HC Deb 03 June 1985 vol 80 cc52-9 5.34 pm
The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Leon Brittan)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I wish to make a statement.

On 20 May, in reply to a question from my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, West (Mr. Maples), I announced my future policy towards Sri Lankan Tamils who expressed a fear of return to Sri Lanka. In the week following that statement, more than 500 Tamils arrived here seeking asylum. I decided that further measures were necessary to reduce the influx and, after consultation with my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, I announced on 29 May the imposition of a visa requirement for Sri Lankan citizens, to come into effect the following day. The need for such a measure was demonstrated by the fact that 244 Tamils arrived on 29 May. A further 76 Tamils arrived shortly after the visas requirement came into effect, but there have been no further arrivals over the weekend or so far today.

The imposition of a visa requirement will not prevent the entry of those Sri Lankan citizens who qualify for admission in the normal way—for example, as visitors or students — although they will, of course, have to obtain visas before travelling. It will save the cost and disappointment of wasted journeys for those who would not be allowed to enter because they do not qualify under the immigration rules. If a Tamil not qualifying under the rules and seeking in present circumstances to leave Sri Lanka wishes to come to this country, he will be able to apply for a visa. Such applications will, however, be granted only if the individual can show that he is suffering severe hardship and the circumstances—including, for example, family links with this country — warrant the exercise of discretion in his favour outside the normal immigration rules.

The position of all the Tamils who have recently arrived will continue to be considered individually on the basis set out on 20 May. Where an application for asylum is refused, there will be an opportunity for the United Kingdom Immigrants Advisory Service of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to consider the case and representations from Members of Parliament will continue to be considered.

It was only with great reluctance that I decided that it was necessary to impose a visa requirement on a fellow Commonwealth country. The need for it will be kept under review and I hope that it can be lifted in due course.

Mr. Alfred Dubs (Battersea)

Is the Home Secretary aware that his statement represents a major departure from two important traditions? For the first time, Commonwealth citizens — albeit from only one Commonwealth country at the moment—will require a visa to enter this country. Secondly, the British tradition of offering haven and hospitality to those seeking asylum has been breached.

Does the Home Secretary agree that some Tamils who came here were very much in fear for their safety in Sri Lanka and that that was the motive which prompted them to seek asylum in this country, as it prompted many of their fellow countrymen to seek asylum in Germany and other countries in Europe? Is the Home Secretary aware that we are asking that the tradition of granting temporary admission for those in fear for their safety which has operated for many years should be continued?

How long will those applying for a visa in Sri Lanka have to wait before it is granted? Have those who are fearful for their safety any chance of being granted a visa to come to this country and seek temporary admission while their claims for asylum are being considered? How many Tamils arrived in this country seeking asylum in May?

My final point was not mentioned by the Home Secretary: What is the reason for the diminution of the rights of hon. Members to make representations on behalf of our constituents or relatives of our constituents? Why has the tradition of making such representations been whittled away to a 24-hour period? Will the Home Secretary explain the reasons for that and tell us how the system is to work? In fact, will he drop that provision?

Mr. Brittan

With regard to the alleged major departures, the hon. Gentleman is right to say that up to now visas have not been required for Commonwealth citizens coming to this country. I regret the fact that it should be necessary to impose such a requirement for the first time. However, other Commonwealth countries, such as Australia, Bangladesh, Nigeria and India, require British citizens to have visas. It is also the case that most Western European countries require persons from Sri Lanka to have visas.

With regard to a breach of our tradition of haven and hospitality, I cannot accept that the position is for a moment as the hon. Gentleman said. It seems to me to be far more sensible that the question whether someone is likely to suffer severe hardship should be considered in Sri Lanka itself by appropriate representatives of the British Government than that people should simply come to this country, having nowhere to go to, and have to be dealt with at Heathrow or Gatwick. There is nothing in the slightest bit more humane than a policy that allows people to come in, provided that there is machinery for considering whether they would suffer severe hardship and whether this country is the appropriate place for them to go. Let us not forget that large numbers have gone to India and not been refused admission.

