HC Deb 26 November 1973 vol 865 cc155-76

10.0 p.m.

Mr. John Fraser (Norwood)

I beg to move, That the Statement of Change in Immigration Rules for Control on Entry : EEC and other non-Commonwealth Nationals (H.C., 1972–73, No. 437), a copy of which was laid before this House on 16th October, in the last Session of Parliament, be disapproved. The Statement of Change which has been presented to the House by the Home Department very logically take account of the fact that Pakistan has left the Commonwealth and rules for its nationals entering Britain have to be placed in line with those of non-Commonwealth countries. Pakistan nationals will now, with, say, Cuba and the American countries, enjoy the distinction of having to obtain entry certificates to enter the United Kingdom.

I do not propose to go into many arguments about the rules in general. The rules as they will apply to Pakistan and to Commonwealth countries are much more stringent than those applied to, say, South Africa, for which no entry certificate is necessary. I believe them still to be racially biased, particularly in relation to the grand-patrial clause. I believe them still to be inflexible, because there is no way in which one can appeal the Minister's exercise of discretion and there is no way in which an applicant can ask an adjudicator to say that in the circumstances of the case, although the person may not have a right under the rules to enter the United Kingdom, it is the adjudicator's opinion that the Minister should exercise his discretion. That power is missing.

There are areas in which these rules need very close scrutiny. I am thinking particularly of the rule which debars the Commonwealth husband of a United Kingdom citizen from remaining in the United Kingdom whether he wishes to establish his family. It is totally against the current climate of opinion that the immigration rules should discriminate against the United Kingdom woman citizen and discriminate conversely against certain male Commonwealth subjects.

Many of the difficulties about marriages of convenience and the hardship imposed on English wives who marry Commonwealth citizens could be removed if the Home Office were prepared to take a closer look at this rule and try to establish that where a marriage is genuine and where the parties genuinely intend to establish a home in Britain, the spouse, whether that spouse be a male or a female, should be allowed to come to or remain in the United Kingdom.

I turn to what I believe to be the injustice and inhumanity which are perpetrated by the present visa and entry certificate system as applied to those who wish to come here from Pakistan. I start with a constituency example. A constituent of mine, a Mr. Khan, who is a United Kingdom citizen born in the United Kingdom, wants to bring his wife to this country from Pakistan. He is a United Kingdom citizen. He is as patrial as the Secretary of State. He was married in Pakistan. He was told that, although nine months had elapsed, his wife must still wait for an interview in order to be able to apply for an entry certificate.

I wrote to the Under-Secretary about this case. I quote part of his reply : I can quite see that on the face of it nine months seems an unconscionable time to ask a wife to wait for an entry clearance to join her husband in this country. But it is not just a question of establishing the bona fides of Mr. Khan's wife once she can be interviewed : the problem lies in the huge number of other applicants who must be seen before Mrs. Khan's turn is reached. I know that later in that letter the Minister of State went on to speak about the subterfuges and fraudulent practices which have been encountered by entry certificate officers operating in Pakistan.

I do not want for one moment to condone subterfuge and fraud—indeed, I believe that those who indulge in subterfuge and fraud to obtain entry certificates to this country do many of their comrades and fellow citizens a very grave disservice—but each applicant must be considered on his merits. There may be fraud in Australia, in New Zealand or in Canada, but we do not treat a whole class of persons as if they are branded by subterfuge and fraud. If we are to apply the immigration law fairly and without racial bias, it is essential that we treat each person as an individual with certain rights which he can exercise to come into this country. The delay in Pakistan is affecting about 6,000 dependants ; they may not all be admitted to this country, but there are about 6,000 in the queue. In addition to wives, there are children and parents who wish to come here as dependants.

I do not deny that there is some difficulty. If somebody wants to come to the United Kingdom as a dependant, it is necessary to establish not only relationship but whether money has been sent out to the other country, whether the person is solely dependent, and his age. Furthermore, home visits have to be made in the United Kingdom. But I believe that a delay of nine months to a year before getting even an interview is inhuman, harsh and, to use the Minister's words, unconscionable.

Dr. Alan Glyn (Windsor)

Will the hon. Member agree that there are considerable practical difficulties here? We are dealing with a country where records are not very good, and is it not our duty to make sure that birth certificates and all the other necessary documents are examined properly before people are admitted to this country?

