HL Deb 05 April 1982 vol 429 cc72-88

7.21 p.m.

Lord Avebury rose to move, That this House calls on Her Majesty's Government to revoke the British Nationality (Amendment) Regulations 1982 (S.I. 1982, No. 283).

The noble Lord said: My Lords, it will be within your Lordships' recollection that the problem of fees for registration and naturalisation came up a number of times during the proceedings on the British Nationality Bill, both in your Lordships' House and in another place. For instance, we discussed the matter on 21st July, when it was pointed out that over the years there had been a progressive increase in the number of civil servants dealing with nationality applications while at the same time their productivity had steadily declined. Since it was the Government's policy to recover the whole of the costs of the department dealing with the processing of applications for nationality in the form of fees, it was predicted that within a few years the fee would not be £150, as it then was, but something more like £300 or £400. At that point, the noble Lord the Minister contrived to avoid any mention of fees in the two speeches that he made on the amendment which was concerned with the extension of the relatively less expensive process of registration.

When the matter came up again the next time, on July 24th, the noble Lord, Lord Belstead, reaffirmed the Government's policy of recovering as much as possible of the administrative costs of nationality applications through fees. Then, on October 13th, we discussed two amendments, one in my name and one in that of the noble Lord, Lord Pitt, which, in the latter case, would have given the Government power to exempt particular classes of applicant and which, in the case of the amendment I moved, would have obliged them to waive the fees in respect of applicants in receipt of supplementary benefit or family income supplement. To this, the noble Lord, Lord Belstead, replied—and I should like your Lordships to mark the words—that the Government: would not wish to deter applicants by setting fees at an impossible level". He pointed out that only about 30 per cent. of the cost was being recovered, that it was a small percentage, and that further increases were inevitable. We could not exempt certain classes of applicants because demands would then arise from others who might seem to be equally deserving of consideration and because the only way to make up the shortfall in income would be through increased charges on all the other applicants.

In the end, the noble Lord the Minister was honest enough to admit that he knew he had not been helpful. He must have had some idea of what was coming. The fees have indeed been set at what I consider to be an impossible level for many who aspire to British citizenship, and the latest increases which are provided for in the regulations that we are discussing represent an enormous jump, far higher than the rate of inflation.

Before coming on to the amount, I want to mention the two particular obstacles placed in the way of applicants and their advisers which have come to my notice. The first was in a letter from Mrs. Ruth Runciman, chairman of the East London Area Citizens Advice Bureaux, in The Times the other day. Mrs. Runciman said that advice agencies in East London, and, presumably, everywhere else, have been unable to get supplies of the application forms, that they have not been successful in making telephone calls to the Home Office to ask for more supplies and, when special journeys to Croydon were made by members of her staff, they found that the nationality and immigration department itself had no supplies of the forms. If I was of a suspicious cast of mind, I might even say that the Home Office had been deliberately starving applicants and their advisers of these forms knowing that, as a result, they would have to pay the increased fees now under discussion.

The second point I want to make relates to the telephone inquiry service. A solicitor, one of the partners in the firm of Bindman and Partners, tried to telephone the inquiry bureau. First, the telephone rang for 20 minutes before a person answered and immediately hung up; she then dialled again (that was at 9.30 a.m.) and the telephone rang continuously from 9.30 until 10.32 a.m. before somebody picked it up. When she wrote to complain to Lunar House, the reply she received was that there were only four incoming exchange lines in the inquiry bureau compared with 25 on the immigration side and that that was thought to be sufficient when the equipment was installed because, the writer said, nationality was a much more complex matter than immigration and only the simplest of inquiries were thought to be able to be satisfactorily dealt with over the telephone.

That may be so, but I should have thought that anybody could predict that as a result of the British Nationality Act there would be an increase in the volume of inquiries, and that steps would be taken to deal with them and, in spite of the strict economies in the number and cost of civil servants mentioned by the writer of this letter, there would have been methods of dealing with it which did not involve any additional expenditure. Perhaps the noble Lord could tell us why, for instance, all the calls for both immigration and nationality departments could not have been routed through one exchange so that 29 lines would have been available for both purposes and any variations in the workload of one department rather than another could have been taken up in that manner.

Returning to the fees themselves, if one looks back over the last six years we see that citizenship has become the prerogative of the rich. The fee for naturalisation has risen from £70 in 1976 to £200 in 1982, an increase of 285 per cent. Registration at discretion—that is, of a Commonwealth citizen NA ho has been here since 1973—has gone up from £35 to £200, an increase of 570 per cent; while other registrations, including that of a woman married to a citizen of the United Kingdom and Colonies, have gone up from £25 to £70, an increase of 280 per cent. Minor children were registered for nothing in 1976; and it now costs £35. One can say that citizenship is, like the doors at the Ritz, open to all.

