§ Brought up, and read the First time.4.55 pm
§ The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Tim Renton)
I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.
It may be helpful to the House if I sketch in the background to the rather long new clause which seeks to achieve a simple point. I do not think that the debate will be as exciting or fundamental as the wide-ranging debate on the ten-minute Bill that my hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Mr. Burns) wished to present.
The intention of the new clause is to remove any legal impediment to the operation of pre-clearance arrangements. As hon. Members who served on the Standing Committee will know, the new clause is related to clause 7, which makes it possible for additional services to be provided against payment at the request of port operators or carriers. One of the most important of these services is likely to be the process known as pre-clearance. It involves immigration officers travelling abroad so that United Kingdom immigration control procedures can be completed either at the port of embarkation or during the journey to this country.
848 Such arrangements have featured for many years at certain cross-Channel ports and at Southampton for generations of liners, latterly restricted to the QE2. But as clause 7 holds open the possibility of the extension of such arrangements into wholly new areas, we think it right that we should formalise the position on the face of the statute. That is what the new clause will do.
§ Mr. Max Madden (Bradford, West)
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. You will undoubtedly know that the Standing Committee on the Bill met for about 62 hours. During its deliberations, the Minister for Sport referred in passing to these arrangements. Although I accept that it is not without precedent for a Government to introduce a new clause on Report, it seems unusual that the Minister did not see fit to bring forward the new clause in Committee. I am sure that this would not be regarded as a welcome precedent.
Surely the Standing Committee should have been given the opportunity to consider the new clause in detail and to question the Minister about its background. Perhaps before he proceeds with his speech he will explain why he did not present the new clause in Committee rather than here.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Harold Walker)
I do not think that that is a point of order or a matter for me, but perhaps it is a point for debate which the hon. Gentleman might raise when subsequently he seeks to catch my eye.
§ Mr. Renton
I agree with the hon. Member for Bradford, West (Mr. Madden) on one thing. We did sit for 62 hours in Standing Committee; it seemed an interminable length of time to most of us, particularly on the Government side. I hope that I can move the new clause, and that perhaps the House will pass it, in not much more time than the hon. Gentleman took in his intervention.
It may be helpful if I summarise briefly why we wish to look at possible ways of expanding the operation of the pre-clearance approach into new areas. We must realise that congestion at our major air terminals, which is already heavy at peak periods, is likely to get worse as international passenger movements increase. Congestion and delays have been notably helped at Gatwick and at Healthrow by the introduction, about a year age, of visit visas for five countries, three on the Indian sub-continent and two in Africa, but there remains fierce competition for the early morning arrival slots. This can lead, as hon. Members on both sides of the House know, to the near-simultaneous arrival of a very large number of passengers which the immigration service is extremely pressed to clear within a reasonable period.
Pre-clearance, particularly for north Atlantic traffic arriving at Heathrow and Gatwick in the early morning, has been shown in a pilot scheme that we ran last year to be a way of mitigating some of the difficulties and delays that result. It also proved to be to the liking of both passengers and carrying companies. I stress, however, that such pre-clearance, if requested by the airlines, could be carried out as well at Delhi, Dhaka and Islamabad, as it has been at Kennedy airport.
However, it is only right that this kind of special service should be provided against payment by the organisation that requests it. Clause 7 provides for that. I make it clear 849 to the House that pre-clearance will not be imposed on any port operator or company, and will be introduced only at the request of one or the other.
In relation to the practicalities of operating a system of pre-clearance, I stress that in a scheme involving, say, the pre-clearance of transatlantic passengers at Kennedy airport in New York, the immigration officer concerned will have the ability only to grant, and not to refuse, leave to enter. Where he concludes that refusal of leave is the appropriate course, that will take place only on arrival in the United Kingdom. Of course, where a passenger presenting himself for pre-clearance is found to have inadequate documentation—for example, a visa national may not have a visa —it would be appropriate for the immigration officer to point out our requirement and, if the warning is not heeded, advise the carrying company before departure. Allowing a passenger to board in those circumstances and then imposing a penalty on the carrier under the Immigration (Carriers Liability) Act on the passenger's arrival in the United Kingdom, would rightly be considered unfair treatment by the company involved.
§ 5 pm
§ Mr. Jeremy Hanley (Richmond and Barnes)
Would a carrier that avails itself of this service be able to advertise the fact that it had been granted the service? Would it be safe to advertise generally, or would that be done merely for occasional flights or a series of flights?
§ Mr. Renton
I thank my hon. Friend for asking that question. Once the service has been provided at the request of the carrier and the appropriate charge has been agreed with the Home Office and the immigration service, I see no reason why the carrier should not advertise. I think that some carriers would do just that, because they would regard it as an extra service to their customers.
The main point of the new clause is that it will apply to people who are examined by an immigration officer, either abroad or during their journey to the United Kingdom. At that time they would have the stamp placed in their passport or other travel document. It will make it possible for the leave to enter granted to such people to take effect immediately on their arrival in this country.