Mr. Fraser

I will not deny that there is some difficulty. Perhaps I ought to declare here that I have an interest as a lawyer, and I have some practical experience of this matter. But the marriage certificate of my constituent, Mr. Kahn, was available on the day following his marriage. However, Mrs. Kahn still has to wait 12 months to get an interview to put her valid marriage certificate in front of an entry certificate officer.

I should like to give some other examples. Mrs. Qaran applied in Pakistan to join her husband in March 1973. Although her documents may be completely in order, she has been offered a date for interview in March 1974. In correspondence with the Foreign Office, her advisers were told that this is not an exceptional case of a compassionate nature, and more time will elapse after the interview before an entry certificate is granted. It may well be two years before an entry certificate comes through. I believe that a separation of husband and wife which lasts for about two years is wholly exceptional and demands speedier treatment.

To give another example, Mrs. Massood married in March 1973, applied for an entry certificate in May 1973, and her interview in Islamabad will be in March 1974. In another case, Mrs. Mahmud applied for an entry certificate at the end of 1971, and in May 1973 the Home Office told her legal advisers that she was nearing her turn. So after approximately two years have elapsed she will come up for interview.

Mr. Raymond Gower (Barry)

May I ask the hon. Gentleman to explain one point for clarification? He has said that these people were married in March 1973. Were they married before the husband began to reside here, or were they married while the husband was visiting Pakistan?

Mr. Fraser

I believe that in all these cases the marriages took place in Pakistan, in exactly the same way—I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman has such a hang-dog look over this matter—as somebody might go to Australia and get married and ask for an entry certificate to come back to the United Kingdom. There are differences in principle.

I believe that these delays, particularly in relation to wives, are intolerable. Let us take the case of the wife. She has to prove only two things : first, that her husband is settled in the United Kingdom in circumstances which permit him to have his wife join him here ; and, second, that there is a validly performed marriage which will be accepted in the United Kingdom.

In other classes of dependants, children and parents, I agree that rather more documentation is involved. One gets a delay of at least a year in the case of wives, and it is probably 18 months altogether. I have been supplied with a table showing how long it takes with other dependants. Where a parent wants a child to join him in the United Kingdom, the period from application to interview is one year ; referral to Home Office for inquiries, three months ; Home Office referral to police for local inqquiries, three months ; replies to Home Office, three months ; Home Office sends report to Islamabad, three months ; British Embassy's reply to applicants, one month—a period of two years and one month. That is the average period of time between the application and the time when the entry certificate may be granted.

I support the Government in ensuring that applications are rejected where they are fraudulent, where the relationships are bogus. But I also think it is unfeeling and inhumane to bring about the enforced separation of husbands and wives and parents and children because the machinery of the Home Office and the Foreign Office is unable to allow the exercise of rights of dependants in a reasonably speedy way.

I want to impress upon the Under-Secretary some of the consequences of this delay in arranging interviews and in finally issuing entry certificates. First of all, delay is responsible for those who have a right to come to the United Kingdom, provided they get their entry certificate, just turning up at the airports and seaports trying to gain entry, sometimes wrongly so as visitors, because they know that once they are inside the United Kingdom they can make their normal application to the Home Office. That is what happens with some of these people. Others come here as wives. They come to London Airport. They present a marriage certificate. They are refused entry and they telephone their Member of Parliament asking him to put in a plea of compassion to the Secretary of State.

We have to avoid this kind of situation. It is unfair to hard-pressed immigration officers at the airport. It is unfair to the Minister's private office where the officials are so patient and painstaking that I have unstinted admiration for them. It is wrong to put so great a burden on the immigration officers and the Minister's private office and, indeed, on the Minister himself in dealing with these cases on an ad hoc basis when people, out of frustration, come to this country to gain entry because they are tired of the delays at the other end.

A delay of up to a year in arranging the interview makes it easier to produce bogus documents, and particularly where somebody comes for his interview after a delay of a year and is told by the entry certificate officer in Pakistan to go back and get another document, which happens very often. That is the kind of thing which makes a person easy prey to the self-styled "immigration agents" in Pakistan. Tardiness in the investigation of entry certificate claims cannot increase the chances of detection. I have never heard it argued that if a detective waits a year before he investigates a case he will discover forgery more easily. Speed in investigating claims is likely to exclude bogus and fradulent cases. A long delay is likely to increase the amount of subterfuge.

