Mr. Roy Hattersley (Birmingham, Sparkbrook) (by private notice) : To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department whether he will make a statement on the actions that his Department proposes to take concerning the arrest this morning of Mr. Viraj Mendis.
The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Douglas Hurd) : A deportation order was made against Mr. Mendis in December 1986. He then entered a church in Manchester to frustrate its implementation. Mr. Mendis has pursued his legal remedies over the last two years but these are now exhausted. Since it is clear that he is not prepared to abide by the law, I instructed the immigration service to arrange for him to be removed to Sri Lanka as soon as is practicable. This morning he was removed from the church and has been placed in detention to await removal to Sri Lanka.
Mr. Mendis, who was admitted to this country as a student in 1973, has been here in breach of the law since 1975. The decision to deport him has been reviewed and endorsed by the independent appellate authorities, the divisional court and the Court of Appeal. His petition for leave to move to the House of Lords has also been rejected. On 28 December, the divisional court rejected a further application for judicial review of my refusal to give assurances to his solicitors that no steps would be taken to remove him pending a substantive response to their representations and that no steps would be taken to remove him for at least 48 hours following notification of the response.
I have reviewed this case on many occasions in the light of various representations received on his behalf and I have considered further representations put forward by his solicitors and others acting on his behalf. I can, however, find no reason to alter my view that Mr. Mendis does not qualify for refugee status under the United Nations convention, or to reverse my decision to deport him, which was taken and has been reviewed in accordance with the law. [Interruption.] I have made it clear throughout that I have been prepared to accept the decision of the courts. In the absence of any indication that Mr. Mendis was prepared to do the same, I felt bound to instruct my officials to enforce the law.
Mr. Hattersley : First, will the Home Secretary find out why up to 100 police and immigration officers were employed to detain a man who had already made it clear that he would not resist arrest, and why his detention required what amounts to criminal damage to church property?
Secondly, will the Home Secretary tell us why--when his own Minister of State was discussing with my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Central (Mr. Litherland) the prospect of Mr. Mendis being removed to a third country--it was thought necessary to remove Mr. Mendis this morning, before those discussions were completed?
Thirdly, will the Home Secretary confirm that the judicial reviews, on which he leans and behind which he hides, relate entirely to the risks that Mr. Mendis faced had he returned to Sri Lanka in 1985? How can he possibly
Column 336justify returning Mr. Mendis to that country four years later, when his prospects and the situation have radically changed?
Finally, does the Home Secretary not understand that, when he considers applications for asylum, in cases of doubt the benefit should go to the applicant, for if the Government make a mistake the price that may be paid is the death of the man or woman they have deported from this country? Does he not realise the damage that he has done to the international reputation of this country by repudiating Britain's traditional role as a place of refuge for the oppressed and the disadvantaged?
Mr. Hurd : The responsibility for the operation this morning rested with the chief constable, but of course he had to take into account the fact that the church had been the centre of attention and that many supporters and friends of Mr. Mendis had gathered there. There were 300 people around that church-- [Hon. Members :-- "When?"]--on Friday of last week, when there was a report that the immigration service and the police were about to act. Within minutes of the police operation this morning, at least 60 people gathered for the same purpose.
I believe that the chief constable was entirely justified in making arrangements designed to make sure that this operation could be conducted quickly, smoothly and without injury. That he achieved, and I believe he was right to concentrate in that way.
The police at each stage shouted to Mr. Mendis inviting him to come out, and it was only when no reply was received that they broke down two doors, one door and then another. They will of course compensate for the damage done. I do not believe that most people would accept that it is right to allow anyone to defy the law by entering a church. It would also be unfair to the many thousands of people who abide by immigration decisions.
The right hon. Gentleman referred to the third country possibility. We have made it clear to Mr. Mendis and his friends for months that our concern was that he should leave this country. The country to which he went was a matter for him, and if people could, on his behalf, organise a third country to receive him, we made it absolutely clear that that would receive no objection from us. The difficulty until very recently has been that Mr. Mendis has himself excluded any such possibility, and no such prospect has been open to him.
