HL Deb 21 October 1986 vol 481 cc181-90

4.9 p.m.

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat a Statement about visas which is being made in another place by my right honourable friend the Home Secretary. The Statement is as follows:

"As the House will know, I announced on 1st September that the Government had decided in principle to impose visas on citizens of Bangladesh, Ghana, India, Nigeria and Pakistan. On 6th October I announced that the change in respect of the Indian sub-continent would take effect from 15th October. For Ghana the date of implementation will be 23rd October. It will be some time yet before the necessary arrangements for staff and accommodation can be completed in Nigeria, and we shall announce a date later for implementation. The necessary changes to the immigration rules have been presented. I hope that my right honourable friend the Leader of the House will find time for them to be debated before Parliament is prorogued.

"Four of the five countries already require visas of British citizens. We should have preferred to continue to allow their citizens to come here without prior examination, requiring pre-entry clearance only for settlement, employment and similar purposes. But the pressure on the immigration control made that arrangement increasingly unsatisfactory and occasionally unworkable. The volume of traffic and its difficulty alike increased. Excluding British and other EC nationals, the number admitted grew from 6 million in 1981 to 8.5 million in 1985. Whereas 13,000 of these passengers were refused admission and removed from the United Kingdom in 1981, the figure was nearly 18,000 in 1985 and rose to 22,000 in the 12 months ended June 1986.

"Passengers from the five countries constituted a significant proportion of these refusals: 49 per cent. in 1985 and 53 per cent. in the year ended this June. There has been no change in the qualifications for entry or in the practice of immigration officers. So these figures reflected the growing pressure of people not eligible for admission seeking to come to this country.

"The need to examine more passengers at the port of entry in detail submitted not only them but others to delay. While passengers were being examined they had either to be given temporary admission, often at risk to the control, or to be kept in detention, neither of which was satisfactory.

"When those seeking entry from a particular country as visitors include a sizeable minority who may be trying to come here for other purposes it is much better that the necessary inquiries and authorisations should be made before the journey starts rather then under pressure at the port of entry.

"In order to safeguard the interests of bona fide visitors my right honourable and learned friend the Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary has strengthened the staff of our posts in the sub-continent so that visas can be issued in an orderly manner.

"During the four days before the introduction of visas there was a sharp increase in the number of passengers from the sub-continent arriving at London Heathrow Airport. Included among these were a substantial number of young men, particularly from Bangladesh, who were clearly trying to use the last days of the old system to take advantage of its weaknesses. Despite the acute physical difficulties, I decided that those men should not all be temporarily admitted at once, but should be examined in the usual way. I am glad to report that, thanks to much patient hard work by the immigration service, this process is now virtually complete. Since the introduction of the new system incoming flights have included only a handful of people from these countries without visas, and the system is now working satisfactorily.

"For the countries concerned it will now be at our overseas posts, not at the ports of entry, that the main decision will be made. The guidelines on the handling of Members' representations will in our view need altering to reflect this. At the port of entry the immigration officer will normally no longer have to exercise a judgment on whether a passenger—claiming, say, to be a visitor—is bona fide.

"That judgment will now be exercised when the visa application is considered. There is of course a right of appeal against refusal of a visa. I do not believe that in addition to this safeguard the airlines or travel operators should be led to believe that individuals arriving here without visas will be automatically admitted if a Member of this House intervenes on their behalf. This is a matter which the House will want to discuss and I shall accordingly place the necessary amendment to the guidelines in the Library and the Vote Office. I shall not implement this change until the House has had an opportunity to discuss it.

"Mr. Speaker, in conclusion I wish to record my warmest thanks to all the various services at Heathrow and elsewhere who rallied with speed, resourcefulness and efficiency to cope with the intense pressures of last week. The outcome, I believe, is that we have introduced what will prove to be a major improvement in the working of our immigration control. As the new system settles down it will improve the position of all bona fide travellers and ease the strains, particularly at Heathrow, which have gradually built up over the past year".

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

4.15 p.m.

Lord Mishcon

My Lords, perhaps I may at once express the appreciation of the House for the courtesy of the Minister in repeating this Statement which was made by his right honourable friend in another place. Perhaps I may also immediately join him in expressing appreciation of the services, the patience and the tolerance exercised by immigration officials and police last week at Heathrow when the situation was truly dreadful. We dealt with that in this House on Friday last and I do not intend to repeat anything that I said then; nor, if I may be allowed to say so, do I wish to withdraw anything that I said then in criticism of the Government.