This is not a major new clause. It breaks no new ground, but taken with clause 7, it will enable us to use the resources of the immigration service more effectively, which I am always most anxious to do. The existence of a system of pre-clearance can bring with it benefits for all concerned, and it seems likely that the next few years will bring interesting developments in this direction. The new clause takes account of such developments, and I commend it to the House.
§ Mr. Stuart Randall (Kingston-upon-Hull, West)
The Opposition have listened carefully to what the Minister said about pre-clearance. However, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, West (Mr. Madden) said, we regret the fact that we did not have the opportunity to debate the matter in Committee in the way that we would have liked. We have reached the Report stage now, and there has been very little time to debate the matter or to consult trade unions and others who could be affected by the developments. Many of us are still uncertain about how this will grow and be extended, and what will be the terms 850 and conditions of those working in the immigration service. Many of them are port-based workers, and it seems that their role will change very much.
I understand that some of the people involved are worried because they believe that they will move from a port-based operation and become more like aircrew, working on a rota basis and travelling around the world. The scheme will affect many people working in the industry. For this reason, we would have liked more time to consider the matter. Perhaps the Minister will tell us why he did not bring this new clause forward before the Report stage. I cannot understand why he has left it so late. Is it because of sloppy drafting, or is it because he thought of the new clause late in the day?
The effect of the proposal seems to be that immigration officers will be drafted to various parts of the world, where they will clear passengers at ports of departure, or during flights and sea passages. As the Minister said, the point of the provision is to overcome some of the problems of queues, which we have all experienced at some of our major ports, especially at Heathrow airport. As we all know, during peak periods queues create great difficulties at Heathrow. There is tremendous congestion and there are difficulties in getting trolleys. People cannot get their baggage quickly. It is a shambles there, and something has to be done to improve the position.
We have some further worries about pre-clearance. We might end up with a three-tier immigration service. The Minister said that the airlines of the relevant countries may make an application to carry out pre-clearance work. We shall see how that develops. Our worry is that one tier of the immigration service could be dealing with the visa countries, which, as we all know, are almost exclusively black Commonwealth countries.
There might be a second tier of non-visa countries, which are predominantly white, and, of course, there will be the super-privileged countries, whose carriers will be able to use these facilities. This category embraces countries such as Australia and the United States.
It is important to get it on record that we believe that it would be wrong for the sort of service to which the Minister referred to be arranged in such a way that it was available only for white people, with a second-class arrangement for black people. We are also worried that there could be some losers if there were a multi-tier immigration service.
Can the Minister tell us how the fees will be recovered? I am not sure how the scheme will work in detail, but presumably when an immigration officer is asked to go overseas to carry out pre-clearance work, his passage fee and living expenses will be met, as well as his salary and pension and all the other things that go with that. How will the charges be spread? Will they be wholly met by the airline, or by the applicant concerned? How will these services operate for Bangladesh and other countries in the Indian sub-continent?
I want to touch on the working conditions of immigration officers. As I have mentioned, we have picked up their concern that they will be expected to work on a rota basis, rather like airline cabin crews. What discussions has the Minister had with the Civil Service unions, and are they happy with the arrangements? If the arrangement is extended substantially, it will involve moving a considerable number of people around the world. Does that mean that staff will be diverted from their existing 851 work to provide the new services and that the establishment in such places as Lunar house may fall, with a further deterioration in services?
§ Mr. Keith Vaz (Leicester, East)
Does my hon. Friend agree that the Minister's desire to clear up the delays in the posts abroad is in direct contrast to the chaos and crisis in Lunar house, where over 200,000 letters are lying unopened? The new clause may well result in vital members of the service at Lunar house being diverted abroad, leading to further chaos and crisis in Croydon.
§ Mr. Randall
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that point. Unquestionably, there is a shambles there. It is a public scandal that an Administration should operate in such a way that 200,000 letters are unopened. I understand that letters that arrived in November 1987 are only now being opened.
§ Mr. Randall
It is indeed an appalling situation.
If the new clause is passed, what will happen to staffing levels? If we take staff away to provide immigration services for the super-privileged, those who rely on services from Lunar house may lose. I should like an assurance that the Minister has taken that point on board and that we will not be providing services for the rich white traveller at the expense of the poor black traveller.
§ Mr. Hanley
The hon. Gentleman admits that many Home Office employees are working very effectively and with great dedication in many uncomfortable parts of the world as entry clearance officers. We are not asking immigration officers who go abroad to carry out a very strange and different job.
§ Mr. Randall
The hon. Gentleman raises an interesting point. Nevertheless, although I am sure that he is right, we are discussing a substantial change in working conditions for many people who have started jobs in the immigration service assuming that they will be port-based, rather than having high-flying, jet-setting lifestyles. That may not be conducive to the interests of some people. It is possible to be frivolous about this matter, but it is important to establish whether the Minister has considered it and has had full consultations with the trade unions to find out whether they are happy. I have picked up some feedback which suggests that there are reservations.
