be aware that one's ability to move around Europe will depend to a great extent on the status that one enjoys. If one is not a citizen or does not have right of abode or otherwise the right to move around Europe, people in this country who want to work in different parts of the European Community, which is the idea behind the single market, may find that they cannot do so simply because their applications have not been processed because of bureaucratic delay and red tape. That sort of inefficiency is inexcusable, and it will cause great anxiety and hardship to many people, especially once the single market is in full operation at the end of next year.

In this short debate, the Minister will have to come up with firm proposals on how he intends to tackle the unjustified and intolerable problem that has been created over the past few years. It must give him no satisfaction to preside over such a mess and such an unsatisfactory situation. An efficient system is needed—one provided at a reasonable cost. In my submission, the Government have failed on every count.

10.32 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Peter Lloyd)

The last time that fees for citizenship applications were raised was in April 1986—almost five years ago. It is right that the House should take this opportunity to discuss the increases which are now prescribed.

I hope to cover the main points raised by the hon. Member for Edinburgh, Central (Mr. Darling), who asked about fee setting. The current fee setting system replaced one which simply threw up cash surpluses or shortfalls and which was criticised by the Home Affairs Select Committee in 1983. We now have an accrual accounting method whereby income from applications is credited to the fees account stage by stage as the work is done. Interest credited for as yet unapplied fee payments is subtracted from processing costs so that applicants rather than the Exchequer get this benefit.

Fee levels are set to recover expected costs in each category of application and no more, but calculations have, of course, to be made on the basis of forecast levels of output and costs and it would be impossible to break exactly even all the time. In some years, therefore, our outturn accounts show a surplus, and in others a loss. Taken together over the six years from 1984–85 to 1989–90 the trading accounts show a net surplus in the order of £250,000. Our estimate is, however, that there will be a loss in the 12 months just ended and that, if fees are unchanged, a greater one in the coming year.

It is against that background that we have reviewed fee levels and have, as the Select Committee recommended, tried to remove any element of cross-subsidy. We expect that the revised fee levels will provide sufficient income to meet the cost of processing applications at least over the period from March 1991 to March 1992.

The level of fees for the three categories—residence naturalisation, spouse naturalisation and registration—have varied over the years. For example, the fee for naturalisation on grounds of residence was set at £200 in April 1982. It was reduced to £160 in April 1984 and then increased to £170 in April 1986. We do not intend any increase to that fee as a result of the present review. I hope that the House will welcome the fact that about one third of our customers will therefore pay less than their predecessors did eight or nine years ago to achieve British citizenship.

Mr. Vaz

The Minister used the word "customer". In November 1987, when he introduced the Immigration Bill, the then Home Secretary referred to providing a good customer service for those who went to Lunar house. Does the Minister believe, having listened to my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, Central (Mr. Darling) describe the disgraceful delays at Lunar house and in Liverpool, that he is giving his customers a good customer service?

Mr. Lloyd

We are giving our customers a good service, but it is not nearly as speedy as I and others would like. The hon. Member for Edinburgh, Central asked how fees were set and, as I am responding to him, I shall concentrate on that point until I move on to the service and, in particular, the speed of service.

Mr. Max Madden (Bradford, West)

Can the Minister tell us the impact on fees of the requirement to use detectives to carry out inquiries and interviews associated with nationality? I have always wondered why CID officers are employed on that work. Would not it be better, more effective, cheaper and quicker to use Home Office civilians than detectives who would be better employed chasing criminals, especially in view of the soaring crime rate that we have learnt about within the past 24 hours?

Mr. Lloyd

I do not have such a breakdown, but I am fairly confident that the proportion is small. We try to organise the service with sufficient flexibility that we do not use police officers and make investigations unless there seems to be a good reason for it. In most cases, there is not.

The fee for registration was set at £70 as long ago as April 1982. In April 1984, it was reduced to £55 and there was a small increase to £60 in April 1986. As a result of this latest review, it will now rise to £85.

The other main fee level, relating to naturalisation on the grounds of marriage, attracted a fee of £70 in 1982. That was reduced to £55 in April 1984 and increased to £60 in 1986. We now propose a substantial increase from £60 to £135.

When in 1984 and again in 1986 we assessed the amount of work that such applications would entail, we had little experience on which to base our assessment. Many married women, for example, were still exercising their rights to registration as British citizens under section 8 of the British Nationality Act 1981.

It was only with the ending of the transitional rights on 31 December 1987 that a clearer picture emerged of the cost of processing applications. Our latest analysis showed that the average cost of a successful application under section 6(2) is £143.95, whereas we charged only £60. Applicants in this category were, in effect, being subsidised by applicants in other categories. The rise is large, but consistent with the principle that applicants should meet the average cost of processing their own category of application.

However, we believe that it is right to continue the concession for members of the same family applying at the same time. Thus, couples applying together for naturalisation will continue to pay one single fee, as will minor children of the same parent applying together for registration. The continuation of the concessions is a real and practical help to families and an encouragement to them to apply for British citizenship together.

