HL Deb 07 December 1992 vol 541 cc75-84

7.5 p.m.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey rose to ask Her Majesty's Government what action they propose to take to implement the proposals contained in the National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux report A Charter for All?

The noble Lord said: My Lords, this Question has two distinct strands. The first is the evidence from the National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux on the work of the Immigration and Nationality Department which was published in July of this year. The second is The Citizen's Charter, which was also published this year, which described the Government's programme for improvement of the rights of citizens. It played a considerable part in the Government's election programme.

I wish to say a few words about the report of the National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux. This was by no means a casual document. It was produced on the evidence of no fewer than 95 local offices of citizens advice bureaux which in 1991–92 received no fewer than 60,000 separate inquiries from citizens of this country about the work of the Immigration and Nationality Department of the Home Office. Indeed the report is not only about the work of the Home Office, because of course it is the Foreign and Commonwealth Office which is responsible for entry clearances in other countries.

The Citizen's Charter, which is the other part of my argument, was described by the Government when it was published as the most comprehensive programme ever to raise quality, increase choice, secure better value and extend accountability. How was that to be achieved according to the Government and according to The Citizen's Charter? First, it was to be achieved by more effective complaints procedures; secondly, it was to be achieved by improved procedures for redress for injustice or maladministration; and, thirdly, it was to involve the users more closely in the operation of the services and in the way in which they affect individual citizens.

How does that apply to the work of the Immigration and Nationality Department? Let me make it clear from the outset that it would never be our position from these Benches to attack civil servants as such. We are concerned with government policy and the way in which the Government administer departments and individual branches of departments.

The evidence from the citizens advice bureaux is unfortunately terribly clear. What we see in the work of the Immigration and Nationality Department is fundamentally enormous delays in dealing with individual cases. We see a position where in 1990, when the Home Office Select Committee of another place investigated the matter, the average delays were of the order of 27 months. The result of that of course is that, because there are such long delays, a large number of applications is always in the pipeline, giving rise to the quite false impression that there is a flood of people wishing to enter this country, whereas of course the problem is not the numbers wishing to enter the country but the delays in dealing with the applications. That is true both of applications for entry and of nationality applications from those already in this country.

The matter is more serious not only because of the delays which take place but also because these are, after all, matters—in particular the nationality applications—which attract fees. There is a fee of £170 for a nationality application. It is refunded, only in part, if the nationality application is successful. It is not refunded at all if the application is not successful. Therefore, this is a service which is paid for, and I suggest that there is an obligation that the service should be efficiently and promptly run. If there is no assurance that the service is to be run efficiently and promptly, the question of compensation arises.

We tried to bring the two aspects together. We looked at the issue of the performance of the Immigration and Nationality Department as evidenced by the report of the National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux and we looked at The Citizen's Charter. The Minister responsible in the Home Office, Mr. Charles Wardle, has accepted that the general principles of The Citizen's Charter should apply to the work of the Immigration and Nationality Department. He has told the House of Commons Select Committee that the work of the department in relation to The Citizen's Charter will be under review. The question which we have to ask, and which I ask the Government today, is to what extent they accept that there should be an independent review, as will clearly be required by the conditions of The Citizen's Charter, of the work of the Immigration and Nationality Department.

It may be thought that this is a complaint about the department's past record. We know very well that the asylum Bill, to give it its even shorter title, is now progressing through another place and is due to come to your Lordships' House in the new year. The effect of the asylum Bill, quite contrary to the provisions of The Citizen's Charter, would be to reduce the provisions for redress which in other circumstances The Citizen's Charter would provide and to ignore, because there is no reference to it in the Bill, the procedure for complaints which is an essential part of The Citizen's Charter. We raise this Question today not only because we are profoundly dissatisfied with the resources and policy directives which have been given to the Immigration and Nationality Department in the past but because we envisage that the asylum Bill will make the situation even worse.

Nor is it simply a matter of delays and the lack of consultation, the lack of compensation and the lack of an effective complaints procedure. The suspicion must be that there is an element of racial discrimination in the way in which the department works.

Let us look at the figures. In the past year 19,000 applicants for entry to this country were refused permission to enter. The proportion of applicants from the United States refused entry was 0.04 per cent. The proportion of applicants from Jamaica who were refused entry was 1.9 per cent. In other words, more than 30 times as many applicants from Jamaica were refused entry as applicants from the United States. It cannot be doubted that our connections with Jamaica go back as far as our connections with the United States and our links with the citizens of Jamaica are as important to us in their way as our links with the citizens of the United States.