Another point is made by the Select Committee on Immigration and Race Relations, in relation to the education of immigrant children. The point which the Select Committee makes is forcible. It is this. The longer the entry to the United Kingdom of an immigrant child is delayed, the greater is the problem of teaching that child English as a second language.

I firmly believe that we should achieve family unity as much as possible. Many of the problems with immigrant children arise because of a long period of separation of the child and its parents. The child later finds it more difficult to learn English as a second language, and there is a break in cultural and family ties. When the child settles down in the United Kingdom, the chances of adjusting are much more difficult than if it came with its parents. That is the third result of the delay.

The fourth is an impression which is created that the United Kingdom operates two kinds of immigration control, one exercised through the rules and one exercised through bureaucracy. Anyone who has applied for a work permit will know exactly what I mean. If one rings up the Department of Employment at Ebury Bridge House to ask what is happening to the application, one will be told "There are about four months before we start to look at applications." That is why so few are issued ; because of the bureaucracy of the work permit system, even if 5,000 places a year are allocated only about 2,500 are taken up. The bureaucracy and paper work are so intricate that many people do not get their entry clearances.

The long delay in Pakistan creates the impression that there are two kinds of control. I do not attribute ulterior motives to the Government or the Home Office, but the impression that rights are being deferred is harmful to community relations. I beg the Home Office to realise that good race relations are determined not only by facts but by people's impressions and their confidence in institutions. There is unequal treatment in terms of the alacrity in dealing with applications as between one country and another. That can only harm community relations in this country and our reputation abroad.

I want to make some practical suggestions to deal with the inordinate time taken in Pakistan. First, the staff must be increased. Their number is clearly inadequate to deal with the applications. There is far too much pressure upon the staff of the embassies and consulates in Pakistan. I believe that the present number of entry certificates officers is about 13. I know that the number of staff has been increased, but it obviously needs to be further increased.

Secondly, we need to introduce a system of registration of marriages by United Kingdom citizens who marry in Pakistan. I know that there are particular difficulties about establishing the validity according to British law of marriages according to Hindu, Muslim and Sikh rites. At present it is possible for a United Kingdom citizen to register with the British embassy a birth or a death. The process would be made infinitely easier and quicker if United Kingdom citizens could register their marriages as well. That would probably avoid some of the alleged subterfuge.

We should also try to agree with the Pakistan Government a system of validating birth, death and marriage certificates or of having them authenticated by officials or notaries in Pakistan, to remove some of the present difficulties about the authenticity of documents presented to the embassy.

I end by quoting one of my constituents who came to my advice bureau and put the point as follows : "I am born in Britain. I am a United Kingdom citizen. Why is it that when I want to bring my wife to England I have to wait a year? That is not equality. That is a denial of my rights as a citizen."

Rights delayed are rights which are denied. We must provide a better answer than we have done so far to people who wait so long for family unity. Kipling coined the phrase "the unforgiving minute". What the Government must do is to explain and to reduce what has become the unforgivable year or two-year waiting period for those who want to exercise the right to join their families in this country.

10.20 p.m.

Mr. Frank McElhone (Glasgow, Gorbals)

I am delighted to follow the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Norwood (Mr. John Fraser). He stated the case clearly and succinctly, enunciating the fears of many Pakistani families not only in Norwood but in the Gorbals and many other constituencies. As in my hon. Friend's constituency, a large number of my constituents are Pakistanis.

Mr. John Fraser

The population of Pakistanis in my constituency is tiny.

Mr. McElhone

A large number of my constituents are Pakistanis. I am very pleased that they are living in my constituency. On more than one occasion during the past year I have received representations from their leaders, and from the Muslim Mission in particular. They have explained to me, first, that they are appreciative of all my efforts on their behalf as their Member of Parliament. But when a case can take between 18 months and two years to be dealt with in Islamabad, like other hon. Members who have immigrants in their constituencies I think that I deserve an explanation. After writing a letter to the Home Office, one receives an interesting acknowledgement and then a letter from the Under-Secretary explaining all the difficulties in Islamabad. If one is not satisfied with that, one is asked to take the case to the Secretary of State. That is an incompetent procedure. It is less than fair, and totally unjust. The strain that it must put on the marriages of many of my constituents and on the leaders of the community in the area is very disturbing.

