In approaching this inspection and report, while I tried to cover the technical aspects of the Home Office’s charging strategy and fee setting to the extent that this is essential to an understanding of the current position, my focus was on how effectively the Home Office has explained its overall approach, the reasons for particular fee levels and annual increases, how the fees link to service delivery and standards, and how the Home Office has responded to what its customers and stakeholders have had to say.
I also looked to reflect other ‘voices’. My public ‘call for evidence’ for this inspection produced a far greater response than for any previous inspection. A number of people were clearly distressed by the effect the fees had had on them or their family or friends. It is not within my remit to take up individual cases, but I attempted to summarise the main themes and arguments from the many hundreds of responses I received and, in doing so, I hope I did justice to everyone who contributed.
I made 12 recommendations in total, most of which concerned providing more and better information to explain how the fees have been calculated, noting that if the Home Office is serious about providing good customer service its current lack of transparency is at best unhelpful. However, my recommendations also focused on the effects of the fees on vulnerable individuals, including children, and the need for the Home Office to demonstrate that it has fully considered these effects in determining fee levels, annual increases, the availability of waivers, and refunds.
While I would always like to see the Home Office committing to going further and faster, it has “accepted” or “partially accepted” 10 of my recommendations and has already implemented or begun to implement some changes. Meanwhile, at several points in its formal response, it has indicated that it will give further consideration to what I recommended and I will look to ensure that this is the case.
Two recommendations were “not accepted”, one concerning a full public consultation in advance of the 2019 CSR and the other concerning the calculation of the “benefits likely to accrue” and the refunding of this element of the fee where nationality or settlement applications are refused. I do not understand why the Home Office believes there is insufficient time to run a public consultation (one could have been launched when my report was received in January and could still be launched now to run in parallel with the CSR 2019 process). As suggested, I will provide the Home Office with further (anonymised) details from the ICIBI ‘call for evidence’. But, this is second best.
However, I am more concerned about the other “not accepted” recommendation, in particular in relation to the refunding of the “benefits” element of fees, which in the case of nationality and settlement applications are high. The Home Office has said that it will “carefully consider” my recommendations “in the context of the next Spending Review”. I am disappointed that the Home Office does not recognise that this is a question of basic fairness, which should not have to wait on discussions with the Treasury about the department’s future funding.