I also fear that the move towards pre-clearance immigration procedures may be the first step towards the privatisation of the immigration service. In that event, immigration officers would be moved around the world at the behest of the airlines, which would, in fact, be the customers. It does not require much imagination to see how the involvement of an airline in the immigration services could be extended to checking documentation before people enter the aircraft. They already do some of that work, but where is the limit? It appears that the Home Office would have an opportunity to divest itself of those responsibilities and sell off that part of Government activity to the private sector.
I should like the Minister to comment on those points, which represent our main worries about the new clause.
§ Mr. John Cartwright (Woolwich)
I rise briefly to welcome the aims of the new clause. Anyone who has arrived at Heathrow or Gatwick in the early hours after 852 an overnight flight and seen the appalling queues of people trying to go through immigration must welcome any proposals that will make arrival for overseas visitors less time-consuming and frustrating. No doubt some of us have experience of arriving in foreign countries and having to spend a good deal of time trying to go through immigration. I have occasionally taken at least an hour to get through immigration in Dallas, Washington and certainly Miami, so I have some idea of what is involved.
Like the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, West (Mr. Randall), I feel that the Minister could have given us rather more detail about how the arrangements will operate. Rather than being based in this country dealing with the problem, immigration officers will be based in airports overseas. The Minister told us that the system would not be forced on airline operators against their will, but would apply only where they themselves had requested it. Presumably, that might mean immigration officers being available for perhaps one flight a day, or a couple of flights a week, from one city by one airline.
If, as the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, West suggested, staff are to be moved from this country to do the job, there must be a question mark over the economics if they are not fully utilised, because a limited number of operators take the opportunity presented by the new clause. If, on the other hand, the Minister intends staff already based at the embassy or the high commission overseas to deal with the problem, they will presumably be taken off work that they are currently doing. Either way, some staffing costs overseas must be involved.
All that the Minister has so far offered is a superficially attractive arrangement—which I certainly welcome. As we had no opportunity of exploring it in any depth in Committee—we only heard about it, without having the form of the new clause before us—it would be helpful if the Minister now spelled out, in rather more detail, how it will work.
§ Mr. John Fraser (Norwood)
Unlike the hon. Member for Woolwich (Mr. Cartwright), I have not had the advantage of arriving day in, day out, at Heathrow airport from such prestigious places as Dallas and Miami. I must belong to the wrong travel club. Perhaps there is an SDP travel club that makes such experiences rather easier.
I must say that I see some sense in the Minister's proposal. What worries me is that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, West (Mr. Randall) pointed out, we shall have a first-class and a second-class service. I can see Pan Am and TWA advertising, and having their own special terminals and immigration offices to make it easier for people to come from, say, the United States. I am not against any sensible kind of clearance, as long as there is an equal standard of performance for all travellers.
Unlike the hon. Member for Woolwich, I tend to arrive on the ferry from Boulogne, rather than flying from Dallas to Heathrow. I find, however, that the immigration reception at Dover is often disgracefully long. It is possible to sit in a car for half an hour trying to get through the passport facilities. That does not give a very good impression of this country. When travelling from one European country to another, it is possible to get across to customs within seconds. Often, no one wants to look at the passports. However, arriving back at Dover, even a United Kingdom citizen has to queue for half an hour along with other EEC citizens, waiting for clearance. If the 853 system is to operate, let it be extended to the Channel ports to make clearance easier not only for overseas citizens, but for our own citizens.
§ Mr. Hanley
Will the hon. Gentleman admit that the delays caused by customs and excise purposes are far greater than those caused by immigration?
§ Mr. Fraser
I have made a special note of this matter. I keep saying, "Next time I get the chance to raise it in the House of Commons, I shall do so." Well, now is my chance. The delays are not caused by Customs and Excise. It is passports that cause the often long delays at Dover. [Interruption.] I am sorry, but I have made a special note of the fact. I have kept meaning to mention it, and I am mentioning it now.
My hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, West mentioned the absolutely disgraceful situation at Lunar house. I was on the telephone to Lunar house a few days ago, and my hon. Friend's comments were confirmed. Letters are only now being opened that arrived in November 1987. That can lead to the most extraordinary problems. The first thing that the Government should do about that is to get out of Lunar house all the applications that have been made for registration for United Kingdom citizenship.
Great teams of people have opened envelopes for privatisation ventures. I do not see why some of them should not be temporarily recruited at least to open those envelopes at Lunar house. When the Government were selling shares in British Petroleum, British Gas and British Telecom, millions of applications were opened within 24 hours. Why is it that, when people apply for leave to continue their stay in the United Kingdom and send their letters to Lunar house, they must wait three or four months for their letters to be opened, as opposed to those who applied for British Gas shares and who found that their envelopes were opened within 24 hours? That is exactly the point that my hon. Friend made from the Front Bench.