First, my Lords, I want to question the principle that the fees should bear some fixed relationship to the cost of the service. That is not the case in other countries. In the USA, the fee for naturalisation is five dollars; in Canada it is 25 dollars. Those were 1981 figures. Even in Britain many services are provided at public expense either freely or at a tiny fraction of the actual cost. One pays nothing, for instance to borrow a book from the local library or to visit the great museums; one pays nothing for using the public parks; one pays nothing for cycling on the roads and the dog owners pay only a tiny fraction of the licence costs, quite unrelated to the administration costs of processing the application. Yet citizenship is surely far more important to any person than the privileges which I have just mentioned and which all of us enjoy.

Secondly, consider where the Government's policy is going to lead. Sir Derek Rayner said in his review of the nationality division of the Home Office that only about 40 per cent. of the costs were being recovered. So over a period of two or three years the fees would have to go up by a factor of two and a half if the total cost of the service is going to be recouped from the fees. That is £375 at 1981 prices for naturalisation, probably somewhere in the region of £450 if one takes into account the effects of inflation. This first instalment, one might say, is fairly modest in relation to an increase of that size. One may suspect that the Home Office is trying it out to see how much of a fuss there is. Therefore we ought to protest on this occasion as vehemently as we can so as to prevent an even worse outrage in 12 months' time.

Thirdly, one has to point out that if the Government really wanted to make savings, then Sir Derek Rayner did show several ways that it could have been done. The criteria for citizenship could have been relaxed so as to obviate the need for detailed inquiries or, in the case of longer periods of qualifying residence, the need to fulfil other requirements might have been eliminated. If someone had been here for 15 years, for instance, Sir Derek suggested that the good character requirement could have been waived. However, strict you make the test, some people are going to become citizens who are not wholly admirable. Your Lordships can think of people of that kind who have become Members of both Houses of Parliament. On the other hand, how many civil servants is it sensible to employ in what is essentially totally unproductive work for the sake of excluding a few bad characters from our citizenship? I agree with the Government when they try to reduce the number of pen-pushers in the Civil Service. The trouble is that certain areas of work seem to be sacrosanct, and nationality and immigration are examples.

Before leaving the question of efficiency, I want to ask the Government what happened as a result of Sir Derek Rayner's recommendation that a feasibility study should be undertaken of the use of computers for the storage and retrieval of the records of naturalisations, registrations and renunciations both in the United Kingdom and overseas. This would really be quite a simple application, and I should like to see the Home Office going for a system that would also record currently-being-processed applications. The system should be interactive, with the ability to respond to questions on-line, and for the information to be updated in real time.

The terminals on the system should be intelligent themselves so that they can be used for word processing, a particularly necessary facility considering that nearly 300 stock letters are apparently in use, according to Sir Derek's report. He said that there had been no continuing review of those stock letters. If the division had a computer system with text processing on intelligent terminals, the review of standard stock letters could be a continuous process. I ought to declare an interest as a manufacturer of computers. I have not seen copies of all the form letters used, but I wonder whether somebody has not been trying to create extra work. There is a letter to the employer of an applicant, for instance, asking what the nature of his work is, how much he is paid, and whether or not his work is satisfactory. It would be interesting to know how how any of this could be relevant. I should be grateful if the noble Lord the Minister would enlighten us.

If the employer says he is paid £2,000 or £20,000, what difference does it make? If he is a labourer or a managing director, again, does it affect the success or failure of his application? If he is conscientious or lazy, in the opinion of the employer, what difference does that make? I should be very grateful if the noble Lord could confirm that the answers to these questions are actually used in the process of making decisions on a person's application for nationality and in what manner they affect the final decision.

But the major increase in the work of vetting applications over the last few years, as your Lordships know, stems from the decisions of the courts in 1977, that residence in the context of nationality law means lawful residence, and consequently it became necessary to check that an applicant was not only given indefinite leave to remain, but also that he did not secure that permission either by making false representations to an entry certificate officer of an immigration officer but following the case of Zamir, that he did not withhold information from the officer which might have affected his decision had he known it. This investigation has to be carried out in relation to an event of many years ago, so obviously it is fraught with great difficulty. Apparently, it is not enough for the applicant to make a declaration that he did not withhold any relevant information.