The major change to the fees introduced by these regulations, and mentioned by the hon. Member for Edinburgh, Central, is to charge unsuccessful applicants the cost of processing their applications. Hitherto, unsuccessful applicants have been charged only a minimal £10. In fact, the careful deliberation and the prolonged inquiries that can take place before an application is refused can take almost as much, and sometimes more, time and cost more money than one which is successful.

We believe that it is unfair to expect applicants who meet the requirements of the Act to pay the costs of those who fail, and we see no reason why the taxpayer should continue to subsidise them either. All unsuccessful applicants who apply after 1 March 1991 will have to meet the full average cost of processing their applications. That will be £60 for registration, £130 for naturalisation on the grounds of marriage and £135 for other naturalisation.

I do not believe that these fees will deter people from applying for British citizenship. Those who are properly qualified will not be affected. It may help other potential applicants to give more thorough consideration to whether they meet the unwaivable statutory requirements; a reduction in the number of ineligible applications can only be a good thing.

The Home Affairs Select Committee has said—the hon. Member for Edinburgh, Central referred to the subject—that the time taken to process citizenship applications was far too long. The Opposition have argued that it would be wrong to increase fees until a speedier service can be provided. I accept that the delays are far too long" and—as the hon. Member for Edinburgh, Central will know—I have rehearsed the reasons on several occasions. As he did not mention the position, I think that one can understand it only if I briefly outline those reasons again.

There was an unprecedented number of applications for citizenship in 1987. Most of them were for registration under the transitional provision of the British Nationality Act 1981, in which the entitlement to be registered ended, in most cases, on 31 December 1987. A large number of those applying had had many years in which to rnake applications for British citizenship, in some cases since 1973, but they left it until the last minute.

The Government expected an increase in applications for registration and thought that about 64,000 would be received. They also expected to receive 26,000 or so naturalisation applications. Some 16 additional staff were provided to cater for the extra work. In fact, 210,000 registration applications were lodged. In addition, the publicity, as the closing date for applications approached, also attracted 70,000 applicants for naturalisation, even though their rights were not affected by the ending o f the transitional period. The total number of all applications was, in fact, about five times the number received in 1986 and about three times the estimated number—resulting in a waiting period of three years. As the hon. Gentleman said, that is the current waiting time.

Mr. Darling

We all appreciate the problems that arose at the end of 1987, but can I take it from what the Minister was saying that, although it is proposed that the fees will go up as a result of the regulations, we cannot look forward to an improvement in the quality of service or the amount of time taken to process the applications be reduced? The thrust of what I was saying was that it seemed to be unreasonable to expect people to pay more for a pretty shoddy service.

Mr. Lloyd

I shall return to that point. There is a logical misapprehension in the case that the hon. Gentleman is making. The whole delay has been caused not by slowness in processing over time, but by the large backlog that was created at the end of 1987 and which has held everything back since. When that backlog is overcome, the average statistical time of processing will come down sharply.

Mr. Darling

I do not want to labour the point, but I am sure that the Minister will accept that, if he took a suit to be dry cleaned and he was told that it would take six months or a year to do it, he would not care why that situation came about: he would simply want to get his suit cleaned as quickly as possible. Exactly the same situation applies in Croydon. I appreciate that there were difficulties which are unlikely to arise again, but the customers, as the Minister calls them, want to know why their applications cannot be dealt with a little more speedily than three years.

Mr. Lloyd

If I were the customer or the applicant, I should think in exactly the same way. But if I were the Opposition spokesman who hoped to take over the business in a short time, I should want to look behind the problem to see what caused it. I should come to the conclusion that appearances did not describe where the difficulties were. The difficulties were at the end of 1987 and have not occurred since then. I shall return to that point.

To help deal with the processing of the applications a new nationality office was opened in Liverpool, in August 1988. The hon. Gentleman wondered what had become of the suggestion that it should be moved from Croydon. We decided to move the office to Liverpool, and primarily it handled the transitional application cases—those are the ones that came in at the end of 1987—with the target of taking decisions on all of them by 31 March 1990.

In fact, the Liverpool nationality office took decisions on all its registration cases by 19 January 1990, except those where replies from applicants were still awaited. Those cases consisted of those where we are waiting for the applicant to forward the fee, or to swear an oath of allegiance, or to send some other documentary evidence to establish an entitlement. The number of such cases is gradually being whittled away, and at the moment only 4,125 remain outstanding.

When the Liverpool nationality office had largely completed the processing of the registration applications, its staff were retrained in order to process applications for naturalisation. At the same time, we decided to move the base for dealing with citizenship matters from Croydon to Liverpool. In the long term, that will reduce the cost of processing applications, although I have to say that we underestimated the short-term effect that transferring work from Croydon to Liverpool would have on production, and waiting times have not fallen as quickly as we should have liked.

But the number of outstanding cases has nevertheless continued to drop—from 120,000 at the end of 1989 to 86,000 at the end of 1990. At the end of February, the backlog was down to 80,000. During that time, more than 29,000 fresh applications were being made. We are now concluding cases at the rate of 5,000 a month. Our determination to clear those cases as quickly as possible is evidenced by the increase of staffing levels in Liverpool from 140 to 205 in the coming financial year.