I should like to give one illustration of the sort of hardship that is being caused. Someone I know made an application to Lunar house to continue his stay in the United Kingdom. He has been here as a business man for some time. It is normal procedure to send in accounts and to ask for a further stay of 12 months. He made the application, but his wife happened to be out of the country in Vancouver, where she had had a baby. She wants to get back into this country to join her husband.
The husband has made his application, but because his wife is coming back to the United Kingdom to join him as a dependant, it is not possible for her to obtain a dependant's visa in Canada, unless the person upon whom she is dependent has cleared his immigration status in the United Kingdom. That woman has been waiting with her child for three months to get back into the United Kingdom on an application which is bound to be approved. Her passport is now running out in Canada, as is her visa. She is likely to be considered an illegal immigrant there, liable to arrest—with her young child — simply because somebody at Lunar house cannot open the envelope.
That is just one example of the many problems that are occurring. The Minister must address his mind to the difficulty about mail at Lunar house. He must realise what 854 a mess that is making of immigration control. As he knows, as long as one gets an application into Lunar house before leave to be in the United Kingdom expires, and once the envelope is delivered in Croydon, leave is automatically continued. There are many people whose leave is being continued, sometimes against their will. Some people, whose passports are in unopened envelopes at Lunar house, would like to get their passports back so that they can leave the country. However, not even they can escape because it is not possible to identify any case unless one sends the letter by recorded delivery and marks the number of the case on the outside of the envelope.
§ Dr. Charles Goodson-Wickes (Wimbledon)
Although to a great extent I share the hon. Gentleman's feelings, I think that in fairness he would agree that my hon. Friend the Minister of State has acknowledged the problems at Lunar house, which have been caused almost as a direct result of the Government's advertisement of the means by which potential citizens could take up their rights before the deadline—which I believe was 31 December 1987.
I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will agree that, during the debate last month, my hon. Friend the Minister of State made several positive efforts toward reducing that backlog and increasing the efficiency at Lunar house. Those of us who served in Committee on the Bill recognised that there was a problem. We have not been talking in a partisan way; we have been talking—
§ Dr. Goodson-Wickes
From a sedentary position, the hon. Member for Leicester, East (Mr. Vaz) is making an entirely unfair accusation. I shall give way to him, so that he can make a statement publicly.
§ Dr. Goodson-Wickes
My hon. Friend the Minister of State has dealt humanely and efficiently with all the cases that I have taken up with him on behalf of the nearly 10 per cent. of my constituents who are immigrants. Where there was any doubt about any application, he has always exercised his discretion in favour of the applicant.
§ Mr. Fraser
I was not intending to make a partisan speech—I never apologise for making such a speech—I was simply trying to be helpful. I want the Minister to operate the same kind of efficiency at Lunar house as Littlewoods operates in Liverpool and as Rothschild and Barings operate in relation to privatisation issues—to open the envelopes and sort the letters so that the registration applications can be put in a separate pile because people are not greatly inconvenienced by a delay in their registration; although I concede that there will be priority cases.
On the whole, however, applicants will not be greatly embarrassed by a delay in registration. That would enable the staff at Lunar house, who on the whole are pretty devoted, to get on with the essential job of clearing the backlog of immigration applications that rests there. If the Minister does not do that, he will bring his Department further into disrepute, and, what is more, will create a great deal of unpopularity, frustration and anger with his own staff who operate in Lunar house.
855 Let us give the people who make legitimate applications to Croydon the same privileges as people who post their pools or apply for shares.
§ Mr. Hanley
I welcome the new clause. I am surprised that any Opposition Members should seek to create some sort of synthetic indignation in trying to oppose it, albeit with their voices and not their votes.
The new clause not only facilitates travellers coming to this country—for that reason, I should have thought that the hon. Member for Norwood (Mr. Fraser) would welcome it because it means that clearance is that much easier before a person comes here— but it reduces the pressure at our ports of entry. I should have thought that those who claim to represent trade union members would welcome that as reducing the work load and pressure on their members at our ports of entry. It seems an extremely sensible idea. I hope that it will catch on and that many carriers will avail themselves of the excellent opportunity.
While talking about Lunar house, one should remind hon. Members that Labour Members voted against an initiative that my hon. Friend the Minister of State put forward to reduce the cases at Lunar house by about 40,000 per year. Those clauses benefited five times more people than they hindered. Therefore, I find it surprising that Opposition Members should harp on this matter when we know full well that my hon. Friend is facing this serious problem constructively in trying to review the manning levels at Lunar house.
§ Mr. Madden
The number of questions that have been asked in this short debate and the number of bits of paper that are fluttering towards the Minister from the civil servants' Box highlight the fact that he would have been much wiser to table the new clause in Committee. That would have enabled all the questions that have been asked today to be put then and would have enabled the Minister to give some explanations.
