HC Deb 21 November 1983 vol 49 cc143-8

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Sainsbury.]

12.10 am
Mr. Greville Janner (Leicester, West)

I appreciate this opportunity to raise the subject of the cost of nationality fees. They are extortionate, they were denounced unanimously by the Home Affairs Committee as long ago as 4 May 1983, and they have not thereafter been dealt with by the Government. I denounce the profit, estimated at £6.4 million, to be made in 1982.83. The Government are living off the immoral earnings of an evil system that was unanimously condemned by the Home Affairs Committee, and, if the Minister is not ashamed of the system over which he presides, he should be.

There is before the House a motion that has already been signed by 154 Opposition hon. Members, and I have another 34 signatures waiting to be added to it. It states: That this House recognises the disgraceful profit made by the Government from fees for British citizenship; and calls for their immediate reduction in line with the Third Report of the Home Affairs Committee of Session 1982–83. That motion has drawn the same response as that received by the report of the Home Affairs Committee—total silence in the face of total condemnation by hon. Members.

As the grandson of four immigrants, as an ex-service man and as a proud citizen of this country, I in no way undervalue the supreme importance of British citizenship. Following my late father in the service of the people of Leicester, West, I would never underestimate the value of that citizenship. But our nationality is not a saleable commodity. It is not, to use the words of the Home Affairs Committee, akin to a television licence. It is not a product to be marketed for profit. If the Minister does not recognise that, he should be ashamed of himself.

I am pleased to tell the House that the Bishop of Leicester has joined me in denouncing the system. It is a system that is morally wrong and should be changed immediately. It applies most to those citizens who come from other lands, who live here and now wish to exercise their right to become British citizens. It applies to the Asians of Leicester; to brown and to black people. It also applies to others, including a constituent of mine who wishes not to be named but about whom I have written to the Minister, a Scandinavian and professional person, who, as a matter of principle, is not prepared to pay on a profit basis for the naturalisation of her daughter who is a student and is not able to pay for herself.

The Home Office is responsible for this wicked system, and the Minister, who is known as a good and compassionate man, presides over it. Does he not consider that the time has come to change that system? If he cannot induce the Government to make that change, he should resign.

The report from the Home Affairs Committee is dated 4 May 1983. Nothing has happened since then. Time may not matter in the Home Office, but it does matter to people who are affected. It matters to constituents of mine whose job applications have been frustrated because they are unable to get passports and to travel. It is a serious problem to people like a constituent of mine who is desperate to have the matter put in order so that he may do his work, and to whom the Home Office wrote saying: From time to time the number of applications for citizenship to be considered reaches levels which exceed the capacity of the staff available to process them. Delays then arise which are not the fault of the staff and which the Home Office much regrets. I accept that these delays are not the fault of the staff. I pay tribute to the work done by the staff in difficult circumstances and in accordance with rules that they have had thrust upon them. The Minister, who is a compassionate man, is responsible for those rules. If he is not ashamed of those rules, then he should be.

I am not able to pay the same tribute to those who administer the rules in ports and places where people come into this country. I refer to immigration officers. Hon. Members who, like me, have many immigrants among their constituents, will testify to the constant and high level of complaints that are made about the treatment of visitors from overseas, especially those who are brown or black. It is all part of the system over which the Minister—a compassionate man—presides. If he is not ashamed of the system, he should be; and if he cannot get the system changed, he should resign.

To the Minister and to his Department, the question of time may not be important, but the entitlement regulations run out at the end of 1987. As the Select Committee on Home Affairs pointed out, one of the reasons why there have been so many applications so soon has been that people fear that they will lose their rights. Time does matter, if not for the Home Office, then for others. There is no excuse for the delay from May until now, or for the Minister's refusal to set a date when he will respond. If he does not respond tonight, there will be no grounds for his refusal to honour the obligations that his high office places upon him. If as a compassionate man he will not now state his intentions, he should be ashamed of himself and his conduct of the office he holds.

I heard a story about the Home Office. Some one asked one of the Ministers what is the English for "mañana". The Minister replied, "In the Home Office, we have no word which conveys quite that sense of urgency." The Home Office may not feel that these matters are urgent, but for those who are affected they are of great and immediate concern.