We must accept that many of these people from Pakistan were the first to volunteer for us in 1939. I recall that Glasgow's transport manager went to Pakistan some years ago to recruit staff for that city's transport system. We brought them over on the assurance that they would receive not only a job and a satisfactory wage but also the justice and fairness that we, as British citizens, receive. That has not happened. Tonight, if nothing else, we deserve some explanation of what is happening in Islamabad.

My hon. Friend the Member for Norwood said that there were 13 people at the entry control point. The figure that I was given in a previous debate, on the Pakistan Bill, was about 56. Which is the correct figure? Anyone who has dealt with Islamabad will say that the numbers are totally insufficient to deal with the inquiries coming from the United Kingdom. The Minister must come clean about this matter. It is the feeling of many Pakistani citizens in my constituency, and of myself, that there is a deliberate policy, about which the Minister is not prepared to tell us, of cutting back on immigration into Britain by delaying applications for visas. The Government are using a delaying tactic. This probably stems from the large number of Asians who were received in this country because of the situation in Uganda. I believe that they knocked out the quota system. Therefore to try to get a balanced number of immigrants and to pander to the backwoodsmen who represent many Tory constituencies, the Government are using a delaying tactic in Islamabad. It is totally unfair to the staff there and to many in the Home Office in London. I have had the experience, similar to that of my hon. Friend the Member for Norwood, of people telephoning from Heathrow airport in the early hours of the morning. A lot of stress is put on the immigration officials. There is a good deal of unfair pressure. One has to get through to the Minister's Department, a lot of inquiries are made, and there is a great deal of unnecessary work not only for the Member of Parliament but for the passport officials.

My view—it is shared by most of the Pakistani leaders in my constituency and in Glasgow generally—is that the Government should come clean and say, frankly, "We are reducing the numbers. We shall let in so many this year and so many next year, but we do not want to let in as many people as want to come from Pakistan". The Government ought to come clean with those of us who have a large number of Pakistani constituents.

The time has come also for the Minister to write to the leaders of these communities—I speak of Glasgow in particular—because they are becoming totally disenchanted with British justice and what they have regarded as the British way of life. We all want to see Pakistan back in the Commonwealth—I am sure that that is the desire of most hon. Members—but, until that is achieved, one can only say that the Government are at present being less than fair to the Pakistani families who are now in Great Britain and grossly unfair to the dependants in Pakistan who want to come.

I hope that the Minister will allay some of my fears and the doubts felt by Pakistanis in my constituency and elsewhere. If he does that tonight, he will go a long way towards bringing back a sense of British justice and fairness among those who are now in this country.

10.26 p.m.

Mr. Cyril Smith (Rochdale)

I endorse what has been said by the hon. Members for Norwood (Mr. John Fraser) and Glasgow, Gorbals (Mr. McElhone). I ask the Minister to take special note of the point made by the hon. Member for Norwood about the granting of interviews. I hope that the House will not be fobbed off with suggestions about false entry certificates, false marriage certificates, and so on. Our principal cause of complaint is the delay in granting the first interview, before marriage certificates or anything else are presented. It is the long delay in securing the interview which concerns us most.

We understand the problems created for the officials in Islamabad when people present suspect documents. I repeat that what concerns us is the delay in the opportunity to present documents. I very much hope that the Minister will concentrate on that aspect of our criticism.

10.27 p.m.

Dame Patricia Hornsby-Smith (Chislehurst)

I shall be grateful if the Minister gives some idea of the number of applications being received. I ask that in fairness to the harrassed staff in Islamabad. I was interested to hear the hon. Member for Norwood (Mr. John Fraser) say that there were 13 staff dealing with this work. If they process only 10 cases a day—they probably process 20 or 30—that gives some idea of the throughput of applications.

People in this country are most concerned because, of all the former Commonwealth countries, Pakistan has probably been responsible for the most successfully organised network in the evil trade of illegal entry—a trade that often keeps in penury the unfortunate person who has committed himself to pay over an indefinite period for having been smuggled in. People are deeply concerned at the illegal entry traffic. As the regulations have been made tougher, those involved have been trying even harder. In the first place, of course, because it is cheaper to come in by the legal way there is over-pressure and over-application, and many applicants have no grounds for entry. Our administrative services in Islamabad are being flooded with applications.

We must be fair to those who have come here legally. We must ensure, by the study and vetting of documents, that only those with genuine reasons—or exceptional reasons such as, I agree, marriage to an established citizen here—are permitted to come.

