§ 4.10 a.m.
§ Mr. Norman Fowler (Sutton Coldfield)
I welcome the opportunity to raise the subject of immigration from India, Bangladesh and Pakistan. I know that the Minister, who has just returned from a tour of those countries, will welcome the opportunity that the Opposition are 1999 giving him of making a statement to the House about the tour.
The cause of the debate is the hon. Gentleman's visit, during which he made a number of comments which we shall want to examine. More particularly, the purpose of the debate is to seek from the hon. Gentleman guidance on what policy decisions he is reaching.
The hon. Gentleman's visit, valuable though it was, was not the first tour of this kind. My hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Mr. Lane) went to these three countries a year ago. The pioneering trip was made, however, by the Select Committee on Race Relations and Immigration, of which I was a member, which went a year previous to that under the able chairmanship of Mr. William Deedes, the then Member for Ashford.
The hon. Gentleman's visit was the most recent. It had the further distinction of being punctuated by comments from the hon. Gentleman which were different in kind from any previously made by a Minister on the subcontinent. Hon. Members are used to the hon. Gentleman's method of expression. We know that hyperbole comes naturally to him, and we make some allowance for him. It is a little less certain whether the Minister's idiosyncrasies are always appreciated outside the House.
Before I go on to the serious questions posed by what the Minister stated I urge him to put one matter absolutely beyond doubt. He should make it clear that nothing in all the comments he made implied criticism of the immigration staff who are working in those countries. In Dacca, after he had been in Bangladesh for all of four days, he gave a Press conference at which he referred to the amount of red tape, which he said was scandalous.
He asserted thatNo one has ever sat down and said, 'Do we need all this?'He went on to say:We are making too many mistakes. We are making more mistakes than are tolerable".To many observers, those comments appear to be a criticism of the immigration staff working in those countries. It is impossible to interpret the second remark in any other way. The impression of the Select Committee when we went to 2000 the subcontinent was entirely different. Everywhere, we found immigration staff working under intense pressure and enormous difficulty, but working well and, above all, fairly. We may disagree on other matters, but I hope that the hon. Gentleman will set the record straight on that point.
What has caused most concern about the Minister of State's comments is that he seems to have in mind a change of policy, and it is the change of policy—what he intends to do—that is the purpose of this debate. We wish to examine and try to elicit from him further information on this matter. The hon. Gentleman is now considering the system of checking on the genuineness of applications from immigrants to come for permanent settlement in this country. Predominantly we are talking about the dependants of wives and children who have the head of the family in this country.
In the vast majority of these cases, families have been separated for several years. In other words, the separation is of long standing. Usually, the head of the family has been in Britain for several years before making the application for his dependants to come here. Separation has not been caused by the immigration control system. Separation can be extended, because it takes time to check the applications. The pressure on immigration offices has led to delays—sometimes long delays.
Given that that is the situation, I should like to know how the Minister intends to speed up the process. New immigration staff have already been sent to the subcontinent—to all three countries concerned, I think—and undoubtedly this will reduce the delays. But in Dacca the Minister of State said that he was not aiming at a reduction in the waiting time. He said:I do not regard a queue as tolerable at all".According to a Foreign Office reply to me, the offices in Bangladesh, Pakistan and India have before them almost 18,000 applications from dependants. I understand that some of them involve more than one person, and, in addition, others, such as fiancées, are applying for settlement here.
On the trip—this was not a statement made by the Minister of State, but it was certainly reported, perhaps after guidance from the hon. Gentleman or his officials 2001 —the figure of 35,000 people was mentioned. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will say whether that is the correct figure.
My first major question is: how does the Minister intend to reduce the queue to zero? Does he plan to send more immigration staff, or to reduce the checks? What is the scandalous red tape which he wants to do away with?
My second major question springs directly from that. Will the Minister confirm that the queue and the cause for delay are caused in part by a number of factors which he cannot eliminate, however much he might like to, simply by a stroke of the pen or by a few optimistic words? In Dacca he spoke as though the documentation available there to immigration staff was enough to establish the claim being checked, as it might be, in York or some other city in this country. Does not he agree that the documentation provided in a country such as Bangladesh, which is often provided—as the Select Committee report showed—by fairly minor officials, is fundamentally different from the developed documentation provided in the United Kingdom? Does not that make it very much more difficult to check upon the credentials and the true position of Wives and children?