It is right that I should keep in touch with the situation in Sri Lanka as it is today, as it has developed, and in the letter written on my behalf to Mr. Mendis's solicitors this morning I made it clear that I had done so.
We have a tradition, which we observe and scrupulously uphold, of following the United Nations convention on refugees. Mr. Mendis has received full legal advice throughout and has gone through all the legal processes, which are abundant, provided by the law. What we cannot accept--and what the right hon. Member for Sparkbrook is really arguing--is that, because someone has developed strong political views since he came here or because there is disorder in the country from which he came, he has developed thereby a right to stay here. That argument has been put by him, but he has no such right under the United Nations convention, and that fact has been reaffirmed today by the representative in London of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Mr. Volfing. That argument
Column 337has been deployed before the adjudicator, before the appeal tribunal and before the Court of Appeal, and on every occasion it has been rejected.
Mr. Robert Litherland (Manchester, Central) : First, I would like to express outrage and sadness at what happened in the Church of the Ascension this morning. The Minister of State will recall our meeting prior to the Christmas recess when he advised me to take a message back to the Bishop of Manchester and Viraj Mendis's solicitor to seek an alternative country. I did that in good faith. Ministers know full well that those moves are being undertaken. Why will the Home Secretary not honour that part of the bargain and allow time for Mr. Mendis to find a country of security?
Mr. Hurd : The hon. Member has taken a continuous and conscientious interest in this matter as the constituency Member. However, he will agree, and my hon. Friend the Minister of State, Home Office, the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Renton), has just confirmed to me, that in our discussions with the hon. Gentleman or with others, we have done exactly what I said in answer to the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley). We have explained that we have no objection if a third country can be found to accept Mr. Mendis. That has not happened. Whatever efforts have been made have not been successful. We gave no deadline for this and I do not believe that it is reasonable to delay action simply because it is alleged that the prospect of a third country still exists. We have no evidence that that prospect exists.
The hon. Gentleman knows this case backwards. He knows that Mr. Mendis entered this country as a student. He overstayed. He found a new course of study and failed his examinations three times. He went to ground and when he was traced again he said that he had married and therefore should be allowed to stay. His marriage collapsed and his wife confirmed that he had entered into it solely in an attempt to stay.
Faced with those facts, my predecessor decided on deportation. Mr. Mendis developed political opinions about Sri Lanka which he had not expressed when he was in that country. He used those political opinions to develop the legal case against deportation. That was considered by my predecessor and myself, rejected by the adjudication panel and by the Court of Appeal and leave was refused in the House of Lords. The hon. Gentleman knows that background as well as I. Against that background, I cannot believe that he is whole-hearted in support of the case.
Mr. Michael Morris (Northampton, South) : Is my right hon. Friend aware that, despite extensive and continuing research in Sri Lanka, no organisation, be it Tamil, Singhalese or Burgher, in Sri Lanka knows of any reason why Mr. Mendis should not return to that country? Furthermore, is it not a fact that Mr. Mendis, this aged student, flouted the immigration laws of this country which in itself is a crime? More importantly, hon. Members on both sides of the House will be aware that there are genuine refugees from Sri Lanka in this country. Mr. Mendis has undermined the cause of the genuine refugees. This man is a charlatan and he lives in a Walter Mitty world. I hope very much that he will be deported forthwith.
Mr. Hurd : I agree with my hon. Friend who has a close knowledge, perhaps unrivalled in the House, of the situation in Sri Lanka. It is worth recalling--the Sri Lankan high commissioner recalled this on the radio this morning--that the high commissioner wrote an unsolicited letter to me in 1985 and issued a press release stating that Mr. Viraj Mendis was not wanted in Sri Lanka for any civil or other offence. The high commissioner repeated that on the radio this morning, and said that Mr. Mendis was free to stay or to go back to Sri Lanka if he wanted and that he would not be in any danger because of his political views or for the campaign that he has been waging here, which does not seem to have been greatly noticed in Sri Lanka at all.
Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark and Bermondsey) : Will the Home Secretary tell the House--whatever the history of Mr. Viraj Mendis--whether he condones the behaviour of the police this morning, who broke into the home of a minister of the Church, cut the telephone wires to that home, smashed property in that home to take out a man who has indicated his intention to apply to the European Court of Human Rights, and about whom there are current negotiations between the Church and the Home Office, between Members of Parliament and the Home Office and who, at the end of the day, has rights like everyone else to be protected from the autocratic long arm of the Government and to have his civil liberties protected for as long as he remains within these shores? Does the Secretary of State condone what has happened, or is that what we are now to expect from him and his Government?
Mr. Hurd : The hon. Gentleman is well astray. The police obtained a warrant and invited Mr. Mendis to come out. No wires were cut ; an alarm system was turned off. In taking such a line, Father Methuen, with whom I and others have had discussions, knew that that might happen. It can have been no surprise to him. He knows perfectly well that the fact that someone is in a church does not give him any immunity from the law in this country.
The Church needs to think very carefully before it enters into a habitual custom of giving shelter to people who defy the law. The hon. Gentleman spoke as if this were some arbitrary sudden act of the Executive. He cannot have been listening to what I said. This matter has continued for more than two years since my predecessor authorised extradition. Taking full advantage of his legal rights in this country, Mr. Mendis has gone through every possible safeguard. It is the very opposite of an arbitrary decision by the Executive. The case involves a man who has exploited every legal possibility, but has found that ultimately they have come to an end.
Mr. Robin Maxwell-Hyslop (Tiverton) : This House is fairly used to inundation with the normal ration of humbug and cant, but have we not moved on from the days when a man or woman could escape the criminal law merely by reciting the Lord's Prayer and claiming benefit of clergy to an era in which the provisions--[ Hon. Members-- : "He is not a criminal."]-- of the Race Relations Act 1976 have laid down clearly that religious or racial--[ Hon. Members :-- "He is not a criminal."]--I am prepared to wait until I get silence--
Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop : Thank you, Mr. Speaker. Have we not, through the Race Relations Act, laid down the principle that in law nobody shall be in a different position because of what they do, in religious, or what they are, in racial or in any other status or by sex? [ Hon. Members :-- "Get on with it."] I am being far briefer than the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Heffer) was yesterday. Is it not the case that the criminal law in this country does and shall apply irrespective of racial or religious circumstances in which people choose to place themselves?
Mr. Hurd : My hon. Friend is correct. The right of sanctuary was abolished in 1623. I cannot think that anyone seriously would put forward the proposition that, when somebody has been through the courts time and again and has had his argument rejected and is still defying the law, he should be put in a special position and have discrimination in his favour against all those who are law-abiding simply because he has taken shelter in a church.
Mr. Tony Benn (Chesterfield) : First, is the Home Secretary aware that his decision to arrest Mr. Mendis, who has lived here for 15 years and has been actively assisting in immigration cases, will be seen as an attack upon the black community? Secondly, is he aware that Mr. Mendis had expressed a readiness to go to a third country and that the Churches are now negotiating to see whether they can find some other country which is more liberal than our own? Thirdly, is the right hon. Gentleman aware that a decision was made to use maximum force and violence against a church which was interpreting its responsibility, with the support of the bishop and, as far as I can make out, with the support of the Archbishop of Canterbury and bishops abroad, when its only responsibility and interest was in the preservation of Mr. Mendis's life and the fear that he would at least be imprisoned? Fourthly, is he aware that his decision shows the Government's policy on human rights as odiously hypocritical and will be seen everywhere in that way?
