HL Deb 17 October 1986 vol 480 cc1029-35

11.39 a.m.

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, I shall with permission, make a Statement about the detention of passengers at Terminal 3, Heathrow.

Your Lordships will be aware that following the decision to impose a visa requirement for all journeys to the United Kingdom by nationals of Bangladesh, India, and Pakistan, there has been an increase in the number of passengers arriving in this country from the Indian sub-continent.

On 14th October—the day before the visa regime came into operation—about 2,000 passengers from Bangladesh, and over 1,000 from elsewhere in the Indian sub-continent, arrived at Terminal 3, Heathrow. Of these 768 had to be referred to the secondary examination area for further questioning by immigration officers. These passengers were mostly single young men claiming to be coming for short visits. It was manifestly impossible to interview them all during the day to see whether they met the requirements of the immigration rules for entry as visitors. Of the 768 passengers about 150—mostly women and children—were given temporary admission and the rest were detained at the airport or accommodated in hotels overnight. By Wednesday afternoon 110 passengers had been either removed to their port of embarkation or had departed at their own request. Since then work has continued on interviewing the remaining passengers. About 60 further passengers have been formally refused leave to enter.

In accordance with the normal practice, a further 200 passengers were granted temporary admission yesterday afternoon and evening. Arrangements were made for a further 150 to spend the night in Metropolitan Police accommodation. The remaining 156 again spent the night at the airport in fresh accommodation made available by the airport authority. Despite extensive efforts by staff they were unable to obtain any hotel accommodation for any of the passengers.

During yesterday officials were in touch with the environmental health authority, who, while concerned about the conditions in which passengers were being detained were satisfied that they were improving and that every effort was being made to reduce their number as quickly as possible.

Work on interviewing those passengers not yet granted temporary admission will continue as quickly as possible. Any passengers remaining in detention this evening will be accommodated at the Fire Service College, Moreton-in-Marsh, over the weekend. Interviews will continue and additional immigration officers have been made available.

My Lords, the immigration service and many other people at Heathrow, including the police, have responded magnificently and with great skill to an extremely difficult situation. I am glad to take this opportunity to pay tribute to them and to thank them for their outstanding efforts.

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

Lord Mishcon

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord Earl, the Minister, for his courtesy in agreeing to make a Statement in response to approaches made to the Government yesterday by the official Opposition.

I intend to ask the noble Earl the following five questions, which I have limited to the situation at Heathrow. Can the Home Office lay any claim to either efficiency or humanity in permitting the conditions which have existed over the past few days, and especially on Tuesday last, which made Terminal 3 of our great international airport look like a sordid refugee camp?

Is it seriously suggested that it was not anticipated that the result of giving only eight days' notice before the visa regulation was to come into force would be that many hundreds of genuine visitors to these shores from the Indian sub-continent would endeavour to make a last minute dash to avoid the need to apply for visas? In many cases this would involve extensive and expensive travel, hopeless delays, and frustrations and I understand, queues sometimes as long, as 12,000 people, which is the current experience at immigration offices in that part of the world, particularly in Bangladesh.

Did the Home Office realise that as a result of the short notice they gave, they would be at least indirectly responsible for the cruel travel agent rackets which inevitably took place and of which many of these wretched people were the victims?

What has the Minister to say about the lack of information given to the families, many of them our fellow citizens, who waited at the airport for hours without any information as to what was happening to the people whom they had come to meet and welcome?

Can the Minister explain the quite inadequate number of immigration officers who were called upon to deal with these impossible conditions? Let me warmly join in any tribute that is paid to them for their attempts to do so.

Is it true that at a critical stage even that inadequate number was reduced by several being sent elsewhere? In short, has the Minister seen the heading of the editorial in yesterday's Guardian reading: "Heathrow put us all to shame"? Is he aware that on this side of the House we regard these words as all to painfully true?

11.45 a.m.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, I am extremely grateful to the noble Lord the Minister for making the Statement. However, are not the scenes that we have witnessed at Heathrow over the last few days utterly disgraceful? How can the Home Secretary blandly claim that good race relations are promoted by a policy which requires many hundreds of relatives to spend several days in the most indescribable squalor, without anywhere to rest, without anyone to look after their small children; above all without being given any information whatever about the relatives they have come to meet? Perhaps I may ask the Minister what he thinks will be the effect on Commonwealth opinion and overseas opinion, of locking up 150 visitors in police cells, as the noble Lord has said we have to do. Would he acknowledge that Mr. Gandhi was speaking for most Commonwealth leaders in portraying the introduction of visas and events that followed them as racist? Whatever the excuses that are being made by the noble Minister, is he aware that we shall seek on November 20th to test opinion in the House on the Government's policy for dealing with these visitors?