Even more important than that is the question of illegal immigration. I remember an example in Islamabad, which I think the hon. Gentleman visited, when, looking from the windows of our immigration offices, I saw the tents a short distance away in which agents were advising on the immigration checks being operated.
We must recognise the pressure that exists to get into Britain, and the extent of the attempts to make illegal entry. It is undoubtedly a cruel trade. It involves human exploitation. Unhappily, it is a well-developed trade. The Select Committee took evidence on this subject. In 1972 we were given figures by the Foreign Office which showed that in Pakistan three out of every eight applications processed were disallowed—that is, they were false. Perhaps the Minister can say whether that position has to any extent changed, or whether the pressure of illegal immigration has been reduced. Until it is reduced, there can be no question of reducing our checks. If the hon. Gentle- 2002 man agrees with that, we come back to the crucial question of just how he intends to eliminate the queues.
The third question concerns the numbers involved. The purpose of this debate is to elicit information from the Minister on immigration policy. Immigration affects race and community relations. A large number of new immigrants entering the country, and going to a few areas, can place strain on, for example, the educational facilities. It was that concern about education which prompted the visit of the Select Committee to the subcontinent to try to understand the wider context. We must remember that the children entering the country may be 9 or 10, or even older, and may have very little education, or knowledge of English. We are dealing with a fairly severe educational problem. Other problems flow from that, including employment opportunities. That is one reason why we should be told more about the numbers involved—the number of dependants who are entitled to come to this country.
There are other reasons why we should be given more information. The Minister envisages a speeding up of the flow of dependants into this country. That is implicit in what he said in all three of the countries which he visited. Therefore, we are entitled to know how many people the Home Office estimates to be involved here. The Minister seems to envisage a change of policy, or at least a change of emphasis. Therefore it is not quite enough for him to reply that it has never previously been the practice to disclose figures of this kind. His policy statement has never been quite the previous practice, either.
What is more, as I understand it, the techniques for estimating the numbers involved have improved and have been improved by his own Department over the past two years. It may be that the Home Office is now in a much better position to give an estimate than it was even 12 months ago.
In this estimate, the Minister should include four essential elements. First, there is the number of applicants who at the moment are having their claims processed. That should be an easily-produced figure. It is directly within the knowledge of the Government. The information has already been partly 2003 provided by the Foreign Office in the number of applications, and therefore it should not be too difficult to provide the number of people to whom these applications appertain.
Second, and more important, I wonder whether the Minister is able to give an estimate of how many dependants are entitled to come to this country from the Indian subcontinent—people who are entitled to entry as dependants. As I understand it, such an estimate exists in the Home Office. This was a subject which I raised with the Home Office in 1973 when one of its officials gave evidence before the Select Committee. He said:We have the figures, but they are not considered sufficiently reliable for public release. When one goes beyond the end of 1973, it is considered too speculative to give them public currency.Asked whether there were working figures inside the Home Office, he replied, "Certainly." It may be that, as a result of the better techniques which I understand have been developed, the Minister is now in a much better position to give a more accurate estimate than the Home Office had previously.
An additional point is that if the Home Office has no reliable working estimate, perhaps it should consider having one. If it has an estimate which it has in use, I believe that it should consider the publication of it because this is information which the public are entitled to have.
The third element is that of spouses. My hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge will probably touch upon this matter. Last June, the Home Secretary announced that in future women would be able to bring their husbands into the country, in the same way as men had previously been able to bring in their wives. What effect has that had? What are the numbers entitled to come? To what extent have we increased the entitlement to entry?
Fourth, last year the Home Secretary announced an amnesty for illegal immigrants. I gather that, currently, 1,500 people have made application for this amnesty. It is still not altogether clear whether the granting of an amnesty to an illegal immigrant provides that immigrant with the right to bring in his 2004 dependants. If that is the case, to what extent has this right been exercised?
I have raised some detailed questions, but those about the numbers are not new. None will have come as a total surprise to the Minister. I hope that he will be able to tell us what policy changes he is considering and what effect they are likely to have, what his strategy is and whether it has changed. He should be under no illusion about the justified concern with which the public regard this point.
§ 4.31 a.m.