Mr. Hurd : I must say that I am surprised that so many Opposition Members and other people, even the right hon. Gentleman, should take up this case. The right hon. Gentleman is doing no benefit to the great majority of people from the communities about whom he is purporting to speak. The great majority of them are law-abiding. The great majority of applicants for asylum go through the processes--it is often difficult--and abide by the result. It is not a service to human rights or even to
Column 340the progressive principles for which the right hon. Gentleman purports to stand to take up this case. It is a throughly bad case from that point of view.
On the information available to me, I do not accept that the chief constable authorised the use of anything in the way of excessive force. He would have been very remiss if he had attempted to conduct this operation in a way which would have protracted it and enabled the crowd that gathered to gather before he had removed Mr. Mendis.
Mr. Timothy Raison (Aylesbury) : Is my right hon. Friend aware that anybody who seeks to understand immigration procedures and listens carefully to the facts of this case must come to the conclusion that my right hon. Friend is right?
Mr. Paul Boateng (Brent, South) : Scant regard was shown this morning to Church property in Manchester. Will the right hon. Gentleman show a greater regard to the office of the Bishop of Manchester and give an undertaking to the House that there will be no attempt to remove Viraj Mendis until he has completed his representations to him? Will he show at least some respect for the sincere Christian conviction that, were this man to be returned to Sri Lanka, he would face death? Will the Government show greater respect for that conviction and concern than they have shown for the human rights of Mr. Mendis?
Mr. Hurd : I am not attacking or criticising the bishop or the hon. Member for the constituency in which the church lay. I entirely accept that they have their convictions, although I believe they are misguided and, as regards the use of the church, have led them on to an unfortunate path. The question that my predecessor and I and all the courts I have enumerated have considered is whether Mr. Mendis has a well-founded fear of persecution if he returns to Sri Lanka. In my view, and in the view of all those who have considered the matter through the innumerable procedures that I have listed, the answer is no.
Mr. Tony Favell (Stockport) : Having had my advice bureau disrupted by the supporters of Mr. Mendis, I must say that they have no grounds for complaint about the excellent way in which the police behaved this morning. Can my right hon. Friend say whether this man failed his examinations in 1976, 1979, 1980, and 1981, who was supporting him during that time and whether he has carried out any gainful employment apart from being an immigration adviser to Manchester city council for one short period?
Mr. Hurd : He was certainly not fortunate in his student career. It eventually came to an end, he entered into a marriage--I have given the background to its collapse and the reasons that his wife gave about why he entered into it--and he then took up his political opinions. It is worth reporting the view of the adjudicator on those political opinions. He said :
"the appellant's public and open espousal of the separatist cause was nothing more than a deliberate and cynical attempt on his part to place himself in such a position that he could not be deported to Sri Lanka".
Column 341Nothing that has happened since has caused me to doubt that.
Mr. Hurd : Mr. Justice Drake, when he entered the final judgment on the matter just before Christmas, said that we had acted reasonably and, presumably, would continue to do so. That is crucial to achieving our objective and in not having it prevented or reversed. The undertaking given this morning in the letter sent to the solicitors is that deportation to Sri Lanka will not take place before the middle of Friday.
Sir Dudley Smith (Warwick and Leamington) : Does my right hon. Friend agree that, with the best will in the world, Britain cannot become the dumping ground for political refugees or, even more important, for quasi-political refugees? Is my right hon. Friend aware that the vast majority of the many immigrants in this country will consider that his decision today has been just and fair?
Mr. Hurd : My hon. Friend is quite right. No one wants to conduct a vendetta against anybody. I hope that the House will consider the implications of changing the policy that the Labour party has criticised. Once it became established that we had moved outside the boundaries of the United Nations convention and the test of the well-founded fear of prosecution into a situation in which people had only to come here and say that they came from a disordered and troubled part of the world and preferred to remain here--[ Hon. Members-- : "That is not our policy."] Well, that is the implication of the Labour party's line. Once that became established, we could say goodbye to the principle of firm and fair immigration control.
