HL Deb 09 April 1981 vol 419 cc674-7

3.20 p.m.

Lord Monson

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government why, since individuals are perfectly entitled legally to leave the country with or without a passport, embarking passengers at Heathrow and other airports and seaports are subjected to long delays and considerable hardship whenever immigration officers decide to strike or "go slow".

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Home Office (Lord Belstead)

My Lords, Schedule 2 to the Immigration Act 1971 empowers an immigration officer to examine any person who is embarking, or seeking to embark, in the United Kingdom for the purpose of determining whether he is patrial and, if he is not, for the purpose of establishing his identity. The schedule also lays down that it shall be the duty of any person so examined to furnish such information as may be required for this purpose, and that an immigration officer may require such a person to produce a valid passport, or some other satisfactory identity document.

The delays recently experienced by the travelling public, which the Government greatly regret, are thus a consequence of necessary checks, for which only limited staff have been available during periods of industrial action.

Lord Monson

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for that interesting reply, which reveals that this bulky net is essentially set to catch foreign nationals rather than United Kingdom citizens. Can the noble Lord say for what reason foreign nationals, or non-patrials, are detained when embarking, approximately how many are prevented from leaving the country in the course of an average year and what percentage that number represents of the total number of people leaving this country? Secondly, is it not true that any foreign national seriously wishing to evade immigration controls has only to travel from the United Kingdom to the Republic of Ireland; and, if that is the case, is not this whole paraphernalia of controls on embarking passengers simply a waste of passengers' time and taxpayers' money?

Lord Belstead

My Lords, the objective of the operation of embarkation control is to identify and record the departure of persons subject to immigration control. If the embarkation control were temporarily abandoned, some persons admitted to the United Kingdom would not have their departure recorded. The noble Lord asked me how many people are detained, as I understood it, either coming in or going out. I am afraid I am not furnished with those figures. The noble Lord asked me finally whether it did not drive a coach and horses, in essence, through the system that people could travel to the Republic of Ireland. My Lords, almost anything can happen if you travel to the Republic of Ireland, and I have no doubt that driving a coach and horses is among them.

Lord Derwent

My Lords, can my noble friend say what is the Act of Parliament that prevents a British subject leaving the country without a passport if he wants to do so?

Lord Belstead

My Lords, a person is guilty of a criminal offence if, without reasonable excuse, he refuses or fails to submit to an immigration officer's examination or to furnish information, or to produce a satisfactory identity document or embarkation card where appropriate, or obstructs an immigration officer lawfully acting in the execution of the Immigration Act—and it is the Immigration Act 1971 which is the controlling legislation.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, is the Minister aware that United Kingdom citizens are not prevented from leaving the country without a passport, provided they will sign an undertaking to pay the cost to the airline if they are returned when they reach the country of their destination? But going back to the question that was asked just now concerning immigration controls, is it the objective of the Home Office to record all the arrivals of persons subject to control on a computer, so that when they finally leave the records can be compared with the arrivals, and thus any overstayers detected? If that is the objective of the exercise of putting all the arrivals on to a computer, will the noble Lord take rather more seriously the point which has been made about the Republic of Ireland? Because if anybody can leave for the Republic of Ireland without passing through passport controls, what is the point of the controls?

Lord Belstead

That is a very ingenious question, my Lords, but it has one fatal flaw: we are not talking about arrivals, we are talking about departures. The answer to the question which the noble Lord has asked me is that the point of the embarkation control is that if people come here in a temporary capacity then it is highly desirable to see when they leave.

The Earl of Halsbury

My Lords, I do not feel that the Answer that the noble Lord gave to my noble friend's Question was really satisfactory from a logical point of view. He quoted the fact that the immigration officer can require this or can require that, or must not be obstructed, and so on. But if he is not there how can he require anything; and if not even his ghost is there, how can he be obstructed?

Lord Belstead

My Lords, during the period of the industrial action, which the Government very much regret, in fact the integrity of the immigration control has been maintained. None the less, I assure the noble Earl that this is a matter on which we are keeping a very close eye.

Lord Renton

My Lords, in order that the intention of Parliament as expressed by my noble friend may be fulfilled, would it not be better that it should be a condition of service of the immigration officers that they should not strike but remain on duty when required?

Lord Belstead

My Lords, this opens up a very much wider field. I take on board what my noble friend has said, and of course I know that my right honourable friend will study it closely.

Lord Paget of Northampton

My Lords, surely the noble Earl, Lord Halsbury, has a point here. We are not here considering the citizen who has an undoubted right to leave this country obstructing an immigration officer; we are considering an immigration officer obstructing him. Surely the situation should be that, where you get these "go-slows", the citizen who says, "I am walking straight through and the hell with you", is entirely within his rights.

Lord Belstead

My Lords, I really think that I cannot do more than I have done, which is to refer your Lordships to the primary legislation under which the immigration officers operate. When there is industrial action which causes trouble with the working of that legislation this is a matter for the very greatest regret, and I hope that this action will be ending soon.

Lord Inglewood

My Lords, may I ask my noble friend that, bearing in mind the ever-increasing mobility of the criminal population, whatever he may do to make it easier for law-abiding citizens to arrive in and depart from this country, he will not make it easier for wanted persons either to come in or to leave?

Lord Belstead

My Lords, my noble friend's supplementary question once again points to the importance of the embarkation control, and I repeat that the embarkation control is necessary for the proper immigration control in this country.

The Lord President of the Council (Lord Soames)

My Lords, I suggest that we should move on to the next Question. It is now twenty-five minutes past three, and we have one more Question to go.