§ Mr. David Lane (Cambridge)
My hon. Friends and I asked for this debate so that we could express some anxieties and give the Minister of State the chance to make at least a preliminary report on his recent visit to the subcontinent. It is good to see him flanked by the Minister of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, who has responsibility for the posts.
The level of total immigration has fallen substantially in the last few years but the pressure to enter Britain is still great. Controlling immigration firmly and fairly is a difficult task of government; but it is extremely important, because we see it as a precondition of our supreme objective of maintaining good race relations in this country on a basis of equal rights and opportunities for all citizens.
The Government should think carefully before changing the procedures for scrutinising entry certificate applications from dependants. Any relaxation which widened the scope for fraudulent applications or weakened confidence at home in the efficacy of the system would be highly irresponsible. The continuing assurance of an effective control and a manageably low rate of immigration is essential if race relations are to remain relaxed and harmonious.
On immigration from the subcontinent, we should pay special attention to two matters—first, dependants, including spouses, and, second, the problem of illegal immigration. Apart from the United Kingdom passport holders from East Africa, virtually all dependants now entering this country for settlement come from the subcontinent, including people from Pakistan who are now shown in 2005 the non-Commonwealth section of the quarterly immigration statistics.
In 1967, the peak year, well over 50,000 dependants came here for settlement. In 1973 there were about 17,000, and the trend for the first nine months of 1974 suggests that the figure for that year will have been 16,000 or 17,000. One asks, what of the future? How large is the "pool" of adults and children who are entitled and will wish to join the head of the family here?
There have been estimates and "guestimates" during the last two or three years from various quarters. My hon. Friend has referred to the visit of the Select Committee two or three years ago. After my visit to the subcontinent in January last year it seemed desirable that an up-to-date assessment should be made. This, I think, has been in progress during the past few months. What I certainly envisaged was a new statistical exercise which could use the past experience of the Home Office in forecasting, which had proved accurate year after year, and the census data from 1971 about the pattern of the immigrant community settled in this country, and could use also the various information built up in the posts in the subcontinent through the very efficient record keeping they have developed.
I ask the Minister of State whether this reassessment has been completed and what the outcome is. Can he give any broad indication of what the total "pool" may be? Would it be about 50,000, about 100,000, or about how many? It is important that we should have some well-based idea—however approximate; I am not asking for precise figures—of the order of magnitude of the remaining commitment over a period of years.
That brings us to the annual rate of entry in future. So far as I know, the last public forecast was made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton (Mr. Carr) when he was Home Secretary, in the debate in the House on 6th December 1973. He was discussing the number of dependants admitted for settlement. He said that it was 22,000 in 1972 and was likely to be about 18,000 in 1973. He went on to say:According to our forecasts, which have proved substantially accurate in the past, we expect a further drop, although probably not 2006 so steep, in 1974 and 1975."—[Official Report, 6th December 1973; Vol. 865, c. 1474.]In other words, just over a year ago we were expecting the annual rate to fall towards 15,000 and eventually below 15,000 during the middle and late 1970s. That was the view of the then Government during our final weeks in office.
If I remember rightly, the Select Committee, after its investigation, made a forecast that the annual average would settle at about 15,000. Today, according to the Government, there are approximately 18,000 applications outstanding in the queue in all the three countries together, which is reported to be equivalent to about 35,000 individuals. Perhaps the Minister will confirm that.
I hope that the Minister will give his latest forecast now. We know that it has not been the practice to publish individual forecasts for every year, but it would be valuable in today's circumstances to have his judgment of the trends, because it is the trend as well as the level that is important. Any sudden surge upwards as a result of changes in procedure would be bound to cause uneasiness in Britain, particularly at a time of rising unemployment. This country's capacity to absorb newcomers from any quarter of the world is limited now.
I ask the Minister of State to pay particular attention to the problem that my hon. Friend has mentioned—the children who come here from the subcontinent with considerable language difficulties which must be met and looked after here, but who will be attending schools which in many parts of the country are already stretched to the utmost. This problem needs to be handled very carefully indeed.
Coming to the Minister's trip, we know that it was prompted by the delays which had built up—these were causing concern to our Government, too—and the interview queues at the posts. We have all had heartrending letters from constituents about this matter. The length of the queue in each post has been increasing. When we were in government we took some steps to reinforce the staff, and, we intended to review the position later last year.