Now that Pakistan is no longer in the Commonwealth, if we relax entry conditions for Pakistani people, surely others in countries which have stayed in the Commonwealth, or even in countries which earlier left the Commonwealth and therefore thought it unlikely that their applications would be successful, will be encouraged by the idea that it is easier to come here, as it has been, perhaps, for Pakistani people. The networks of illegal immigration have left a nasty taste in the mouths of many people in this country, and the Government are right to strengthen the controls. I have seen some of the brilliantly forged passports, and I know how easily documents can be bought and forged. The Home Office is right to tighten up the regulations so that the most scrupulous researches are made, and those people who wish to spend their time in this country should fully satisfy the new regulations.

We are told that many people are disgusted by and disappointed about British justice. That is hardly borne out by the pressure of thousands of people trying to come to this country because they think it offers them the prospect of a far better life than their native land.

10.31 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. David Lane)

I hope that the House will reject the Prayer.

I am grateful to the Minister of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs for being on the Front Bench with me, and to several of my hon. Friends for staying for the debate. Not least am I grateful that we have with us the new spokesman on home affairs for the Liberal Party, from whom no doubt we shall hear on future occasions.

Before dealing with the points raised, I want, for the record, to remind the House why the change in the immigration rules has been made and what is involved. I assure hon. Members that it is no more than a formal change, which was made necessary by the coming into force of the Pakistan Act 1973. As the House knows, citizens of Pakistan became aliens as from 1st September 1973, although under the Act they have certain reserve rights.

Under the immigration rules, some categories of persons subject to immigration control, whether Commonwealth or alien, are required to hold a current entry clearance to qualify for admission to this country. These include the wife, child or other dependant of a person settled in the United Kingdom, or of a person admitted for employment, or admitted as a businessman, a person of independent means, or a self-employed person. Entry clearances are also required by the husband or fiancé of a woman settled in the United Kingdom. Other persons subject to immigration control are not obliged to obtain an entry clearance, but if they wish to ascertain in advance whether they are eligible for admission to the United Kingdom they can apply for one to the appropriate British representative in the country in which they live, and such clearance, if granted, constitutes evidence of eligibility for entry to the United Kingdom. These arrangements apply, as I have said, to Commonwealth citizens as to aliens. The only difference is that in the case of Commonwealth citizens the entry clearance takes the form of an entry certificate ; for aliens it takes the form of a visa.

Before the coming into force of the Pakistan Act 1973 citizens of Pakistan were, of course, Commonwealth citizens—how much we regret that that is no longer so—and, as such, the entry clearance which was appropriate for them was an entry certificate. This situation could not continue after citizens of Pakistan had become aliens, and it was therefore necessary to consider what modifications to the rules should be made in recognition of their change of status.

The effect of the amendment is simply that, under the rules, those citizens of Pakistan who, as Commonwealth citizens, were hitherto required to hold entry certificates are now, as aliens, required to obtain visas. Similarly, for those citizens of Pakistan who were not formerly required to hold an entry certificate but wish to ascertain in advance whether they are eligible for admission to this country, the entry clearance for which they may apply now takes the form of a visa. What we have done, therefore, is to maintain the previous arrangements in substance by applying a partial visa system to citizens of Pakistan.

Hon. Members may ask why it was necessary to change the immigration rules at all. The answer, which is very much in favour of the citizens of Pakistan, is that if we had left the rules unaltered the consequence would have been that as from 1st September this year all citizens of Pakistan would have been obliged to obtain visas for admission to the United Kingdom for any purpose, since the rules for the control of entry of EEC and other non-Commonwealth nationals are so framed as to require all nationals of foreign countries to have visas unless provision is made to the contrary. It was never our intention to subject all citizens of Pakistan to a visa requirement.

I hope that that explanation makes clear that the change in the rules we are considering is only one of form and not of substance, and that it was necessary to make it to preserve in essence the previous arrangements relating to entry clearances for citizens of Pakistan. In view of this explanation I hope that the House, having had this discussion, will not disapprove this change of the rules.

The hon. Member for Norwood (Mr. John Fraser) made a few general criticisms of the rules. He said that they were biased in some respects, and inflexible. He thought that adjudicators did not have sufficient discretion to nudge the Home Office in a different direction. With respect, he is exaggerating. I deny the charge that the rules are in any way biased. We have great difficulty in administering this control fairly between individuals and between nations. It is a difficult and unavoidably complicated system, given present-day circumstances all over the world, and we do our best to operate the control fairly as between people, colours and nations. We go on trying to improve the methods.