The mind boggles when one tries to think how the officer could discover that some essential fact had been concealed 12 or 20 years ago, when the applicant first entered the country. The nationality Act could have provided that inquiries of this kind were not to be made in respect of applicants with say, more than 10 years' residence in the United Kingdom, thus eliminating the cases which are going to present the greatest difficulty. But, as things stand, if those checks have to be made it means that the persons whose applications are comparatively simple are going to have to contribute towards the investigations of others which may cost several thousand pounds. I believe that that is patently unfair.

The unsuccessful applicant is also going to be making a contribution for the first time. The fee is payable in advance, so the state will have an interest-free loan of the money. If it takes two years to process the application—and that is a very modest estimate—then, taking the interest which is available on a typical two-year gilt of over 13 per cent., it means that the applicant is going to pay an extra charge of something like £50, and that sum must be added to both the nominal amount which is being paid by the successful applicant and also it must be treated as the equivalent of a fee which is paid by an applicant who is unsuccessful.

These enormous charges will undoubtedly mean that citizenship is arbitrarily denied to thousands of people who could satisfy all the conditions, as Mrs. Ann Dummett pointed out in her letter to The Times of 22nd March. For a couple with an 18-year old son or daughter, the total amount payable would be £500, a sum well beyond the means of the average wage-earner, let along the millions of unemployed, the disabled or the retired. And as Mr. David de Gale said, also in The Times, on 3rd April, the applicant has to pay also for a public notice to be inserted in a news-paper, which in his case being a "cheap" local paper in Suffolk came to another £76.20. Mr. de Gale asks—and I put it to the Minister—what lunatics bring these things about and whether we actually pay them. The answer is that "Thatcherism" is the crazy and perverted doctrine of laying burdens on those who can least afford them, while making life easier for the fat cats who support the Tory Government. We do indeed pay Ministers very large salaries for devising these means of soaking the poor. When we get into office, we shall introduce objective tests of citizenship, which will be simple and cheap to operate, and the fees will reflect our principle that the privilege of citizenship ought not to be conferred only on the rich. My Lords, I beg to move the Motion standing in my name on the Order Paper.

Moved, That this House calls on Her Majesty's Government to revoke the British Nationality (Amendment) Regulations 1982 (S.I. 1982, No. 283).—(Lord Avebury.)

7.40 p.m.

Lord Pitt of Hampstead

My Lords, I must join in protesting against these regulations. Your Lordships will remember that during the debate on the British Nationality Bill I tried to get the Government—at the time of moving that amendment it never occurred to me that they would reject it—to accept the power to waive or reduce the fees in certain circumstances in which people are needy. It was rejected by the Government on the advice of your Lordships' House. There has been an increase of 40 per cent. in most instances, and in some instances of about 300 per cent., on the fees required on application for British nationality. Moreover, we have a new system under which people are required to pay on application and not when they have received their citizenship. As the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, has already explained, it means that the Government are extracting an interest-free loan from these people and receiving money from them. I cannot imagine that nothing is done with the money and therefore since the money must have been used in some way or other it does constitute a loan to the Government for two years.

This is bound to create hardship for lots of people and, as the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, has pointed out, lots of poor people come here. They came here to work, to settle, and they have to save in order to be able to register themselves, their wives and their children; and this sort of sum is a real burden. In terms of society, I would have thought that it would be better to encourage people who are living and working here, and settling here, to become citizens and therefore to take out British nationality. Therefore, one would have expected the opposite approach to the one which is being followed—in other words, they would be encouraged rather than discouraged.

However, the way in which the fees are weighted, and in particular the fact of having to pay in advance, must have the opposite effect. It will encourage people to delay rather than bring forward their taking out of British nationality. Perhaps when the Minister replies he will say that is what the Government want. I cannot believe that is what they want, because this is certainly not the best thing for society. Therefore, I am sorry that the Government are pursuing this particular line of approach. I hope that the Minister will say that the Government are prepared to re-think the suggestion I made about taking powers to waive the fees in some instances where the people concerned cannot really afford them and to reduce the fees where it is quite obvious from people's means that they cannot afford the full fee.

If that were to be the case, then much of what I am saying now would not have the same weight, but since these fees have to be paid and they are in fact the cost of becoming nationalised, the cost of being able to register yourself as a British national, I am afraid it is a step in the wrong direction. Not only will it slow the rate of absorption in terms of people becoming British nationals but it will increase resentment. I am not going to repeat what I said on a previous occasion to your Lordships about a youngster who came to me objecting very strongly that after having been prepared to die for this country through serving in Northern Ireland he was then called upon to pay £150 in order to register as a citizen of this country. Now he has to pay £200. I take it that particular chap probably overcame his resentment and paid up: I do not know. But since then the fee has been increased. I cannot be sure, but I hope that the Minister would see the wisdom of changing this approach and really trying to encourage people to become citizens as soon as possible, and, far from making it more expensive for them to do that, to try to ease the burden as much as possible.