The transfer of work from Croydon to Liverpool was to have been completed by the end of March, but we have decided to keep a nucleus of staff, about 80, in Croydon until later this year to help reduce the backlog more quickly. We are taking other steps, too, to reduce the time taken to deal with applications. We have reviewed our operating procedures and the way in which the nationality division is organised to ensure that when we begin our consideration of an application, there will be no further avoidable delay in determining it.

Waiting times, currently 36 months for naturalisation applications, are—as I and the hon. Member for Edinburgh, Central said—far too long, but the underlying situation has been steadily improving. All the huge overhang of 1987 cases, and most of the 1988 cases, have now been started and we can expect that most of them will be determined within the next few months. [Laughter.]

The hon. Member for Leicester, East (Mr. Vaz) laughs, but he will understand, if he thinks about it rather than jeers, that the essential, if the average time is to come down——

Mr. Vaz

It has gone up.

Mr. Lloyd

It has gone up because we have not yet finished the applications made at the end of 1987—a huge influx of applications, five times as high as normal.

The reason why the waiting time appears to increase is that that huge number of applications came in at the same time. Therefore, until they are settled the average time will increase, but, as soon as they are out of the system, it will start to drop sharply. I know that the hon. Member for Leicester, East does not want to listen to what I am saying, because he is anxious to make his own remarks, but I suggest that, if he reflects on the figures for applications that came in since 1987, and the movement since then, he will realise that when the overhang is removed the average waiting time must, and will, come down sharply.

Mr. Vaz

So sophisticated is the way in which the Minister manipulates and massages the figures that I think that his next, portfolio will be Secretary of State for Employment. If he reads the evidence of his own civil servants to the Select Committee for Home Affairs, he will know that they have admitted, on his behalf, that they got the planning stages completely wrong. The responsibility for the disaster of 1987, when there was a huge influx of applications, rests with the Home Office, because it failed to plan properly. That is what his civil servants said. What the Minister should have done then is employ more staff.

Mr. Lloyd

The hon. Gentleman is quite right that the Home Office did not predict the size of the influx in 1987, but I hope that he will also accept that that influx was from people who might have put in their applications at any time during preceding years. It suggests that the absence of a British passport, at least for them—whatever annoyance and irritation their presence in the queue is causing for those who came later—was no great hardship. Otherwise they would have applied earlier.

The backlog of applications is being reduced; and I am quite sure that we shall see the benefits in shorter waiting times later this year.

Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North)

I think that the Minister is being a little unfair when he says that people could have applied much earlier. The fact of the matter is that a deadline was set by his office, which forced people to take a decision on whether to apply. Additionally, the increasingly unpleasant experiences of many people, permanently and legally resident in this country, while trying to travel around Europe on a non-British or non-European Community passport, more or less forced them into getting an EC passport to travel freely. I think that the Minister should think more carefully before he makes that sort of remark.

Mr. Lloyd

The sort of remark that I make is self-evidently true. As there was an opportunity for most of those people who applied at the end of 1987 to apply much earlier, they did not find it inconvenient not to have a British passport. The logic of that is so clear that even the hon. Gentleman, fair-minded as I know he is, will be able to accept it. However, I do not view that with any satisfaction or as an acceptance of the fact that there are delays. The delays are unacceptable to us. That is why we have made changes to reduce the waiting time. I accept that delay can be a considerable nuisance for some people who have to wait and who need to travel.

As the hon. Gentleman knows, if we receive representations that show that an applicant is being caused considerable difficulties by delay, we are willing to bring forward the application, and to give it a measure of priority. A number of hon. Members know that, because I have responded in that way to representations made by them.

Mr. Paul Channon (Southend, West)

My hon. Friend may have already answered my question, but has the Home Office given any thought to those who are caught in the middle of this terrible delay, and who may have strong personal reasons for travelling abroad? Is there any system that will allow them to obtain temporary documents, or any way in which the Home Office can help bona fide cases without prejudicing later chances of naturalisation?

Mr. Lloyd

Most people who apply for naturalisation have a passport from their country of origin, which will enable them to travel. If they want to travel to a destination to which it is difficult for them to travel with that passport, we regard that as a good reason for giving them priority, and we do so if representations are made to us.

Mr. Darling

Like—probably—most other hon. Members, I have written to the Minister on behalf of constituents who find that they cannot travel because they lack the necessary documentation: for instance, a British passport. If a compelling reason can be produced, someone will go and retrieve what is needed; unfortunately, however, it takes some time for the Home Office to reply to letters, and someone then has to wade through the papers in Lunar house to find the application concerned. I accept that people try to be helpful, but the best idea —which may require extra resources—is to try to get rid of the backlog so that we do not have to debate it again and again in the future.