Why is it that the noble Earl the Minister is so intelligent and his Government are so inept? I ask that question in all seriousness because, for the purpose of my reply to this Statement, I wish to take it for granted that the Secretary of State for Home Affairs did not intend any racialist ideas at all to guide him in connection with this regulation. What an odd way of dealing with the world outside, and especially the third world; of all times to introduce this regulation when it is known that the third world is terribly anxious—I use an understatement—about the attitude of Her Majesty's Government in regard to South Africa. To choose this moment is inept.

The Statement then says that four out of the five countries involved have a regulation that they require visas from our citizens. When we were debating the matter of Heathrow last Friday the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter—I am sorry he is not in his place—made the point with his usual effective tones that what is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. Why were the Government so inept that they did not make a regulation, if that was their intention, which merely said that as from now Her Majesty's Government will insist upon visas being obtained by those citizens of those countries which require them from the citizens of this country? There would then have been no racial overtones and no protest from the Prime Minister of India—a perfectly sensible regulation whether or not one wishes it to be imposed. No, the Government have to speak of five countries, all of whose citizens or most of whose citizens are obviously black.

What about the figures? The Statement contains figures which according to my information are rather misleading. I should like to deal—only for a moment, I promise your Lordships—with the figures I have in regard to the five countries involved. My figures show that last year Britain had half a million visitors from the five countries concerned, and of all those the Home Office could find only 222 who had absconded. If the idea here is to save ourselves from those who have absconded, what is to prevent anyone who has a visa from absconding? What have we done in that connection by these regulations which have produced so much ill-will?

My last point is this. I am informed—and I invite the noble Earl the Minister to refute this if I am wrong; I have, as he knows, given him notice of this figure although the notice I gave him was only a matter of minutes—that the figure required to pay for the new arrangements in the five countries involved is £14 million. That £14 million would pay for just over 1,000 more immigration officers in the United Kingdom. That would cure all queues we have of immigrants, visa holders or non-visa holders, from the five countries, and indeed the whole world. I imagine it might considerably improve the impression that we give to visitors from overseas, from whatever country they come.

My final request to the Government is this. This is a very important matter that many of your Lordships will wish to discuss; a debate in which your Lordships will wish to participate and certainly listen to. I ask the Minister to help the arrangements through the usual channels to see that we have as early a date as possible for such a debate.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, is the Minister aware that the justification given for the imposition of visas is woefully inadequate, and that the figures provided certainly do not go to show that there was any need for this panic measure? Is not the increase in the number of passengers who have been refused admission as much a reflection of the strictness of the tests applied by immigration officers and the degree of suspiciousness that they entertain of persons coming here from the five countries as it is of the preparedness of those passengers to evade the immigration rules? Could not the figures be interpreted either way? Is it not correct to say that the Government have not made out a case to show that this increase in the number of refusals is the result of an increased attempt by those passengers to evade our immigration rules?

Similarly, the Statement refers to those not eligible for admission. Is not that simply an expression of the opinion of the immigration officers concerned, which has not been tested by any kind of judicial process since only a tiny fraction of those refused admission as visitors bother to exercise their minimal rights of appeal from their country of origin?

The Statement refers to the risk to control and says that temporary admission is granted often at risk to control. What does the noble Earl say about the figures given by the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, that only 220 persons from these visa countries have absconded over a whole year compared with the many hundreds of thousands of visitors who arrive in this country?

The Statement refers to a sizeable minority of persons who may be trying to come here for other purposes, and says that it is better that the necessary inquiries be made before the journey starts. Is it not a fact that we imposed such a requirement on dependants in 1969, who have to obtain entry certificates in the countries of origin, and that, nevertheless, this system has not proved to be more reliable? For example, in the case of Bangladesh some 38 per cent. of the appeals from persons refused leave to enter as a result of the process which is now being introduced for visitors are, in fact, successful; that the decisions made by the entry certificate officers in Bangladesh are wrong in well over a third of the cases submitted to appeal. How are we to know that, similarly, bona fide visitors are not going to be refused in large numbers under these procedures?

The Statement refers to the system working satisfactorily. How can that possibly be claimed after six days? Does not the Minister agree that, in all conscience, it would have been a little more appropriate and sensible for the Secretary of State to have waited until a reasonable period had elapsed while these procedures were tested—or at least to have been evaluated by both Houses of Parliament—before making such an extravagant claim?

Finally, I have two more questions. As regards the airlines having to pay for those persons who are refused admission, if someone is granted temporary admission and is subsequently found not to have any grounds for his claim to enter and is sent back, would not the airline normally be responsible for the payment of the necessary fare? Could not that still be done notwithstanding the fact that the person arrives here without a visa and is granted temporary leave to enter?

