HC Deb 07 March 1984 vol 55 cc854-6 3.33 pm
Mr. Harry Cohen (Leyton)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to establish the right of a person issued with a clearance for entry into the United Kingdom to retain such clearance and any attendant rights of settlement when circumstances forming the basis of the claim to admission have changed; and to establish the right of entry and settlement of those affected by a change of circumstances since the beginning of 1982. My Bill would enable a person who is issued with clearance for entry into the United Kingdom to retain it when circumstances change, especially if a spouse or parent, on whose status the original entry clearance was based, dies. It would apply from the beginning of 1982.

The specific circumstances to which the Bill applies are the death of a spouse or parent, but there are others, such as people who divorce or separate and battered wives who should not have their right to stay put at risk or at the whim of the Home Office because their personal circumstances change. I would strongly support a measure to give people those rights in due course.

On Monday we debated the effects of the Government's immigration policies on family life. In that debate the current immigration rules and regulations were shown to be discriminatory in several ways. Their racist aspects were made clear. I believe that the current law is racist in substance and execution — some Home Office and immigration officials are the worst offenders. Obstacles and difficulties are put in the way of ethnic minority citizens who want to visit, let alone stay with, members of their families who are already here. Families have been split and black women in particular are likely to experience humiliation and suffer long-term disruption to their lives. The people concerned often do not have rights under the law but must hope for compassionate treatment from an official or a Minister. Increasingly, such treatment is not forthcoming.

No doubt we shall have to wait for a decent Government to achieve major changes in immigration and nationality legislation so that proper human rights obtain on a non-racist basis. My Bill tackles just one small injustice of the system. It is inspired by the case of a young mother—Afia Begum—and her baby daughter Asma. In January 1982 Afia was granted an entry certificate to join her husband in Britain. On 15 March 1982, fire swept through the slum tenement in Brick lane where he lived and he was tragically killed. Those slums are an indictment of the Government's housing policies. Afia was allowed in to clear up her husband's affairs but, on arrival, was effectively told, "Your circumstances have changed. Your entry permit is invalidated and you are no longer allowed to stay."

No account was taken of Afia's family. Her father is settled in Britain and has been here for 26 years, her mother has formally applied to join him and, under the present law, will eventually be allowed that right, and her uncles and other relatives also live here. Moreover, no account was taken of the personal circumstances created by deportation for Afia. As a widow with a baby and away from her family, she is condemned to a solitary future, as most of her family are in England. That has happened only because of her husband's tragic death and the Home Office's haste to re-interpret the rules in the harshest possible way to capitalise on his death to exclude her.

The Home Office's hard line has forced Afia and her baby into hiding for more than one year. They have been protected by a courageous group of Asian women known as the sari squad. The sari squad should be congratulated on sheltering and supporting Afia and her baby. It has campaigned for her — it organised a meeting in the House which 200 people attended. I was pleased to sponsor it. It also organised a demonstration at the Tory party conference, although it fell on deaf ears. Indeed, some of its members chained themselves to the railings of the Home Secretary's residence, for which they were arrested and suffered ill treatment. They were charged with obstruction and put in cells overnight—cells which stank of urine. The women were strip-searched, forced to remove their saris and dragged along a corridor in front of male police officers. The police subsequently changed the charge from obstruction to breach of the peace, as that was the only way they could justify keeping the women in cells overnight in the first place. The charges were, of course, thrown out when they came before the court.

Countless representations have been made to the Home Office on Afia's behalf — from local councillors, the GLC women's committee, Tower Hamlets council for racial equality. Lord Wedderburn has made representations. Several hon. Members of this House have written directly to the Home Secretary. Seventy hon. Members signed my early-day motion on the matter. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition, the right hon. Member for Islwyn (Mr. Kinnock), put it in writing that in his view Afia Begum is a victim of prejudice of the worst kind and at the highest level. My hon. Friend the Member for Stockton, North (Mr. Cook), who is one of my backers, in his letter to the Home Secretary, said: By every decent human principle, this woman should be allowed to stay in this country with her kith and kin. My hon. Friend the Member for Bow and Poplar (Mr. Mikardo), who is also a backer of my Bill, said: I can only describe the Minister's response as unfeeling. The Home Office has made four excuses for its action. This is an object lesson in the double talk it gives to hon. Members in these matters. Their first excuse was that Afia Begum was aware of the situation before travelling. Well, of course she was aware of her husband's death, but she was not aware of the Home Office's newly made decision; no one from the Home Office told her about it. She settled her affairs in Bangladesh and arrived to join her family on a valid entry visa.

Then the Home Office talked about her father's poor medical state and disregarded that as a reason for her to stay. They even sent DHSS snoopers in to see her father's doctor. They reported that the burns he had suffered in the fire were healing, but even they admitted that he suffered from hypertension and bronchitis and that his doctor, Dr. Shakkar, had stated that he needed care and attention.

The Home Office then implied that Afia does not care for her father, as she is living apart from him. That really is a classic. What the Home Office did not say was that he lives in a single-room slum in Brick lane. No wonder she is not living with him, but she has always lived with relatives, with her father joining them on every possible occasion.

The Home Office says, to cap it all, that there are not strong ties between her and her father. This is really on a par with the example given in Monday's debate of a fiancé not being allowed in because his love letters did not show enough affection, according to an immigration official. It is a damned cheek——

Mr. Speaker

Order. Would the hon. Member withdraw that word, please?

Mr. Cohen

It is a cheek that the Home Office should use that sort of approach, a damnable cheek.

Mr. Speaker

Even that word will have to be withdrawn, too.

Mr. Cohen

I withdraw that, too. I asked the Home Office Minister how many people were affected by the Bill, and he answered, on 2 March, that it was not possible to make a reliable estimate. He has the past figures to work on but he is not prepared to use them; and that can only be because a precedent is being set in this case. So there we are, with Britain setting another precedent, stepping into the unknown, stepping into the world spotlight, giving a lead to civilised nations—Britain, the land of hope and glory, victimising a 19-year-old Bangladeshi widow.

My Bill is saying that family and freedom are more important than a hard-line, uncaring immigration policy. It will give back rights to those such as Afid and Asma.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Harry Cohen, Mr. Tony Banks, Mr. Sydney Bidwell, Mr. Jeremy Corbyn, Mr. Eric Deakins, Mr. Derek Fatchett, Mr. Tony Lloyd, Mr. Max Madden, Mr. Ian Mikardo, Mr. Dave Nellist and Ms. Clare Short.