HC Deb 10 June 2002 vol 386 cc695-702

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Jim Murphy.]

10.4 pm

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 studies—our universities and colleges do a fine job—but 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 2001–02 show that nearly 240,000 overseas students were studying in the UK. In total, they represented 11 per cent. of all students in these institutions—an increase of about 17.5 per cent. above 1995–96 levels. The income to higher education institutions in 1999–2000, the most recent year for which figures are available, was £672 million—5.2 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 institutions—to 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.

International nursing students want clarification from the Minister on these improvements. They want confirmation that there is no requirement for them to commit to leaving the UK as a condition of obtaining a visa and that they are entitled to work up to 20 hours a week during term time and for an unlimited time during vacations.

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 worried that the embassy would take a dim view of her having lost her passport, so we got a letter from the Home Office and she applied for a passport from the embassy.

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 embassy—it was rather more efficient that the IND—and 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 problems—as 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 mislaid—they 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.

Iranian students frequently cannot return home when they want to. A Russian submitted an application in November 2001 and is still waiting. He has to go home on a visit this summer.

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 India—priority countries according to the Prime Minister—who 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, because of the inefficiency of interdepartmental security checks? Is she aware that, despite the resumption of diplomatic relations with Libya in 1999, there has been no change in the way that the Home Office processes applications from Libyan students, granting them only six months leave at a time and taking months to process their applications, so that they are unable to leave the UK during their entire stay in this country?

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 something—friendly or not—would 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 UK—the 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?

10.20 pm
The Minister for Citizenship and Immigration (Beverley Hughes)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Guildford (Sue Doughty) on securing this debate, and I do not blame her for seeking it, certainly on the basis of the case with which I am familiar and about which she has written to the Department.

I am pleased to have the opportunity to make our position clear. I have to say that the person in the case with which I am most familiar—the one that I have investigated—was treated unacceptably. Although the hon. Lady raised several other cases, that treatment is not typical, but I want to set out our general student policy and some of the difficulties that have affected a number of people, as well as to say something about that case.

In the time left to me, I probably cannot deal with all the questions that the hon. Lady asked me at the end of her speech, but I will write to her following the debate to deal with anything that I do not cover now. She is right to say that the United Kingdom welcomes overseas students and wants to welcome them. More than 300,000 students entered the UK in 2000, up from about 200,000, 10 years previously. So there is clearly a growing trend, which we very much welcome.

We recognise, as does the hon. Lady, the mutual benefit of attracting overseas students to the UK. That benefit is to the students and certainly to our country. For the students, the UK can offer—as it does at the college in her constituency—high-quality and competitively priced education in a stimulating environment. Those who experience UK education and training tend to become lifelong friends of the UK, with all that that implies for future political, trade and economic benefits in the UK. They also generate significant income for the UK and the wider economy.

One of the aims of the Prime Minister's initiative, launched in 1999, to attract more overseas students, to which the hon. Lady referred, was to make visa and entry arrangements more user-friendly for students. After her experiences, she may think that that has a hollow ring, but that was certainly one of the intentions. We have tried to make the visa application process as simple as possible: we have produced more information for applicants; we have tried to reduce waiting times; and we have ensured that, wherever possible, leave to enter or remain is granted for the full duration of a course.

However, I have to tell the hon. Lady that this is a question of balance. I do not say that to justify the treatment that she has described, but people have to recognise that we genuinely want to minimise inconvenience and delay to genuine students while ensuring that we have the necessary checks in place to identify and deter those people who would otherwise try to use that avenue to circumvent the controls. That could have been an issue in the case that she has raised, with which I shall deal in a moment.

Students are free to take part-time work while studying in the UK, including during sandwich courses and internships. Those who have completed degrees here may be eligible to obtain work permits and to stay on in employment. I shall write to the hon. Lady on her specific question about nurses.

For most of the period since the launch of the Prime Minister's initiative, the initial decisions on all applications for extensions of stay in the UK were generally made within three weeks. Of late, however, some applicants, including students, have had to wait much longer than we would have wished for a decision on their applications for further leave to remain. I assure the hon. Lady that we are doing everything possible to ensure that students can study here without encountering immigration problems.

Many overseas students come to the United Kingdom with a student visa. That is a mandatory requirement in the immigration rules for all visa nationals wanting to come here to study. It does not, however, apply to non-visa nationals. Many come here as visitors and apply to stay on as students.