Ms. Joan Walley (Stoke-on-Trent, North) : On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. May I ask for clarification? Within your hearing, a statement was made by a Conservative Member, during an earlier question from my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Wythenshawe (Mr. Morris), that Mr. Mendis had gone. Will the Home Secretary clarify whether he has gone?
Mr. Speaker : In that case, the hon. Gentleman had better not persist with this point of order. This is an Opposition Day in which there are two important debates, so there is great pressure to speak. I shall call two more hon. Members from each side and then we must move on.
Mr. Churchill (Davyhulme) : Is my right hon. Friend aware that the great majority of people in Greater Manchester will welcome the removal of Viraj Mendis from the United Kingdom? Is he further aware that this gentleman has cost the ratepayers of Manchester tens of thousands of pounds in recent years and that they will be glad to see the back of him? Is it not a strange commentary
Column 342on a party that aspires to government that it should seek support for a man who has illegally overstayed for 13 years and who has contracted a sham marriage to stay here? Does it not show how unfit the Labour party is for government and how out of touch it is with the people of this country?
Mr. Keith Vaz (Leicester, East) : Every law-abiding citizen, every person who worships in a church as I do, or in a gudwara, a mosque or a temple, will be deeply outraged by the Government's action. The Home Secretary and the Minister of State have endorsed state hooliganism at the same time as lecturing football supporters on hooliganism. They have violated human rights at the same time as lecturing the Russians on human rights. They have damaged relations between the Church and the state. They have brought the police into immigration practice and procedure, in conflict with the black community, which is something that has been missing for many years. As the Home Secretary knows, I had a constituent who sought sanctuary in a temple in Leicester. That matter was resolved by patient negotiation between the Home Secretary, the police and the person involved, who then left the temple voluntarily.
Will the Home Secretary confirm the following? First, when did the Prime Minister know about this matter? Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that, at 10.33 am yesterday, my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Central (Mr. Litherland) and a delegation of Members of Parliament went to see the Prime Minister at 10 Downing street? Secondly, will the Home Secretary confirm that compensation will be paid to the Church authorities and that an apology will be given to Mr. Mendis for the damage to his property? Finally, in view of the action that has been taken and the involvement in the case of the Minister of State, will the right hon. Gentleman immediately consider dismissing the Minister of State from office?
Mr. Hurd : That is a ludicrous contribution. Yes, the Greater Manchester police will pay Mr. Methuen compensation for the damage to his doors. We are fortunate that no one was injured in an affair which, as my hon. Friend the Member for Davyhulme (Mr. Churchill) has said, the supporters of Mr. Mendis have made a cause celebre and in which there was considerable possibility of a sizeable fracas--which, in fact, was avoided.
Yes, of course I have kept my colleagues informed. No, I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman's first point. The only deduction that can be drawn from his argument is that people who defy the law should be in some way absolved from the consequences of doing so because they take shelter in a church or mosque. I hope that, on reflection, the hon. Gentleman will accept that that argument is not one which his constituents of any background would accept because it is grossly unfair to the majority of law-abiding citizens.
Mr. Robert Key (Salisbury) : My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary knows that, in the past year or so, he has dealt with two cases of serious political refugees on my behalf, and has done so impeccably. Does he agree that it is extremely unfair that Mr. Mendis should receive preferential treatment over many years when there are genuine cases? Is my right hon. Friend aware that ordinary pew-filling members of the Church of England are aghast at yet another example of silly behaviour by Church of England clergy and their bishops? Finally, can he give any estimate of what this affair has cost over 14 years?
Mr. Hurd : There has been no discrimination on our part in favour of this applicant. What has distinguished Mr. Mendis is the fact that he has been skilfully advised and that he has used to the full all the provisions and safeguards provided by the law--and has even attempted one or two others. That is what distinguishes him from my hon. Friend's constituents. As I have said, I do not want to enter into controversy with the Church about this. However, no one who has studied the record of this could accuse us of any shortages of patience or reasonableness.
Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North) : Is the Home Secretary aware that the situation in Sri Lanka is extremely tense and that there is enormous danger for anyone there who holds strong political views? As the Home Secretary has received affidavit evidence to the effect that Viraj Mendis's life would be in danger in Sri Lanka, does he not agree that he has flouted the United Nations convention on refugees of 1951? Does he further agree that he should now guarantee that Viraj Mendis is not returned to Sri Lanka and that the opportunities are given, which he knows full well are being negotiated, for Viraj Mendis to go to a country that is prepared to abide by the United Nations declaration of human rights, unlike this country, the Government of which is apparently prepared to flout that declaration?
Mr. Hurd : The hon. Gentleman should get in touch with Mr. Volfing, who is the London representative of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, and therefore perhaps in a more qualified position than the hon. Gentleman to interpret the 1951 convention. Mr. Volfing has told us privately for some time and, off his own bat, has helpfully issued a statement today saying that in his view the hon. Gentleman's thesis is wrong and that Mr. Mendis does not qualify under the United Nations convention. I would have hoped that Opposition Front Bench spokesmen would have studied that kind of evidence before commenting.
Several Hon. Members rose--
Mr. Litherland : I beg to ask leave to move the Adjournment of the House, under Standing Order No. 20, for the purpose of discussing a specific and important matter that should have urgent consideration, namely,
"the position of my constituent, Viraj Mendis, in the light of the information given to this House via the Home Secretary today". The Home Office-- [Interruption.]
Column 344effort to find asylum for Mr. Mendis as an alternative to deportation to Sri Lanka. The action of police in violating the home of Father Methuen and the Church of the Ascension gives cause for grave concern, especially in a so-called civilised and Christian society. However, the intention of the Home Office to deport Viraj Mendis to Sri Lanka is unforgiveable and unjust.
The court appeals have at no time taken into consideration the instability in that country. Mr. Mendis will be returned on the flimsy assurance from Sri Lanka that he is not in danger--when the Foreign Office is advising British tourists and business men not to visit that country.
If we sincerely believe in the preservation of human life, Mr. Mendis should be allowed to remain, or time should be afforded for him to seek another country or to take his case to the European Court of Human Rights. This is a moral issue and this House should recognise it as such and not demean itself by allowing Mr. Mendis to return to face persecution, torture or even loss of life.
Mr. Speaker : The hon. Member for Manchester, Central (Mr. Litherland) asks leave to move the Adjournment of the House for the purpose of discussing a specific and important matter that he believes should have urgent consideration, namely,
"the position of Mr. Viraj Mendis in the light of the information given to this House by the Home Secretary".
As the House knows, under Standing Order No. 20, I have to take into account all the requirements of the order and announce my decision without giving reasons to the House. I have listened with care to what the hon.Gentleman has said. As he knows, my sole duty in considering an application under Standing Order No. 20 is to decide whether it should be given precedence over the business already set down for this evening or tomorrow. I regret that the matter that the hon.Gentleman has raised does not meet the requirements of the Standing Order and I cannot, therefore, submit his application to the House.
Several Hon. Members rose--
Mr. Nellist : Given that the statement by the Home Secretary of the decision that he has announced today revolves around his and the Government's assessment of human rights up to and beyond 1985 in Sri Lanka, were I or one of my hon. Friends to apply to you through a ballot or any other means for an Adjournment debate to test in the House that assessment of human rights in Sri Lanka, would you expect the Home Secretary to defer any action until that debate had taken place?
Column 345Lanka on Friday and many hon. Members believe that he faces the risk of persecution if he is deported, may I say that my view on the--
Mr. Speaker : Order. That is something that the hon. Gentleman cannot do on a point of order. He cannot express his view. I say to him and other hon. Members that I am sorry I have not been able to call them, but we have an important debate today in which other hon. Members wish to take part. Supplementary questions on the private notice question went on for 35 minutes, which is far longer than I would normally allow. I cannot hear a question wrapped up in a point of order.