Meanwhile, would he confirm that the number of officers at Heathrow dealing with the entrants have been reduced? In consequence of that the higher workload caused the immigration services union at Heathrow to ballot its members in protest against the resulting burden. In this sense, the Government have engineered the enormous problems which gave rise to the visa requirement. Nevertheless, the Foreign Office had advised against the introduction of visas. Why did the Government not simply increase the staff members to cope with the flow of visitors arriving in this country?

Can the noble Lord say why so many of the 768 passengers who arrived just before the deadline and were refused leave to enter were detained instead of being granted temporary admission in accordance with the usual practice? How many of the 618 who were refused leave to enter were coming to stay with friends or relatives who would have sponsored them? Is it correct, as I understand from the Statement, that 156 of them are still in detention? Why can not those people be granted temporary admission pending further interviews next week in accordance with the usual practice? We shall ventilate these matters at greater length on 20th November.

May I ask the noble Minister one final question which is of critical importance? As regards representation by members of either House in cases where a person is refused leave to enter, would the Minister confirm that, where the Secretary of State is given discretion under any Act of Parliament, it has been the long-standing practice that that particular Secretary of State would entertain representations made by a Member of either House and that pending his decision any action on the discretionary matter in question would be deferred. Therefore, since the Secretary of State for the Home Office is given a discretion under the 1971 Act, it would require a change in the legislation if the Government sought to remove the right of representation that Members now possess.

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, asked me five questions. The first was whether the Home Office can lay any claim to efficiency and humanity in what has been occurring at Heathrow, Terminal 3. I would very strongly say yes, in view of the substantial number of passengers who have come from the Indian sub-continent. and more particularly the increase of those referred to secondary examination by the immigration officers.

If one looks at the figures that I gave earlier, one will find that 2,232 of those who arrived on 14th October were bona fide passengers. Of course, we regret the delay that occurred to them in getting through immigration but when you have 768 who have to be referred to secondary examination there are bound to be delays.

The noble Lord asked me why we were not better prepared at the airport. We were prepared. We expected some increase in passengers and additional flights from Bangladesh, and extra staff were made available. However, we could not anticipate the large number of passengers who came from the Indian sub-continent by other routes.

The noble Lord also asked me about the timing of the announcement. This is a catch-22 situation. I am sure that whatever announcement we made it would have been criticised by some. There was no doubt in our minds that an announcement had to be made, but if we had given less notice of the visa requirement it would have caused a great deal more inconvenience to the bona fide traveller. My right honourable friend made his statement on 6th October as a necessary response to the considerable increase of pressure from travellers from the Indian sub-continent.

Perhaps I may say a few words about the increase in the number of staff. The number of immigration service staff at Heathrow has increased over the last three years from 575 in August 1984 to 654 in August this year. Despite that substantial increase in staff, the number of visitors who required a secondary examination grew much faster and that is what caused us to introduce the visa system, which will be greatly to the benefit of the bona fide traveller.

We regret the difficulties that have been experienced at Heathrow in getting information to waiting relatives. However, that is inevitable given the circumstances at Heathrow, which was never designed for such a situation. It is of great credit to those who run the airport that they have been able to get as much information as they have to the relatives.

The noble Lord, Lord Avebury, said that we were delaying children. One of the points which I made in my Statement was that women and children had been—

Lord Avebury

My Lords, the noble Earl has misunderstood me. I was talking about the children of the relatives who were waiting in the lounges to hear news of their visitors who were on the other side of the barrier.

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, in that case I have already answered that point. The noble Lord alleged that I said that we were keeping 150 people in police cells. That is not what I said. I said that they were in accommodation provided by the police—a heated gymnasium and another large hall in Hounslow. Beds, mattresses and clean linen were supplied and adequate toilet and washing facilities were available. Indeed, the passengers were also given a breakfast before returning to Terminal 3.

The noble Lord also commented on the increase in staff numbers, which I have dealt with. He asked why we do not allow everybody in—

Lord Avebury

My Lords, I did not say that—

The Earl of Caithness

—on temporary admission. If the noble Lord will let me finish what I wish to say it may save time. The reason for not giving temporary admission is well known within the rules of the immigration system. The justification for retaining some people for a secondary examination was confirmed by the fact that 20 of those who were put up in accommodation have absconded.

As regards representations made by Members of another place and, indeed, Members of this House, the situation today is as it has always been.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, is not the statement made by the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, quoting Mr. Gandhi to the effect that the introduction by this country of visa requirements was racist, a little odd in view of the fact that India insists on visas for British subjects proceeding to India? Is it not a case of sauce for the goose being sauce for the gander? Will my noble friend clear up two points? Is it not the fact that airlines which bring into this country people who have no authority to enter are themselves responsible at their own expense for taking them home? Secondly, in view of what my noble friend said about those who absconded when placed in hotels, will he say what precautions are taken when immigrants whose status is doubtful are placed in hotels? What steps are taken to secure that they do not simply walk out?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, as regards my noble friend's first comment, I confirm that the action that my right honourable friend the Home Secretary has taken is not racist action; it could not possibly by any reasonable standard be classed as racist. I reiterate that on 14th October 2,232 out of the 3,000 were let through because they were bona fide passengers. Indeed, we have received many representations from the Indian sub-continent applauding what we have done as a consequence of the inconvenience that a few have imposed upon the vast majority of bona fide passengers. It is not only India that requires us to have visas. Contrary to some reports that I have read in the press today, Bangladesh also requires us to have visas.

