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13 Jan 1999 : Column 274

Visitors' Visas

1 pm

Mr. Keith Vaz (Leicester, East): I welcome this debate on visitors' visas. I have wanted to initiate such a debate for the past 12 years, and am happy that I can do so today.

I shall raise issues primarily, if not exclusively, of procedure, not of policy. I realise that two Departments have responsibility for the matter--the Home Office, which sets policy, and the Foreign Office, which administers the procedure on behalf of the Home Office. I support the Government's immigration policy, which is designed to ensure firmness and fairness in immigration.

I am delighted to note that my right hon. Friend the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office is to reply to the debate because he is one of the Government's most outstanding members, and has knowledge of the issues that I shall raise. He has dealt with immigration cases because, like me and other hon. Members, he has many members of the Asian community in his constituency. I shall concentrate on the Indian sub-continent, and specifically on how visas are issued to visitors from it.

I welcome the Government's commitment to the re-establishment of a right of appeal. I spoke to the Home Office today, and am aware that it will take some time before the Bill dealing with the matter is published. I am aware also that it will take some time for it to be enacted. Meanwhile, thousands of my constituents, and thousands of people in other constituencies, are directly affected by the way in which the procedure is operated.

I should make it clear also that we are talking not about settlement but simply about people who wish to come to the United Kingdom to visit relatives. They may wish to be here to attend weddings or funerals, or to visit as tourists, but they do not want to settle here. The debate is therefore quite different from a debate or discussion on asylum or on any other aspect of immigration policy. The people about whom I am speaking want to come here to visit relatives. When their holiday is finished, they wish to return to the sub-continent.

It is worth reminding the House of the size of the Asian community in the United Kingdom. According to the population census, there are currently in the United Kingdom 937,000 people of Indian origin, 552,500 people of Pakistani origin, 203,000 people of Bangladeshi origin, 177,000 people of Chinese origin, and 216,000 people classified as "other Asian". The total United Kingdom population of Asian origin is about 2.85 million, which is a very large number of people. They are concentrated in our major conurbations, such as Leicester, Slough, Tower Hamlets and Birmingham.

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mr. Derek Fatchett): And Leeds.

Mr. Vaz: Indeed; I thank the Minister for reminding me of that.

Members of the Asian community wish--we all have wishes--to ensure that they can see their relatives, that their relatives are able to be granted a visa relatively quickly and that their relatives are treated well while being interviewed.

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I have worked out that the Asian population in 32 parliamentary constituencies exceeds 10 per cent. of the electorate. Therefore, many constituencies are affected by the issue. The effect on our constituents of decisions made by entry clearance officers in places such as Bombay, New Delhi and elsewhere on the sub-continent is profound. Each week, at my surgery in Leicester--other hon. Members on both sides of the House will share the experience--constituent after constituent complains about the visa system. They are distressed, anxious and bewildered by the system. Sometimes they do not have the necessary information. They come to surgeries with a refusal notice that is very blunt and not particularly detailed, and expect their Member of Parliament to be able to wave a magic wand to ensure that their relatives are able to come into the United Kingdom.

I believe that the job of hon. Members is to stand in the shoes of their constituents, to accept what they say and to take that information and send it on to the entry clearance officer. We can then hope that the entry clearance officer will be able to review the case and--of course, to satisfy our constituent--grant a visa. Hon. Members therefore speak to the sponsors, unlike entry clearance officers, in countries on the sub-continent, who speak to applicants. There is a general assumption that the applicant will visit the person sponsoring him or her and that there is contact between the two.

I do not think that I have had a single case in which I have written to the migration and visa correspondent unit and received a reply containing good news. However, I shall deal later in my speech with the way in which that unit operates.

I have already mentioned the system's effects on relatives in the United Kingdom, but I believe that its effects on people on the sub-continent are even worse. People travel long distances to Dhaka, Bombay, New Delhi or Islamabad to make applications. The application may be refused, and they have to travel back to their home. They may not know what to do about the situation and may rely on the advice of immigration advisers. They may pay money to those advisers, most of whom, I believe, may mislead them. After all that, they will still be unable to enter the United Kingdom.

Subsequently--because of the way in which the United Kingdom visa regime works, and because we are part of the European Community--all of those from the sub-continent who are refused visas to enter the United Kingdom become prisoners of the region and are unable to visit other European countries. When those countries are notified that those people have been refused entry here, it creates a presumption in the minds of those countries that perhaps there is something wrong with those people.

A file is kept on those who are refused visas and even if they apply for a visa again within a year, their case notes will be read. Although we are told that a subsequent application will be considered as fresh and that everything will be reconsidered, I know--just as the Minister and every other hon. Member knows--that the case file will be examined and that the same rejection will be issued. I do not know of one case in which someone has been accepted as a visitor on a second application.

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How do hon. Members deal with such cases? We write to the migration and visa correspondence unit. To echo the words of my staff, I should like rename it "the voice mail unit", because my secretary informs me that whenever she rings the unit, she is put on voice mail. She leaves a message and the unit rings her back. I write a letter, and the unit replies. The MVCU sends a standard letter about which there is nothing magical--it acts as a placebo. My three and a half year old son, Luke, can fill in the words on such standard letters. Such is the type of reply that we receive from those working at the MVCU.

We send the letters that we receive from the MVCU to our constituents, who come back to us and say, "That letter contains exactly the same information that was in the refusal notice. There is no new information in it. What is the point of coming to you as my Member of Parliament?"

We need to overhaul the way in which the MVCU operates. It is important that hon. Members should be able to deal with people at that unit who can make decisions. Currently, it is easier for my constituents to fax Bombay, Islamabad or New Delhi, and to receive a fax reply, than it is for me to go through the absurd procedure of having to write to the MVCU, which writes to the post abroad and waits for a reply which is then forwarded to me.