I should like to ask three questions. I agree entirely with hon. Members who have said that the inevitable consequence of the pre-entry clearance arrangements will be the establishment of another category of entry. It will be primarily for white people and although in some cases it will be for black and Asian people, in all cases it will be for people who are well off, because clearly there will be a fee for arrangement. Therefore, only the well-off will be able to take advantage of it.
My first question is, what happens to the predominantly white and in all cases well-off passenger who seeks to pay a fee to get a "grant to leave" entry stamp in his or her passport, but does not get such a stamp put in his or her passport overseas? The carriers — the airlines—may well refuse to take such a person because she or he has not got the "grant to leave" put in his or her passport. However, it would be a breach of natural justice if they did that, because they would be presupposing that the passenger would not be given a grant to leave when he or she arrived in the United Kingdom.
I assume that the Minister will turn his face against any right of appeal—he turns his face against all rights of appeal—and I therefore ask him what will happen to a passenger who is refused a grant to leave under the pre-entry clearance arrangements and therefore a seat by the airline. I see the piece of paper going to the civil servants' Box, so I hope that by the time I have finished my remarks the Minister will he able to answer me.
856 5.30 pm
Secondly, what will be the estimated annual cost of the arrangements—in net and gross terms— to the British taxpayer? I assume that the Home Office has made estimates to ascertain the revenue implications of the arrangements. It would be very helpful if we could be given some idea of those implications.
Thirdly, what consultations have taken place with organisations representing immigration officers about the terms and conditions under which immigration officers will be expected to fulfil their responsibilities under the pre-entry clearance arrangements? Will the same requirements apply to those responsibilities as currently apply to transfer directions to immigration officers? I understand that immigration officers cannot refuse transfer directions and that a refusal to comply with such a direction is a disciplinary matter. Will the Minister assure us that refusal to accept a direction to participate in the proposed overseas pre-entry clearance arrangements will not be regarded as a disciplinary matter? What consultations have taken place over the terms, and conditions that will apply under the new arrangements?
I agree with my hon. Friends who have criticised the present administrative chaos at Lunar house. Home Office Ministers talk as though there was something surprising about the large number of applications for registration. They had seven years to plan for those applications. They had almost a year to plan for them in considerable detail. We know that they did their best to keep the arrangements secret and to dissuade people from applying, but it is brass-necked of the Department and the Minister of State then to keep telling us that the words across the entrance of the Home Office are, "We are here to please."
The Minister says that he wants to provide a good consumer service and that that is the objective of the Home Office, yet customers who are being asked to apply for registration and pay £60 for it are being kept waiting month upon month while their applications are dealt with. It is an administrative disgrace that the Government did not appoint sufficient staff or make sufficient resources available to deal expeditiously with all the applications that they expected months and months ago at Lunar house. I entirely agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Norwood (Mr. Fraser). I hope the Minister will take this opportunity to explain what action is being taken to deal with the chaos at Lunar house.
§ Mr. Eric S. Heffer (Liverpool, Walton)
I understand that the new clause was not discussed in Committee and that we are therefore discussing something new. I do not want to make a long speech, but I should tell the Minister that at one stage in my life I had great difficulty with immigration authorities—the immigration authorities of the United States of America.
I happened to win a scholarship to the United States. I made my application, and everything seemed fine, but then the authorities discovered that in my youth I had been a member of the Communist party. I received a letter saying that I would not be allowed into the United States of America—luckily, before I arrived there. Then I had to get, as I put it, a letter from the holy ghost. I needed a letter from the theological college at Birkenhead, at which I lectured fairly regularly, and the general secretary of the TUC had to vouch for me as a fine upstanding young man who was no longer a member of the Communist party. I 857 was damned annoyed, because I thought that Communists or anyone else should have the right to go to the United States of America.
I make that point because I am worried about the provision that an individual who gets his card stamped and comes to this country can be refused entry if he is examined and an immigration officer decides that he may not be the person he purports to be. What happens at that stage? Surely the stamp on the passport should not be given before a person leaves unless it is absolutely clear that he is the individual concerned. Surely that can be ascertained from the photograph and so on. The provision could lead to all sorts of difficulties.
I am very much in favour of a provision that speeds up entry into this country. I have had many difficulties with the present arrangement. For example, my wife has a cousin who is a Baptist minister, responsible for quite a large circuit in the south of England. Two young Baptists from Poland came to stay with him. The House has no idea of the difficulties that they encountered. I might add that they were white. Imagine the difficulties that they would have had if they had been black. A young girl in my constituency has a Moroccan boy friend. He proposed to visit for only two weeks, but nevertheless there were letters and everything else.
I will welcome the new clause if it helps to get people in more quickly. We will send immigration officers abroad to examine the individuals concerned, and if they are satisfied and stamp the card, the individual will come in quickly. No one objects to that. It is fine; it is an improvement. However, I should like some further explanation of what will happen if the immigration authorities here decide that the person seeking entry may not be the person whom he purports to be. I should like a safeguard, so that if the individual concerned knows people in this country, he will have the right to get in touch with them immediately and appeal to them for help without further difficulty. Such a safeguard is not included in the new clause, which says nothing about appeals or the right of the individual. That is an important matter.