As regards absconding, it is extremely difficult when people are put into hotel accommodation where they can freely move about to keep a sufficient eye on them without involving considerable extra police manpower and resources, which are probably not warranted. However, the fact that they have absconded adds considerable weight and force to the measures that my right honourable friend has introduced.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, will my noble friend deal with the point that I raised about the airlines?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, I apologise for not covering that point which my noble friend raised. If within a period of two months following arrival in this country a person is refused entry, it will be for the airline to pay for his flight home.

Lord Harris of Greenwich

My Lords, I should like to ask a question on a rather more detailed issue. Is the noble Earl aware that I wrote to his honourable friend the Minister of State regarding the concern of a number of business schools in this country about the impact that the introduction of the new visa requirements will have upon them? Is he aware that some of them are gravely concerned about this matter and all the more so because of the very substantial delays being experienced as regards posts abroad? will the noble Earl agree to ask his honourable friend whether this matter can be looked into with a degree of urgency, because the consequences on some of the educational institutions in this country could be very serious indeed if some form of ameliorative action is not taken?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, I note what the noble Lord says and I am grateful to him for giving me advance notice of that question. That is helpful. I confirm to him that I shall draw his remarks to the attention of my honourable friend Mr. Waddington. However, I should say at this stage that students will require visas and if they are bona fide there should be no problem in their getting them in the usual way. Those who are already here and who wish to leave and return should obtain clearance stamps from lunar House at Croydon, where our immigration service is based.

Lord Nugent of Guildford

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that we all share the feeling so lucidly expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, of sympathy with those who have suffered such distress and discomfort at Heathrow? However, is not the logic of the situation that it is numbers that overwhelm the capacity to deal with immigrants? Is not a visa system the only way in which we can logically deal with numbers? Indeed, the system has been practised by other countries as well. Is it not therefore most unwise for a leading spokesman for the Labour Opposition in the other place to commit his party, if and when they form a Government, to do away with visas? Is it not the only way one can avoid this situation in the future?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for his remarks. I concur that we believe that the visa system is the right answer. Of course, we looked at all the alternatives, but came down firmly in favour of the visa system. My noble friend, as he always does, highlighted the nub of the problem, which is the sheer weight of numbers. In the 12 months to the end of June 1986 22,000 people had been refused admission or removed from this country. Of these over half came from the five countries to be covered by visa regime. This compares with only 13,000 in 1981. That is nearly a 70 per cent. increase. It cannot be right, for this minority who are trying it on, to be allowed to clog up the ports in the way that has happened this year at the expense of bona tide passengers from these countries.

Baroness White

My Lords, may I ask the Minister whether it occurred to the Government to consult the Women's Royal Voluntary service in a situation of this sort? Leaving on one side the question of visas, does he not appreciate that the situation which has arisen was almost certainly and inevitably likely to arise, and that what has happened through lack of foresight on the part of the the Home Office really leads to a feeling of despondency in some of us? We regret that a once great imperial power should be seen to be so incompetent and lacking in foresight that they did not take the most elementary precautions to ensure that the situation which has arisen, and caused so much distress and discomfort, was dealt with by better organisation.

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, I totally refute the accusations that the Government were lacking in foresight. As I have said, we produced more staff, more immigration officers. There is of course the further complication, which I am sure the noble Baroness in particular will understand, regarding interpreters. When a great many of those who are not bona fide visitors to this country do not speak English specialist interpreters have to be on hand. When particular dialects from the Indian sub-continent are spoken, and a person who wishes to come here is not particularly co-operative, it adds considerably to the delay. I am sure that if the noble Baroness and I went over to Bangladesh and she spoke Welsh and I spoke Gaelic it would give their interpreters problems.

Baroness White

My Lords, I am not denying that. What I am suggesting is that all this was foreseeable, and that therefore better organisation could have been undertaken in due time. I am sure that if the noble Earl and I had been in charge of the arrangements they would have been better.

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, I think perhaps I have commented enough on this, but I would ask the noble Baroness to bear in mind that although one can assess, as indeed we did assess, the likely increase from the sub-continent direct, it is extremely difficult —though perhaps she has greater wisdom than all of us put together—to envisage how many of those using flights from other parts of the world will come in at the same time.