When asked why the fees for visa applications are so expensive, the Home Office traditionally responds that the immigration system should be “funded by those who benefit from it”, in order to reduce taxpayer expense.
This is a convenient political argument. It has justified enormous increases in application and other fees associated with the UK immigration system in recent years.
In light of widespread recruitment crises across several UK sectors and an investigation by the immigration inspector, can this trope any longer be seriously justified (if it ever could)?
The price we pay
This has led to eye-watering increases in fees for anyone involved in the immigration system, and for individual migrants in particular.
For a British citizen to bring his or her spouse to live in the UK, the cost from entry clearance application abroad to citizenship following the appropriate residence period is currently £7,275, requiring no less than four applications (including citizenship) over several years.
This cost does not include any Home Office priority or premium services, fees for dependants, or legal fees. It assumes that an applicant is successful at the first attempt at each stage. It is the absolute minimum a person will pay.
Applicants are relieved of their hard-earned cash at various stages of the immigration journey.
The fee for an application for indefinite leave to remain (ILR) is £2,389. The spouse application fee is £1,523. Adult dependant relative applications are £3,250.
The cost to the Home Office of processing these applications is in the low hundreds of pounds: an ILR application, for instance, costs the department £243. These are official figures, not campaigning estimates.
Everyone affected by the high fees charged by the Home Office should submit evidence to the Independent Chief Inspector. https://t.co/KwkHRskAMf
— JCWI (@JCWI_UK) June 26, 2018
Visiting migrants benefit from permission to enter and remain in the UK for six months at a time. If the Home Office truly wished to make the migration system self-funding, why not increase these fees?
One also wonders — although not for long — why the Secretary of State does not increase the equally modest £85 fee for the 6.7 million British passports issued to potential voters in 2017.
It was, after all, Theresa May who said that British citizenship was a “privilege, not a right”.
Immigration Health Surcharge
All applicants are subject to the Immigration Health Surcharge (£200 per year).
The government plans to double this to £400 per year, meaning that minimum cost from entry to naturalisation for a spouse would rise to £8,275. Earlier this year, health minister James O’Shaughnessy said
Our NHS is always there when you need it, paid for by British taxpayers. We welcome long-term migrants using the NHS, but it is only right that they make a fair contribution to its long-term sustainability
Which is weird, because the NHS is paid for by all taxpayers, not just British ones. Unless the minister is suggesting that once migrants get here, they are not taxed. Which would be news to Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs.
Nonetheless, even if applicants have private health insurance and pay taxes towards the NHS by working — indeed, even if they work for the NHS — they have to pay this fee.
Perhaps it is due to concerns that the Home Office will continue to lose supporting documents down the back of the massive sofa they keep in Sheffield that more people are opting for premium services.
It costs £610, in addition to the regular fees, to make an application in person and get a decision on the day instead of posting it off and playing the waiting game.
For those applying for a visa outside of the UK, it is possible to pay for the Priority Visa service and have the process expedited for £573.
Whilst this service originally promised a decision in five working days, this promise collapsed faster than Amber Rudd’s career following her last appearance before the Home Affairs Select Committee.
There is now no guarantee what your £573 is buying you: only that the application will be dealt with before other non-priority applications.
And if you’ve got any questions, just send an email: charged at £5.48 a time.
These services are increasingly privatised. Out-of-country visa processing is dealt with by VFS and TLS. In the UK, the Home Office employs those expert texters at Capita — it still has contracts worth £300m — and STD clinic soundalike Sopra Steria. One suspects that costs for migrants will not be reducing any time soon.
Minimum income requirement
If the fees regime is the UK’s badly disguised attempt at nudge theory economics, persuading migrants via their pockets that it would be jolly nice if they bloody well stayed where they were, the minimum income requirement is the equivalent of a punch in the face.
Brits wishing to bring their foreign spouse to the UK to live with them, or return from abroad with them, will broadly need to earn a minimum income of at least £18,600, or have a lot more in savings.
The Supreme Court found that it was creating “significant hardship” but nonetheless declared the requirement to be legal.
Successful spouse visa applicants — or really any other migrant with limited leave — have no recourse to public funds until they achieve settled status after five years’ residence, despite paying into the community pot if they are working.
Immigration Skills Charge (paid by employers)
Employers are not exempt from these increases, paying £1,000 per year (for large organisations, £364 for small ones) per worker brought in from overseas under Tier 2. The fee is set to double this year. A Conservative minister said
… it seems that some employers would prefer to recruit skilled workers from overseas rather than invest in training UK workers
Even if this were true, and was a good long-term strategy, there are currently urgent recruitment crises in teaching, nurseries, the care sector, the army, the navy, GP surgeries, nursing, IT, dentistry, psychiatry, both the hospitality and travel industries, catering, veterinary medicine, agriculture , fishing, construction, and engineering.
Taxpayer-funded organisations like the NHS and schools also have to pay this charge.
But this fee is only paid where a Certificate of Sponsorship is assigned by an employer to a worker once they have successfully applied for the certificate, and for which there is currently a massive shortage due to a competing policy: the overall “cap” on skilled migrant labour.
The amount that can be raised for the purposes of addressing the skills gap in the domestic labour market via this policy — a plausible, if long-term, aspiration — is therefore severely restricted by another policy… operated by the same department.
The beatings will continue until morale improves
The premise that it is immigrants — rather than the country at large — who benefit from immigration is contentious.
And yet it is this premise which underpins the expense of the system for those unfortunate enough to have to navigate its bends and narrow alleyways.
In truth, it is politics of the hostile environment which has led to this, not economics, or blather about a self-funding system.
For the government, this state of affairs ticks a number of boxes: demonstrably hostile to immigrants, a smaller state, red meat for its political base.
For many individuals, though, the system is now so expensive that they simply cannot afford it. And for employers, the squeeze continues.
If you are a person who believes that migrants are the primary beneficiaries of the immigration system, rather than the country at large, then I guess this is a price worth paying.
But the architects of the new, post-Brexit immigration system, a high-rise currently under construction, must recognise the individual and wider economic costs of the current fee levels.
Even if we disagree about who benefits more from migration — whether society, or the migrants (and their employers) themselves — most will acknowledge that migrants and migration bring at least some benefits to the country, even if they argue that these are outweighed by competing considerations.
The logical conclusion which must follow is that society must share in the costs of operating a system from which it benefits.
Although framed in language of benefit, the current system operates a de facto “polluter pays” policy, implying that migrants and their employers are doing nothing but damage to the UK economy, and must fund the immigration system lock, stock and barrel.
In what is likely to be the greatest shake-up of UK immigration law since 1971, the framers of the new system must resist this narrative at all costs. A reduction in fees would be a good start.