Mr. Lloyd

I have two answers to what the hon. Gentleman has said. First, if he has advanced the case for priority treatment of a constituent and the delay has continued although the priority itself has been accorded, I should be grateful if he would let me know; I should like to follow that up. Secondly, we have now changed the procedure. The hon. Gentleman referred to this earlier, and—by implication—in his intervention. Now, when we receive applications, the passport is examined and the required information taken from it; the passport is then returned. It does not lie in a file in Lunar house or Liverpool. The hon. Gentleman is right, in that some remain from the earlier period, but they will be returned on request. I should be concerned to learn of long delays in that regard, and I should like to know of any such cases that the hon. Gentleman has encountered.

Following the recent Select Committee report, we are arranging for the production of periodic bulletins about the current state of the backlog. Copies will be made available to the press, and for distribution by organisations such as the Commission for Racial Equality and the citizens advice bureaux. The first issue will be published—I was going to say "shortly", but an earlier "shortly" has already been quoted, so I shall say "in the next two or three weeks" instead. I believe that that will help to keep those in the queue better informed about progress.

Returning to another point made by the hon. Member for Edinburgh, Central, let me stress that the revised fee levels will affect only those who apply on or after 1 March 1991, and that, unless there is a massive increase in the rate of applications that we cannot now foresee, new applicants can expect to receive a far speedier service than we have been able to offer in the past. We plan to carry out a further review of fee levels early next year. That will enable us to consider the effect of our revised procedures and of the transfer of work to Liverpool, and it will ensure that the fee costs are properly and fairly shared. At that stage, the House will again have the opportunity to debate any proposed changes in the fee levels and the average time that it takes to meet applications.

I believe that the increases are fully justified and that it is right that the processing costs should be borne by the applicants in each category. I am confident that the House will take the same view.

10.59 pm
Mr. Sydney Bidwell (Ealing, Southall)

The House knows that a considerable number of people from the Indian sub-continent have settled in my constituency. The long delay in achieving naturalisation is a source of considerable worry.

I do not know whether the Minister really understands why people did not immediately apply for British citizenship when it was first offered. For many families the reasons are complex. If people go abroad for lengthy periods, British nationality provides them with no advantage. Moreover, an Indian may retain his Indian nationality in Britain and show no inclination to take British citizenship. I found out in conversations with civil servants and with one of the Minister's predecessors that, if an Indian takes British citizenship, he can lose his right to property in India.

Due to the troubles in the Punjab, at one time it was much easier to travel as an Indian national, with an Indian passport, to see relatives and attend family occasions such as weddings and funerals in India. Under earlier legislation, no restrictions were placed on job and business opportunities. Sometimes the wife and the children, but not the breadwinner, took British citizenship.

The Minister referred to the Home Office's British nationality division and said that, on 20 February 1991, it admitted that the average waiting time for naturalisation applications was 36 months. I am informed that it is 32 months. However, as the Minister suggested, that is far too long.

Mr. Peter Lloyd

The 36 months is the length of time that registration or naturalisation applications have taken. Those coming up now were made at the end of 1987. The applications took a very long time—three years. However, as we are now well into dealing with the 1988 applications, those made afterwards will take much less time to deal with. The period will fall sharply. We are at about the peak now.

Mr. Bidwell

One hopes that that is so and that the Minister's optimism will bear fruit. Such a long waiting period is absolutely disgraceful; it cannot be described just as a matter for regret.

I emphasise the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, Central (Mr. Darling) about the EC. There will be much more movement within the Community, not just to take holidays but to take up job opportunities as EC citizens.

I pay tribute to the staff in the Minister's office for the excellent co-operation that I have enjoyed over the years. I always take the opportunity in these debates to pay them a tribute. The staff in the Foreign Office and in the Minister's Department are helpful in assisting hon. Members, although they cannot work miracles. If the regulations result in additional staff, and if the optimism of the Minister bears fruit, we shall all be much happier.

I remember a case that was given consideration out of turn. It involved a young woman working in this country for a company which had branches in Germany. She was told that she could not have a promotion within the company because she was not then an EC citizen, which was required under the rules relating to the movement of labour.

Commonwealth citizens enjoy democratic rights and can sit in the House, if elected. For many years an Australian citizen was a Member. I refer to my neighbour, Mr. Kerr, who held an Australian passport to his dying day. Everyone should understand that that can happen and should not moan about people not taking out British citizenship.

We are entering a new phase of life, when many young people who have not yet secured British passports and who are not members of the EC may be handicapped in work opportunities because they cannot take up posts without being EC citizens. That point has been made by my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, Central and must be considered. As we go into the single market, there will be a big leap towards economic integration. Leaving monetary integration aside, because that is a thorny question, there will be greater mingling of the people of Europe than has taken place over the past decade.

I hope that everything that the Minister has put before the House bears fruit. I wish him luck. if he is not successful, we will be on his tail again.

11.7 pm

Mr. Keith Vaz (Leicester, East)

I am delighted to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr. Bidwell). I agree wholeheartedly with his comments about the private office of the Minister. I should not like any of my subsequent comments, which will not be as kind, to reflect on the work of his staff, whom I have always found to be extremely courteous and efficient.