7.45 p.m.

Lord Campbell of Alloway

My Lords, this Motion, which calls upon Her Majesty's Government to revoke this regulation, will stand in effect on a Division as a veto on subordinate legislation. I would remind your Lordships that in the White Paper (Cmd.3779) in 1968 it was stated that on subordinate legislation the present power of the House of Lords on rejection was inappropriate and unsuited to modern conditions. This is the category of subordinate legislation, the delegation of power to make regulations, which is not subject to either affirmative or negative resolution in Parliament. This regulation is within the competence of my right honourable friend the Home Secretary by virtue of the will of Parliament.

I decline to follow the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, along the road which treats a debate on fees as serving as a vehicle for complaints about the operation of a telephone exchange, or indeed as comparable with dog licensing. Also, I do not know why we had a reference to "fat cats of any political complexion", together with cycling on roads and unspecified inefficiencies in administration and who takes the benefit of interests. But I do treat with great seriousness one of the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Pitt of Hampstead. He said that the question of arbitrary denial is a real question. I agree with him. He gave the example of a man who has fought in Northern Ireland then having to pay £150 or £200.

Your Lordships may well think that this is an aspect of the implementing regulations which ought to warrant consideration in due course. The offending words in this regulation are that the fees shall be payable which are mandatory and not discretionary. I see the noble Lord nodding assent. There is no leeway for the exercise of discretion in cases of hardship or on compassionate grounds, and the noble Lord, Lord Pitt of Hampstead, has given but one example. This is a matter for further regulations. I, for one, will oppose this Motion on a Division, if one takes place, because the resort to this power of veto at, so to speak, one remove is neither appropriate nor wise in the present political climate. We must not be seen as seeking to frustrate the will of Parliament.

Secondly, the merits as to the increases in charges, in my submission, do not warrant resort to supporting such a Motion. Thirdly, I would respectfully suggest to your Lordships that the appropriate procedure is not to call upon Her Majesty's Government to revoke this regulation but to seek to secure in due course a further regulation which gives the exercise of discretion so that in cases of hardship or on grounds of compassion the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Pitt of Hampstead—with which I say again that I agree—could be met.

7.50 p.m.

Baroness Jeger

My Lords, I shall not detain your Lordships for long, but it is important that we on these Benches should associate ourselves very firmly with the views put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, which I was glad to see were supported by the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Alloway. It seems to us that, in a situation in our society where racial tension—

Lord Campbell of Alloway

Would the noble Baroness give way?

Baroness Jeger

Did I get it wrong?

Lord Campbell of Alloway

My Lords, on a point of correction, I am afraid that I was disagreeing—if I may say so with respect—hook, line and sinker with the noble Lord, Lord Avebury. I was taking one of the points of the noble Lord, Lord Pitt of Hampstead, which I did not know he was going to make, but which I thought was right and supported it. But I did not support the noble Lord, Lord Avebury.

Baroness Jeger

My Lords, I acknowledge that and thank the noble Lord for what he has said to make the position clear. I had thought that what my noble friend Lord Pitt had said was rather nearer to what the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, had said than, apparently, was the case in the view of the noble Lord, Lord Campbell.

But what I want to say officially from these Benches is that in the present situation, where racial tensions are at the heart of much discord and much difficulty in society, anything that can be done to reduce those tensions must be accepted. It seems to us that, in this very sensitive situation, the fact that it will cost a lot more money for people who have come from abroad to establish their citizenship cannot help to reduce those tensions.

It seems obvious that one of the ways in which we can help people who have come from overseas to settle down and take their place in the community is to make them able to become citizens of this country and not to feel that they are strangers and aliens in our midst. When I read that the fees for application for citizenship are to go up to £200; that the fees for women who marry British citizens will rise from £50 to £70; that the fee for registration of minor children goes up from £25 to £35, all this seems to suggest the putting up of a barrier against these people from overseas settling down among us as citizens.

It also seems to us that it is very unfair to make a change whereby, instead of paying the money when they have been accepted as citizens, we are now asking people to put the money down in advance. This could mean that for one or two years the Home Office sits on the money, and I understand that if the applicant is refused citizenship he is paid back only the money which he put down, and that there is no consideration for the interest which he may have lost, or for the difficulties which he may have encountered through having, as it were, to sterilise his money while the Home Office thinks about his application. I hope that the Minister will say why this change has been made, because in all that I have read I have not seen any reason, other than fiduciary, for the Home Office demanding the money before the application is granted.

