HC Deb 08 December 1971 vol 827 cc1464-74

11.30 p.m.

Mr. Clinton Davis (Hackney, Central)

In raising the question of the proposed removal of the Public Inquiry Office from Holborn to Croydon, I wish, first, to thank the Minister for his considerable courtesy when, following a number of Questions for Written Answer which I had tabled, he wrote to me at length, in the hope, no doubt, that he would be able to allay my doubts on the matter. I fear that he may not have succeeded in that, but I thank him none the less for setting out the Government's case in the way he did.

I thank the Minister, also, for allowing me facilities to visit Princeton House in order to learn at first-hand what was happening and what were the difficulties being experienced there. In that connection, also, I thank Mr. Fitzgerald, the assistant under-secretary, and Mr. Whitfield, the chief clerk, who spent so much time with me today.

Although I admire the hon. Gentleman's courtesy, I cannot admire the policy which his Department is pursuing. It is proposed within the next 12 months to remove the Immigration Department, now at Holborn, and the Nationality Department, now at Tolworth, to Croydon. The Immigration Department includes the Public Inquiry Office which is the main subject of this Adjournment debate.

It cannot be doubted that the work of the Public Inquiry Office is invaluable. The office deals with inquiries from Commonwealth citizens and foreign nationals on a vast and increasing scale. It deals with problems concerning status, permission to stay, passports and problems affecting sponsors of dependants overseas.

The scale of the work is immense, and it is growing almost incessantly. Last year, there were about 500,000 written inquiries, and I am informed that these are running at the rate of about 750,000 this year. There are literally hundreds of thousands of telephone calls. As for personal attendances at Holborn, I learned in a Written Answer on 8th November that in 1969 there had been a total of 170,698 personal callers, the total had risen to 204,272 in 1970, and up to 29th October this year there had been 186,101. Projecting this last figure to the end of the year, one can assume that there will have been about 211,000 personal callers in 1971.

At the Nationality Department at Tolworth there were 3,400 personal callers up to 31st October this year and, taking that figure up to the end of the year, one can take it that the total will be well in excess of 4,000; whereas in 1969 there were only 1,421 personal callers.

So there is a rising number of personal inquiries year by year. While it is true that many callers are transferred to other Departments through the filtering process which is employed, the large majority who call have real problems which have to be dealt with by the Public Inquiry Office.

In my judgment, this work is likely to be substantially increased by reason of the nonsense of the Immigration Act which Parliament passed not long ago, about which, as the Minister knows. I have strong feelings, and which will certainly lead to serious difficulties concerning status, patriality, registration, repatriation and a host of other problems which will arise under it.

It must be remembered that while some personal attendances result from delays in dealing with personal inquiries—I concede that at once—many callers, estimated by the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants at 3 to 4 per cent., find it difficult to write. Indeed, some find it impossible to do so. This is due, I suggest, to an inadequate knowledge of English in many cases. Some find that they have personal problems which they wish to relate and which they would find difficult to articulate in writing. Others do not wish a third person who might have helped them write to know about their personal problems. So there is an obvious demand to have a public inquiry office which is capable of dealing readily with personal callers. It has to be remembered, too—and I am sure the hon. Gentleman will agree—that there is frequently amongst those who call a feeling of considerable uncertainty which needs to be resolved urgently.

It is conceded by the Home Office that the move to Croydon will lead to added inconvenience for personal callers. The inconvenience will not merely be in terms of time expended, although that may well be quite considerable. It will also be due to the substantially increased fares which people will have to expend. I am advised that the return fare between Victoria and Croydon is 40p and that it is likely to increase in the New Year as a result of certain policies being pursued in other directions. Many of the people who make personal calls can ill afford this additional expense, particularly if they find it necessary to be accompanied to the inquiry office.