As regards representations, is it not a fact that in settlement cases where the decisions are now made, as the Statement says, in the countries of origin, the Secretary of State always has been prepared to entertain representations from Members of either House and to grant temporary admission in appropriate cases while that is being done? Therefore, what is the difference between those cases of settlement and the cases we now have of visitors arriving without a visa? What is the justification for removing the rights of Members to make representations in one case when the Secretary of State has not done so in another?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, for welcoming the Statement. The noble Lord asked why we do not impose visa requirements on every country which imposes visa requirements on this country. We impose visa requirements to meet an operational or other need. We do not believe that it would serve any useful purpose to retaliate against a country that imposed a visa restriction on this country. Generally, because of our geographical situation, we are in the happy position of being able to rely on our system of control of visitors at the ports. This works well in most cases and is the cheapest of the very different types of immigration control arrangements.

The noble Lord asked about the extra cost and I confirm that it will be in the order of £14 million. However, I disagree with him about the number of immigration officers that amount would pay for. The £14 million is about equivalent to the staff costs of 700 immigration service staff. However, providing more staff at the ports would not have solved the problems. Airport facilities are not designed for the type of problems we are experiencing. The cost of new terminals would have been out of all proportion to the problem now facing us. Other facilities, such as extra detention accommodation, would be required. The £14 million is a gross cost and some of it will be recouped from visa fees.

The noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, also referred to race relations. Again, I do not withdraw anything that I said on Friday. I believe that it would be quite wrong to say that requiring visas must inevitably damage race relations. Were that so the same effect would have been caused by four of the five countries imposing visas on British citizens. Visas should improve port conditions not only for visa holders but for all travellers. Ending the scenes that have recently been commonplace at Heathrow cannot but be good, rather than bad, for race relations.

Both the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, and the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, mentioned absconders, but absconding rates are by no means the whole story. The increase from 255 at Terminal 3 in 1985 to 430 in the year to June 1986 is disturbing enough. The point is that granting temporary admission is an unsatisfactory expedient. While better than prolonged detention for the passenger, it represents a loss of effectiveness in control. People are being let into the country whose claims for admission have not been fully examined or established.

The noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, also put the point about people absconding when they have a visa. That, I admit, is a problem, but the main problem—and the problem which we are trying to solve—relates to those who are trying to beat the immigration rules. The citizens who are given a visa are, in the vast majority of cases, visitors whom we would certainly welcome to this country.

One can give a number of examples of people who have tried to beat the system. There is a recent example of a person who purchased a British passport and tried to enter this country illegally in 1984. He was detained and removed from the country. Indeed, the same person has tried in the last few days to beat the rush, but by the vigilance of the immigration service, to which we pay great tribute, he has been caught.

To sum up, I think that all that has been said by the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, is best expressed in the question: Do we want an immigration system or do we not? The noble Lord does not seem to want an immigration service. Noble Lords opposite felt in 1968 that it was right to have one, but unfortunately, because of a small but increasing minority of people, the one that we have at the moment has been abused. We believe that that abuse, which is detrimental to race relations and to the bona fide visitor, should no longer continue. We therefore believe that we are absolutely right to ask for visas from the five countries that I have mentioned.

4.30 p.m.

Lord Renton

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that since the Immigration Act 1962 it has been acknowledged by all parties and it has been the practice that there should be a reasonably strict immigration control but that in spite of that this country has one of the most generous immigration policies in the world, which has been proved by experience? Is my noble friend further aware that most of the people who come to settle here want to settle in England rather than in other parts of the United Kingdom? England is one of the most densely populated countries in the world, if we leave aside the small island and city states. Does he not agree that the Government have a responsibility for ensuring that we do not add in any way to our problems of unemployment, education, health and housing and that the people of this country expect the Government to exercise the kind of reasonable authority which they have attempted to assert in regard to this matter?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for his remarks. Indeed I know that there are people who wish to come here to settle not only in England but in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland as well, and we welcome them. My noble friend is absolutely right. From the party opposite and ourselves there has come agreement that the immigration system must work properly. Unfortunately—and, as I said, it is regrettable—we have had to impose visas because our system, which was one of the most liberal in the world, was not working in that an increasing minority of people sought to abuse it.

Lord Mishcon

My Lords, does the noble Earl agree that the noble Lord, Lord Renton, whose contributions we always welcome, must not confuse the issue because it makes the conduct of the Opposition in such matters somewhat confused in itself?

Lord Renton

My Lords, I am not confusing—

Lord Mishcon

My Lords, perhaps I may deal with the point I wanted to make, which is that we have made it abundantly clear that regretfully strict immigration control is necessary. We are not dealing at all today with any debate or statement about immigration. We are dealing with the question of visas for genuine visitors to this country who ought to be welcomed.

