HL Deb 18 October 1999 vol 605 cc839-43

—(1) The Secretary of State may, with the approval of the Treasury, make regulations prescribing fees to be paid in connection with applications to him for travel documents.

(2) If a fee is prescribed in connection with an application of a particular kind, no such application is to be entertained by the Secretary of State unless the fee has been paid in accordance with the regulations.

(3) In respect of any period before the coming into force of this section, the Secretary of State is to be deemed always to have had power to impose charges in connection with—

  1. (a) applications to him for travel documents; or
  2. (b) the issue by him of travel documents.

(4) "Travel document" does not include a passport.").

The noble Lord said: My Lords, the new clause puts beyond doubt the power to levy fees in connection with Home Office travel documents. The background was set out in a written answer to a question from my noble friend Lord Hardy of Wath on 27th July 1999 by my noble and learned friend Lord Williams of Mostyn. It may assist your Lordships if I briefly restate the position.

The Home Office has for a long time issued travel documents to refugees, stateless persons and some other third country nationals. It is a valuable service of which some 15,000 people take advantage every year. There has always been a charge which, in the case of refugees and stateless persons, is the same as that for a British passport. That complies with the United Nations conventions on refugees and statelessness.

Travel documents are issued by virtue of the royal prerogative but there is no specific legal power in UK legislation that authorises the taking of fees in connection with such documents. The Government have decided that it would be right to introduce an amendment to put beyond doubt the power to levy such fees.

There is a general enabling power in the Finance Act 1973 to charge for any services provided by the Government pursuant to any international treaty to which the United Kingdom is a party. That would cover documents issued to refugees and stateless persons. My right honourable friend the Home Secretary, with Treasury concurrence, has exercised those powers, and a charge of £21 was reintroduced for refugee and stateless person documents on 23rd August 1999 by virtue of the Travel Document (Refugees and Stateless Persons) (Fees) Regulations 1999.

Those regulations do not cover all travel documents issued by the Home Office and, for the time being, documents not covered are being processed free of charge. The intention is to make new regulations setting fees for the full range of travel documents when the Bill has received Royal Assent. Subsection (1) of the new clause provides the power to make regulations that will set fee levels. As usual in such matters, regulations require the approval of the Treasury. As has always been the case, the cost of documents issued to refugees and stateless persons will be the same as for a British passport. Other documents will be charged at a level that recovers the costs of processing applications. The price before we temporarily suspended charging was £67. That will be reviewed before new regulations are made.

Subsection (2) provides that if a fee is prescribed for a particular type of case, the application will not be considered until the fee is received. This ensures that the Home Office will not start to incur costs in processing applications until the appropriate fee has been paid. Processing costs are incurred whether or not an application is granted. It is not our intention to make any refunds if a document is not issued in a particular case. That is consistent with practice since 1994 and with the way that the powers in Clause 4 will be exercised.

Subsection (3) has retrospective effect and declares that the Secretary of State is deemed always to have had power to impose charges in connection with travel documents. The effect is that a claim for a refund in respect of a fee that was paid before the clause came into force could not succeed. The amendment in the names of the noble Baroness, Lady Williams of Crosby, and the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, seeks to leave out that subsection. The Government do not propose retrospective legislation lightly. In relation to travel documents, the vast majority of applicants have received either the document they sought or a refund. They have suffered no financial disadvantage, notwithstanding any doubts there may be now about the power to charge in the past.

The exact number of applicants who paid a fee but who received neither a document nor a refund is not known. The number is believed to be small and such people are eligible for a refund in accordance with the refund scheme announced on 27th July. In those circumstances, it is right for Parliament to approve retrospective legislation in this narrow area to ensure that there is absolute clarity on the state of the law and to avoid the possibility of small claims for refunds being brought before the courts on the basis of a legal technicality. I hope that the noble Baroness and the noble Lord will not press their amendment.

Subsection (4) makes clear that the clause applies to travel documents issued to foreign nationals and does not cover the issue of national passports. The new clause provides a clear and unambiguous power to charge for Home Office travel documents. It ensures that the position that was always thought to exist is properly established in UK legislation. Our intention is that it will be brought into force on Royal Assent, and a further drafting amendment will be brought forward to Clause 164 to that effect later in our deliberations. I beg to move.

Baroness Williams of Crosby had given notice of her intention to move, as an amendment: to Amendment No. 28, Amendment No. 28A: Line 9, leave out subsection (3).