§ Mr. Renton
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way. [HON. MEMBERS: "He has finished."] I did not realise that the hon. Gentleman had finished his speech. I shall answer his question in my reply.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
Order. Has the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Heffer) concluded his speech?
§ Mr. Vaz
I should like to speak briefly and raise two matters with the Minister.
First, we welcome any proposals that will result in a reduction in delays in the immigration service. We are concerned about the delays that have occurred at Lunar house in Croydon. I visited Lunar house last Monday and saw a number of the 200,000 letters that have remained unopened there. The Minister visited Lunar house on Friday of last week. I hope that he will tell the House what he saw on his visit and what proposals he has to reduce the delays there.
Secondly, the Minister is prepared to send immigration officers all over the world to reduce delays. We know that he is prepared to send his immigration officers to Leicester, 858 because we understand that a meeting is taking place there this evening at which an address will be given by five senior officials of the Home Office. My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Leicester, West (Mr. Janner), who is present, my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, South (Mr. Marshall) and I were not informed of that visit until 11 February. That was 24 hours after I had tabled a question asking the Minister why immigration officials were visiting Leicester without its Members of Parliament being informed. A better approach would have been to keep the five senior officials at Croydon and put them to work opening those 200,000 letters.
§ Mr. Renton
I shall answer the question raised by the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Heffer), but first I should like to thank him and my hon. Friends the Members for Wimbledon (Dr. Goodson-Wickes) and Richmond and Barnes (Mr. Hanley) for their support for the proposal in the new clause.
The new clause deals only with giving immigration officers, in laymen's terms, new powers to tackle preclearance matters. It does not concern appeals, which we shall discuss shortly. We carried out a pre-clearance trial at Kennedy airport at the end of last year. I should stress to the hon. Member for Bradford, West (Mr. Madden) that no one has to go through pre-clearance. It is a voluntary operation for passengers.
Those who went through pre-clearance at Kennedy airport had their passports and landing cards stamped with the suitable stamp for entry into the United Kingdom. When they entered the United Kingdom, they were required to show the passport and the landing card with the appropriate stamp on it so that the immigration officer here could link the two and ensure that the person carrying the passport, by virtue of the landing card, was the person concerned. That was the system used for the trial. Whether we shall use it if we set it up more generally remains to be seen.
I should stress to hon. Members who have queried the matter that this is only an enabling clause. We have not had discussions with trade unions representing the immigration service, and as yet it has not been fully costed. We intend that this operation should wash its face completely, but we did not think it appropriate to cost it until we had received agreement to this enabling power from the House.
Those who say that we did not discuss the matter in Committee, such as the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, West (Mr. Randall), are wrong. We discussed it in Committee — [HON. MEMBERS: "No."] Yes we did. We did not discuss this clause, because it was not tabled, but we discussed the principle of pre-clearance entry during the debate on 21 January. I accept that hon. Members were running out of steam by that time. They had gone on for 62 hours and were not very interested in this process.
We discussed the matter in relation to clause 7, and I shall quote two of the remarks that I made during the debate. I said:Since then, we have received requests for additional immigration officers from commercial operators who will be prepared to pay for an enhanced service. Additional services might be provided when an operator seeks a greater number of immigration officers on the control at particular times and places than would be justified by the overall traffic pattern, or when an operator seeks special control arrangements for a particular flight.859 That was a broad outline of what we had in mind. I continued:But in order to introduce those arrangements on a more permanent and routine basis it is necessary to extend the powers of immigration officers. We shall table an amendment at a later stage to facilitate pre-clearance arrangements. It is right that the Committee should be made aware of that potential arrangement." —[Official Report, Standing Committee D, 21 January 1988; c. 724–25.]I appreciate that the hon. Member for Norwood (Mr. Fraser) and the hon. Member for Walton will not be aware of that matter because they did not serve on the Committee. I would not expect them to have read the minutes of our Committee proceedings. For those hon. Members who served on the Committee to pretend that they did not know that we had this in mind is to stand the facts on their head. It would be far better to agree that, in broad terms, this is a good idea and that it is intended to facilitate movement through our airports to prevent congestion.
The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, West referred to a shambles at Heathrow. It must be encouraging for immigration officers who work at terminals 2 and 3 to hear the Labour party's Front-Bench spokesman use those words. He should at least give credit for the fact that the shambles is very much less now—
§ Mr. Renton
No. There has been less of a shambles since we introduced the visa system for countries of the Indian sub-continent. Anyone who has visited terminals 2 and 3 will know that that is so.
§ Mr. Randall
Is the Minister aware that since the visa system was introduced there have been no improvements for people going through Heathrow or in the number of people detained there? The Minister must recognise that there is a shambles at Heathrow. It is a modern airport, providing supposedly modern facilities. If he accepts what is happening at Heathrow, his appreciation of an effective airport must be limited.