Let us also look at the figures for the Indian sub-continent. Here the proportion refused entry was 0.34 per cent., which is eight times the rate of refusal for applicants from the United States, despite the fact that applicants from the Indian sub-continent have to obtain clearance in advance from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office at their point of departure. That means that, despite the fact that they are in double jeopardy, in effect being required to satisfy the authorities twice, there is still eight times the rate of refusal for applications from the Indian sub-continent than from the United States.

Let us also consider the delivery of nationality applications. We can see from the citizens advice bureaux evidence an apparently unending string of examples of injustice. Applicants put in their applications, send in their passports and marriage certificates and all the evidence. Those are retained for many months. Applicants are advised that their case will be considered and the date is deferred almost for ever. I shall not bore the House with individual details, but if I say that in 1990 in its investigation of the work of the department at Lunar House the Home Affairs Select Committee in another place found no fewer than 250,000 unopened letters, including marriage certificates and passports, the point will have been made clearly.

Examples may not prove a case, but the implications of those manifest defects in the work of the department must be clear. Not only, at the very lowest level, are we creating extra work for our own civil servants, both in the Home Office and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. If one has to deal over and over again with an application which has been delayed many times one increases the amount of work enormously. Not only, again at the lowest level, should there be greater compensation for those who have been the subject of maladministration. At the more serious level, the Immigration and Nationality Department is failing to present itself in the role in which it should present itself to the world at large—as the ambassador for British standards of justice and efficiency.

7.16 p.m.

Lord Meston

My Lords, we are truly grateful to the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh of Haringey, for asking this Question and drawing attention to this valuable report. As he pointed out, it does not simply make recommendations: it also presents evidence. The report makes depressing reading, not just because of the problems it describes, but because it describes problems which have been identified and emphasised in earlier reports, including that of the Home Affairs Select Committee of another place, and, despite those previous reports, the problems seem to have worsened.

The report must surely challenge any government to give a firm response. The delays are clearly excessive and beyond anything that would be expected or tolerated in any other bureaucratic exercise. Yet those delays have to be tolerated by applicants seeking to enter this country who, not surprisingly, have no bargaining strength whatsoever. As the report says —and it is not the first to say it—delay has come to be seen as a method of control. Paragraph 4.7 of the report describes how the very existence of queues of applicants creates the impression of a clamour to enter this country which in turn reinforces the feeling that controls should be increasingly strict.

Some of the greatest delays involve applications which, if they were allowed, would unite or reunite families. The report describes evidence of lengthy failures to respond to applications and to other communications. It describes the piecemeal requests by the department for documentation. Obviously that causes uncertainty and anxiety to the families concerned. The report points to the irony of the delays and obstacles faced by people wishing to join or rejoin their families in a political climate in which family values and family responsibilities are regarded as so important as to require buttressing by central government.

One other aspect of the report to which I hope the Government will give serious attention is the treatment of temporary visitors. One cannot escape the disparity between the treatment of the affluent business visitor and the treatment of the visitor coming to stay with his or her family. Those are usually people who have planned long and saved hard to visit relatives in this country. The visit is usually the subject of happy expectation for all concerned, yet when they arrive the reality is that even those with evidence of return tickets, jobs and homes to go back to, are treated with suspicion and exposed to inconvenience and disappointment.

Surely it cannot be beyond the wit of man to improve the system as it presently operates so as to balance the need to scrutinise visitors in order to weed out at an early stage those who might abuse the permission to enter, with the desirability of sparing the great majority of bona fide visitors the indignity and inconvenience experienced by all too many.

Surely one mark of a civilised society must be the way it treats immigrants and potential immigrants. If the recommendations of this report are adopted by the Government, the result will he a system which is seen to be fair, consistent and quick. It will be a system which enjoys confidence. Although the recommendations in this report include proposals for a complaints procedure and for a compensation system in place of the existing ex gratia payments which I understand are made and for legal advice and representation, an improved system which is seen to be fair is in fact less likely to be challenged by such means. Unless standards are raised, the first impression of people entering this country will be of a discriminatory system, whether that impression be right or wrong. To fuel suspicion and discrimination in that way can only harm race relations at a time when I hope the Government are giving serious consideration to the second review of the Race Relations Act recently conducted by the Commission for Racial Equality.

I am sure the Minister and his department are not impervious or indifferent to the criticisms made in this sensitive area. I look forward to the Minister's response to the specific and reasonable recommendations of this report.