With regard to coming here to seek temporary admission, that is inconsistent with the changes that I announced on 20 and 29 May. For the reasons that I gave just now, it is preferable for the question whether someone is suffering the sort of severe hardship that would lead to them being admitted to the United Kingdom to be considered in Sri Lanka itself. The number of officials dealing with the matter is being strengthened—two have gone out, two more are being transferred by the Foreign Office and another two are going there on 1 July. I cannot say how long it will take to consider applications.

I can give the numbers coming to Britain during the month of May. From 1 May to 15 May, approximately 240 arrived. From 16 May up to and including 20 May, when I made the previous statement, 218 came. But between 21 May and 27 May, a total of 532 came; 26 came on Tuesday 28 May; and on the day that I made the announcement about visa requirements, 244 came. Therefore, the number was accelerating. Of that there is no question.

Referring to the rights of Members of Parliament, the hon. Gentleman has, I am sure unwittingly, misrepresen-ted the situation. There was never any question of these cases being considered within 24 hours. I made that clear in my statement. I said that in the process of proper consideration, which of course will be given to people whether they are here or applying for a visa in Sri Lanka, it was reasonable, in the case of those who are here, to ask Members of Parliament to make their representations, which are only a part of the process, within 24 hours if at all possible.

A delegation of hon. Members came to see me about that matter, and I made it clear to them that if, in a particular case, there were special difficulties that made it impossible for them to make their representations as quickly as that, they should inform the Home Office and we would consider a short extension of the time during which the representations could be made. However, I believe that it is reasonable, in the interests of the Tamils as much as anything else, that the representations should be made quickly, and that it should not simply be possible for Members of Parliament to take an indefinite period of time to make representations, particularly when, as I have made clear, the machinery for considering all the points in an individual case, whether put forward by the individual, UKIAS or the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, was fully in place.

Mr. Roger Sims (Chislehurst)

Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that, when I had the opportunity of visiting Sri Lanka earlier this year, I formed the view that the Tamils in the north of the country lived in fear of their lives because of the possible over-reaction by the army to Tamil terrorist incidents, such as the recent one at Anuradhapura, where a number of Sinhalese were not only in fear of their lives but were killed? Elsewhere in Sri Lanka, where the Tamils are in a minority, they are nevertheless active and involved members of the community, but some of them naturally fear the possibilities of a backlash against them, with rioting and bloodshed such as has occurred in the past.

However, does my right hon. and learned Friend also accept that we are talking of a population of about 3 million people, and it is unrealistic to expect this country to open its doors to a number of people approaching that figure who believe that they are in fear of their lives? This is a serious and worrying internal problem. It may well be one that other people will have to help the Sri Lankan authorities to solve. It will not be solved by us opening our doors to anything up to 3 million Tamils.

Mr. Brittan

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his analysis of the situation. I had the benefit of talking to him about it shortly after he returned from Sri Lanka. He is right; I do not in any way underestimate the gravity of the problem. It is complex and must have a political solution. I welcome the fact that there have been recent discussions, as the House will be aware, between President Jayawardene and Mr. Rajiv Gandhi. I hope that such contacts can lead to a solution of the problem.

There has been disorder in Sri Lanka. As my hon. Friend said, the position will vary from one part of the country to another. But it is not the case that we have a situation that is in any way analogous to that of Amin's Uganda, for example, where the Government were seeking to persecute a particular minority, because, as the House will be aware, prominent members of the Tamil community hold extremely prominent positions in Sri Lanka. It is worth mentioning that the Minister of Home Affairs, the Minister of Rural Industrial Development, the Chief Justice and the governor of the Central Bank are all Tamils. Such a situation would have been inconceivable for Ugandan Asians during Amin's regime.