We also want to ask a little more about children. I understand that if a family is involved in this situation, children who are counted as minors will not have to he penalised drastically. But if there are any children over 18—who, under the law of our land, are adults who happen to be students they will also be expected to pay the whole £200. I hope that I am wrong, and maybe the Minister can enlighten the House. There are many families who have come from overseas, who have worked very hard and saved up a great deal of money in order to send their children to universities or polytechnics. If their child then becomes 18 years of age, will he or she still have to pay the £200? That would be very unfair.

I also want to support the protests that have been made about the difficulty of people making these applications. I recall that, when I was a Member of Parliament for a very cosmopolitan area in central London, I had more complaints about Lunar House and the Home Office than any other department of state. There were complaints about telephones not being answered, complaints about appointments not being kept, complaints about letters not being answered and complaints about forms not being available. I want to ask the Minister, who I know is very kind at heart, whether he could try to make these processes a little easier for some of these harassed people. Why cannot these forms of application for citizenship be available at post offices, at banks, at social security offices and at town halls—at all the places which are near to people? Why is there this withholding of even a form, as well as demanding the money? It is bad enough to be asked to pay £200, but if you cannot even get a form to fill up to put with the £200, that seems to be an excessive and mean attitude.

I do not want to go any further tonight. I understand all the difficulties, but I want to say that we very much support the noble Lord who has raised this matter tonight, because we think that the charge is excessive, particularly as regards children and over- 18 year-old dependants. We think it is outrageous that the Government should demand the money in advance, instead of waiting to see whether or not an applicant is successful. We also think that the whole administrative procedure as to the availability of forms, the accessibility of phone calls and the general attitude of the department leaves a very great deal to be desired.

7.58 p.m.

Lord Belstead

My Lords, first, I ought to make clear the effect of this Motion by the noble Lord, Lord Avebury. The regulations that we are debating this evening are not subject to parliamentary procedure and would remain in force if your Lordships voted for the noble Lord's Motion. However, the Government would take very seriously an adverse vote on this matter, and my noble friend Lord Campbell of Alloway was quite right to conjecture that the Government would wish to give effect to the wishes of your Lordships' House.

But if, as a result of an adverse vote, these regulations were therefore to be revoked, it would be a very serious matter. Some £3 million would be lost in additional fees and the losses would have to be made good on the Home Office vote. It would mean that some £3 million was not available for spending on other things. Your Lordships could conjecture, in your turn, as to what those other things should be—prisons, police support services, or grants to voluntary organisations. But wherever it came from, the money would have to be found.

In recent years, successive Administrations have raised the fees which we are discussing. In 1975 the fee for naturalisation was £40 and the fee for registration as an entitlement was £10. Then, in October 1976, those fees were raised to £70 and £25 respectively. Despite the complaints of the noble Baroness, Lady Jeger, those were percentage increases comparable to those we are discussing today.

Baroness Jeger

My Lords, surely those payments were made when naturalisation was granted. They were not demanded when the application was first put in.

Lord Belstead

That is a matter, my Lords, which I shall come to in just a moment. I shall not go through the increases in fees which continued to occur under the previous Government, and now, because in the speeches which have been made your Lordships have quoted them.

There are two important provisions which, as in previous regulations, reduce the impact of these fees on families. I think it is important to emphasise these. A wife applying jointly with her husband for naturalisation or discretionary registration has to pay £70 and not the full fee of £200. However many children there may be of a marriage, all the children will be covered by the same £35 fee if application is made for their registration together. But we are of course talking about children under the age of 18, if I may pick up the point which was made by the noble Baroness, Lady Jeger.

There was a suggestion from the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, that in some way I had been concealing from your Lordships the fact that it would be necessary to increase the fees which we are debating this evening. The noble Lord is habitually fair. I do not really think that is quite true. My right honourable friend the Home Secretary said in another place last June that there would have to be an increase in fees, but he added that he would undertake to see what he could do to keep costs down and to look very carefully at this point. For my own part, during the Report stage of the British Nationality Bill last October I said that we were a very long way from achieving our objective of full recovery of costs through fees. It was at that time estimated to be nearer 30 per cent. than 100 per cent. recovery.

In his announcement on 10th March of this year about the increases which came into effect on 1st April, my right honourable friend stated that the new system of payment with the application would enable the increases for new applications to be kept at a lower level than would otherwise be necessary. In a nutshell, that is the answer to the noble Baroness, Lady Jeger, who asked why it is that we are doing this. By introducing this system we expect to be able to recover all the costs on applications made in 1982–83. To have retained the present system of payment of the fee only when the application is granted would have meant very much larger increases in fees if costs were to be recovered.