I agree that a point is reached where the amount of delay is unacceptable. The Home Secretary put it this way in a 2007 Written Answer, in reply to my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Huntingdonshire (Sir D. Renton) when he was describing the operation of the controls. It would bein a way compatible with both justice and humanity".—[Official Report, 19th December 1974; Vol. 883 c. 499.]At the same time, the Minister of State must have felt the pressures at first hand during his visit. He must have been given evidence of the extent of fraud. That was the first-hand impression felt by my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Fowler) and others on the Select Committee. I had the same feelings when I made my shorter visit a year ago.
I, too, regret some of the apparently wild words that the Minister of State was reported to have used in the early days of his visit. This was particularly unfair to the entry certificate staff, for it would have been taken to reflect on them. They are carrying out the system approved by this House and initiated by a former Labour Government when the entry certificate system was established. I am glad that the Minister paid a well-deserved tribute to the staff later in his visit, and I hope that he will repeat it when he speaks. These people have a very difficult job to do and they do it with great conscientiousness and fairness.
Will the Minister say whether there is any noticeable effect, yet, on the rate of entry and on the lessening of the queues as a result of the reinforcement of the staff? Perhaps more important, what further changes in the procedure are being contemplated in the light of the experience of the last few years? How is the Minister intending to keep the system as watertight as it needs to be? If it is to be simplified, in whatever respect, how can the Government be sure that they will be able to thwart the bogus applications which may develop on a still larger scale? Is there any prospects of some joint operation with the Governments in the subcontinent on the question of documentation? This might be valuable, but it needs to be approached with care.
Have the Government considered, as a possible change in the machinery, putting on the head of the household in this country the onus of initiating the applica- 2008 tion, rather than leaving it to be started by the dependant in the subcontinent? There might be advantages in a change of that sort, and it should be examined. Altogether, I hope that the Government will be as careful as the Minister of State implied in a Written Answer on 15th January, when he said that the Government were considering whether it would be possible to simplify the procedures without in any way reducing the safeguards against bogus applications. I repeat that the Government must not run the risk of opening loopholes under the pressures we all know exist.
I have been talking generally about the situation of dependants, but I want to say a few words about spouses in particular—and I am still concerned with the Indian subcontinent. The change in the immigration rules in the second half of last year gave women settled here the same right to bring in their husbands as had always been possessed by the men settled here to bring in their wives. When the Home Secretary announced the change my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, North-East (Sir K. Joseph) said that the removal of the element of sex discrimination in the immigration rules would be welcomed, but added that there would also be anxiety about the consequences for immigration.
What will be the extent of the continuing commitment on spouses? There was already a commitment, with men able to bring in their wives; but there is a new dimension now that men can join women here. Can the Minister say how extensive is the custom of arranged marriages? Is it diminishing as some people believe? Will our additional commitment to new male immigration be limited by the fact that within the Asian communities settled in this country there is a considerable surplus of young single men over young single women?
How large, in other words, will be the "extending tail" formed by spouses of either sex? Is it likely to be 2,000 a year, 5,000, or what? I am not expecting precision, I should like some idea of the order of magnitude of the continuing commitment that will develop as a result of the new rules for spouses.
We are entitled to know more than we have been told so far of the reasons why the Home Secretary decided that he had 2009 been exaggerating in March, when he talked of a substantial and continuing wave of male immigration if he made the change in the rules which he later decided to make. Will the Minister also say more about the safeguards on which he is to rely to prevent men circumventing the control by bogus marriages, as a number did before 1969? Will he confirm that the Government will be ready to review the whole situation if the change leads to a substantially higher level of new immigration than he now expects?
Over all this area of concern we urge the Minister to be as frank as possible. The House and the country would be far better placed to handle the situation if we had an authoritative assesment of the extent of the remaining commitment.
I turn to the second matter—illegal immigration. This, too, is largely a problem of the subcontinent. My hon. Friend reminded the House of the figures resulting from the amnesty. We are still more concerned with further action to stamp out the inhuman trade in illegal immigration for the future. We all welcome the successes by the authorities in recent months at this end, particularly off Dover at the beginning of January.
Will the Minister give us a short report on the progress the Government have made with the improvement of the counter-measures which the Conservative Government set in train a year or so ago? It is convenient to look at this in three parts. The first is co-operation with the Governments in the subcontinent and visits to the subcontinent by intelligence specialists from the immigration service here.