Mr. Michael Meadowcroft (Leeds, West)

Is the Home Secretary aware that, whatever the cause of the internal problems in Sri Lanka, his view of the reality in that country is greatly different from that of the Tamils, who are outnumbered by about four to one by the Sinhalese, and who clearly need some help and sympathetic refuge? Why was there no mention in the right hon. and learned Gentleman's statement of talks with the Commonwealth? Is it not important for the Commonwealth to be involved corporately with this urgent problem, which involves two of its members? Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman support the moves for an early debate on the Floor of the House on the Liberal prayer against the changes in the immigration rules?

Mr. Brittan

I hardly think that the hon. Gentleman seriously expects me to give an answer to his final point. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House will consider it. Of course, it is a general problem of an international nature. The most able and best placed countries to deal with it are, of course, Sri Lanka and India. However, if my right hon. and learned Friend the Foreign Secretary can assist in any way, of course he is ready to do so.

Mr. Terry Dicks (Hayes and Harlington)

Does my right hon. and learned Friend accept that many of my constituents are concerned that any Tamils have been allowed into the country at all? Many people in my constituency and, I am sure, up and down the land feel that this country has done enough. Enough is enough. We have our own problems across the board, from unemployment to social services. When will the first Tamils be sent back, because the Government of Sri Lanka have clearly said that there is no threat to their existence in that country?

Mr. Brittan

Ten Tamils were returned not to Sri Lanka but to European countries and, I believe, in one case, to India, over the weekend. With regard to the others, the process outlined in my statement of 20 May and today's statement will be followed. Careful consideration will be given. However, my hon. Friend is right to draw attention to the fact that on 31 May President Jayawardene gave our high commissioner a formal personal assurance that no Tamils returned to Sri Lanka would be harassed or persecuted in any way. That is something that we shall certainly seek to build and rely on as the situation develops.

Mr. Dave Nellist (Coventry, South-East)

Will not this disgraceful change in the appeals procedures and visa requirements result in many Tamil refugees in Britain being sent back to arbitrary arrest or even death? The Home Office says that only 1 per cent. of Tamil refugees in Britain are genuine refugees. Is the Home Secretary aware that Germany has accepted 95 per cent. of its 10,000 Tamil refugees as genuine? Does the right hon. and learned Gentleman realise that his remarks give credence to the crude racism coming from some of the gutter newspapers and Tory Back Benchers who talk of stemming a flood when 1,300 refugees spread equally across the country would mean that a city the size of Coventry could absorb eight more people out of a third of a million? Where is the flood there?

Are not the arrangements which have been announced today — which were made during a recess so that Parliament could not question them and which were announced in a written answer of 20 May—just the kick-back from this Government to repay the discussions that the Prime Minister had in April with President Jayawardene and in exchange for a new naval base for America and Britain in Sri Lanka and for influence in the Indian ocean?

Mr. Brittan

The hon. Gentleman's observations are extravagant and inaccurate. There has been no change whatsoever in the appeals procedures. The hon. Gentleman's reference to the statement that 1 per cent. of Tamil refugees are genuine shows that he has not distinguished between refugees under the convention and persons who might be subject to severe hardship and who would be considered outside the rules. There is a complete difference between the two. The German rules and appeal procedure are quite different. There is a clear distinction between the very small number of people who are counted as refugees and those who might qualify under the policy which I announced on 20 May and reaffirmed today.

Mr. Jeremy Hanley (Richmond and Barnes)

The United Kingdom has an honourable record in giving refuge over the years to hundreds of thousands of people who have suffered from persecution in their own countries. Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that we must continue to give that refuge and that it is vital for care to be taken in assessing those who are genuine refugees so as not to dilute the status of refugees, past, present and future? Will he assure the House that once a person has proved his status as a refugee, fleeing from a totalitarian regime, we shall still treat him with humanity and not as part of immigration control?