7.22 p.m.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, just before he sat down the noble Lord, Lord Meston, said that he hoped that Ministers or the department were not immune to criticism about the way in which they operate. Indeed, we are not. Immigration and all that surrounds it is an enormously sensitive area. We all know that it is important that the standards should be as high as possible. Inevitably, there have been occasions when the standards have not been as high as we would wish.

I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh of Haringey, for at least giving me the opportunity of explaining to your Lordships the steps which are being taken to improve the standards of service in the Immigration and Nationality Department. He made a formidable speech, full of criticism. I do not blame him for that at all. We shall certainly take note of it. The noble Lord, Lord Meston, also expressed his concern.

I am grateful that the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, said that he did not intend to attack civil servants, but he would attack the Government's policy. He was quite right to say that. What happens if there are shortcomings? The shortcomings are the result of government policy for which Ministers are responsible. They are not the shortcomings of those who work hard within the system to try to make the system work as well as possible.

I do not deny for one moment that there is scope for further improvement. But I do not think that the impression of the Immigration and Nationality Department which is painted in the report to which the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, referred is accurate or even fair.

Your Lordships know of the importance which the Government attach to improving public services. The second Citizen's Charter White Paper was published only last month. It sets out a wide array of achievements and progress which have been made since the first White Paper was published two years ago. The Citizen's Charter represents the Government's desire to see a long-term programme of change and improvements in order to raise the standards of services, which are offered by public bodies to individual members of the general public.

Public services need to understand better and respond better to the needs and the requirements of their customers and their users. They also need to find better and more efficient ways of providing these services. The Immigration and Nationality Department at the Home Office will be as sensitive to this as will any other department. Inevitably, if you try to do this, there will be changes: changes in the way in which the services are run and organised. It will need constant attention to detail and constant application of effort. The Citizen's Charter, to which the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, referred, is long-term stuff. It is not a short-term flight of fancy. It is something that we want to see happen in order that the services of which the general public are the recipients should be as high as possible and higher than they have been.

Immigration control is a very complex business. The public quite rightly expects that the Immigration Rules will be applied firmly and with care. This sometimes means asking probing questions, and it sometimes means taking decisions which are, quite understandably, unwelcome to the applicant.

The Immigration and Nationality Department is often not in the position of being able to grant to applicants that for which they are asking, and I am sure that your Lordships understand that this will always have to be the case. It is important that, despite that, decisions should be taken sensitively, and that applicants, whether they are satisfied or dissatisfied with the outcome of their case, can at least feel that they have been treated fairly. I can assure your Lordships that it is made absolutely clear to staff who work in the department that all those who pass through their hands should be dealt with courteously and without unnecessary procrastination. In that respect all managers within the Immigration and Nationality Department are expected to attend a training course which emphasises the importance of customer care.

It is simply not true, as it is claimed in the National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux report, that The Citizen's Charter does not apply to the Immigration and Nationality Department. It does, it should and it will.

I hope that your Lordships will understand that it would not be right for me to comment on the individual cases which are cited in the national association's report. I could not in fact do so, as the report did not provide sufficient details to enable them to be identified. But I would like to deal with the main proposals which are made in the report.

The national association's report recommended that the Immigration and Nationality Department should publish standards of service and that it should keep them under review. Because this suggestion has been made, your Lordships might be forgiven for thinking that the Immigration and Nationality Department does not publish information about its performance. In fact it does—and has done so for several years—in its annual report.

The annual report provides a lot of information about the operation of the Immigration and Nationality Department, and it includes detailed information on its standards of service, how they have improved and what are the targets for the future.

This year we have gone one step further with the publication of what is called the Operating Plan for 1992–93 of the immigration service. The Immigration Service is part of the Immigration and Nationality Department. The plan covers the priorities, aims and objectives on which members of the immigration service who work at ports will concentrate over the next 12 months. It records a range of improvements which are designed to make the service better for the travelling public. Among the measures which feature in the plan are the new standards of service for non-European Community nationals who arrive at Heathrow and Gatwick airports. Other parts of the plan include reducing queueing times at ports. Some of your Lordships may know about the new procedures, which were introduced in the summer at Dover, which will allow cars to pass more quickly through the immigration control. We are now looking at ways of extending the new procedures to other ports.

Other objectives in the plan include a survey of the views of passengers, which is now taking place, and a broadening of the areas of service which ought to be subjected to the checking of standards—such as the response to telephone calls and correspondence.