Secondly, there is the continental coastline of Europe, in particular France and Belgium, and the co-operation which has been developed between our police and immigration authorities and their opposite numbers. Thirdly, within the United Kingdom there is the work of the intelligence unit centrally in the London area and also in the different places around the country where its staff serve. I hope that we shall hear more about this, and that in any case the Minister will continue to act vigorously on all these three parts of the problem.
To sum up, we urge the Government to keep the control firm and effective, what- 2010 ever adjustments in procedures may be desirable from time to time. We also urge them to maintain a careful watch on the total level of immigration, particularly having in mind the problems of unemployment here. We shall continue to keep a close watch on the Government.
§ 4.49 a.m.
§ The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Alexander W. Lyon)
The subject raised by the hon. Members for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Fowler) and Cambridge (Mr. Lane) is pregnant with emotion, and leads to considerable controversy. I am glad that the hon. Member for Cambridge acknowledged that it is also one which gives rise to heartrending letters from constituents. This part of the problem must be emphasised.
I regularly receive large number of letters from hon. Members who have immigrants in their constituencies. The bulk of them are heartrending accounts of the way in which human beings are separated by what they regard as the incomprehensible non-understandable processes of bureaucracy. The hon. Members for Sutton Coldfield and Cambridge have between them explained some of the reasons why the present system came into being. In assessing the cogency of those reasons it must be borne in mind that there is another side which must be brought into the balance. I refer to the effect on individual human beings of the kind of checks which have grown up over the years.
I shall try to put the debate into context. We are not talking about a wave of new male immigration from the subcontinent. We are not talking about another batch of workers coming into this country. We are considering the wives and children of men who came to settle here some time ago. By and large, male immigration stopped when the 1965 White Paper considerably reduced the number of work vouchers. Since then the number of work vouchers or permits which has been issued to the subcontinent has been very small.
We are now concerned to wind up the commitment, given in the Immigration Act 1971, that any Commonwealth citizen who was settled here before 1st January 1973 would have the statutory right to bring in his wife and children. In that context, much has been said, not 2011 only this evening but before, about numbers. It has never been the policy of Governments to speculate publicly on the estimated total but we do publish figures as to the number of applications received.
It is clear that if a certain number of men came into this country for settlement from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh before 1st January 1973 the number must be finite. A fixed number of men came. Some of them have already brought in their wives and families. My experience in India, as we went round the villages, was that a substantial number of Indians had already brought their families to the United Kingdom. That is also the message that comes out of the census.
The balance of the sexes in the Indian population living here is roughly equal. The balance between males and females in the Pakistani community, which in 1971 included the Bangladesh community, shows a preponderance of males. Therefore, it would be expected that the commitment would be greater towards Pakistan and Bangladesh than towards India. That seems to be the pattern that is developing. If it is said that the rate at which we are discharging our residual commitment—which was undertaken some years ago and was accepted by the previous Government as it is accepted by the present Government—should be increased, that does not mean that any more people will come into the country. It simply means that the commitment will be extinguished more quickly. It is that which ought to be underlined by anyone who comments seriously upon this.
Therefore, if it were possible for me—I shall come to the matters raised by the hon. Member for Cambridge in a moment—by any change in the procedures to raise the rate at which people have been coming over the last couple of years, I would not be increasing the total commitment of this country towards immigration from the subcontinent beyond the commitment which was entered into by a Conservative Government. All I would be doing would be seeing that the commitment was realised more quickly.
I would have thought that it was in the interests of race relations that this should be so. We have two residual 2012 commitments out of the whole immigration story from the Commonwealth. One is concerned with the East African Asians, which both Governments have accepted and which is subject to the issue of vouchers. The other is the issue of dependants, which, as the hon. Member says, really means dependants from the Indian subcontinent.
It is in that light that I approach the question of what we should do. It is sometime suggested that if I were to alter the procedures in any way it would somehow open a great new door to further immigration, but the experience over the last five years, since the entry certificate procedure was introduce in 1969, suggest that, far from increasing, applications from the subcontinent, year by year since 1969, have declined. From a total, in the first full year—1970—of about 32,000, the figure has fallen to about 25,000 in the last full year—1973. In the first nine months of 1974 it was 16,000.