Mr. Brittan

I agree with everything that my hon. Friend has said. There is no question but that we will honour to the full in spirit and in letter our obligations under the convention relating to refugees. My hon. Friend is absolutely right in saying that no useful purpose is served by seeking to muddy the waters, as the hon. Member for Coventry, South-East (Mr. Nellist) does, and to confuse the position of genuine refugees and others for whom one may have a considerable degree of sympathy, but who are not necessarily refugees.

Mr. Max Madden (Bradford, West)

Is it not shameful that a Home Secretary whose family sought refuge in this country has slammed the door in the face of those coming from a Commonwealth country who believed that their lives were in jeopardy? Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman give a clear assurance that no Tamils who have sought entry to Britain will be returned directly to Sri Lanka? Does not the right hon. and learned Gentleman understand that Tamils awaiting entry clearance in Colombo — for a month or even longer — face harassment, injury and possible death? Will he give a clear assurance that no Tamils will be returned until there has been a proper opportunity for full inquiries to be made? Does not the right hon. and learned Gentleman recognise that it is an insult to hon. Members and to parliamentary democracy for these shameful decisions to have been taken when the House was in recess?

Mr. Brittan

The hon. Gentleman's personal references are wholly inaccurate, but I do not think that he greatly worries about that. The initial statement of policy was made on 20 May in a written answer to the House. It was capable of being challenged in the normal way. The subsequent change was necessitated by escalating numbers of people who were arriving on our doorstep. I do not believe that there would be anything in the least humane in allowing that process to continue unimpeded. Today's statement was made at the earliest possible opportunity after the recess.

Sir John Page (Harrow, West)

The calm and moderate Tamil community here realise that this country is in a difficult position over the possibility of a mass immigration of Tamils. They will understand that it was necessary for my right hon. and learned Friend to take some steps. Will regular visitors to this country — business men, politicians and others—who are Tamils, coming from countries other than Ceylon, have the opportunity to obtain a visa in a much shorter time than two months? 1 shall write to my right hon. and learned Friend about a particular case.

Mr. Brittan

I appreciate my hon. Friend's statement. I should like to take this opportunity to pay my tribute to the Tamil community in this country who, faced with a tremendously difficult situation, have been able in a very short period to look after a large number of people. It is not our intention to prevent people who would be eligible in the normal way from coming to this country. Obviously, within the context of the visa regime, we shall want to do everything that we can to ensure that that happens as quickly as possible.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. An application under Standing Order No. 10 will be made immediately after this statement and, in fairness to Scottish Members who are concerned with the following business, I shall take two further questions from each side.

Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North)

Does the Home Secretary accept that his performance since 20 May on this issue has been one of disgraceful subterfuge of the House and Members of Parliament? Why, when a delegation of three hon. Members—my hon. Friends the Members for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) and for Coventry, South-East (Mr. Nellist) and myself—met him on 29 May, did he not tell us that he was planning to announce visa restrictions the following day? Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman confirm that last week the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Mr. Hartling, had an extended meeting with representatives of most European countries and many others and discussed this and many other matters? The statements of that meeting which came from Mr. Hartling's office suggested that he was highly critical of the attitude taken by the British and Dutch Governments.

Should not the right hon. and learned Gentleman look once again at the reports that he received from Sri Lanka which suggested that improvements were taking place? There is no evidence whatever to support that idea. Indeed, all the evidence points to a deterioration and danger to the Tamil people because of the position in Sri Lanka. Is it not incompatible for the right hon. and learned Gentleman to make statements such as the one he made this afternoon while the British Government continue to supply arms and to train army officers in Sri Lanka, showing exactly on which side of the communal divide in Sri Lanka they have placed themselves?