I, too, share the deep concern of my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, Central (Mr. Darling) about the way in which the Department is being run. As I said in my intervention, in November 1987 the then Home Secretary introduced the Immigration Act 1988. My hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, West (Mr. Madden) and I were on the Standing Committee. When introducing the legislation, the then Home Secretary spoke about providing a good customer service, as though Lunar house were a branch of Marks and Spencer. If it were, and if the Minister was working on a performance-related salary, he would have to hand back to the state everything that he has earned over the past two and a half years, because he has not completed the tasks that were set him.

The Minister was right to the recommendations of the Select Committee on Home Affairs, whose chairman, the hon. Member for Westminster, North (Sir J. Wheeler) is in the Chamber. He will know that every Select Committee report that has been published since 1987—I cannot claim to have been a member of the Committee before then—has condemned the work of the Home Office. I did not engineer the condemnation. The Select Committee is an all-party group and the concern of hon. Members on both sides of the House was obvious, first because of the scandalous delays at Lunar house due to the misjudgment by Home Office officials of the number of applications in 1987, and subsequently because of the utter and complete failure of the Minister and his Department to come to terms with the deep crisis that is gripping the Home Office's immigration and nationality department.

Yet the Minister is seeking to raise fees, albeit with a half-hearted apology. He says that it is unacceptable that the delay is now 36 months. Anyone else would describe it as three years. After all, 36 months is three years. The Minister should be honest about the catastrophe at Lunar house. He says that the number of outstanding applications has been reduced to 80,000, as though it were a tremendous achievement. The reality is that it is a disgrace. As my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, Central said, no other Government Department would find itself dealing with such long delays and such a considerable backlog. The Minister and the Home Office get away with it because the House debates these measures late at night when few hon. Members can participate.

The Minister told us that there is a backlog because so many "customers" made their applications in 1987. If he had read the evidence that was given by his senior officials at the hearings of the Select Committee, he would know that they admitted that the Home Office had made a mistake. They accepted that they had not planned the process properly. They said that if they had had the chance to repeat the exercise, they would have planned it differently.

The Minister talked about the Liverpool office as though that was a great gift. When I tried to telephone those who run the Members' correspondence and inquiries unit at Liverpool, I could not get an answer. I had to ring the Minister's private office and ask one of his assistants to call me. Eventually, a member of the Minister's Department managed to speak to the unit on the telephone. When I came to speak to someone from the unit, I asked why there was no direct line for the use of Members. The official said, "We have not been able to install a direct line because BT has delayed the installation." That is an example of the sort of excuses that are being made by officials at Lunar house and at Liverpool. If that is the way in which they treat Members of this place, they must be treating Members' constituents in an equally appalling manner.

The Minister has asked us to explain the hardship that is caused if an applicant has to wait for 36 months, or three years. I shall give him an example. Let us say that one of my constituents is of Indian origin, happens to hold an Indian passport and makes an application for naturalisation. He sends his passport with his application, as requested by the Home Office, and the passport expires within the three years of delay. In that event, the Indian Government will not issue another passport to the applicant because they will want to be satisfied that the individual has not applied for naturalisation. If the applicant wants to travel urgently, the Minister might say, "Get in touch with my Department and a travelling document will be issued." That is all very well, but it will take a long time for that document to be issued. Indeed, the same procedures are followed in issuing a travelling document on the basis of any emergency as those that are observed if a person applies for naturalisation.

The Minister has not been honest with the House, to the extent that increasing the fees means that the Department will continue to make a profit, notwithstanding the way in which it operates. The Minister shakes his head, but the Department will make a profit as a result of the fees that are charged. If it makes a profit, it should ensure that applicants receive the best possible service that can be made available to them. It is clear that the present service does not fall into that category.

Constituents come to my surgery to question the delays. If I write to the Minister on behalf of a constituent, six weeks will pass before I receive a reply. He will explain that there are delays because of the many applications that were made in 1987. I send the Minister's reply to my constituent and there is a further delay while he or she responds. If the Minister thinks that matters can proceed quickly whan a passport is at Lunar house, he does not know how the system works. I tabled a question a short while ago to ask the Minister how many passports were held at Lunar house. Even his Department does not know how many are held there. We cannot be sure, therefore, that some of the passports are not being held there for longer than is necessary.

This morning I attended the Committee considering the Bill promoted by the hon. Member for Westminster, North (Sir J. Wheeler) and supported by other members of the Select Committee, dealing with another aspect of Home Office responsibilities. The Minister said that he wanted to co-operate and be seen to be friendly to new initiatives. I welcome that co-operation and it is untrue for people to think that every time I speak in an immigration debate I automatically criticise the Minister. On some immigration matters, he has been flexible, after persuasion. I do not automatically condemn everything he does, because this morning he was helpful. In that spirit of compromise, will he consider a way in which he can be helpful to some of my elderly constituents who have applied for citizenship?