§ Mr. Renton
This is straying rather far from the purpose of the new clause. The hon. Gentleman may fly down from Hull in a local British aeroplane. I do not know how he is treated when he arrives at Heathrow. Since I took over my responsibilities I have visited Heathrow many times. I have visited terminals 2 and 3 during the busy periods of the day. I know that the difficulties with congestion—immigration officers will bear this out—are nothing like what they were in the autumn of 1986 when we introduced the visa arrangements. The hon. Gentleman should visit Heathrow when the trans-continental aeroplanes land, and he would see the truth of what I say.
§ Mr. Greville Janner (Leicester, West)
Recently, I visited a terminal and found a queue of people waiting to enter. I was told that some of them had had to wait for over two hours because there were not enough immigration officers. The amount of time that people had to wait depended on the number of jumbo aircraft arriving at the time. Nothing could be done about it. It was entirely the Government's fault, because there were not enough immigration officers. It was a shambolic chaos. It is a disgrace that visitors have to wait in such queues. Matters have not improved, because the rules have been used as an excuse for keeping down the number of immigration officers, instead of improving arrangements for our visitors.
§ Mr. Renton
I am surprised that the hon. and learned Member for Leicester, West (Mr. Janner), who is normally reasonable and accurate, should talk in that manner. What he said about queues at terminals 2 and 3 is incorrect. If there are delays of two hours during the difficult early-morning slots, I can only say to the hon. and learned Gentleman that they would have been much worse in the autumn of 1986. That, in any event, is precisely why we are introducing these arrangements in clause 7 and in the new clause. That is the last time that I shall give way.
§ Mr. Madden
Will the Minister take it from me that we have received a number of reports that people at terminal 4—I notice that he has not referred to this terminal— are regularly required to sleep on the floor overnight because of continued delays since the introduction of visas? I ask again: what will happen to passengers who volunteer for the pre-clearance arrangement and are not granted leave to enter? Will they have rights of appeal against a refusal by a carrier to bring them into the United Kingdom?
§ Mr. Renton
I stress again that this system has had only one trial experiment. This is an enabling clause and we have not yet gone into lengthy discussions with the trade unions or carriers about it.
I pointed out two things to the hon. Gentleman a few moments ago. First, no one is required to go through preclearance—it is a voluntary business. If someone went through pre-clearance and was refused by the immigration officer, I assume that the officer would think it appropriate to point that out to the carrier, because the carrier would not want to have to pay a potential fine of £1,000. There would be no appeal in this country in that circumstance. In a country in which a visa was required, however, the applicant would have every reason to go back to our consulate to find out what had gone wrong and to discuss the matter with the immigration officer. This is, as I said, a voluntary business.
Have there been discussions with the trade unions? Not yet. This is an enabling power, and pre-clearance will take place only if requested by the operator and if the immigration service agrees. If the House agrees with the clause and we go ahead with it, we shall discuss any arrangements with the trade unions before they are introduced.
To hon. Members who asked about costs, I say clearly that the intention will be to recover the full costs, including those of the staff involved in operating a pre-clearance system. In each case it will be for the carrying company that requests the service to decide whether the charges we will require it to pay are reasonable or acceptable. Our intention will be to recover the full costs. The carrier will then have to decide whether it wants to go ahead with preclearance. That also answers the point made by the hon. Member for Woolwich (Mr. Cartwright), who has now left the Chamber.
To answer the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, West, who asked why we did not mention this in Committee — we did. I have already quoted from Hansard to show that. To go further than that, the trial in New York was conducted last October. The evaluation was not completed until after Christmas. The policy decision on whether to go forward with this was not decided until the trial had been evaluated, when the new clause had to be drafted. That is why I gave the Committee 861 a clear idea of our intent on the matter, so that there should be no surprise when we brought the matter before the House on Report.
The hon. Member for Bradford, West implied that the pre-clearance arrangement might have something to do with the financial status of the passenger. If he meant that, he was not correct. The service will be provided at the request of the carrier only. The passenger will not pay, and that will be the end of the matter. As I have already said, the passenger does not have to present himself for preclearance—he can decline to do so.
The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, West said that he had heard some rumbles from the trade union side of the immigration service to the effect that it was worried about this provision. The immigration service has an active trade union side—that is good—but I have heard no such rumbles. If we go ahead with this, we shall consider and discuss it in full with the immigration service.
The question of the delays at Lunar house was raised by the hon. Members for Leicester, East (Mr. Vaz), for Bradford, West and for Norwood. The hon. Member for Norwood raised the issue in moderate terms. Perhaps, Mr. Deputy Speaker, you will allow me to deal with that matter straight away. I want to put a few points about it on the record.