I must stress that the fee will of course be refunded in any case where the application is unsuccessful. I say "of course", because the noble Lord, Lord Pitt of Hampstead, in attempting to ram this point home said that in effect an interest free loan is being made. May I respond to the noble Lord and remind the House that before 1976 unsuccessful applicants were required to make a payment. This is not now required of them and we do not intend in this increase in fees to require that of them.

Your Lordships' House will be aware that there are delays in processing applications. This means that under the present system of payment on approval of the application it can be anything up to two years, depending on the type of application, before the fee is collected. In that period costs will probably have increased still further. Thus, in the past the fee collected has represented only a small proportion of the cost of processing the application. In fact, in the seven years up to 1980–81 the highest percentage recovery of costs which we achieved was 44 per cent., and the average was 27 per cent.

One reason why the recovery of costs has been so low in the past is that the number of applications has increased dramatically. This has led to an increase in the waiting time for applicants and, hence, to the time taken before the fee was recovered following the process and approval of the application. I will give just a few figures to illustrate what I am saying. In 1977, some 32,000 applications were received and the staff of the Nationality Division of the Home Office was 184. Last year, the total number of applications received had risen to 70,000. During those five years the staff has been increased. It was 231 in June of last year, but not enough to be able to cope with so significant a rise in new applications. The majority of the applications were from adults claiming an entitlement on grounds of residence or marriage, or they were applications for the registration of minor children.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, in giving these figures could the noble Lord tell the House how many applications were in fact completed in 1976 and 1981 respectively and what this represents in terms of the number of applications per employee in those two years respectively so that we can see whether the productivity of these officials did in fact go down, as I claimed?

Lord Belstead

My Lords, I will come to that, and if I do not entirely cover the point I shall endeavour to answer the noble Lord's question specifically before I finish speaking. The increase in applications for naturalisation and registration at discretion, where there is the greatest disparity between costs and fees because of the additional inquiries which are involved, was proportionately even higher than for other applications. In 1977, the intake of applications for naturalisation and registration at discretion was some 5,400. Last year it reached 16,300. May I again say to the noble Baroness, Lady Jeger, that one reason why we are asking for fees with applications is that these applications for naturalisation or registration by discretion take the longest to process because of the additional inquiries which have to be made, and increased delays with these applications have consequently led in the past to increased delays in recovery of the fees.

To try to streamline procedures and reduce costs and waiting times, the Government arranged a scrutiny under the guidance of Sir Derek Rayner into the handling of applications for citizenship. The report of the scrutineer, made available to your Lordships' House and another place last July, indicated that despite the pressures under which the staff were having to work the existing procedures were necessary and were operating with due regard for economy in manpower. Various recommendations which were made as a result of the scrunity have been followed up and productivity has in fact increased considerably as a result of simplification of procedures. Nearly 54,000 applications were completed last year as against 37,000 in 1980.

My right honourable friend is also hoping to make some additional staff available to the Nationality Division in this financial year. It is hoped that this may result in some improvement in waiting times, but this will of course depend on whether the present level of applications continues. I hope your Lordships will not mind my saying that I find a slight contradiction between the protests which have been put to me across the Floor of the House this evening, that costs are preventing people from applying, and this dramatic increase which has gone ahead over the last few years, continuing up to the present time, in applications for registration and also for naturalisation.

The suggestion has been made that insufficient publicity was given to the proposed increases in fees and also that individuals have difficulty in obtaining application forms from the Home Office. The first of those two complaints is one which your Lordships have not in fact made, and that I think I might leave to one side—simply saying that the Home Office did issue a press notice on 10th March and that the Nationality Division did write to all the community relations councils the day after suggesting that they draw the announcement to the attention of the ethnic majority organisations with which they liaise.

So far as the second point is concerned, however, about individuals actually obtaining application forms, a point which the noble Baroness and the noble Lord both raised, I am not aware that any individuals have had difficulty in obtaining application forms from the Home Office. So far as I am aware, all such demands made direct to us have been met, but I admit that bulk orders from organisations such as Citizens' Advice Bureaux have sometimes not been met in full. If an organisation was short of forms, it had only to direct people to us or to convince us that they had a need for the full bulk orders for which they had asked. When the noble Baroness, Lady Jeger, asks me why the forms were not put in a whole variety of places all over the country, may I just answer that, of all the forms we issue to the agencies concerned, only one-third are used for actual applications.