When people apply for citizenship they have to satisfy a criterion that they are able to speak English. Many of those who have applied in my constituency are elderly Asians who have only ever spoken Gujarati. In other parts of the country they may have spoken only Punjabi or Urdu. At their age, they cannot be expected to learn English simply to satisfy a requirement of the British citizenship rules. Will the Minister look carefully at that? There are elderly Asian men and women in my constituency who communicate with their families in Gujarati, are able to go to shops in Leicester in which the shopkeepers speak their language and go about their daily lives, watch videos and so on. They are able to do all that with their language and there is no reason why, at their advanced age, they should have to learn a new language in order to satisfy those requirements.

I know that it remains in the Minister's discretion to grant them citizenship. Will he please look at the possibility of amending the regulations to ensure that they are not made to satisfy that criterion? If I were to introduce a Bill—if I can—in the same way as the hon. Member for Westminster, North, whose Bill was debated this morning with the full support of the Government, I hope that the Minister will show it equal support.

In reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr. Bidwell), the Minister said that he hoped that this matter would be resolved and that the delays would be ended. Will he let us know what he regards as an acceptable time for people to wait before being given citizenship? Three years is too long. In fact, one or two years is too long. The Minister should aim to apply the same targets as the Government are using in other areas of policy to his Department so as to end the misery and hardship suffered by so many people because of the way in which his Department operates.

11.17 pm
Mr. Max Madden (Bradford, West)

The Minister was good enough to write to me on 22 March in reply to a letter from me dated 25 February about the naturalisation application of a constituent I shall call Mr. A. The Minister said: You will be pleased to hear that this case is receiving detailed attention. I should mention, however, that Mr. … has previously been refused naturalisation because he did not appear to have sufficient knowledge of English to meet the statutory requirement. To check the current position it is likely, therefore, that our inquiries will include an interview. We will ask the local police to arrange this. I am afraid I cannot say how much longer it will now take to determine Mr. … 's application. When we have completed all the appropriate inquiries we shall, of course, let his solicitors know the decision as soon as possible.

In reply to an intervention, I understood the Minister to say that the police were not automatically involved in inquiries. It is absurd for the police to be required to interview that applicant to satisfy themselves whether he has sufficient English to met the statutory requirements. It seems a criminal waste of police time when crime is causing so much public concern and when today the Home Office and Home Office Ministers have been busily trying to persuade the public that they are not responsible for the time wave going on around us. Why are CID officers—detective sergeants or detective constables—required to undertake inquiries in connection with British citizenship? It would be much more appropriate for civilian officials to be employed. It would also be less intimidatory. Detectives would be freed to chase criminals, and in my view the service would be much better.

Tonight the Press Association is reporting a parliamentary reply in which the Home Secretary announces the establishment of an executive agency for the issue of passports. The Home Secretary has made a commitment that passports will be issued within 20 working days. That comes as very good news to many of my constituents, who have had to wait months and months for passports. If passports can be issued within 20 working days, there is absolutely no reason why it should take more than six months to grant naturalisation and citizenship.

I appeal to the Minister to give urgent consideration to the question of further decentralisation of citizenship inquiry work. Why should we not have an office in each region—the east midlands, Yorkshire, the north, Scotland, Wales, and so on? That would bring the service very much closer to the customers, who at present have to put up with a very bad service. I am sure that decentralisation would be very welcome to the Minister's officials. Certainly it would be very welcome to our constituents.

There is no doubt that the fee increases that we are being asked to approve are totally unjustified. This is the rip-off of the century. The Home Office and its Ministers stand accused of a mix of excessive profiteering and breathtaking incompetence. If they were the subject of a "Which?" consumer investigation, they would qualify for every booby prize there has ever been.

Mr. Peter Lloyd

I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Gentleman's magnificent flow, but I should point out that our single objective, following advice given to us by the Select Committee, is simply to recover costs.

Mr. Madden

In 1987, the Department made a profit of more than £6 million. The operation is now assumed to be extremely profitable. As my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, Central (Mr. Darling) has said, all sorts of costs are lumped in to conceal the extent of the profitability of British citizenship work. These fees are wholly unjustified. It is especially wrong that people whose applications are refused should have to pay very substantial deposits. People whose applications are refused are not told why, nor do they have any right of appeal. In addition, their deposits are kept.

This is a grotesquely incompetent service. From the point of view of the customer, it is appalling in any terms. British citizenship is a right. Our constituents have a right to expect the Home Office to deliver an efficient, effective and speedy service. I hope very much that the next time the Minister comes to the House it will not be to increase the fees. I hope also that he will announce that some of the proposals of the Select Committee and of hon. Members speaking in this debate have been adopted.

11.23 pm
Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North)

Like my hon. Friend, I am appalled by the very large increase in these fees. I am particularly disturbed at the way in which it is being implemented. It was announced in February that the increase was to be introduced on 1 March. We are on the threshold of April, yet the debate is only now taking place. Presumably, if the House were minded not to pass these regulations, there would have to be some complicated manoeuvring in the Home Office to repay money that has already been received as a result of the increase.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Madden) has said, the Home Office makes a considerable profit on the fees charged for nationality work—£6 million profit in previous years. Given the increase of about 25 per cent. in the basic registration charge and a higher increase for some other services, there is likely to be a considerable increase in profits in future years.