So that all in all the move will, I think, be a substantial deterrent to personal calls. I only hope that this is not the intention of the Department. I do not want to pre-empt all the arguments of the Minister of State, but I must anticipate some. The Department has advanced reasons which seem to me to fall under five heads. The first is that the present separation between the immigration and nationality departments is administratively difficult and burdensome. The second is that it is to some extent the cause of delay and inefficiency that the immigration department has to be housed in four buildings at Holborn as at present. The third is that as a result of all this the staff are over-taxed and the service they are able to offer is seriously impaired. Incidentally, I was enormously impressed by the way in which the staff at Princeton House were dealing with personal callers. They obviously showed a great interest in the inquiries and a great dedication to their task that is to be wholly admired.

The fourth reason is that it would be helpful if all the documentation could be undertaken in the same building and that it is useful to the officer in charge of a case to have ready consultation facilities with someone who is perhaps higher up or has greater knowledge of the case. The fifth reason—and this I saw for myself only too well—is that the conditions for the public at Princeton House are quite appalling. They are cramped and they are hot, particularly, I suppose, in warmer weather. They are distinctly uncomfortable. This was pointed out to me with great emphasis by the gentleman who was showing me around.

I concede all those points, but they do not justify a move to Croydon. What they justify is a move into a large building or complex of buildings. The Home Department has succumbed too readily, too quickly, to the blandishments of the Department of the Environment, which is anxious to exploit Croydon as a new giant commercial complex, and it has led the Home Department, perhaps blindfolded, into taking a building there. It would not have been impossible by any means for the Home Department to have resisted that and to have found a building far nearer the centre than is Croydon.

Another argument is that it is difficult for the Home Department to attract staff to Princeton House because of the competition from commercial enterprises able to offer better wages and better conditions. The problem of better conditions could be resolved by a move to another building with better conditions, but I am convinced that a move to an area like Croydon, with growing commercial interests and with an enormous number of buildings going up, will not resolve the problem and could lead to greater competition for staff in a more confined area. That could lead to a deterioration in the present high standards of staff. The arguments based on administrative tidiness and efficiency and going to a much better building in Croydon may be important, but they are not compelling.

Even if it is not possible to find another suitable building nearer to the centre of London, it is essential to keep a public inquiry office in the heart of London for the reasons I have given and for other reasons. There are modern devices, of which I am sure the Home Department is aware, to enable files to be kept in rather better order. One can microfilm these days and there is such a thing as a direct line—I know that it is used at the moment between Princeton House and Tolworth—and it could be used between such other new building as the Department may be able to find and the large complex in Croydon.

The ramifications of this move could be serious internationally and nationally. There is already a great deal of suspicion, fear and doubt among coloured immigrants about the Immigration Act—perhaps they are wrong. I know that the Minister is most concerned and is anxious to eradicate this feeling, but it exists and it is no use denying it. If the immigrants feel that their relatives and friends are being dealt with in a cavalier manner, even if they are not justified in that feeling, if they feel that they are being caused considerable inconvenience and if they feel that there are being sacrificed on the alter of bureaucratic tidiness, considerable resentment will flow, and that feeling could be echoed throughout the coloured community particularly.

If we enter the Common Market—and personally I hope that we do not—we are likely to have thousands more people coming to this country working and living here and with their problems which they will wish to take to an inquiry office. Those concerned with the problems of immigrants here, whether from the Commonwealth or foreign nationals, are deeply perturbed.

I should like to quote a letter which I had today and which is signed by four community relations officers.

"It has come to our notice that the Home Office shortly intends to remove the Immigration Division from the office in High Holborn.

We, the undersigned, know from professional experience that this will cause severe difficulties to the many alien and Commonwealth immigrant callers who have to visit this division to avail themselves of its services.

Although we are aware that there is a good train service from Victoria to Croydon, there remains the question of commuting to the central station, the increased cost of fares, the unfamiliarity of the callers with the geography of London and its suburbs and the increased difficulty of getting a friend to accompany them for interpretation purposes for example, as well as the increasing inconvenience of commuter travel.

We would wish that our concern be brought to the appropriate Government Department.