It is noticeable that the number of applications which we have processed has gone down even more. The reason why there is a longer queue is not that more and more people are applying but that we are dealing with fewer applications each year. For the first nine months of 1974 we have dealt with only 9,000 applications. If that were doubled—I am not suggesting that that could happen in the immediate future—it would still be fewer than the number of people who were dealt with in 1970 or in 1971. In those circumstances, increasing the rate of flow will not make the absorption into our society any greater than it has been in the period between 1970 and 1973.
The intricacy of our procedures and the way in which they are administered has meant a slowing down of the number of applications which could be processed, leading to inevitable delay. What I had to ask myself as I went round the subcontinent was whether it would be possible in any way to increase the flow by increasing the rate of interviewing, without in any way reducing the checks against evasion. By and large—these figures relate to the period before 1973, in that the situation is rather different in 1974—at the end of the procedures 15 people out of every 100 are refused entry 2013 certificates. That means that 85 per cent. of those who apply get their entry certificates, but get them after waiting a considerable time.
§ Mr. Lyon
That is the average over the three countries in the subcontinent by the end of 1973.
I was about to say that although 85 per cent. get their entry certificates, they get them after waiting some time—as long as four or five years—for the interview and thereafter, after the interview, waiting another two years before getting a decision. The position can vary in the subcontinent between as little—I say "as little"—as two years, and five, six or seven, before a decision is reached to give an entry certificate.
I went to see whether it was possible to improve the procedure so that we got the same refusal rate, but got it much more quickly—and if I achieve this I shall in no way have increased the number of bogus people. That was central to my thinking as I went around. No conclusions have been reached, because these matters have to be considered with my officials, but I shall give some indication of my thinking.
The other matter raised is one on which the hon. Member for Sutton Cold-field criticised me—that in Dacca I said we were making too many mistakes. The hon. Member, who knows a good deal about race relations in this country, would admit that as he goes around the country he meets many, in the Asian community, in particular, who complain bitterly that they have been refused entry certificates when the wives and children were genuine.
These expressions of distress—of anger, sometimes—occur not immediately after a decision when one could understand that if a bogus application had been made and refused there was some still sense of bogus grievance, but even years after, when, if there had been a bogus applicant, one would find it difficult to see why there was so much strength of feeling. Although I do not pretend that that means the decision was necessarily wrong, it should lead us to wonder 2014 whether the procedures we use might need to be re-examined.
One thing I wanted to do when I went round was to see whether I could find cases on the ground which would show whether we had made a mistake. It is the most difficult thing in the world in an office in Dacca, Islamabad or New Delhi to recapture the realities of village life with the difficulties of talking to an illiterate woman who could be in purdah and who has come out of her village, possibly for the first time, to see through her eyes what goes on in her village, particularly if the entry certificate officer is not familiar with the village life.
I first visited the posts to see the interviews, then took some of the immigration staff with me into the villages, not to talk to the village councils or to hold formal sessions, as I understand the Select Committee did. We went to the villages and asked if there was anyone there who had been refused an entry certificate, then took officials into the home and talked to women and villagers about this particular family. Then we would go back to the High Commission and get out the file and see why they were refused.
In one village in Jallunda in India I came across just such a wife whose application had been refused. When we went to find her—she did not come to us, we went with a whole band of people to find her—we met her husband, who had been refused entry for his wife four years ago. He had come back from a visit to England and was knocking down and rebuilding a house for this woman—whom the British High Commissioner said was not his wife—and the children.
On looking at the file I could see how the decision had come to be made, and that there was ample room for mistake. What had happened was that we had got it wrong. That was one concrete case about which I am entirely satisfied that we had make a mistake. How many such cases are there? That, too, has to be put into the balance as well as the number of bogus applications.
Bogus applications also have to be considered with some reserve. All three societies are largely undocumented societies, and that is the cause of the difficulty in dealing with applications. Until recently—1961 was probably the 2015 earliest year when marriage certificates in the three countries of any worth became available—most people were born, married and died without ever getting on to any register other than, possibly, a village notebook. It is difficult for us to apply the standards of documentation common in the West to that kind of society, and yet we ask each applicant to bring documents to prove what he or she is saying. Illiterate people in that situation may be tempted to turn to someone who can give them such a document. Therefore, most of the entry certificate officers rightly take with considerable reserve the documents that are brought in. The real question is whether we should ask for documents which, in the end, we do not regard as being of great probity value anyway.
