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Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate): Object.

Madam Speaker: Which motion is the hon. Gentleman objecting to?

Mr. Blunt: I should like motion 7 to be taken on its own, Madam Speaker.

Constitutional Law

Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 118(6) (Standing Committees on Delegated Legislation),

Question agreed to.

Social Security

Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 118(6) (Standing Committees on Delegated Legislation),

Question agreed to.


Motion made,

Hon. Members: Object.

20 Mar 2000 : Column 828




Free Television Licences

10.41 pm

Mr. Ivan Henderson (Harwich): I present a petition on behalf of my constituents. The petition seeks an extension to the Government's initiative--under which more than 12,000 pensioners aged 75 and over living in my constituency will be entitled to a free television licence, to all persons over the retirement age, of whom there are more than 30,000.

I beg to submit to the House the petition of residents in the Harwich constituency, which

    The Petitioners therefore request that the House of Commons urges the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport to consider this proposal.

    And the Petitioners therefore remain, yours faithfully, Mrs. Irene Farrow and Mrs. Eileen Murphy of Clacton-On-Sea and others.

To lie upon the Table.

20 Mar 2000 : Column 829

Entry Clearance

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.--[Mr. Touhig.]

10.43 pm

Mr. Barry Gardiner (Brent, North): For almost 1.5 million people every year, their first contact with Britain and the British Government is the experience of submitting to the entry clearance operation at a consulate or high commission overseas. Submitting to an interview about one's income and intentions can be an intimidating process at the best of times, and when an important visit abroad to meet family, perhaps for a wedding reception or to see grandchildren for the first time, depends on it, that process can prove extremely stressful.

It is important therefore that this first impression of Britain is a good one, and that entry clearance procedures are perceived to be transparent, fair and just. I want to detain the House this evening because I believe that in some cases our entry clearance operation falls short of that standard, and I am concerned by the proposals to introduce a visa bond pilot scheme, which will in my view further impair our entry clearance procedures.

First, let me say that entry clearance officers do an extremely professional job on the whole, often in the most difficult circumstances. Their duty is to be the first step in the control of illegal immigration into the United Kingdom. They must satisfy themselves principally of three things: first, that the applicant's trip can be properly financed; secondly, that there is suitable accommodation for the applicant in the UK; and thirdly, that the applicant will return home before, or at the end of, the visa period.

Ninety-four per cent. of non-settlement visas are granted through the good offices of entry clearance officers. I accept that, as Members of Parliament, we invariably see more of the 6 per cent. of cases that, from the applicant's and sponsor's point of view, go wrong rather than the 94 per cent. of satisfied customers. None the less, there is cause for concern.

I remind my good and hon. Friend the Minister of the words of the independent monitor for asylum and immigration, Dame Elizabeth Anson, in her report of July last year, when she writes of

She goes on to say:

    it is felt that insufficient consideration is given to many real reasons that endorse their claims that they only intend a short visit and will return home.

In one case that I have been dealing with, a relative had been invited by grateful constituents of mine to visit them in the UK. They wanted to return the care and hospitality that the lady had given them when they had visited her in Sri Lanka--she had, in fact, nursed their two sick children during that visit--and sent her the flight to the UK as a gift.

The entry clearance officer in Sri Lanka based the decision to refuse the application on her answer to one specific question. The entry clearance officer had asked her, "And if it were possible, would you like to stay longer?" to which the lady had innocently replied,

20 Mar 2000 : Column 830

"Oh yes, of course." Such trick questions are on a par with the old Vaudeville gag of "Have you stopped beating your wife?"

Mr. Stephen Pound (Ealing, North): Is my hon. Friend surprised to hear that many relatives of my constituents who wish to visit this country are asked questions about the cities, towns and culture of the United Kingdom? When they cannot provide answers to those questions, they are told that they are clearly not bona fide visitors and the visa is refused, yet the whole purpose of applying for the visit is to see those very sites on which they are quizzed in Mumbai or Kalkata.

Mr. Gardiner: My hon. Friend makes a characteristically perceptive point. Which resident of the United Kingdom could speak with authority on Ahmedabad or Chandigarh as applicants at consulates overseas are sometimes requested to do for places in the UK?

The case that I mentioned was topped by a family from Goa--an area in which I know my hon. Friend the Minister has a particular interest. The mother and father are my constituents and they have been visited by their daughter, who is a nun, on many occasions without any immigration problems. Her brother has a good job in Dubai. It is not very highly paid, but it pays significantly above his previous earnings in India. He was refused a visa not because he did not earn enough to provide him with an incentive to return to Dubai, but on the ground that he was likely to overstay because he admitted that he missed his family. It might appear obvious that any family visa application could be turned down on that basis. People do not apply to visit their families unless they miss them and want to see them.

I accept that entry clearance officers must properly consider whether an applicant will return, but the House, I am sure, will be appalled to hear that applicants already accepted for student nurse training under the United Kingdom Central Council for Nursing, Midwifery and Health Visiting scheme are regularly refused student visas on the ground that all good nurses are encouraged to stay in the UK because of the national shortage of nurses.

Slightly more than 12 months ago, the Department for Education and Employment agreed that a number of qualified nurses from Manila and Accra would be given work permits. Unfortunately, nobody informed the entry clearance officers in Manila and Accra of the decision to allow in those nurses outside the immigration rules, because of the national shortage of nurses. Those nurses were refused. That is hardly joined-up government.

I come to the specific question of family visits by elderly relatives. Often, parents have previously visited and returned without incident, but, especially if the mother is widowed, entry clearance officers often assume that an application to visit will be abused to enable the elderly mother to settle with the family in the United Kingdom. In my experience, refusals often ignore the existence of family in the country of origin, who provide an equally strong motive for the mother to return. Such cases are extremely distressing.

I am concerned that entry clearance officers sometimes demand documentation and detailed answers to complex financial questions about income, family support and relatives' business affairs, without taking adequate

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account of the fact that some widows have never had to take any responsibility for financial dealings because tradition made them the preserve of their deceased husbands. That, added to the fact that many elderly people become genuinely muddled under sustained questioning about financial affairs, makes the case for a far more sympathetic approach to family visits by elderly people.

Dame Elizabeth, discussing family visits in her report, makes the point that

That is borne out by my experience: sponsors have on many occasions come to my surgery and made such an offer. Dame Elizabeth believes that

    these would be very suitable for elderly relatives.
On that point, I disagree with her.

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