The postcard sent by the MVCU states:

It is extraordinary that the unit should admit that there is such a delay.

I have many examples--only two of which I shall deal with today--of waiting ages for a reply to letters that I have written to the MVCU. It has certainly taken longer to receive a reply than 25 days. In one case, I wrote to the MVCU in early July, and again on 30 July, 10 September and 14 September. I received a reply on 23 September. In another case, I wrote on 28 September and received a reply on 3 November. There are many examples that prove that the unit's overall operation does not work.

I should like to highlight the urgent and very important cases in which people have to come to the United Kingdom because a relative is dying in hospital or because they would like to attend a wedding--for the ceremony, not when the ceremony is over. People from the sub-continent, like the rest of us, also would like to be able to visit their friends during the school holidays, not when the holidays are over.

In such urgent cases, hon. Members--who have so many similar cases and tend to react when people get terribly upset--try to get through to a Minister. To be fair to the Under-Secretary, my noble Friend Baroness Symons, she has seen me whenever I have rung, despite her enormous duties. However, I have never had a positive response from our conversations. I now realise why: she believes that the law does not permit her to exercise her discretion to grant a visa when an ECO has said no. Apparently, she has taken legal advice on that. I should be interested to know what my right hon. Friend the Minister thinks.

I recently dealt with a case that I thought very important. A 65-year-old woman called Mrs. Kerai wanted to visit her family in Britain. They had come here from east Africa, settled and had a family. The children

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were 21 and 22. The family had never had the chance to go to India because they were working so hard and she had never been to Britain. They wanted to bring her over to show her how much they had achieved.

Poor Mrs. Kerai was not allowed to come here because the ECO in Bombay feared that she was going to settle here. I said that she did not want to settle here. She did not want to stay, despite all the benefits of a new Labour Government. She likes being here to participate in what we have achieved, but she wants to go back at the end of her visit. I was advised that a 65-year-old woman with no husband should apply for settlement, but I repeated that she did not want to settle here. If she withdrew her visa application and applied for settlement, the authorities would assume that she had always intended to settle and could therefore not be granted a visitor's visa.

I went to my noble Friend the Under-Secretary, who said that she would look into the matter. Weeks passed with no response. I had another word with her. More time passed. Eventually I got very irate and threatened to raise the matter in Parliament. There is nothing so effective for ensuring a quick reply. I think that I had the first question tabled for Foreign Office questions that day. I had an immediate call from her private office to tell me that the matter was being looked into and passed to the Home Office. The Home Office approved the granting of a visa within 24 hours of the matter being referred.

Procedurally, we have to deal with Foreign Office Ministers who, on the basis of legal advice, feel that they cannot intervene and exercise their discretion. The cases then go to the Home Office. I do not want Members of Parliament to be treated differently, but if we say that we have met the applicant and the sponsor and know that the applicant will go back in six months and we give all the guarantees in the world--including ensuring that the passport is handed in when the applicant arrives in the United Kingdom and handed back to the post abroad when they return so that officials know that they have come back--any democratically accountable, fair, reasonable and just system should accept that.

I went to Bombay recently on my way back from a holiday in India, where I put those points at my first meeting with Michael Bates, the deputy high commissioner, and the second secretary of immigration. Civil servants and entry clearance officers say that they do what they are asked, but they make judgments based on an interview. Many applicants have to travel many miles and it is the first time that they have had to deal with officialdom. I do not ring Bombay very often--probably only four times a year. If I ring up and say that I know a particular applicant and the sponsor, promise that they will go back and am prepared to give any undertaking that is asked of me, the applicant should be in a better position. Otherwise, we rely totally on an economic basis for immigration law, which was never the intention of immigration policy and should never be the intention of the Government. Officials rightly say that issues should be taken up with Ministers, because they make the law whereas officials only implement it.

My right hon. Friend the Minister understands the problem. It took my office 10 person hours to deal with that one case. We have hundreds of cases to deal with. We cannot know everything about all of them, but there must be accountability to Parliament, and Ministers must be able to listen to colleagues, take advice and make decisions. I do not know what happened in the case that

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I mentioned--I know only that I got the visa for my constituent. We should not have to go through all that for something so simple and basic.

Until we have an appeal system, my right hon. Friend the Minister needs to consider undertakings and the operation of the MVCU. Why is there not someone at the MVCU who can make the relevant decisions? We cannot keep running to my right hon. Friend the Minister, who is incredibly busy. His portfolio covers about one third of the world. My noble Friend the Under-Secretary has to deal with every consular case. We feel guilty about disturbing them on such issues, but constituents press us to do so. Why do we not have a system that would allow a review in London? If not, let us have a computerised system. Visitors should be put on a computer so that we know where they are. Let us make the sponsors responsible. We should not have to wait for legislation, because this needs to be done now.

I pay tribute to the staff in our posts abroad, who have always been helpful to me. They have hardly ever said yes, but they are always very courteous. However, they will always do what Ministers ask.

I support the continuing campaign for the issuing of visas in the major cities of the sub-continent--places such as Ahmedabad, Chandigarh, Lucknow, Sylhet and Lahore. I have canvassed that with Mr. Advani, the Home Office Minister in India, the Indian Prime Minister, and our high commissioner and deputy high commissioner there. They are all favourable to the idea. If we allow visas to be issued, as the Indians and Pakistanis allow them to be issued in Leicester and Birmingham at visa surgeries, and allow our officials to go out to such places, they can verify facts and make the applications much cheaper. I hope that my right hon. Friend the Minister will look into the matter and try to end the misery that has affected so many of our constituents over the years. I know that he has inherited the current policy, but let us try to do something about it before the law changes.

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