Previous SectionIndexHome Page

1.16 pm

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mr. Derek Fatchett): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East (Mr. Vaz) on raising the issue. His patience has been rewarded. After a 12-year wait, he has had an opportunity to bring the matter to the attention of the House. In what may sound like a moment of mutual congratulation, I pay tribute to the excellent job that he does for his constituents, raising individual cases and working hard on community issues. I congratulate him on his work and the status that he holds in the community and his constituency.

My hon. Friend has raised some policy issues and some procedural issues. He is right to say that the policy issues are the responsibility of my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, but, as he says, it is difficult to disentangle policy from procedure, because the procedure is designed to ensure that the policy is properly and fairly implemented. Our objective throughout has been to ensure the good, fair and open implementation of the immigration rules. My hon. Friend said that he was in favour of the broad policy. The issue is how it is implemented.

My hon. Friend referred to three policy points. First, he rightly pointed out one welcome change in policy since we came to office--the abolition of the primary purpose

13 Jan 1999 : Column 279

rule. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary on having had the courage and the principles to take that decision so early in the life of the Government. I have never understood how it was possible for an entry clearance officer to decide the primary purpose of a marriage. I find the process distasteful and I am glad that my constituents and many others do not have to go through it. There are other safeguards in immigration law to stop those who want to use marriage for fraudulent immigration purposes. I welcome the principled decision that was taken in the early days of this Government.

Secondly, my hon. Friend rightly said that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary intends to introduce an appropriate appeals procedure for those who are refused visitors' visas. Again, I welcome that. That right used to exist, but was wrongly taken away by the previous Government. That has made a substantial difference to the work load of Members of Parliament, because we are no longer able to refer particular cases to the appeals procedure. We must take them up through the procedure to which my hon. Friend referred.

If and when the appeals procedure is established, it will not only make the burden of Members of Parliament easier, more manageable and fairer, but will restore the rights of families in the UK and potential visitors to the UK. In addition, it will make a substantial difference to the work load of the migration and visa correspondence unit because a legal right will be established, rather than an administrative process. I share the concerns of my hon. Friend about the loss of the right of appeal on visitors' visas, and I am delighted that the Home Secretary is moving to re-establish that principle.

Thirdly, my hon. Friend referred to a policy issue, not a procedural issue--the question of the word or integrity of a sponsor, and the possibility of a bond scheme arising from sponsorship. He referred to that not just in relation to what I might call ordinary sponsors, but in terms of Members of Parliament who support a particular application.

The Home Secretary has seriously considered a bond scheme as part of the White Paper on asylum and immigration. That is a sensible principle, although the details have yet to be worked out. It is, to me, evident common sense that if an individual of good standing and integrity is prepared to give his or her word--and is prepared to give a bond in some form to support that--that should be taken fully into account.

I feel sorry for the entry clearance officers, my noble Friend the Under-Secretary and those working in the MVCU when they have to write to Members of Parliament to say that there is no question about the integrity of a sponsor. That raises all sorts of important issues about the nature of sponsorship, and I am glad that the Home Secretary is addressing that in the White Paper and in future proposals.

My hon. Friend also referred to procedural issues. It may be useful if I deal with a number of points that flow from those to which he referred. The responsibility that rests with the Foreign Office is to administer the immigration rules fairly and openly to ensure that they are applied with sensitivity and to ensure that each client is dealt with quickly, efficiently and humanely. That is clearly our objective, whether the client applying for a

13 Jan 1999 : Column 280

visa comes from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh or any other part of the world. We will set ourselves a target, as we have done through the comprehensive spending review and the Department's mission statement, to make sure that we get the best possible service delivery to those applying for visas.

I can give two examples of the way in which we are trying to improve the service in south Asia. My hon. Friend will know--as will other hon. Members from their constituency case work--that, in the past, we have had trouble with information technology in Islamabad. [Interruption.] My hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Mr. MacShane)--my own Parliamentary Private Secretary--breaks all the rules by breaking into merry laughter at that point. I understand that the usual function of a PPS is to be seen and not heard, but I assume that the merry laughter was a sign of normal approval and approbation--the function of a PPS.