I certainly do not accept that there is no discretion among adjudicators. I call to mind two or three cases in which adjudicators have given strong hints that the Home Office might have second thoughts, as indeed we have. I remind the House that about one in four appeals is allowed by adjudicators in favour of the applicant and in many cases against us.

Mr. John Fraser

I am glad to hear that. Where adjudicators feel that a case does not come strictly within the rules but there are compassionate or humane reasons why a person should be admitted and why the Home Office should exercise its discretion in that person's favour, will the Home Office make clear to adjudicators that they can make that recommendation and that serious attention will be paid to it?

Mr. Lane

I thought that that was fairly well understood. If it is necessary to clarify the position, because of misunderstanding, of course we shall do so.

The hon. Gentleman's main point concerned husbands seeking to join wives here. He asked us to take a closer look at the rule. The House discussed this previously. I cannot go over the history of the reason why this change was found necessary by the then Home Secretary in the Labour Government in 1969. I can only repeat that the evidence before us makes us feel that we would be unwise to reverse the position to where it was in 1969 when a serious abuse was developing—an abuse which we are not prepared to risk developing again. I must leave the matter there for the present, though I have no doubt we shall debate it on future occasions.

The hon. Gentleman spoke about delays in Pakistan and said there was an intolerable inhuman situation. He almost accused us of forcing the separation of families through the machinery of the Home Office and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. I deny this, and will try to demonstrate the realities of the situation.

The hon. Gentleman then expressed sympathy with the burdens of the Home Office, Ministers, officials and immigration staff. I appreciate what he said about my private office, which is absolutely right. These difficulties are not of our choosing. I shall take the House through some of the cases that come forward just to illustrate the degree of trickery that we have to cope with and guard against. I know that this is no comfort to the bona fide cases, but this is the reality of the situation.

Mr. J. R. Kinsey (Birmingham, Perry Barr)

I assure my hon. Friend that in saying what he did he has the support of a great number of people who do not want to see the situation get out of hand. I am pleased that he takes that view.

Mr. Lane

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. In a few moments I shall try to explain why some delay is unavoidable, even in bona fide cases.

Mr. Cyril Smith

Will the Minister make clear to his colleagues that he has the full support of the whole House and not merely of one side of it, in attempting to prevent illegal entry? Will he bear in mind that we are concerned about the people who attempt to get in and who are not even allowed an opportunity, until nine months have elapsed, to present a case which falls within the law—let alone one that is outside it?

Mr. Lane

We are all concerned about this. None of us likes delays in a system such as this. I shall try to explain why some delays in the present situation are unavoidable.

The hon. Member for Norwood (Mr. John Fraser) also asked about children who have suffered delays. I see much of the force of what he said. It would be better, if they are genuinely qualified, for them to come and have the opportunity to learn the language.

It was said that people had to wait several years before applying. I must tell the House that that delay is no fault of ours. The hon. Gentleman said that the impression was that there was two sorts of control—one by rule, and one by bureaucracy. There is no bureaucracy in this system at all. It is not of our choosing that we have had to increase our staff considerably in overseas posts, and to some extent also at home.

The hon. Gentleman made a number of practical suggestions about staff, to which I shall return in a moment.

On the question of registering marriages in Pakistan, the hon. Gentleman put forward his ideas about the authentication of Pakistani documents by the Pakistani Government. I took note of what he said, but I cannot give him a snap answer off the cuff.

The hon. Member for Glasgow, Gorbals (Mr. McElhone) said that the procedure was cumbersome as between the two Departments. This is unavoidable where we are operating an overseas arm of the Home Department. However, my right hon. Friend the Minister of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs works with us in these matters as closely as possible, and the fact that my right hon. Friend is now present is some demonstration of this.

I shall be as frank as I can in explaining our difficulty and what we are doing about it. I echo what the hon. Member for Gorbals said. We are trying to maintain British justice. The hon. Member said that some members of the Pakistan community here are critical of it. I will underline shortly that what we are trying to do is be fair as between one application and another. It is very difficult in this situation.

Mr. McElhone

There is some doubt about the numbers of staff at Islamabad. Could the Minister explain that?

Mr. Lane

I am going to give numbers of staff in posts—not just at Islamabad—because this is very important.