A great deal has been said about the effect of increased fees on families. It has been suggested that for some the need to send in the fee with the application may effectively mean that people cannot afford to make an application. As I have said, provision is made for wives and children applying with the father, but, in setting the new level of fees and changing the procedure, it has been necessary to consider very carefully how to balance this whole aspect with the need to control public expenditure. Nationality fees have not been increased since 1980 but the cost of processing applications has continued to rise. The cost alone of staff and accommodation of the nationality division—and we really cannot disregard the cost—rose from £1.464 million in 1979–80 to £2.183 million in 1980–81, but the income from fees rose by only £350,000 to £1.009 million.

During this debate, your Lordships have proposed that the subsidisation of fees should take place and, indeed, I have noted the advice given to me by my noble friend Lord Campbell of Alloway. But, whatever may be the merits of subsidising these fees, there is the difficulty—it has come out in this debate—that there would be constant controversy as to where to draw the line. That is not just a bureaucratic and administrative answer. The noble Lord, Lord Avebury, recommended—he had every right to do so—that the line should be drawn at those who receive supplementary benefit or who are in receipt of family income supplements. The noble Lord, Lord Pitt of Hampstead, on the other hand—perfectly understandably—gave the example of a man who has served in Her Majesty's Forces in Northern Ireland. In addition to this difficulty, additional administration would undoubtedly lead to higher fees for those who are paying in full.

I would like to add just two other points which are also relevant to what your Lordships have been saying. First, may I just remind your Lordships that a successful application is a once-and-for-all affair. Citizenship really must not be compared with other areas where a fee may have to be paid annually or periodically. Secondly—here I come on to ground covered by the noble Lord, Lord Pitt of Hampstead—the British Nationality Act and indeed all the other nationality legislation will not adversely affect the position under the immigration law of anyone who is lawfully settled here. There is no compulsion, either expressed or implied. The Government really have to approach with caution the suggestion that scarce resources should be devoted to a scheme for waiving fees for some categories but not others, especially where people settled here lawfully who are not our citizens are under little practical disadvantage.

It is a matter of priorities and I suggest that successive Governments have been right in declining to accord priority to expenditure on a scheme of that kind. Of course, in saying that, I am not disagreeing with the noble Lord, Lord Pitt of Hampstead, that we wish to encourage people to acquire citizenship, as it is an important way of expressing commitment to this country. I believe the figures I have given this evening show that people have been accepting this with both hands; I am delighted that this is so despite the fairly substantial fees which have been charged in recent years.

Parliament has entrusted the Home Secretary of the day with the responsibility of administering the nationality laws. We believe it is right, where applications are made, that inquiries should be instituted if necessary to see whether the statutory requirements have been met. This is especially so where an applicant must be of good character. Inevitably, such inquiries take time and cost money. Therefore, there must continue to be considerable costs involved, which we believe it is right should be met by the applicant concerned and not subsidised by the public at large.

The noble Lord, Lord Avebury, asked me two specific questions. One concerned questions to employers. These questions are desirable to build up a total picture of the applicant. They could produce information of relevance to the requirement that the applicant should be of good character. I realise that the noble Lord and the Government do not agree on that point, but that system was agreed by both Houses during the passage of the British Nationality Bill as being the way in which naturalisation applications should continue to be decided. The noble Lord also asked me about the use of a computer by the nationality division. As I believe the noble Lord knows because of his interest in this subject, we undertook a feasibility study which has now been completed and approved. A full study to design the new system is in train. I cannot today give details of this new system because its introduction will depend on the availability of the necessary resources, but we hope that it will be possible for the computer to print out certain documents, including citizenship certificates and some of the stock letters which the noble Lord mentioned—and which, I think, he is in receipt of from time to time.

Perhaps I might now sum up. The fees set in April 1980 have been maintained for a period of two years. One would not actually gather this from the debate this evening, but that is the longest period of such stability since April 1975. We have now raised the fees. Through the measures we have taken, we expect that in 1982–83 we can increase our income from fees to the extent necessary to eliminate the considerable annual deficit on this service and, in effect, its subsidy by the taxpayer. At the same time we have streamlined procedures and arranged for the provision of some additional staff. We hope very much that this will eventually lead to some reduction in waiting times. Our expectation is that the present level of fees can he held when the British Nationality Act comes into force on 1st January next year, although further increases could be necessary in April of next year. If the fees do have to be increased after 1st January they will then be subject, under the British Nationality Act, to the negative resolution procedure and there will be an opportunity for further debate in your Lordships' House, if any of your Lordships thought it necessary.

I know that there are points in this debate upon which we do not agree but I hope I have shown that the Government have acted reasonably in this matter. I ask the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, not to press his Motion. If the Motion is pressed to a Division and was agreed to it would have the very serious consequences which I tried to explain at the start of my remarks. If the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, does feel that he must press his Motion, I must ask your Lordships to vote against it.