On top of that, deposits are kept for the three years during which the application is processed. If the application is then refused, the majority of the deposit is retained and, under the regulations, the proportion is to be greatly increased to £60 on the full fee where the basic application costs £135 on grounds of marriage. At the end of those three years, no reasons are offered if the application is refused and no appeal is possible. The only course is to make a fresh application some years later. That smacks of Kafka. One has to pay for something in advance with no idea how long the process to get it will take; if it is refused, one cannot know why, and there is no appeal against the refusal. But as one would not know the reasons for the refusal anyway, it would be difficult to appeal against it.

The Minister should think again about the amount being charged, the appalling delays, and the language that he has used tonight. The idea that there is an underlying improvement in the trend of the way in which nationality fee applications are dealt with is extraordinary. For people in our constituencies, it does not add up to much to be told that the delay is still three years. As has been said, many people need their passports quickly—perhaps because they have jobs that require them to travel. There is some suggestion that employers are loth or extremely unhappy to employ or promote people who do not hold British passports because they know of the extraordinary delays that those poeple are likely to encounter while travelling through airports or any ports of entry anywhere in the EEC, never mind the rest of the world.

Mr. Vaz

Has my hon. Friend had any examples in his constituency, as I have had in mine, of constituents who, having made an application, have not received any acknowledgment from the Home Office that their case is being dealt with? People who applied in 1987 may have received a postcard reply, but no further communication from the Home Office. They therefore visit their Member of Parliament at his surgery to try to speed up the matter. Does my hon. Friend agree that the timetable should include a further acknowledgement to keep people informed about the stage that their application has reached, and informing them of how long the process will take? At the moment, they get no explanation until hon. Members write to the Minister and get a reply saying that it will take three years.

Mr. Corbyn

My hon. Friend has made a fair point. I hope that the Minister heard it and will take it on board. I have been approached by constituents who, having applied for British nationality and paid their fees, have not received any acknowledgement. The only way that they can tell whether the application has been processed is by examining their bank statement to find out whether the cheque has been cashed. That is very unsatisfactory.

When constituents approach me on such matters, I always tell them that the delay in dealing with applications is about three years. If there is some overwhelmingly pressing reason why they should have the passport more quickly, such as for travel, I take up the case and write to the Minister. I join my hon. Friends in paying the warmest tributes to the Minister's office and staff who are extremely helpful and co-operative and who reply to letters, doing their best to deal with the cases. I am in no sense being critical of them when I say that I want to see a better system rather than this system of cutting off the rough edges by having a good way of dealing with hon. Members' queries. I hope that the Minister understands that point.

Mr. Peter Lloyd

The hon. Gentleman is giving sensible advice to his constituents. The whole point of the bulletin that we shall be issuing shortly is that it will give information that will be generally helpful to applicants. It would not be sensible to transfer many staff into writing letters to people who have outstanding applications to tell them where their application is when they could be using that time to reduce the backlog still further.

Mr. Corbyn

Obviously any organisation with a serious backlog must decide how much staff time should be spent catching up and how much should be spent dealing with the people with problems. The Minister should appreciate that there is understandable concern if a cheque was cashed two or three years ago but the applicant has heard nothing. I do not wish to add to the problems, but, as the process is computerised, it is not that difficult to send a follow-up letter. I feel——

It being half-past Eleven o'clock, MR. DEPUTY SPEAKER proceeded, pursuant to Order [22 March], to put the Question:—

The House divided: Ayes 21, Noes 192.