The hon. Member for Rochdale (Mr. Cyril Smith) spoke on this matter, as he did the other evening, and I know that he feels strongly about it. There is no question of deliberate fobbing off at interviews. On the date that an appointment is made for an interview, the applicant is asked to bring the documents, and we take great care to let him know beforehand what documents to bring. The mere fact of arriving earlier for an interview would not be helpful, when what we have to look at is not just the person but the documents. This is how the procedure works.

I cannot give my hon. Friend the Member for Chislehurst (Dame Patricia Hornsby-Smith) the exact numbers of applications post by post, but I shall write to her with those details. It is obviously a considerable number, and I shall shortly be giving the important facts on the way we have developed our staff to try to cope with it. She is right in saying that the pressures are continuing. They are great, and we dare not relax the care that we take.

The delays that are happening and of which complaint has been made do not affect at all those who want to come here for purposes other than permanent settlement. In other words, tourists, business men and some others normally have their certificates issued on the date of application. So, in the main, do students, except when, as sometimes happens, their applications are concentrated within a few-days of the beginning of the academic year, when the numbers are necessarily greater than would enable the immediate issue of certificates.

But for the other categories—those who want to come here for settlement, or to join heads of households already settled here—the pressures are very great. They are aggravated—I accept that Opposition Members are just as opposed to this as we are—by the applicants who try to get around our controls by fraud or misrepresentation. As a result of these pressures, we have a volume of applications for entry certificates which at present is considerably greater than our ability to process them within a reasonable time.

Of course, the pressures have been increased since the beginning of this year by the reduction in the number of work permits which are available for Commonwealth citizens and others, and the application, in the work permit part of our control, of more strict criteria. This has increased the numbers of those who try to bolster their applications to enter this country by fraudulent means.

It is one of the sadder features of the immigration scene in some countries that what, for want of a better phrase, I can only call an immigration industry has grown up which, for a price, provides entry certificate applicants with the documentation that our entry certificate officers will require in order to enable them to establish identity, and in some cases relationship to the head of the household, and to establish a person's entitlement, under the rules, to admission to this country. This sort of immigration industry can produce increasingly sophisticated documentation, designed to bolster the details of identity, relationship and qualifications, educational and professional, which are given to the entry certificate officer by the applicant.

Documentation of this sort may be forged, or it may be genuine but with false particulars endorsed on it. In these circumstances, it is hardly surprising that in Pakistan about 10 per cent. of applicants are refused straight away by the immigration sections of our posts there and another 40 per cent. are referred either locally or in the United Kingdom for further inquiries to be made to verify the claims put forward by the applicants.

I am sure—it is clear from what has been said in the debate—that public opinion in the country and in this House would not tolerate a relaxation of the controls exercised by immigration sections but would insist that all applications should continue to be carefully and closely vetted. If hon. Members require additional justification of the need for these firm and scrupulous controls. I ask them to read certain passages in the recent Report of the Select Committee on Race Relations and Immigration.

Against that, there would be general agreement that the processing of applications from bona fide dependants wanting to join their heads of household in this country should not be unnecessarily delayed. But even on this point, the interesting fact to me is that of the entry certificates actually issued about 30 per cent. are never used.

Dame Patricia Hornsby-Smith

Is my hon. Friend saying that 30 per cent. of the entry permits which are granted are never used? Is there no fear of their getting into the hands of other users?

Mr. Lane

I hope not, but that is a difficulty against which we have to guard. We have to be sure that our machinery is as efficient as possible in spotting it. But that is the fact and the figure.

It is unfortunate but unavoidable that at present there are considerable intervals between the date when a dependent relative makes application for a certificate and the earliest date on which he or she can be interviewed. It varies between different posts, and hon. Members have their examples, on which we are in correspondence with them.

I want to explain how we try to operate the system in that situation. We process applications in the posts overseas on the general principle of "first come first served", and priority interviews can be given only in exceptional cases of a compassionate nature. It is very often argued, as it has been tonight and in correspondence with us, that a wife seeking to join her husband should be given this sort of priority treatment. But, with the best will in the world, it would be difficult to justify exceptional treatment for a category of people whose numbers, in the case of some posts, run into several hundreds, who in many cases have waited years before even making their first application to join their husbands, and whose individual claims to special treatment could be less strong than, for example, the claims of some aged dependent parents who may also be trying to come under the rule by which occasionally aged dependent parents are entitled to join the heads of household in this country.