8.18 p.m.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, your Lordships will understand that it is sometimes necessary to find a way of staging a debate which does not result in a Division, and there may be very good reasons why it should not do so. The form of Motion now before your Lordships may sometimes be the only way of raising a matter such as this.

I really do not need lectures from the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Alloway, on what kind of Motions I should put down on the Order Paper. I think that he made an insufferably pompous speech, if I may say so, and I am perfectly able to look after the drafting of Motions without any advice from that quarter. The noble Lord, obviously, was not listening to me because he said that he disagreed hook, line and sinker with everything I said, yet at one point in his remarks he was suggesting to the Government that on a later occasion they might apply their minds to the possibility of relieving certain applicants who might suffer hardship as a result of the payment of these fees. I hope that I have not got the noble Lord wrong. He is neither affirming nor rejecting what I am saying. He was agreeing with the noble Lord, Lord Pitt of Hampstead, that where poor applicants could demonstrably show that they were not in a position to pay £200, or more if their families were registered at the same time, the Government might give further consideration to some system of evaluating their means—it would have to be a means test, obviously—and of waiving the fees in those cases. Am I right or not? Is that what the noble Lord wants.

Lord Belstead

My Lords, I wonder whether I could help the House. My noble friend, who is habitually fair and objective, was making a remark which was extremely helpful to the noble Lord, Lord Pitt, and was showing the Government that my noble friend, who is also of independent mind, had his own views on this particular subject. If the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, refuses to see any merit in anything my noble friend Lord Campbell of Alloway says, I am not particularly surprised that the noble Lord fails to understand what my noble friend says.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, I am not surprised that the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Alloway, needs the Minister to defend him. When this proposition was put by the noble Lord, Lord Pitt, to your Lordships—

Lord Campbell of Alloway

My Lords, if I may inform your Lordships' House, I need no one to defend me. The only reason why I did not rise to the bait a little earlier was that I thought it was not worthwhile to do so, that we were getting late and I did not wish to indulge in any form of personal exchange or acrimony, not because I cannot defend myself, but because I preferred not to do so.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, the noble Lord would have had some difficulty in defending himself, because he did in fact vote against the proposition of the noble Lord, Lord Pitt, on 13th October. He will find his vote recorded at column 331 of Hansard of that day.

If I may turn to the remarks of the Minister, first of all may I say that I do not think he took on board the very relevant point of the noble Baroness, Lady Jeger, that if we want people to integrate into our society, if we want them to feel part of Britain after they have been here many years, we should be making citizenship easier rather than more difficult. It does not seem to me that to answer that with a figure of the amount which it was going to cost to accept a proposition of this kind, is really helpful at all, because if the expenditure of £3 million—which is what the noble Lord says it would cost to leave the fees as they are—would result in a very large number of people, something like 150,000 people, feeling that they were genuinely a part of British society, that would surely be expenditure well worth while. Nor would it mean, of course, as the noble Lord is well aware, that £3 million would be the actual figure.

We have had this argument many times when Ministers have spoken in exactly the opposite sense. I do not want to widen the discussion, but, for instance, every time somebody points out that if we did not have Trident we could afford to spend more on conventional weapons, this is strenuously denied by Ministers at the Dispatch Box. You cannot have one rule of arithmetic which applies to defence and a totally different one which applies to the Home Office.

May I say that I was not attempting to suggest that the Minister had concealed the implications from the House at the time when we were discussing these matters on Committee and Report. All I said was that when it was first raised in Committee the Minister had been a little reticent about the actual level of fees. I agree—and I did mention this—that when we came to it on Report he made it quite plain that it was the Government's intention and their policy ultimately to recover the whole cost of the service in terms of the fees.

The service has undoubtedly become less efficient, when you look at the number of applications processed and the number of civil servants engaged in the task over a period of years. In 1971, the number of applications granted divided by the number of officers employed in the division was 361. It steadily declined from that point until 1977 when it had fallen to 130. When the noble Lord's colleague, Mr. Timothy Raison, said to me in correspondence that the reason for the drop in efficiency was the consequence of the courts' decisions in the cases of Zambia and others in 1977, I believe this could only have been partly true because the decline in efficiency of the division had preceded those decisions of the courts.

My Lords, I recognise that, having put all the arguments this evening, I am not going to make any impression on the Home Office, that the fees are not going to be put back where they were before these regulations were published. I only hope that, as a result of listening to the arguments that have been put this evening, the noble Lord the Minister and the Home Office will think twice before they impose such swingeing increases when the matter comes to be reconsidered next year. With that I beg leave to withdraw the Motion.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.