Yours faithfully,

Baden S. Prince

Community Relations Officer

Camden Committee for Community Relations

C. R. St. Hill

Community Relations Officer

Islington Committee for Community Relations

A. A. Waterman

Assistant Community Relations Officer

Hackney Community Relations Council

P. A. C. Sealy

Community Relations Officer

Brent Community Relations Council."

The Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants has also made similar representations in a letter which concludes: Anything that you can do to get this matter reconsidered would, I know, be greatly appreciated by the many thousands who are likely to be adversely affected by the proposed change of venue. Those representations are matters which the Minister should take into account, as I am sure he will, because he is a compassionate Minister for whom I have a high regard, although I do not always—perhaps even in the majority of cases—agree with him.

For all these reasons I believe the move is misconceived and ill-advised. It has been done rather furtively by the Department, and the Department should have some pangs of conscience about it. The move will be widely resented by immigrants and by those who deal with their problems. This is an attempt to prevent people from calling and trying thus to sort out their problem, and that is wrong. The Department should think again.

11.46 p.m.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Richard Sharples)

I am glad the hon. Member for Hackney, Central (Mr. Clinton Davis) has raised this matter, and I am grateful to him for the spirit in which he has done so. The removal of the Immigration and Nationality Department to Croydon, including the Public Inquiry Office, is important to all those here, or who will come in the future, who are subject to immigration control. I admire the zeal and persistence with which the hon. Gentleman has pursued this matter in Questions, and I am grateful to him for the remarks he made about me and, more particularly, for those he made about the staff at Princeton House. He has seen members of the staff himself and the difficult conditions in which they operate. His remarks will be very much appreciated by the staff who, I am sure, will read what he has said.

As I have explained to the hon. Gentleman in correspondence, the decision to make this move was taken only after a great deal of thought. This is a firm decision which has received as much publicity as possible. There was a Press release on this and full publicity was given as far back as August. This short debate gives me the opportunity to make more widely known the facts and the reasons for the Government's decision.

I am sure the hon. Gentleman will agree, from what he saw on his visit today, that the accommodation available to us in central London for the Immigration and Nationality Department, including the Public Inquiry Office, is no longer suitable or adequate for the functions which the Department has to discharge. For many years now, the number of Commonwealth citizens and foreign nationals coming to this country for various purposes has been increasing. Inevitably, the more people who come here, the greater the number of problems and inquiries with which the Department is asked to deal.

During the last eight years, the staff at the Immigration headquarters has roughly doubled, in the same way as it has at the ports. The result is that it can no longer be housed in a single building. It is now spread over a number of buildings, four in the Holborn area and one at Tolworth, where the Nationality Division had to be sent some years ago. Necessarily, this fragmentation has caused the work of the department to suffer, in that it has given rise to delay. As the hon. Gentleman will have seen, one of the problems is that files relating to persons calling at the office have to be kept in a different building from that to which callers come. For each caller, a messenger has to be sent across to get the file, and, inevitably, there is a delay of at least half an hour between a person giving his name at the office and the file coming forward. That is one of the causes of the queue of people to be seen there.

That is not the whole picture. The number of personal callers has risen steeply to over 200,000 in 1970, of whom just over a quarter were Commonwealth citizens. Although the Public Inquiry Office was extended as recently as 1969, facilities for receiving visitors and dealing with them leave a great deal to be desired. The hon. Gentleman was there at a time which was not a peak period, I understand. At peak periods a large queue of callers has to wait, not only in the uncomfortable conditions which the hon. Gentleman saw, but often extending right the way down the street. There is no possibility of enlarging the Public Inquiry Office in the existing premises. There is a similar problem with telephone inquiries. We now receive telephone calls at the rate of 125,000 a year. This is more than we are able to cope with, given the existing facilities, and it is not possible to expand those facilities in Princeton House.

As I have said, the efficiency of the Immigration and Nationality Department is impaired because of its fragmentation. There is also another point, to which the hon. Gentleman referred. It is the difficulty in recruiting and retaining the necessarily large numbers of junior staff in Central London, where we are in competition with commerce and the professions. There is a very large turnover in the number of junior staff in the office, and an office of this kind, dealing with personal cases, depends a great deal upon the efficiency and the continuity of employment of the junior staff. We have looked at this very carefully, and all our researches show that it will be possible to recruit the staff that we need in the Croydon area.