Unfortunately, immigration and nationality are tied up with the system that extends to the way in which people coming here are treated. I refer in particular to a matter that I have drawn to the attention of the Minister—the case of Mrs. Monghiben V. Chavda, who came to this country as a lawful visitor to see her family and was required to sign a form that in my view was completely unlawful. Having signed it, she was required to place her thumb print on it. That was another indignity for a person who came here to visit her relations. Her son was required to sign a form saying that he was his mother's sponsor and that he would not apply for any extension of stay on her behalf for any purpose. This is an unlawful but typical letter. When I complained about it, the Minister, who is a compassionate man, replied saying that it was a mistake, that it should not have been done, and that the wording used … could be construed as an attempt to deny the passenger her lawful rights by administrative means. This clearly was not the intention but I shall take steps to see that such a form of words is not used in future. I asked the Minister whether this was an isolated case. The answer came back that he did not know of any others, but he would not know, because apparently the immigration officers decide for themselves what forms they will use. If that is correct, it is a wicked and a bad system. If that is incorrect, the Minister owes another apology to the House on behalf of the lawful, decent, dignified and honourable visitors who are treated in such an inappropriate and wicked manner, of which the Minister, who is a compassionate and a kindly man, must be ashamed. If he is not, he certainly should be.

There are many other examples of this type of shameful behaviour. There are complaints in the Home Office concerning those who are entitled to British nationality and who are ready to pay the necessary fees—British passport holders who have been waiting to come to this country for as long as seven years. Relatives of my constituents are divided from their families in a way that would be denounced if this system were applied by any other land. I have twice visited a Mr. Acharya in India, who has waited seven years, but still does not know when he will be permitted into this country, as he is entitled.

This is not a matter of allowing more people into Britain or of extending the right of immigration to new people. It is simply a question of allowing in people who are entitled to be here. Perhaps time does not matter in the Home Office. It matters to people like Mr. Acharya and to their families. If the Minister who is a compassionate man, cannot see that, he should.

A new aberration has been found. Apparently, it is now necessary for people with Asian names to produce a passport if they are to receive their rights from the DHSS. I have a form dated 7 November which is addressed to an Asian constituent in Leicester which states: please take this letter together with your passport to your local Social Security office". The time has come when we ought to get rid of these wicked distinctions between people who are entitled to rights, between those who may be of different colour, background or ethnic origin. The Home Office and the Minister who is in charge of communal relations should understand the awful damage that is being caused to good relations by the sort of evils that I have drawn to the attention of the House and the Minister.

I ask the Minister to consider these matters with great care and with that compassion for which he is known. I hope that if I am right, he will say so. I ask him to announce that the Government will cease to make a profit from nationality fees, which are not a commodity like television licences, and that he will make good the errors and omissions of the system over which he presides and of which, I am sure—whether or not he says so tonight—he must be deeply ashamed.

12.23 pm
Mr. Max Madden (Bradford, West)

I am grateful to my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Leicester, West (Mr. Janner) for giving me an opportunity to speak in this Adjournment debate, for applying for this debate and for sponsoring the early-day motion. I support all that he has said tonight, and therefore I shall limit my remarks as much as I can.

The Labour party remains firmly committed to the repeal of the British Nationality Act and the Immigration Act 1971. We look forward to the earliest opportunity for a Labour Government to repeal those pieces of repugnant legislation. I support all that my hon. and learned Friend has said about the recommendation by the Select Committee and share his total opposition to the excessive profits that are made from the fees. I urge the Minister to announce today that there will be substantial reductions in the fees charged and that no fees at all will be charged to applicants receiving supplementary benefit or who are unemployed.

I hope that the Minister will also announce that inquiries into applications for British citizenship will in future be conducted by Home Office staff. At present, detectives are employed for this purpose and thousands of hours of their time are taken up with inquiries of this kind. It would be far better if Home Office staff were employed to do this work, thus releasing the detectives to do the work on which they are best employed—inquiring into crime. The removal of the police from these duties would make a major contribution to improving race relations.

I urge the Minister also to ensure that in future the fee is paid when the application is considered, rather than when it is made. Substantial sums are involved and he will appreciate the great difficulty and hardship that payment on submission of the application imposes on many people.

I hope that the Minister will respond as generously as he can to the points that my hon. and learned Friend and I have raised today, because this is an urgent matter of great concern to the black and Asian communities in this country.

12.26 pm
The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. David Waddington)

The hon. and learned Member for Leicester, West (Mr. Janner) and the hon. Member for Bradford, West (Mr. Madden) have raised many matters which go far wider than the title of the debate. I do not think that either of them would seriously expect me to go so wide. I certainly have not the slightest intention of wasting the time of the House defending the British Nationality Act 1981. I do not think that anyone seriously believes that if this country suffered the misfortune of a Labour Government that Act would be repealed.

The hon. and learned Gentleman drew attention to the fact that some months had elapsed since the Select Committee on Home Affairs published its report on nationality fees. I am sure that he will agree, however, that very important matters are raised and very important proposals are made in that report. It is far more important to get this right than to feel that we must have our response out by a specific date.