We have had difficulties with the information technology in Islamabad. My hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East will be delighted to know that we have made a substantial investment in Islamabad. Our permanent under-secretary has just visited the post, and we can feel confident now that the new system is working much more effectively. We hope that that will add to the efficiency of the system and will make sure that people are dealt with quickly.

My hon. Friend may wish to know that we are establishing new facilities in Karachi, which I will have the pleasure of opening next month. They should add to the quality and availability of service for applicants. He referred to the MVCU and to some concerns about delays in response to individual cases. First, there is a commitment on our part to recognise the extensive work load of the unit. We have done our best to ensure that there are additional staff, and that the work load is such that it can be handled fairly and effectively.

I note my hon. Friend's points and, as always, we will try to improve the service. I know that Members on both sides of the House are always keen to get the quickest possible reply. I hope that they do not all suffer the misfortune of never getting a positive reply--my hon. Friend's complaint. We will try to improve the service, and I know that my hon. Friend has a meeting arranged with my noble Friend the Under-Secretary. I am sure that they will be able to look at further ways of improving the efficiency of the service.

Mr. Vaz: Do Foreign Office Ministers have the power to exercise discretion on immigration cases?

Mr. Fatchett: My hon. Friend obviously realised the next point that I was going to raise. The simple answer is no. The Foreign Office's responsibility is to administer the procedures. The Home Office's responsibility is to set the policy, and it is Home Office Ministers who have the extra-statutory discretion. My hon. Friend reflected that point well in the way in which he structured his speech--saying that policy matters were the responsibility of the Home Office and procedural matters were the responsibility of the Foreign Office. My noble Friend

13 Jan 1999 : Column 281

Baroness Symons does not have the discretion or the power to overturn decisions. That discretion rests with the Home Office.

Fiona Mactaggart (Slough): Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Fatchett: I am not sure if it is totally procedurally correct, but I am delighted to give way to my hon. Friend.

Fiona Mactaggart: There is an area where procedure and policy almost go side by side. My hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East (Mr. Vaz) referred to the case of an elderly woman who wanted to visit. In practice, the procedure means that people over 65 who wish to visit from the sub-continent are almost automatically refused. That is not a matter of policy, but of procedure--and it is one that is causing great distress.

Mr. Fatchett: I understand my hon. Friend's point, and I will certainly bring it to the attention of my noble Friend Baroness Symons. We will make sure that there are clear instructions, so that the procedure does not violate policy in those circumstances.

My hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East was right to pay tribute to the staff of the MVCU and I join him in paying tribute to those working in posts abroad. Many have an extremely difficult task--it is physically and administratively demanding--and I would like to put on the record the Government's appreciation of their work. As individual Members of Parliament representing constituents, we may not always agree with the decisions that come out of the process, but there is no doubt that those responsible for the decisions work hard on behalf of our constituents and the Foreign Office.

My hon. Friend also raised the issue of additional posts--in India, in particular. We keep our posts under review, and we review also their ability to provide an adequate and efficient visa service. We are moving towards much more efficient and effective levels of service. If time allowed me, I could quote the figures from Bombay, which show that there is no waiting time, for instance, for an interview for a visitor's visa application--a significant improvement. I promise that the Government will keep under review at all times the provision of posts in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. If we feel that there is a gap in the service, we will make sure--if we can--that it is filled.

Finally, I recognise the points that my hon. Friend makes about the importance of the visa regime, its governing policy and its procedure application. The ability to come to the United Kingdom is, for very many people, an important and natural element of family life, and we should support it. I hope that our procedures make it possible for more and more families to be united. It is Government policy to support the family, and our immigration policies--and our procedures for implementing those policies--should work exactly in that direction.

Next Section

IndexHome Page