CHARITIES offering free immigration advice will be charged fees for the first time, The National can reveal.

As it stands, organisations which charge for immigration advice pay fees to their regulator, the Office of the Immigration Services Commissioner (OISC). Those who provide advice for free do not.

But the Government wants to change this so that free services are also charged while introducing a simpler charging system for those which charge clients for their services.

New plans out for consultation would see charges levied on free immigration services for the first time.

Critics say this will play into the hands of "scammers" by penalising legitimate immigration advisers. 

The OISC said the changes will recoup money from the growing sector, which has risen from 701 advisers in March 2017 to 1,625 as of February 2024, according to the Home Office.

The regulator does not break even, with the money brought in by fees coming to £1.3 million while its activities cost an estimated £2.2m.

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Deirdre Brock, the SNP MP for Edinburgh North and Leith, has written to the Home Secretary to raise concern about the plans, saying they are “counter-intuitive” amid rising demand for immigration advice and could leave people vulnerable to “exploitation” from dodgy providers.

She told The National: “It’s hard to believe the UK Government could make charities pay for giving free, reliable immigration advice to people who desperately need it.

“Accurate advice is essential to make sure the immigration system works fairly, efficiently and safely for everyone - the government should be boosting access to free support, not threatening it.

“I know from my work in Edinburgh North and Leith how big the unfilled need is for immigration advice. Many folk who turn up at my surgeries cannot afford hefty legal fees and don’t know where to turn to get some support with the labyrinth of regulations.

“If they can't get regulated support, vulnerable people are more likely to seek advice from unscrupulous scammers giving bad advice, damaging their case, their finances and their lives in the UK.”

She said that, viewed against the Government’s wider anti-immigration crackdown, it appeared ministers were “hellbent on making life as difficult as possible for people who just want to work hard and build a life here”.

The National: SNP MP Deidre Brock speaking in the House of Commons

Brock (above) added: “If the UK Government insists on making the immigration system ever more complex, the least they can do is waive the fees for the charities and community groups who are helping people navigate their draconian system.

"I have written to the UK Government asking them for a rethink on this short-sighted proposal.”

The OISC categorises immigration advice providers into three levels depending on the complexity of the work they undertake.

Currently all fees are waived for organisations which do not charge for advice.

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This will be moved to a band system. Under the proposed scheme, organisations will pay nothing for the first year, regardless of level and this will be the same for re-registration.

This changes to £253 for the second year, rising to £506 for the third year, for organisations on Level 1.

For Level 1 organisations, re-registration fees go up to £259 in the second year, then to £519 in the third year.

For Level 2/3 organisations the registration in the second year will be £269, rising to £538 in the third. Re-registration rises from £259 in the second year to £519 in the third. Individuals on Level 1 pay a flat rate of £329 regardless of the year, and £103 for re-registration.

The National: Home Office

Individuals on Level 2/3 pay a flat rate of £520 from years one to three and £103 for re-registration. Those on Level 1 will pay a flat rate of £329 for registration and £103 for re-registration. 

For those who charge clients for advice, Level 1 organisations will have their initial fees raised from £733 to £1,011 then from £1011 for re-registration to £1037.

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For individuals, this goes from zero to £329 for initial registration to £103 for re-registration.

A band system for Level 2 and 3 organisations will be scrapped in favour of a flat fee of £1,076 for registration, which is lower than all current bands. Re-registration fees also move from a band system and will cost £1,037, again lower than all current levels.

Individuals, who were previously not paying, will now pay £520 then £103 for subsequent registration.

An OISC spokesperson said: “The fee charging structure has not changed since the OISC was established in 2000 and it currently does not cover the cost of regulatory activity. This Home Office consultation is an opportunity to understand the impact of revised fees and charges to the immigration advice sector.

“We hope to improve regulatory services and raise the standards so that quality immigration advice is given to those who need it.”

The Home Office was approached for comment.