I cannot abide slothful correspondence and I know that I am periodically guilty of it. In large departments though it is sometimes very difficult to get over to people the fact that letters matter. They may be a bore, but correspondence is often a department's main contact with the public and the way in which letters are dealt with often determines an individual's perception of the department. Of course in the field of immigration it is not just about correspondence; all kinds of questions have to be asked and details investigated—and that takes time.

I would not seek to defend the regrettable delays and backlogs of work which have occurred in some categories of work, including applications for citizenship. Delays built up following the receipt of about 300,000 applications in 1987. That was six times the usual number, which occurred under the transitional provisions of the British Nationality Act 1981. The position though is now improving.

The noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, referred to nationality fees. I accept that there is room for improvement in the time which is taken to deal with those applications. I must point out, however, that no financial profit is made out of those fees; they are set at a level which will recover the expected costs of processing the applications. There would be no question of altering that principle.

As a result of the deployment of extra staff and other resources, as well as of some improvements in the procedures which are used, the situation is now better. However, applicants still have to wait too long —longer than either my right honourable friend the Home Secretary or I would wish. A person who applies for citizenship can now expect a decision within 12 to 15 months. The situation will continue to improve during the coming months as the very last cases which are still outstanding from 1987, 1988 and 1989 are completed.

The noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, said that he profoundly disagreed with the resources that have been made available to the Immigration and Nationality Department. There has been a surge, too, in asylum applications during the past few years and that has led to delays in resolving those cases. I do not think that it would have been possible for any organisation to have dealt with such a rise in applications without acquiring a backlog. They have risen from 4,000 per year in the mid 1980s to 44,000 in 1991. That is a huge increase and all must be processed and dealt with. That puts a great strain on the resources of a department.

We took action to deal with that. The number of staff employed in the asylum division of the Immigration and Nationality Department has increased from around 100 in 1990 to more than 500 now. The backlog of cases is now being reduced. Your Lordships will also know that the Government recently introduced the Asylum and Immigration Appeals Bill which is going through another place. The noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, said that that would make the delay even longer. With respect, the Bill is designed to speed up the determination process as well as to strengthen the safeguards for genuine refugees.

I think that the general position is, therefore, one of improvement. It is not always realised that 85 per cent. of those people who personally visit the Public Enquiry Office in Croydon now have their cases resolved the same day. All those who arrive before 4 p.m. will be seen on that same day and, if necessary, staff will and do stay on to do that. So there has been a great change. The majority of routine applications which are sent by post are now dealt with in a matter of weeks. It is only where further inquiries are made or where asylum is claimed that cases take longer.

The noble Lords, Lord McIntosh and Lord Meston, referred to complaints. The arrangements for dealing with complaints are now under review in the light of the principles of the Citizen's Charter. As regards the arguments for introducing an independent element, to which the noble Lords referred, we have not hitherto found them particularly persuasive but they will certainly be considered during the course of the review.

There is much else which could be said on the points which were raised by the national association's report. It was, though, a matter for some sadness and regret that it should have been thought necessary to recommend that the Immigration and Nationality Department should make a clear and public commitment to providing a non-discriminatory service. The department is already fully committed to a policy of non-discrimation. There is no question about that. It has a published formal policy statement and the message is reinforced with staff through training so that the principle of non-discrimation is, in fact, a practice too.

My right honourable friends the Home Secretary and the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, who is responsible for immigration, are not sitting back in quiet contentment with the standards of service which are achieved by the Immigration and Nationality Department. There is room for improvement and I am the first to accept that. Improvements have nevertheless been made and I hope that tonight I have been able to show that there is a will to build on them.

The noble Lords, Lord McIntosh and Lord Meston, referred to discrimination. I do not believe that the statistics are inconsistent with individual countries being dealt with on their merits or on a non-discriminatory basis. Obviously the pressure on immigrants from some countries is greater than in others. I emphasise that there is no desire on the part of anyone—Ministers or officials—to impede genuine visitors and those exercising their rights under the immigration law.

Both noble Lords referred to the principle of compensation. Arrangements are already in place for making ex gratia compensation payments in certain circumstances. But the person must have suffered financial loss as a direct result of negligence or error, or of delay by an officer of the Home Office, in order to be able to receive such compensation.

Immigration control is one of the most sensitive of all the functions with which the Home Office is involved. The maintenance of firm control of immigration is central to the Government's policy but that fact is not inconsistent with the setting, and with the achieving, of high standards of service. We want to see that happen and we intend to ensure that it does.

House adjourned at twenty-two minutes before eight o'clock.