Division No. 107] [11.30 pm
Alton, David Mahon, Mrs Alice
Beckett, Margaret Meale, Alan
Bennett, A. F. (D'nt'n & R'dish) Nellist, Dave
Cohen, Harry Skinner, Dennis
Cryer, Bob Soley, Clive
Davies, Ron (Caerphilly) Taylor, Mrs Ann (Dewsbury)
Godman, Dr Norman A. Welsh, Andrew (Angus E)
Graham, Thomas Wise, Mrs Audrey
Haynes, Frank
Hughes, John (Coventry NE) Tellers for the Ayes:
Lloyd, Tony (Stretford) Mr. Keith Vaz. and Mr. Jeremy Corbyn.
Loyden, Eddie
Madden, Max
Alexander, Richard Chope, Christopher
Amess, David Clark, Dr Michael (Rochford)
Amos, Alan Clarke, Rt Hon K. (Rushcliffe)
Arbuthnot, James Colvin, Michael
Arnold, Jacques (Gravesham) Coombs, Anthony (Wyre F'rest)
Arnold, Sir Thomas Coombs, Simon (Swindon)
Ashby, David Cope, Rt Hon John
Baker, Rt Hon K. (Mole Valley) Couchman, James
Baker, Nicholas (Dorset N) Cran, James
Baldry, Tony Currie, Mrs Edwina
Bellingham, Henry Davies, Q. (Stamf'd & Spald'g)
Bendall, Vivian Davis, David (Boothferry)
Bennett, Nicholas (Pembroke) Day, Stephen
Blackburn, Dr John G. Devlin, Tim
Blaker, Rt Hon Sir Peter Douglas-Hamilton, Lord James
Boswell, Tim Dover, Den
Bowis, John Dykes, Hugh
Brazier, Julian Fallon, Michael
Bright, Graham Favell, Tony
Brooke, Rt Hon Peter Fishburn, John Dudley
Brown, Michael (Brigg & Cl't's) Forman, Nigel
Buck, Sir Antony Forsyth, Michael (Stirling)
Burns, Simon Forth, Eric
Burt, Alistair Franks, Cecil
Butterfill, John Freeman, Roger
Carlisle, Kenneth (Lincoln) French, Douglas
Carrington, Matthew Gale, Roger
Cash, William Gardiner, Sir George
Chalker, Rt Hon Mrs Lynda Gill, Christopher
Channon, Rt Hon Paul Glyn, Dr Sir Alan
Chapman, Sydney Goodlad, Alastair
Goodson-Wickes, Dr Charles Latham, Michael
Gorman, Mrs Teresa Lawrence, Ivan
Gorst, John Leigh, Edward (Gainsbor'gh)
Greenway, John (Ryedale) Lennox-Boyd, Hon Mark
Gregory, Conal Lester, Jim (Broxtowe)
Griffiths, Peter (Portsmouth N) Lilley, Rt Hon Peter
Grist, Ian Lloyd, Sir Ian (Havant)
Gummer, Rt Hon John Selwyn Lloyd, Peter (Fareham)
Hague, William Luce, Rt Hon Sir Richard
Hamilton, Hon Archie (Epsom) Lyell, Rt Hon Sir Nicholas
Hamilton, Neil (Tatton) MacGregor, Rt Hon John
Hargreaves, Ken (Hyndburn) MacKay, Andrew (E Berkshire)
Harris, David Maclean, David
Hayes, Jerry McLoughlin, Patrick
Hayward, Robert Madel, David
Heathcoat-Amory, David Malins, Humfrey
Heseltine, Rt Hon Michael Mans, Keith
Hind, Kenneth Marshall, Sir Michael (Arundel)
Howarth, Alan (Strat'd-on-A) Martin, David (Portsmouth S)
Howarth, G. (Cannock & B'wd) Mates, Michael
Hughes, Robert G. (Harrow W) Maude, Hon Francis
Hunt, Rt Hon David Mawhinney, Dr Brian
Hurd, Rt Hon Douglas Mayhew, Rt Hon Sir Patrick
Irvine, Michael Mitchell, Andrew (Gedling)
Jack, Michael Mitchell, Sir David
Jackson, Robert Morris, M (N'hampton S)
Janman, Tim Morrison, Rt Hon Sir Peter
Jessel, Toby Moss, Malcolm
Johnson Smith, Sir Geoffrey Moynihan, Hon Colin
Jones, Robert B (Herts W) Neale, Sir Gerrard
Jopling, Rt Hon Michael Neubert, Sir Michael
Key, Robert Newton, Rt Hon Tony
Kilfedder, James Nicholls, Patrick
King, Roger (B'ham N'thfield) Nicholson, David (Taunton)
King, Rt Hon Tom (Bridgwater) Nicholson, Emma (Devon West)
Kirkhope, Timothy Oppenheim, Phillip
Knight, Greg (Derby North) Page, Richard
Knowles, Michael Paice, James
Knox, David Patnick, Irvine
Patten, Rt Hon John Thorne, Neil
Porter, David (Waveney) Thurnham, Peter
Portillo, Michael Townsend, Cyril D. (B'heath)
Redwood, John Tracey, Richard
Rhodes James, Robert Trippier, David
Riddick, Graham Twinn, Dr Ian
Rumbold, Rt Hon Mrs Angela Vaughan, Sir Gerard
Ryder, Rt Hon Richard Viggers, Peter
Sainsbury, Hon Tim Waldegrave, Rt Hon William
Sayeed, Jonathan Walden, George
Shaw, David (Dover) Waller, Gary
Shephard, Mrs G. (Norfolk SW) Ward, John
Sims, Roger Watts, John
Smith, Tim (Beaconsfield) Wells, Bowen
Spicer, Michael (S Worcs) Wheeler, Sir John
Squire, Robin Whitney, Ray
Stanley, Rt Hon Sir John Widdecombe, Ann
Steen, Anthony Wiggin, Jerry
Stern, Michael Wilkinson, John
Stevens, Lewis Winterton, Mrs Ann
Stewart, Allan (Eastwood) Winterton, Nicholas
Stewart, Andy (Sherwood) Wolfson, Mark
Summerson, Hugo Wood, Timothy
Taylor, Ian (Esher) Yeo, Tim
Taylor, Teddy (S'end E)
Temple-Morris, Peter Tellers for the Noes:
Thatcher, Rt Hon Margaret Mr. John M. Taylor, and Mr. Tom Sackville
Thompson, Patrick (Norwich N)

Question accordingly negatived.