HC Deb 31 July 1984 vol 65 cc318-22

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

10.26 pm
Mr. Bernard Conlan (Gateshead, East)

As this is the final Adjournment debate, excluding tomorrow's, I take this opportunity to say to you, Mr. Speaker, that every hon. Member wishes you a good holiday after a long and arduous year since the last general election.

Mr. Speaker

Thank you.

Mr. Conlan

This case is of the greatest importance, not only because of its details but because of its fundamental underlying principles from which lessons can be learnt. It might be of advantage to the House if I briefly spell out the history of this case, involving a medical doctor in my constituency of Gateshead who is a Libyan national. Dr. Ramadan is doing an excellent job in the Gateshead group of hospitals looking after the sick people of the area. He and his family have been resident in this country for three to four years. Dr. Ramadan has received permission to work here until February 1986.

It has been customary for Dr. Ramadan and his family to return to their home in Libya for a holiday. In May 1984, Dr. Ramadan's wife and two children returned to Libya to take a short holiday. Before the holiday was completed, the crisis of the Libyan People's bureau in St. James's square blew up, and there was the regrettable and sad incident when WPC Fletcher was killed. That led to the breaking off of diplomatic relations with Libya and the closing of the embassy in Libya.

Dr. Ramadan's wife was involved and embroiled in the diplomatic crisis that blew up between the United Kingdom and Libya. She could not apply to the British embassy in Tripoli, Libya, for a re-entry visa because the breaking of the diplomatic relations between the two countries had closed the embassy. On advice, she understood that our embassy in Paris was then dealing with all outstanding questions concerning Libyan nationals who wished to enter or re-enter the United Kingdom.

Mrs. Ramadan, together with her two children, accordingly left Libya and travelled to Paris, where she approached the British embassy. She told the embassy "We have lived in the United Kingdom for four years. My husband is doing an excellent job of work in the Gateshead hospitals. We want to return to the United Kingdom and re-unite the family." The embassy in Paris, lo and behold, said, "No, we are sorry, but there is a blanket restriction on the re-entry to the United Kingdom of all Libyan nationals until diplomatic affairs between the two countries are sorted out."

That was two months ago. So there were the wife and her two children, stranded in Paris, with very little money, and with only the clothes that they took for a holiday. They were in a terribly difficult situation. Therefore, the doctor approached the Home Office and said, "Please let me be re-united with my family." He received no reply. He telephoned the Home Office several times and received no satisfaction. Out of desperation he approached me.

Traditionally, the Home Office is responsible for all matters concerning the immigrant population in the United Kingdom, so on 28 June I wrote to the Minister of State, Home Office, the Minister responsible for such matters, and I implored him to consider the need to re-admit Mrs. Ramadan and her two children so that they could be reunited as a family. I received, of course, the usual acknowledgment card, which meant no more than that my letter had been received.

Then on 11 July I received what I considered to be an extremely disturbing letter from the consultant physician of the Gateshead group of hospitals, Mr. G. V. Williams, in which he indicated to me that the physical separation of the family was affecting Dr. Ramadan's work. That is hardly surprising. I am sure that if the Minister were physically separated from his family his work at the House would suffer and he would not give his wholehearted attention to his work at the Foreign Office.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Ray Whitney)

I shall be separated from my wife and family for the next 18 days while I am on a trip to Latin America.

Mr. Conlan

That is voluntary. This is compulsory. Does the Minister not appreciate the difference? If that is the Minister's attitude it is not surprising that it permeates the staff at the Foreign Office.

A new dimension is brought to the situation when the consultant physician of the Gateshead group of hospitals tells me that the man's work is suffering because of the plight of his family. I then become worried not just about the man's family but about the health and well-being of my constituents who are being treated by him.

In the course of a Division one evening I spoke informally to the Minister of State and explained that something had to be done quickly to reunite the family. He said that I should contact his office the following morning and say that I had spoken to him and that he would see what could be done. I agreed to do as he suggested. That was on 18 July.

The following morning I rang the Minister's office and spoke to his private secretary. I explained that the matter was so urgent that the Minister should have a copy of the consultant physician's letter on his desk the same day, and I would bring it over personally. I arranged to meet the Minister's private secretary in the Home Officer foyer at noon that day. Nothing could demonstrate more clearly the urgency of the matter than that, but this time there was no response at all from the Foreign Office—not even an acknowledgement.

In desperation, and with deep feeling for the plight of the family concerned, I approached you, Mr. Speaker, last week. I sought the privilege of an Adjournment debate and last Thursday 26 July, you decided that I could have this debate today. The very next day, believe it or not, the Foreign Office suddenly moved. It relented and decided that the family could be readmitted to this country and they were accordingly readmitted yesterday.