Mr. Brittan

Neither the hon. Member for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn) nor anyone else has said anything to suggest that there has been a subterfuge. The policy was announced first in a statement on 20 May, then in an announcement on 29 May, and today a statement has been made in the House. At least the hon. Member for Islington, North was good enough to state that the strictures of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees covered the Dutch Government as well. The fact is that virtually all the countries of western Europe have found it necessary to operate a visa regime. I therefore feel no need to apologise for taking action which was necessitated by circumstances that were not the making of Her Majesty's Government.

Mr. Bowen Wells (Hertford and Stortford)

I congratulate my right hon. and learned Friend on his action to protect Britain from this type of immigration through the excuse that some Tamils are—

Mr. Nellist


Mr. Wells

It has been used as an excuse on a type of immigration which should not take place and which protects them through the visa requirements. I congratulate my right hon. and learned Friend also on jealously guarding our proud reputation of providing a political refuge for those who are genuinely in danger in their own country. Will he ensure that his requirements apply equally to Tamils and Sinhalese who apply to this country for entry? The Sinhalese are also under attack from the Tamil guerrillas in many parts of southern Sri Lanka and their lives are in danger. Has my right hon. and learned Friend made strong representations to the Indian Government to prevent further Tamil aggression and the supply of Tamil guerrillas from India? If preventive measures were implemented, they would put an end to this immigration and the need for Tamils to try to enter this country.

Mr. Brittan

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for what he said at the beginning of his remarks. I shall draw his latter remarks to the attention of my right hon. and learned Friend the Foreign Secretary.

As far as I am aware, there have not been any applications from Sinhalese, as opposed to Tamils, seeking refuge or asylum. If there are, I shall keep in mind my hon. Friend's points.

Mr. Sydney Bidwell (Ealing, Southall)

Will the Home Secretary be more trenchant in rejecting the attitude expressed by the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (Mr. Dicks), who believes that this country can be insulated against its responsibilities for refugees out of line with other European countries that subscribe to refugee responsibilities?

Should we not be ultra careful in handling these matters on an individual basis? I have experience in these matters, and I ask the right hon. and learned Gentleman to consider one particular aspect. It appears to be mostly single young men, rather than families, who are seeking refugee status. They have many anxious relatives both in this country and in northern Sri Lanka, who are scared that they may become involved in terrorist activities in southern India or elsewhere. They have combined their efforts to ensure that these young men came to Europe to escape that. Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman keep that in mind when deciding on individual cases? The majority of such young men are asking for refuge for only a limited period, not for all time.

Mr. Brittan

I recognise what the hon. Gentleman says and respect his great experience in these matters. However, I do not really think that someone subject to pressure to become involved in Tamil terrorism could regard that as a reason to come to Britain. It is possible to avoid being involved in Tamil terrorism, as evidenced by the many millions of Tamils wo have succeeded in doing just that and have not had to resort to coming to Britain.

Mr. John Stokes (Halesowen and Stourbridge)

Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that there has been a massive misrepresentation of his actions, especially in the press and on television? It has been suggested that many Members of Parliament have asked him to allow more Tamils into Britain. The truth is that the majority of hon. Members are against that, as are the large majority of people in the country. My right hon. and learned Friend has acted moderately and responsibly. Britain is no longer a colonial power, and the main responsibility lies with India. He should stick to his guns.

Mr. Brittan

I am most grateful for my hon. Friend's support.


Mr. Harry Greenway (Ealing, North)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I seek your guidance in relation to the very important statement on the Tamils. There are about 2,000 Tamils living in Ealing, which has within it the excellent weekend Tamils' school. Therefore, I represent a considerable number of them. It would be helpful, in advance of statements such as this, if hon. Members with particular concerns could notify you, Mr. Speaker, of their interest so that you would know of their anxiety to catch your eye.

Mr. Speaker

That was a good try by the hon. Gentleman. My feeling is that he does fairly well. It would be ideal if I could call every hon. Member who rose. I allow as good an opportunity as possible for hon. Members to put questions on statements. However, with the best will in the world, and in fairness to other hon. Members, it is not possible for me to call everyone who wishes to question a Minister.