The hon. and learned Gentleman recently asked a number of questions about the time taken to process applications. I remind the House that the Sub-Committee on Race Relations and Immigration, having visited the immigration and nationality department at Croydon and seen what was involved in the processing of applications, came to the following conclusion: we consider the procedures within B4 (that is, the Nationality Department) are satisfactory and not of themselves a cause of delay. We conclude that the staff of B4 are doing their best in difficult circumstances. The speed at which these procedures operate is governed by two factors: the level of applications and of staff'. Two sets of figures are worth bearing in mind, as they are highly relevant to the debate. There was an enormous increase in applications in 1982–83 over 1981–82–96,000 as compared with 66,300. In spite of the importance that the Government attach to reducing the size of the Civil Service, there has been a modest increase in the complement in the Immigration and Nationality Department from 269 to 283 in the past year. The average time to process an application when there is an entitlement to citizenship is now 13 months, and applications for nationality by discretion are taking 21 months. That is the information that I gave to the hon. and learned Gentleman by way of an answer to a question the other day but I can amplify that information to some extent. The average time for entitlement registrations is 13 months but 50 per cent. of all such applications are completed within 10 months.

I accept that the position is not satisfactory, but it has worsened in the past year, especially for entitlement applications, entirely because of the unprecedented influx of applications, all received within a few weeks immediately before the Nationality Act came into force on 1 January this year. I have given the figures for 1982–83, nearly a 50 per cent. increase over the previous year—and more than 50 per cent of those 96,000 applications were received in a few weeks in November and December 1982.

As to fees, I gave an interim response to the report when I wrote on 28 July to my hon. Friend the Member for Westminster, North (Mr. Wheeler), who was then Chairman of the Home Affairs Sub-Committee, and I sent a copy to the hon. and learned Gentleman.

Let me revert for a moment to the so-called profit which the hon. and learned Gentleman eloquently denounced. The position is this. Total cash receipts in 1982–83 were £10.95 million. The cost of processing applications were £4.52 million. The difference of £6.43 million was made up of receipts from two sources—£3.79 million from fees paid following completion of work on applications received before April 1982 and £2.64 million from new applications received after 1 April 1982, work on which was largely uncompleted before 31 March 1983.

There is no doubt how a manufacturing concern taking, say, two years to make a product and deciding in 1982 to change over from asking for payment on completion of work to payment in advance, would approach the matter. The firm certainly would not have said that payments of £3.79 million received in 1982–83 for work done in 1981–82 should be lumped with £7.16 million received on new orders not to be completed until the following year and that the profit for 1982–83 should be arrived at by setting those two sums against the manufacturing costs of 1982–83. Of course it would not have gone in for such nonsense. It is ridiculous to talk of that cash surplus as a profit.

I shall now deal with some of the matters that the hon. and learned Gentleman raised, although they are not relevant to the debate. He mentioned visitors. I do not doubt for a moment that, if someone travels half way round the world and arrives at London airport at 7 am dead tired, he or she will not be pleased at the prospect of being questioned by anyone. I inquire with the greatest care into allegations of discourtesy that are made against our immigration officers. I should be extremely displeased if such discourtesy was proved. However, it must be recognised that people do not like to be questioned, even though there is abundant justification for the questioning. It is an inseparable part of immigration control that people will be questioned when they arrive dead tired at London airport at 6 am.

The hon. and learned Member mentioned a person being asked to sign an undertaking that she would not appeal against a decision on her application for an extension of stay. I replied to the hon. and learned Member that I thought that it was wrong to ask for such an undertaking. However, we must not get confused. The immigration officer must be satisfied that a person is a genuine visitor and if an officer is in doubt about whether a person will leave the country at the end of the period for which he says that he wants to stay, I see nothing wrong in that officer putting the matter to the test by asking the person, "Will you sign an undertaking that you will leave at the end of the period?"

The hon. and learned Member also went well wide of the subject of the debate when he raised rights of entitlement to nationality. He said that those rights run out at the end of 1987. I hope that all those who are interested in the matter will make it clear that people have the right to apply for registration until the end of 1987 and that the time taken to process an application has no effect on that. Anyone who puts in an application before the end of 1987 will qualify under the Act.

I am grateful for the hon. and learned Gentleman's kind words about me, but the fierce strictures in the rest of his speech were unwarranted and I should not allow the impression to remain that the immigration and nationality department has behaved badly. It has had to cope with an unprecedented rush of applications and, in the circumstances, it has coped well.

Mr. Janner

When will the Minister respond to the unanimous demand of the Select Committee on Home Affairs in May that nationality fees should be reduced so that they do not show a profit to the Government?

Mr. Waddington

I shall respond as soon as possible, but, as I said earlier, these are serious matters. Many important proposals were made by the Committee and I should be doing no service to the House or to those who wish to apply for nationality if I were rushed into making a decision.

We have set in train work on producing a new accounting system that will command public confidence. That is what really matters. I had hoped that we would reply to the Select Committee before Christmas, but no one should be too dismayed if it takes even longer. The important thing is to get it right. I do not expect that that reply will please everybody, but I hope that it will receive wide acceptance.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-one minutes to One o'clock.