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, the Minister inferred immediately that my noble friend and I tabled the amendment because we perceived retrospective legislation and wanted to elicit an explanation of why that had gone down. We will read the Minister's remarks carefully. We do not want to make difficulties for difficulty's sake but the Minister will appreciate that we feel unhappy about retrospective legislation. He has helped us to some extent as to how it ever came about.

Of course, administrative mistakes are made—indeed, we understand that very well—but normally one should actually meet the penalty that applies. However, we would be most grateful if the Minister could perhaps say a few more words about the refund scheme. My noble friend and I will look most closely at this matter, but will not press the amendment on the point at this time.

[Amendment No. 28A, as an amendment to Amendment No. 28, not moved.]

Lord Hylton

My Lords, I think I heard the Minister say that charges for travel documents would not be greater than comparable ones for the issue of passports. If I am correct, that is encouraging. However, when he comes to reply, I should be grateful if the noble Lord could confirm that charges for travel documents will always be kept at reasonable levels and will not become a new kind of tax or source of fundraising on behalf of the Government. We need to bear in mind that travel documents are an essential facility for a large group of people—the noble Lord cited 15,000 per year—who would not otherwise be able to leave this country for whatever good reason.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, perhaps I may confirm what the Minister said; namely, that the charge to be made—if it remains the same as it has been for passports—is to be £67. Perhaps the noble Lord would reflect a little on that amount. After all, we are talking about people who, presumably, come here destitute from their country of origin where they have been persecuted. They may not have had time to build up any assets or to enter into work. Of course, people who are in the queue waiting to have their applications heard by the Secretary of State are specifically debarred from working. Therefore, £67 is rather a lot of money in such circumstances.

If we are proposing that all refugees should be charged that sum for the issue of travel documents, I think that it is worth pausing for a moment to consider the implications involved. I know many refugees who do apply for travel documents because they have to travel for their political work. If they come here as refugees from a country where they have been persecuted and are still engaged in activities which are linked to the opposition against the dictatorial regime in their country of origin, they may have to attend conferences in other parts of the world. Of course, they could not do so unless someone paid for it and I assume that that is normally the case. But they need travel documents for that purpose. It seems that we are proposing to charge every one of these people £67, irrespective of his or her ability to pay. That is a point that we should reflect upon before we leave this clause.

Lord Cope of Berkeley

My Lords, retrospective legislation is always odious, but at the same time it is sometimes necessary and often the right thing to do. In this particular case, as it has been thought to be the position for so long, it is my judgment that this is a proper use of the power of retrospective legislation which Parliament has along with its other powers.

As regards the question of the level of the fee that should be charged, it seems to me that the comparison with passports is obviously extremely relevant. However, in the end, the cost involved is what matters. We do not want the Government to make a profit out of these matters, but they should not face an undue burden as a result of the number of applications for such travel documents.

I do not know whether the cost of issuing such documents is greater than that which applies to supplying passports. I have not asked that question. If I had, no doubt I would have been told. We do not want people to be charged unreasonably for travel documents but, at the same time, it is unreasonable for taxpayers to bear too much of the expense. That is the balance which the Government have to keep in mind when fixing the level of the charges for such documents.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, I should like to thank all noble Lords and the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, for their very helpful and constructive comments in this short debate. If I am unable to answer questions that have not been asked, I shall at least try to answer those questions which have been asked.

The noble Lord, Lord Avebury, made a perfectly valid and understandable point about the hardship suffered by people who may well come here in difficult circumstances. We are very sympathetic to that point. However, perhaps I should remind the noble Lord that refugees will be charged £21, in the same way that a UK resident is charged for a passport. As I believe I said earlier, before we lay new regulations, we will of course review the £67 suspended charge that we have already discussed. Therefore, we are keeping such matters carefully under review. We intend to be as sensitive as we possibly can in the application of the charges. I believe that to be a reasonable way for us to proceed.

After all, these are not revenue-raising devices. As the noble Lord, Lord Cope, said, retrospective action is sometimes necessary, although it may be odious. I am grateful to noble Lords for their patience and forbearance in this matter. If I have missed any points in my response, I shall be more than happy to pick up some of the detail in further correspondence. I believe I was pressed in particular on how the refund scheme might work. I shall provide the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, with a letter setting this out in a little more detail, and shall copy it to noble Lords who entered into this debate. I commend the amendment to the House.

[Amendment No. 28A, as an amendment to Amendment No. 28, not moved.]

On Question, Amendment No. 28 agreed to.

The Lord Bishop of Southwark moved Amendment No. 29: After Clause 23, insert the following new clause—

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