As I went from country to country I sought to find out whether, within the general lack of documentation, there were certain documents on which we could rely. In Bangladesh I found that to obtain a passport is a difficult procedure. It is not so in India and Pakistan. In Bangladesh there are checks on the issue of passports, and although there are still some forged passports, the information on a Bangladesh passport can be regarded as being more reliable than that given on other passports. One asks oneself whether it would be possible to make a start here.
Similarly, in India and Pakistan there are certain areas and certain kinds of document which are regarded by my officials as being of greater probity value than others. One asks whether, in these cases, the documentation could be made more crucial in the decision, so that the entry certificate officer could arrive at a decision more quickly.
Out of 100 cases, of which 15 per cent. are refused, about 15 per cent. are referred back to the Home Office for checking over here. I am seriously considering whether we should begin the application by asking the sponsor here to provide such documentation as he can—which is probably of greater probity value, because it comes from English sources—about a person's status, and his tax and work record here. That would allow the entry certificate officers to resolved some of the doubts which they now find in the interviewing procedure, such as those they refer back to England, which can take between 18 months and 2016 two years to resolve. There are difficulties, because such a proposal would put extra strain on staff at Lunar House, Croydon. That is why the suggestion has been resisted in the past. I am seeking to find out what the real burden would be, and whether we can carry it.
I am sure that it will always be in the interest of any applicant that the sponsor should send to the high commissions in all three countries the details about his status in this country, preferably with a photostat of his passport and details about his tax applications, as certified by the Inland Revenue. That would show when he applied for allowances for his wife and children, and show how many children he applied for and the details of his work record. Those factors could be supplied now, voluntarily, so that the applicant had them with her when she went to the post for interview. That would help to streamline the procedure a good deal over what has occurred in the past.
I have under consideration an even more radical change. It will not be generally known that in each of the three counties from which immigrants come the areas are very localised. Almost all who come here from Bangladesh emanate from 100 villages in an area of no more than 50 square miles. In India they come from an area which is only slightly larger. In Pakistan they come from two areas—one in Azat Kashmir and one in the area of Gujarat, about 50 miles south of Islamabad. In each country the basic catchment area is rural, though some of the larger villages are almost towns, but our immigrants are mainly rural people from villages. This is particularly true of Sylhet, where we have instituted an experiment—we are sending an officer to the village to see whether he can gain a better appreciation of the bona fides of any application within the village context than in his office in Dacca.
Clearly, because that this is so experimental, I do not want to switch all our staff resources to that activity. We propose to use two officers for this experiment. The experiment will go on for two or three months and we shall await the results.
I hope that we can interview many more people who have applied for interview in the villages than we can do in 2017 the same time in Dacca. In Dacca, at present, an entry certificate officer is interviewing for settlement about two cases a day. He may be able to interview in the village, say, 10 cases a day. It is obvious that he wastes a certain amount of time in getting up to Sylhet and back again. I hope this will be countered by the increase in productivity gained thereby. I cannot say that the experiment will succeed. There are formidable difficulties, but we shall look at it very closely.
It was not so obvious to me that the pattern could be repeated in India or Pakistan, because there the villages were not so close and not so identifiable as in Sylhet. But if the experiment is successful, we may look again at the situation in India and Pakistan.
We are taking up the question of co-operation with the local Governments. I have asked that in each of the posts they should make some kind of formal connection with the domestic Governments to see whether there are means of checking documentation, in particular, so that it can be carried out more quickly than at the moment. Some progress was made on this after the hon. Gentleman's visit, but it has not been considerable, and I am not entirely optimistic that we can get better progress. The domestic Governments, particularly in Bangladesh, were much concerned by the problem, and I hope that they will be able to give us greater assistance than in the past in checking documentation.
It is in this kind of way that we want to project the central problem of cutting down the delays in the system and also in getting better decisions, which will eliminate the bogus and the fraudulent and mistakes in relation to genuine dependants. If we can do that, we shall have achieved a great deal.
The hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield suggested that my remarks in Dacca might have been taken to be critical of the men and women who operate this system. I never intended that my remarks should be so construed, and I do not think that they are capable of such construction. I have always maintained that it was the system that was wrong.