In 2001–02, more than 370,000 general and settlement applications were made by post and in person. That was a 20 per cent. increase on the previous year and reflects the year-on-year growth that we have experienced. Of those, student applications represent the largest single category. At peak periods, they account for about 40 per cent. of all applications. The IND's target is to complete 70 per cent. of all general and settlement applications on initial consideration and within the three-week period. That target applies to all categories, including students. Because of an exceptionally high intake during the second half of 2001, however, and the implementation of a new database—[Interruption.] I hear laughter from a sedentary position, but unless we get the information technology right we will never succeed in dealing with the huge volume of applications in the kind of time scale that we want to achieve and that people expect. Those two factors therefore resulted in an increase from three weeks to eight weeks by the end of that year. That coincided with the peak period for student applications—September and October—with the result that many student applications were affected.

The very high intake of cases has meant that those cases that cannot be decided on initial consideration, because they are not straightforward, have taken up to nine months to consider. That was one of the cases that the hon. Lady cited, and I shall deal with the reasons in a moment.

In connection with the Prime Minister's initiative, a batch scheme was introduced in August 2000 for universities and publicly funded colleges of higher education affiliated to the United Kingdom Council for Overseas Student Affairs. Under that scheme, which has worked very successfully, applications can be submitted in batches by universities and colleges with a promise that they will be processed within two weeks if everything is straightforward. The majority of student applications are straightforward, but a number require further investigation or inquiry before a decision can be made.

Applications are considered on their individual merits. In many cases, inquiries have to be made to establish whether the requirements of the immigration rules have been met, for example. These may be to check whether the student or the sponsor has sufficient evidence of financial support for the duration of the studies. Some applicants wait until the end of their leave to enter in some other category under the immigration rules before applying to remain as students. That has to be checked out. Inquiries need to be made to check whether the applicant is a bona fide student. For example—this was an element in the case quoted by the hon. Lady—a person can enter the UK as a visitor or, in this case, as an au pair. One of the requirements of that leave of entry is that the person will leave at the end of their permitted stay. If the person applies at the end of that period to remain as a student, further inquiries need to be taken into account.

In some cases, the study quoted is at private education institutions. Again, that was a feature of the case cited by the hon. Lady. In fact, an investigation was under way at the particular college at which that person had proposed to study. Some colleges, we believe, are set up simply to be fronts for that kind of application route. As the college was being investigated, the person's application to study there could not proceed until the investigation had been concluded. Visits and reports by the immigration service may also be necessary. There are an increasing number of such cases so, unfortunately, the necessary inquiries mean that some applications take longer to complete than expected. However, every effort is made and will increasingly be made to keep students informed although I accept that that was not a factor in this case.

The hon. Lady mentioned the return of passports, and I agree that it is another important issue. The applicant's passport must be included with the application so that the decision can be endorsed in it. As I am sure she will appreciate, the passport is also needed as evidence of identity. The practice of the IND is to retain the passport until the application has been decided, but if it is needed for urgent travel, arrangements will be made for it to be returned. However, that means that the application will be deemed to have been withdrawn, and that creates a difficulty for some people who want to leave. I accept that the person in the case that the hon. Lady described was not dealt with well. The passport appears to have been mislaid by Becket house before it was refound. That should not happen, and we will have to deal with that point.

The hon. Lady cited a number of issues in which there has been general frustration in dealings with the IND. I accept that there were problems earlier this year in contacting the immigration and nationality enquiry bureau—the INEB—but the situation is now much improved. The bureau had modern, state-of-the-art call centre equipment installed in March this year and many staff have been recruited and are now fully trained. The bureau answers more than 22,000 calls a week, and our aim is that no caller should have to try more than three times to make a successful call and be given the information that they want.

At the moment, the bureau can provide general information but, as we develop the software and the database, it will also be able to say more precisely what stage a particular application has reached. A new computer system called the general casework information database is also being developed and installed. When it is fully operational, it will enable the bureau's agents to give much more detailed information. All those measures will help to continue the improvement that has been started. I accept that we have got nowhere near the position that we want to reach, but we are working very hard.

The hon. Lady mentioned correspondence, and we are instituting a tracking system. My predecessor had no knowledge of the fact that the hon. Lady had written three times, because that information had not penetrated as far as his office. We need a system that will enable us to track the letters that Members have written because Ministers need to know about them.

I am very sorry that the hon. Lady's constituent experienced difficulties. Inevitably, such cases are not always as straightforward as they appear at first sight, and I have explained some of the ways in which that case was not straightforward. I have had the position of the constituent reviewed, particularly in the light of the fresh application that she has made to study at a different college. I am pleased to say that I have instructed my officials to grant her leave to remain in the UK as a student for 12 months in the first instance as I understand that her course will last for that long.

If the hon. Lady, has other cases that she would like me to investigate, I will certainly do so. However, I hope that she will accept that we are engaged in a big task. The volume of cases is enormous and they are sometimes complex and not straightforward. When that is the case, there will be delays. However, we are trying very hard to improve the system overall.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-seven minutes to Eleven o'clock.