First, it is typical of the hon. Member for Leicester, East that the first thing he did in the debate was to get up and talk about the chaos at Lunar house. He asked my Department to arrange a visit for him to Lunar house on Monday 10 days ago. We arranged it at considerable expense of management time. He arrived 45 minutes late, spent only one and a half hours there and the first thing we knew of it was that he had left and told the home affairs correspondent of The Independent about the chaos at Lunar house and about how we are proposing to privatise the operation.
What did I hear at Lunar house on Friday? I heard great concern from the trade union side about whether the remarks made by the hon. Member for Leicester, East were justified. If the hon. Gentleman thinks that that was a helpful way to deal with the problems at Lunar house, which certainly exist, I suggest that it would have been much more helpful — I can see the hon. and learned Member for Leicester, West nodding in agreement with what I am saying—
§ Mr. Renton
The hon. Member for Leicester, East must be an uncomfortable neighbour for the hon. and learned Member for Leicester, West.
§ Mr. Renton
"Bring back Bruinvels; all is forgiven," is the cry from the House, I am sure.
I do not often speak about my meetings with hon. Members. In fact, I make it a habit not to. However, I must say that the hon. Member for Leicester, East came to see me the following day about a constituency case. It would have been more helpful and appropriate, given that my Department had arranged his visit for him, at his request, the day before, if he had talked to me about the 862 difficulties and asked me about our proposals for solving them, rather than running—publicity-seeking, as always —to a national newspaper to air his worries.
§ Mr. Vaz
The Minister was in Committee for more than 62 hours. On every occasion during every sitting of the Committee this matter was raised with him. It is high time that the matter came before the public, rather than being covered up by the Minister and his officials at the Home Office. What proposals does he have to end the delays? He should tell us that, rather than indulging in a personal attack on another hon. Member.
§ Mr. Renton
The hon. Gentleman's lack of courtesy is typical of him and disturbing to the staff at Lunar house, who did their best to show him everything that he wanted to see on Monday.
I come now to our proposals and to a little background. I fully accept that the delays that are experienced by applicants at Lunar house are unacceptable, and I shall detail the steps being taken to remedy them.
I stress to all hon. Members that the backlog is largely due to the great surge in applications for registration for citizenship that we received in the last two months of last year, particularly in December. In 1986, we received 37,900 applications for registration, and 19,000 for naturalisation. We estimate that in 1987 we received six times that number of registrations for citizenship, and three times as many applications for naturalisation. That came to a total of 291,000 applications, in contrast to the 57,000 that we had received the year before.
It is ironic that the Labour party, which castigated us throughout the autumn of last year for not advertising the deadline for registration well enough, should now castigate us—by implication—for having advertised it too well. We put out many advertisements and forms, and as a result we received a large number of applications.
Before I detail the specific steps that we will take, I hope that the House, including the hon. Member for Leicester, East, will pay tribute to the magnificent efforts of the staff in the immigration and nationality department at Lunar house in coping with the huge influx of citizenship applications before the deadline on 31 December last year.
The staff worked under sustained pressure, including long hours of overtime before Christmas and between Christmas and the deadline of 31 December. They dealt with many thousands of last-minute requests for application forms, and a very large number of requests for advice about citizenship status in letters and from personal callers. But the scale of the increased flow of work is so large that those measures, and the efforts of the available staff to serve the department's customers, would be insufficient to process the cases through the initial stages —sending acknowledgements, accounting for fees paid and so on—within a reasonable time within the present method of working. Therefore, after detailed discussions with the trade union side, we have introduced, as an emergency measure, a large-scale redeployment of staff to undertake those initial stages.
§ Mr. Renton
The hon. Member for Bradford, West laughs, but I should have thought that he would be pleased. However, as always, he is a constant surprise to me.
863 About 160 staff have been redeployed from a significant part of their normal duties to open unsorted applications, to account for the fees, and to acknowledge receipt. As part of this process we are returning to applicants any passports and other documents that were submitted with applications. This is to avoid the inconvenience to applicants of their being deprived of travel documents— I appreciate the inconvenience that that causes — while the applications are under consideration.
We are also going to recruit more full-time staff for the post room, registry and nationality division, and we are carrying out an urgent examination of the means and resources that will be required to process the applications in a reasonable time. As I have said—it was especially acknowledged by the hon. Member for Norwood—the primary objective at this stage is to acknowledge applications as soon as possible and to return documents and passports submitted with applications. It is my hope that these processes will be complete within several weeks.
§ Mr. Renton
I shall not give way to the hon. Member any more.
I assure the House that if we bring in such arrangements for pre-clearance it will not be at the expense of any standard arrangements or standard level of service at United Kingdom ports and airports. We will do it simply as a service to any airline that requests it, no matter where a flight may have started from. Therefore, it will not be a service for whites rather than for blacks. It will be available for anyone who wishes it, provided that the request comes from an airline, we agree a fee and we are able to work out the details. I believe that these are thoroughly sensible arrangements, and I commend the new clause to the House.
§ Question put and agreed to.
§ Clause read a Second time, and added to the Bill.