HC Deb 20 June 1974 vol 875 cc828-37

Order for Second Reading read.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the Bill be now read a Second time.—[Mr. Alexander W. Lyon.]

Mr. David Lane (Cambridge)

On a point of order. It would help the House to have a brief explanation of the background to the Bill, to which one or two of us might want to respond.

10.33 p.m.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Alexander W. Lyon)

I had thought that the House had worked hard today and did not need to deal at length with this measure.

The Bill is in effect a continuation of the Pakistan Act 1973, brought forward by the previous Government to cover the interim stage while Pakistanis who, by that Act, became aliens were allowed to exercise their civic right to vote while they were in the process of being registered as citizens of the United Kingdom and Colonies. The final date for applications under the Act was 31st August this year. It was expected that by that time most of the applications would have been processed and that the provisions of the Act would allow people who had applied and were on the register of parliamentary electors to vote while that register was current and to be included in the register which came into force in February. It was thought that that was adequate to deal with the problem of allowing them their civic rights in this interim period. Unfortunately, as with all the best laid plans of mice and men, things gang aft a-gley.

A considerable number of people have applied for citizenship-80,000 to date—and we expect that before the final date the figure will be about 90,000. These applications take a considerable amount of time and effort in investigation, and although we have increased the staff dealing with these applications the backlog is considerable. To date we have dealt with about 28,000 applications, about 18,000 are being processed, and the rest have still to be done.

In those circumstances, it is not expected that we shall be able to finish this task much before the end of next year. It is, therefore, necessary to extend the period in which these people are allowed to be registered as voters in this country. For that purpose, we have introduced the Bill which adds a paragraph to the original Section 3(5) to extend the period for which they are eligible to be registered for as long as is necessary—we shall not make the mistake of having to bring in a new Bill next year if we do not finish—up to the time which the Secretary of State may specify in an order that will be laid before the House. We shall not have to trouble the House any further with a Bill at 11 o'clock to deal with this problem. We hope that we shall not have to extend the period beyond the end of 1975. That means, in effect, that we should have to carry on until the register came into effect in February 1976.

I am anxious that we should get through the applications as quickly as possible, and I have considered whether we should take on more staff to deal with them. Although the initial processing of the applications can be done by clerical officers, the actual work of judgment of the applications has to be done by executive officers and above, and the training of an executive officer is about a 10-month job.

It is difficulty to justify taking on many more staff unless they will be used in the other areas of the Department. Quite frankly, though, I think that there is a case for doing that, since we are heavily overworked in Lunar House in Croydon in the immigration department. The amount of paper that goes through there is a wonder to behold. I should very much like to increase the number of staff, but this means a call on public resources and one has to justify it.

I hope that those hon. Members—this is not central to the Bill—who have an interest in immigration cases and write to the Home Office about them—either to me or to the Department—and find that it takes a great deal of time to get a reply will continue to complain bitterly about the delay so that I can send all their letters to my hon. Friend the Chief Secretary to show how much more staff we need to deal with this problem.

A matter which struck me forcefully after I had been in the Department for only a few days was that we must face the task of having a humane immigration service which deals quickly, effectively and humanely with the applications that come before it, and that cannot be done if people have to be asked to deal with applications at the rate at which the staff at Croydon have to deal with them. There is a case for increasing the number of people we have working on nationality applications in order that subsequently they can be used on immigration cases. I am looking into that point.

There is little more that I can say about the Bill at the moment but, with the leave of the House I shall later answer any questions which may arise.

10.40 p.m.

Mr. David Lane (Cambridge)

The House will be grateful to the Minister of State for explaining the reason for and purpose of the Bill. We are happy to support it, and we appreciate the feeling way in which the Minister spoke of his wider immigration responsibilities. We also pay tribute to the work of the staff on immigration and nationality matters. Whether involved as ordinary Members or as Ministers, we realise what an exceptionally difficult and sometimes burdensome job it is, and we are glad to have an occasion such as this to pay tribute to the staff.

It was always intended that Pakistanis settled here should continue to play their fullest part in the civic life of this country, including voting at local and parliamentary elections. In the Pakistan Act 1973, to which the Minister referred, we took a great deal of trouble—it was perhaps the provision which caused the most head-scratching—to avoid any unintended disfranchisement of Pakistanis. Section 3(5) of the Act assumed that all initial applications would be dealt with before October 1974, when the new electoral register was to be compiled.

The Minister has explained that the numbers applying to be registered as United Kingdom citizens have turned out to be rather higher than were originally forecast. It is clearly right that any of them still in the queue next October, when the work of putting together the new electoral register starts, should not be penalised, through no fault of their own, simply because it is impossible to get the administrative job finished in time. So it is proper for the House to extend the transitional arrangement in the way the Minister proposed.