As a result of our staff difficulties, a large proportion of those who call at the Public Inquiry Office are people who call because of delays in answering their letters or because they are unable to get satisfaction from telephone inquiries. The hon. Gentleman will find, if he tries to make inquiries by telephone, that the line is probably engaged.

The hon. Gentleman asked why we did not simply rehouse the department in a larger building in Central London or provide a bigger inquiry office. I can give him an absolute assurance that we have looked at this possibility very carefully. We are advised by the Department of the Environment, in addition to going into it carefully ourselves, that there is no suitable building likely to become available in the foreseeable future at anything like an acceptable cost. There is a staff of something like a thousand to be housed, and the cost of doing that in Central London would be very considerable indeed. But it is not only that. The fact is that there is no suitable accommodation—

Mr. Clinton Davis

There is that appalling monstrosity known as Centre Heights. Has that been considered? In any event, I was not talking about only the centre of London. It could be within five miles of the centre. But Croydon is a lot further away than that.

Mr. Sharples

We have looked at this possibility in conjunction with the Department of the Environment, and we have been forced to the conclusion that Croydon is the right place for the department.

The inquiry office has to be in the same building as the rest of the department so that the officers in it can have access to papers and to their colleagues who deal with case work, and so that as many inquiries as possible can be dealt with on the spot. Unless that were so, the object of having an inquiry office would be defeated to a large extent. The administrative machinery would become clogged still more.

I realise that the move of the Department, including the Public Inquiry Office, will lead to some inconvenience to callers, as indeed it will to Ministers and senior officials. However, I do not believe that the difficulties will be so great as the hon. Gentleman fears.

There are very good public transport facilities to Croydon. There is a frequent train service from Victoria to Croydon. The journey takes only 15 minutes by train from Central London, and the Department will be only a few minutes' walk from either of the Croydon stations.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the costs incurred by people having to travel out to Croydon to make their inquiries. We hope that many of the inquiries will be answered by post in a much shorter time which will lead to fewer people having to go there. Even so, it would be a mistake to assume that all journeys to Holborn are without cost. People come to Holborn not only from different parts of London—some of them may come from areas much closer to Croydon—but from places well outside London. Costs are involved in that, too.

The new premises will make it possible to provide accommodation and a service for personal callers which will be far superior to those which we can provide at Holborn. But there is an overriding reason for the move. By far the majority of inquiries are by letter. The Immigration and Nationality Department now receives approaching three-quarters of a million letters a year, and we owe it to the writers to organise the Department as efficiently as we can so that they receive replies as quickly as possible. If we can speed up our replies to letters and improve our telephone service, there will be less need for people to call in person. This is not possible while the Department is spread over a number of buildings.

The Department has a comprehensive plan to bring the move—likely to take place in about a year—to the notice of all concerned in good time. We have issued a Press statement and we are putting slips in all letters sent out pointing out that the change will be taking place. We also propose, for a transitional period, to maintain a small inquiry office as a calling point in Central London—probably in the existing premises; I hope that it will be there—to give general advice and to explain how applications can best be made to the Department at Croydon. The hon. Gentleman said that he hoped that it would be there indefinitely. I do not know how long it will need to be there, but certainly until people are used to going to the new Inquiry Office at Croydon.

I hope that, in the light of what I have said, the hon. Gentleman will agree that our solution is in the best interests of the great majority of those concerned. I think that we all have their interests at heart.

As I have emphasised, the whole question has been most carefully and thoroughly examined. The hon. Gentleman and the House may be assured that our aim is to ensure that those subject to immigration control, whether they make their inquiries by post, by telephone or in person, get the best possible service. It is the determination of those responsible in the Home Office to make a success for the new arrangements.

Quesion put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at two minutes to Twelve o'clock.