It would be churlish of me not to express my delight that the family has at last been reunited, but the decision of the Foreign Office the day after you had granted an Adjournment debate, Mr. Speaker, is significant. I am sure that it would not have moved if no Adjournment debate had been granted. If the House had risen last week, I would have had no opportunity as the local Member of Parliament to raise this issue in the House. I guess that the Foreign Office and the Home Office would have gone on not caring very much about the plight of this family, and not worrying about the torment that they were causing to this doctor in Gateshead. When the House reassembled on 22 October, I might have been requesting an Adjournment debate to ask the Minister why this family had not been re-admitted.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs wrote to me on 22 July, the day after you agreed to an Adjournment debate, Mr. Speaker: Together with the Home Office … we aim to examine each case as expeditiously as the available resources allow. There is no difficulty about this case. This lady has lived here for four years, and there is no problem. The Parliamentary Under-Secretary continued: before she is admitted she will have to sign a declaration of non-violence. This is a lady who, with her two children, has lived here for four years — no security risk, no evidence of violence.

Although the Minister bears ultimate responsibility, I do not hold him personally responsible for what has happened, but surely there is a bona fide case for him to reconsider the procedures within his Department and, indeed, for reconsideration of the procedures in the Home Department. If this is just one case that has been dealt with shabbily and indecently, it is a crying shame. I hope that the Adjournment debate, if it does nothing more, will bring about the avoidance of such treatment of ordinary decent people in future.

10.43 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Raymond Whitney)

First, I echo the sentiments of the hon. Member for Gateshead, East (Mr. Conlan) in expressing good wishes to you, Mr. Speaker, and congratulations on your achievements during this turbulent year, although, unlike the hon. Gentleman, I shall have the privilege of speaking tomorrow in the Adjournment debates.

I agree with the hon. Member for Gateshead, East that great inconvenience was caused to the wife of Dr. Ramadan, Mrs. Nazmia Bengeleil Ramadan, and to her children. That regret is shared by all those who have been concerned with the case, as indeed, with all such cases. While I recognise the sincerity that lay behind the emotion in the hon. Gentleman's remarks, the reasons for this occurrence lay in the difficult events with which we are all familiar relating to a number of Libyans in this country, in particular, the events at the Libyan people's bureau, and the shooting of Woman Police Constable Fletcher.

I am glad that this lady has received her visa, and is indeed already in the country. I reject the hon. Gentleman's suggestion that the Foreign Office relented and would not have moved had it not been for the Adjournment debate. As my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary pointed out in the House on 25 April and 1 May, it was necessary to introduce measures to control Libyan residents and those who wished to enter Great Britain. He did that, as we are aware, for good reasons. We have not wished to impede the ordinary, private contact or civilian commercial exchanges between Great Britain and Libya.

I can assure the House and the hon. Gentleman that those Libyans who wish genuinely to live in peace in this country have nothing to fear and that we look forward to offering them all appropriate facilities.

Nevertheless, the hon. Gentleman must recognise that there is an emotion different from the one that he generated —our worry that Libyans will fight their battles on our streets. It was therefore necessary for my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary to institute this special regime which it is the job of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and its embassies to operate.

As so often happens, unfortunately that lady and her children were caught not by any dilatoriness on the part of the Home Office or Foreign and Commonwealth Office, or by any hard-heartedness of Ministers in those two Departments or their officials; they were caught in the unfortunate actions of some of her compatriots, the natural reactions of the people of this country and the action that my right hon. and learned Friend most properly took.

As we have had to reduce our representation in Libya to two people who work in the British interest section of the Italian embassy, it was necessary for visas to be obtained from posts overseas, although not necessarily Paris. The lady chose to go to Paris where there is considerable congestion caused, in particular, by the many Iranians who wish to come to Great Britain. The consulate in Paris is under heavy pressure. The House will recognise that, because of the staffing constraints which have properly been placed on diplomatic service, there is a limit to the speed at which such cases can be handled.

A new regime, which must be operated without distinction, was put into operation. This lady was in no way suspect, but, as my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary has pointed out, each Libyan national must be subject to the visa scrutiny procedures. They are new and have taken time, but I am optimistic that they will take less time in future.

Mr. Conlan

Does the Minister draw a distinction between those who wish to enter the country for the first time and those who have lived here peacefully for many years?

Mr. Whitney

That is a matter for my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary, as the hon. Gentleman will recognise. Immigration policy is a matter for the Home Office. My right hon. and learned Friend has told the House that visa entry requirements must apply to those who have resided in Britain and those who come here for the first time, because the safety of our people and the peace of our streets demanded it. It is a new system, and I am optimistic that delays such as those that occurred in this case will be unlikely to occur again, but I can give no guarantee of that. I repeat that this system is entirely justified. It is directed not against individual Libyans but against a specific problem which must be resolved.

I am glad that Mrs. Bengeleil has now entered Britain, and I hope that she and her children will have no similar problems in the future and that she will understand the requirements of the visa regime.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at ten minutes to Eleven o' clock.