I was interested in what the Minister said about the closing date for the arrangements. He said he hoped that the whole job might be finished by the end of next year, although not much before the end of next year. We appreciate the difficulties of the work involved, but I hope that it will be possible, as the staff get more and more into the momentum of it, to finish the job before October 1975 so that the transitional arrangement can be wound up before the subsequent electoral register comes to be compiled.

However, we must wait and see, and in the meantime we accept the sense of leaving an element of flexibility. I make my plea about finishing the job before October 1975 because I believe that transitional arrangements make less sense the longer they remain in force.

We express our goodwill to the Pakistani community in this country, particularly those registering as United Kingdom citizens. I hope that I do not show any partisanship if I wish the Pakistani cricketers an enjoyable tour.

10.44 p.m.

Mr. Edward Lyons (Bradford, West)

I support the final remarks of the hon. Member for Cambridge (Mr. Lane). I hope to have an opportunity of seeing the Pakistani Test team when it does battle against England in Leeds fairly soon. The Bill is a just measure and, as far as I am aware, the Government have produced it without any back-bench pressure.

The Chairman of the Post-graduate School of Studies in Social Sciences at Bradford University has directed a study of Asian voting in Bradford. The study was concerned with voting patterns and the extent to which Asians used the vote. It is interesting to note, for example, that in certain polling stations in Bradford there was an enormous increase between 1966 and 1974 in the percentage of Asians who used the vote.

In one polling station in 1966, 35.8 per cent. of the Asians voted. In 1970 the figure was 67.2 per cent. and in 1974 it had risen to 75.3 per cent. Examining the figures for the seven polling stations we find that the lowest percentage turnout among Asians was 70.5 per cent. The figures for the European voters in the same polling districts are interesting. In 1974 the Asian turn-out was, in all cases, higher than the European turn-out, in percentage terms. The European figures for 1974 were 37.6 per cent. and 71.6 per cent.

In areas where there are many Asians it can be seen that they vote in greater strength than indigenous voters. That shows that they treasure the vote and is an indication of how much they will welcome this measure.

All hon. Members concerned with immigrant areas will have received letters complaining about the delay by the Home Office in processing applications for registration as United Kingdom citizens. It is perhaps necessary to say that this Bill has nothing to do with immigration. Whenever we discuss anything to do with immigrant communities there is some suggestion that we are talking about immigration. This Bill has to do with status, not immigration.

I have found that there have been complaints to the effect that the delay in processing applications for registration is likely to extend beyond the 12-month period of grace allowed by the Pakistan Act 1973. By that Act Pakistanis are aliens by September 1974, and the law recognises them as such. There is a reluctance by Pakistanis to go abroad for holidays or for any other reason on a Pakistani passport if they know that they will return after the expiry of the 12-month period of grace.

I believe that their fears are groundless. I believe that it they are resident here and go to Pakistan and return here in November they will be allowed in on a Pakistani passport, even though Pakistanis are aliens. It is not possible to convince them of this. They believe that, if they go to Pakistan and return on a Pakistani passport—although they may have lived here for 10 or 12 years—they will have difficulty in re-entering.

Therefore they are pressing hard for the processing of their applications for United Kingdom registration. They want a United Kingdom passport to show at the port of re-entry. I know that the Home Office is overborne with applications and does not have enough staff to deal with all of them. But perhaps it could be flexible in terms of priorities.

If a Pakistani says that he applied several months ago for registration and that he wishes to go to Pakistan in July for his daughter's wedding and that he will be staying there until December, perhaps the Home Office could give that sort of applicant priority so that he could have the United Kingdom passport to show when he returns.

Whereas I appreciate the difficulty my hon. Friend has, in that it takes 10 months to train an official and not enough officials are available, and that it is difficult to accelerate the processes, it should be possible to ensure that where a special case is made out, that person can be given priority. That would very much please the members of the Pakistani community.

I shall not take up what the Minister said about Pakistanis, Indians and Bengalis, where shortage of staff produces delays. However, I congratulate the Minister on the technique he has evolved in passing over a good number of these applications to the Minister of State for Foreign Affairs. In the previous Government that did not occur with the Home Office They took all things connected with immigrants to their bosom, and their bosom was, of course, heavily overburdened.

In this administration, the Minister of State for Foreign Affairs is almost in the same position as the Home Office. He is writing to me the same anguished letters which for years I have been receiving from the Home Office. Clearly, a special technique has been evolved in the Home Office where it is heavily borne in on the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs that the situa- tion needs looking at abroad very closely indeed. If the Foreign Office was not aware of this under the previous administration, it has certainly been aware of it since the present Minister took over at the Home Office. I do not blame him, because I know how heavily he is stretched with his work in his Department.

Now that he is joined by the Minister of State at the Foreign Office, with at least two Ministers conscious of the situation, it is to be hoped there will be some additional pressure for progress in dealing with this matter.

10.52 p.m.