Lord Harmar-Nicholls

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that if all sides agree that immigration rules are necessary most reasonable people would say that in applying those rules it is much better that they should be applied at the beginning rather than at the end of the process when expense and difficulties have been allowed to accumulate? With regard to the question of whether or not people feel inferior when they have a visa, I wonder whether the Leader of the Labour Party felt inferior when he had to have a visa attached to his passport before he could enter India a month ago.

Lady Saltoun of Abernethy

My Lords, is it not the case that I have to have a visa if I want to go to Australia? What is racist about that? What is all the fuss about?

The Earl of Caithness

I agree with the noble Lady. I do not see anything racist in this measure. When I went to Australia I did not need a visa yet it does not worry me now that I need a visa to go to America. With regard to the remarks of my noble friend Lord Harmar-Nicholls, I do not think I can add anything to the comment I have already made that we wish to make the system workable. I think that the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, somewhat confused me by changing the emphasis slightly. However, immigration has been seriously put at risk, as have the enjoyable visits of bona fide visitors, by an increasing minority who wish to come here and who abuse the immigration system.

Lord Pitt of Hampstead

My Lords, if it is accepted that we want to make the immigration system work, will the Minister explain why it was not possible for the Home Secretary to indicate that visas would be required, to negotiate through his Foreign Office colleagues with the governments in question so that they could encourage their citizens to obtain visas before they come, and then later to fix the date after which nobody would be admitted without a visa? Would that not have prevented what we have been experiencing? Can the noble Earl tell me why it was necessary to take this action in the way in which it was carried out?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, in an ideal world the noble Lord would be right. Indeed, in an ideal world we should not have to have visas. But as I explained on Friday, and as my right honourable friend the Home Secretary has said on many occasions, it is the continual and growing pressure on the immigration service by this increasing minority that has forced us to take the action that we have taken.

Lord Pitt of Hampstead

My Lords, that does not answer my question. Let me give your Lordships an illustration of what I mean. I had lunch today with a lady from Pakistan who knows the consul-general there. Months ago when she was leaving Pakistan she asked him about a visa and he said that she would not need a visa and it would be a long time before such a thing was required. When she arrived in Geneva the question of a visa had already arisen. She had to go to the embassy there and she was told that she had better stay another couple of days so that she could obtain one. I am trying to point out that if that woman had taken the advice of the consul-general in Pakistan she would have been in that crowd.

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, there comes a time when every government have to take action. The noble Lord has rightly pointed to one circumstance where inconvenience could have been caused and we regret that inconvenience. There is no doubt in our mind, and it is clear from the evidence, that there was a continual and growing problem, to such an extent that my right honourable friend had to act and act quickly.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, is it not an interesting commentary on the contrast between our society and that of the communist world that we have to take steps to keep people out whereas it expends great energy on keeping people in?

Lord Ardwick

My Lords, can the noble Earl say anything about the physical conditions for the applicants? For example, will they have to stand in long queues under the hot sun to apply for visas after perhaps rather long journeys?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, I do not think it would be right for me to comment on that situation yet because they may be able to apply for their visas by post or other means if they so desired. With regard to the point raised by my noble friend Lord Boyd-Carpenter, I think his comment is a rather useful one at this stage.

Baroness White

My Lords, can the noble Earl give an assurance that if the requirement for visas is extended to other parts of the Commonwealth—or the rest of the world for that matter—really adequate notice will be given so that we do not have a repetition of what happened last week? The date by which visas will be essential should be notified well in advance so that people can make their dispositions and we do not have a repetition of the appalling situation that arose at Heathrow.

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, I think we come back to the ground we were covering on Friday. Whenever one draws the line or says that one intends to introduce visas, one is open to criticism. We believe that the situation was deteriorating and the pressure of those wishing to beat the system and clog the wheels was making life so difficult that we had to act and act quickly.

Lord Auckland

My Lords, is my noble friend the Minister aware that the vast majority of people in this country will agree with the measures that Her Majesty's Government are taking? Should not, however, the Home Office consult perhaps all the embassies and High Commissions concerned with the whole problem of issuing visas? As the noble Lady, Lady Saltoun, said, people going to Australia have to have visas but people coming from Australia do not; and people going to the United States of America have to have visas but this does not apply in the other direction. Is it not time that the Government looked into the whole question of issuing visas—leaving aside the merits of this case—to ease the lot not only of the embassies and High Commissions concerned but also of those who are involved through the necessity to issue these visas?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for his points. I am sure that it will be seen—when some of the emotion that is, I fear, clouding the issue at the moment dies down—that the Government took the right decision. Of course, I shall pass on to my right honourable friend the Home Secretary my noble friend's points about looking at the whole of the visa system.

4.41 p.m.