We try to be fair, and I am sure that our immigration sections in posts abroad do their utmost to deal with priority applications objectively and on their merits. I do not say that we can never alter the position of someone in the queue, but these have to be kept to very exceptional cases, or the system will be made impossible.

I come to the question of the numbers in our staffs and what we have done to increase the strength of immigration sections so that they can better cope with the pressures that I have described. I hope that I can reassure the House that we have been in no way complacent over this developing situation.

Perhaps I may give some examples. In 1970 the strength of our immigration section at Islamabad, or Rawalpindi, where it was then situated, was 20 officers of all grades, 10 of whom were United Kingdom based. The number now is 47—this is the answer for which several hon. Members have asked—of whom 21 are United Kingdom based. In Delhi in 1970 there were 15 officers, of whom seven were United Kingdom based. The present figure is 17, of whom nine are United Kingdom based. The situation at Dacca, in Bangladesh, was that in 1970 there were five officers, of whom two were United Kingdom based. The figure has now risen to 15 officers, of whom six are United Kingdom based.

Unfortunately, the pressures to come to the United Kingdom to live and work have led to an expansion of the immigration industry, as I have called it, particularly in the Indian sub-continent. I refer especially here to Islamabad and Dacca, where the pressures are intense. As a result, despite these increases in our manpower, the numbers of applicants have also been growing. I cannot honestly hold out the prospect of any marked improvement, because, if we are to prevent fraudulent applications succeeding, everyone must be subjected to the closest scrutiny. Unfortunately, that is a fact of life today. This will increase the length of time necessary for each interview, and obviously decrease the number of interviews that each officer can conduct within the normal working span, with overtime and everything else.

Another factor is that everybody who is refused an entry certificate has a statutory right of appeal which he can exercise within three months of the date of refusal. If a case goes to appeal, a comprehensive report has to be prepared by the entry certificate officer as the basis of the authorities' case to be heard before the adjudicator, or, if a further appeal is made, before the appeals tribunal itself. The preparation of such reports and of reports required when cases are referred to the United Kingdom for further inquiries—I mentioned the considerable proportion involved—make further heavy demands on the time available to entry certificate officers for interviewing applicants.

As a result of all these factors the rate at which entry certificate applicants can be processed at our posts has been somewhat slowed down, despite the increase in the establishments of our immigration sections, of which I have given examples.

We are concerned about these delays. I have tried to explain to the House that we have looked very closely at this situation at intervals in the last few years as it has developed to see whether we could make improvements without jeopardising the effectiveness of our total control. The difficulties before us are real, but I assure the House that we shall keep the situation under close and regular review in case further steps that would tend to better it should prove practicable.

Mr. McEIhone

I am grateful to the Minister for that statement. Perhaps in a summarised version it could go to identifiable Pakistani immigrant groups in the United Kingdom. It would create a better image for the Government and certainly for British justice. Is there no way that we can increase the staff? I understand that there are difficulties, but there is no excuse for a nine or 18 months' delay in cases presented to the Department.

Mr. Lane

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for what he said about making this matter widely known to the Pakistani community. I should like to consider whether there are practical ways of doing that. I think that it may be helpful.

It is unrealistic to think that we can get rid of delays. We have taken considerable steps to increase the staff. Possibly more would be feasible. But in view of the pressures that we are experiencing now it is unrealistic to think that we could make much impact on reducing the delays.

We shall watch the situation as it develops. We are constantly discussing it with our posts out there. I have had discussions, too, as I am sure my right hon. Friend has had, with representatives of the embassy in this country and the high commissions in Bangladesh and India. These contacts will continue to see whether there are practical improvements that can be made.

I hope the House will recognise that the job of immigration control abroad is very difficult in present circumstances. Our entry certificate officers have been working under great strain, and I pay a warm tribute—and perhaps I can do this better than my right hon. Friend because they are his staff directly, and not mine—to the patience and fairness with which they do their job, of which I see evidence daily in the cases that come to me.

Our primary aim—I come back to this in terms of British justice, which was the phrase used a moment ago by the hon. Member for Glasgow, Gorbals (Mr. McEIhone)—is to be as fair as we possibly can to all concerned—to the individuals concerned as well as to the mass of the people in this country—who have to be re-assured that our control is strict as well as fair.

I regret that in practice, for the reasons that I have tried to explain, genuine dependants have to wait longer than they would want, or than we would want, to join their heads of household in this country.

Question put and negatived.

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