Mr. Robert Redmond (Bolton, West)

I apologise for raising this matter at this time of night in another Pakistan Bill, but this debate reminds me of the debates in Standing Committee on the 1973 Bill when the hon. and learned Member for Bradford, West (Mr. Lyons), the Minister, and I joined to defeat the Conservative Government on that Bill.

I particularly remember in that Standing Committee suggesting that a measure such as this might be necessary because we did not allow enough time in the original Act for all applications to go through. It is pleasant to say, "I told you so", but it is not controversial.

I know what happens when one writes to the Minister about the processing of these applications. I wrote a long letter some time ago. It is probably awaiting a reply, but he has replied to part of the letter already tonight and tomorrow's HANSARD will be useful for me to send to the members of the Pakistan Society. The point made to me by the Bolton Branch of the Pakistan Society is that they are bothered about the time taken.

The other point I should like to put is about the case of a person who came from Pakistan with a British passport perhaps a decade ago and has since lost the passport which brought him in. He feels that he has a problem in his application. He can produce a record of contributions to the National Insurance on a card which proves that he has been working in this country for 10 years, and a certificate from his employer that he has been in employment for that period, and he should therefore be more or less all right. Incidentally, I am reporting now what has been put to me by the Pakistan Society. He goes before the immigration authorities with his record of contributions for National Insurance and with a certificate from his employer, and he is put through what has been described to me as "a third degree" at Manchester Airport. Having gone through that, he finds that a new British passport is produced and stamped with the date of the interview, which then becomes the date of entry into this country.

Pakistan Society members feel that, as a result, they will have to wait some years before entry into this country has matured to the point where they can get British nationality. That is the second matter which I raise in my letter to the Minister.

Obviously I welcome the Bill because, at the time of the 1973 Bill, I warned that it would be necessary.

10.55 p.m.

Mr. James Kilfedder (Down, North)

The speech by the hon. and learned Member for Bradford, West (Mr. Lyons) prompts me to make a brief intervention. I agree with what he said. He expressed it with great feeling. Equally, I have sympathy with the Minister of State and his officials in the difficulty of processing these applications, and I understand the need to extend the time. However, if the time is advanced so far ahead, there is always the danger that officials will say that they have too much on their shoulders and that they will allow applications to pile up.

I represent a constituency in Northern Ireland. We have Pakistanis in the Province, and they are worthy members of the community. They are industrious, and they make a great contribution to Northern Ireland. As the hon. and learned Gentleman said, this is a matter of status, and I join the hon. Member for Cambridge (Mr. Lane) in saying that we welcome Pakistanis and trust that they will play a full part in the life of this country.

10.57 p.m.

Mr. Alexander W. Lyon

With the leave of the House, perhaps I might reply briefly to the debate.

I am grateful for what the hon. Member for Cambridge (Mr. Lane) said about the staff. We owe them a great debt of gratitude. They come under considerable criticism from time to time, sometimes from the Minister as well as from hon. Members, but they do their job with great expedition and under very difficult circumstances.

The fear expressed by the hon. Member for Down, North (Mr. Kilfedder) is unjustified. The Pakistan Unit is a separate unit of the Immigration Department at Croydon. It is housed physically in a different building, and it consists of 125 people who are engaged on this work full time. They do no other kind of work, and they are as anxious as I am to get it finished. There is no question that, because we have extended the time, they will feel that they sit back on their haunches. The work will be done as soon as we can get it done.

My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Bradford, West (Mr. Lyons) referred to the fears of Pakistanis who go abroad in the period when their applications are being processed. It is an unreal fear, provided that they have settled here with the right to re-entry and that they are not out of the country for more than two years. In those circumstances, they will certainly be allowed back in, even if the period for application has expired. Therefore, I hope that he will be able to reassure those of his constituents, and from the Government Front Bench I certainly reassure any of the Pakistan community, that that will not upset any of their holiday arrangements.

The difficulty arises over getting travel documents to go outside the country and getting passports back. There is some force in the suggestion that these people should be given special priority and be dealt with before they go abroad. I understand that taking people out of the queue and dealing with them would, as a matter of administrative arrangement, extend the time of this whole process. Therefore, the Department normally gives them their passports and resumes consideration of their cases when they return from holiday. Sometimes they are given travel documents. The Department always does its best to help them to have their holidays. Their right to claim citizenship in due course will not be affected.

The hon. Member for Bolton, West (Mr. Redmond) asked about getting a new passport. This is one of the most difficult areas of immigration control. We all know only too well that the lost passport is often a matter of great interest to the immigration department. Therefore, I cannot give a categorical assurance that, simply because somebody claims to have lost his passport and can show that he has been in the country for some time, he can get a new passport stamped back to the date when he says that he lost it.

This matter must be dealt with delicately. I hope that the Department will always treat it with as much delicacy as possible and will try to avoid any difficulties which may arise. If there are difficulties in any specific case, I shall be happy to look into it.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time.

Bill committed to a Committee of the whole House.—[Mr. Pavitt.]

Committee tomorrow.