It was not, as the hon. Member for Cambridge suggested, a system approved by Parliament. The idea of an entry 2018 certificate procedure was approved by Parliament, but what goes on in the interview has never been approved by Parliament or any Minister. It has grown up over a period of five years as a result of individual initiatives of entry certificate officers and the experience of the immigration service, and it is their accumulated experience which has come together. There is no uniform pattern.
In Dacca, it took on the whole two or three interviews before one got a decision, often extending over two years even after the first interview, which itself took from three to four years to get. In India, a decision normally came after the first interview. In Islamabad, it was found sometimes than they could manage with one interview. I hope that it will be possible to unite the procedures at the posts and manage, possibly, with one interview, with the documentation follow-up thereafter.
But, in commenting on the one particular case as being inhuman or any of the other suggested phrases of the hyperbole the hon. Gentleman attributed to me, I am glad that he is so gracious about my weakness on hyperbole. My command of English may be limited, but I do not understand how one could describe in any other way a case in which a woman and two children had been kept waiting for five years for a decision, when two doctors, selected by the High Commission, declared that it was a perfectly genuine case. I do not attribute blame to the entry certificate officers. The blame ought to lie properly on the procedures and upon us who have allowed and sanctioned them. I was concerned to change the procedures.
If the hon. Gentleman wishes to make inquiry, he will find from the people who were in the offices that after each of the visits that I made they felt that there was no criticism of them personally, and their morale was improved, because they felt that we were taking a serious look at their problem and trying to relieve their burdens as well as those of the immigrants with whom they were having to deal.
It is only in that spirit that I approach this task—not in any censorious attitude towards those who do the job. It is a difficult and trying job for anybody to undertake. I have been seeking to find 2019 a humane way whereby we can overcome the problems, not in any way relaxing our vigilance against bogus and fraudulent applications but ensuring that we get the right decision and the humane decision as quickly as possible.
§ Mr. Lyon
I cannot say anything about the numbers question, for the reason the hon. Gentleman gave when he was Minister. It is perfectly true that we are keeping some kind of estimate of the total commitment, but it is an estimate, and the hon. Gentleman eschewed acceding to any request to state the estimates when he was Minister. I adopt the same view, simply because in giving an estimate one cannot be absolutely certain. All kinds of possibilities may occur to change the extent of the commitment before it is actually undertaken. I do not intend to say anything about numbers.
As regards spouses, it is inevitable that in the first year in which the new rule is operating after a period when it has not been operating there will probably be a greater number of applications than in succeeding years, because there is a backlog to deal with. Much as I expected when we changed the rule, the major number of applications has come in in New Delhi, in India, rather than in Pakistan or Bangladesh, because the arranged marriage system is stronger in the Indian Hindu tradition than in the other traditions. In New Delhi, the number of applications which have so far come in is about 900. The number at other posts is very much less. In each of the posts there has been a falling off from the first few months after the announcement, as one would expect. Over a period of a whole year the number of applications would be relatively small.
It must be recognised that these applications will be dealt with at roughly the same speed as the dependants. I have no intention of giving an expedited clearance for male fiancés and female fianceés, as against people who have been married for many years and who have been waiting to come here for many years. Therefore, these applicants will be dealt with at roughly the same rate.
That means that present applications may take anything up to two to three 2020 years. If the interviewing rate is speeded up, as I hope it will be, we shall be able to process them more quickly. The result of dividing the figures by the number of years that it will take to process the applications shows that the commitment is very small.
A somewhat similar result occurred in relation to the illegal immigrants' so-called amnesty. Although we were told at the time we made the announcement that we would be deluged by thousands of applications from people who wanted to bring in their dependants, in the whole period since May we have had fewer than 1,500 applications. The number of those who have been processed and been accepted as being genuinely within the terms of the announcement has shown a relatively small number of dependants whom they might wish to bring in at some future date. Therefore, the total commitment from that source is very small. I suspect that the total commitment from fiancés and married men will probably be greater, but not out of context with the number of women who have been coming in for marriage. Last year, from all sources—Commonwealth and foreign sources together—5,000 women came in for marriage, and if the figure were no more for men it would be well within our capacity to absorb.
Therefore, I am fairly certain that the announcement which we made in the summer will not unduly add to our burdens in immigration or in race relations. Indeed the fact that it has been made, and the fact that the communities feel so strongly about it, has considerably assisted race relations in this country.