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4 Apr 2001 : Column 114WH

Entry Applications

1 pm

Fiona Mactaggart (Slough): I am pleased to have been able to secure this debate about a long-standing injustice that can and should be rectified by a Government who are committed to social justice and the family.

My concern is with children who were refused permission to join their parents settled in the United Kingdom because a visa officer decided that they were not "related as claimed". That was assessed through detailed questioning and asking for documents that did not exist in the Sylheti villages that most of the children came from. Many of the decisions were proved to be wrong. In the early 1980s, when I was director of the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, appeals were successful in some 30 per cent. of cases. Others did not win, yet could later prove through DNA tests, which were not invented until the 1980s, that they definitely were related as claimed. By then, the children were over 18 and did not fit into the immigration rules by which they could join their parents, so they have remained separated ever since, and are still being refused after losing appeals.

That cannot be right. The children had a right to be here. The British authorities made a mistake, and the children have been refused any redress for that mistake. The courts decided, in a case called Miah and Askar, that it was not an error, but a lack of evidence, so there is no redress. Anyone who is not a lawyer, pace the Minister, can see that that is wrong. People were refused on a basis that has been proved to be wrong. They suffered an injustice that the Government have the power to rectify, even decades later. The injustice continues for many of the families. There are elderly people here who need their children to care for them in old age, yet they are kept out and cannot even visit their parents because they expressed an intention to settle in the past. Often, those elderly parents are too poorly to travel to them on the subcontinent.

When the Labour party was in opposition, we said that we would deal with this injustice. In 1992, the spokesman on immigration, who is now the Secretary of State for Social Security, said:

Not all the people who applied and were wrongly refused will still want to come here. Some have formed their own families by marrying and having children or have work commitments in the country where they live and are well settled there. But others have not. They continue to apply and to be refused, and are caught in a state of limbo without any way of sorting out their lives.

The biggest barrier to making the right decision on this matter is the sense that we might be giving an open-ended commitment on future immigration that would create significant numbers of applicants. A letter from the Home Secretary contained the claim that the figure could be between 20,000 and 40,000. I venture to suggest that that number is ludicrous, because it appears to represent every single child from Bangladesh who was ever refused. No one has ever suggested that all the refusals were wrong.

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Why do I focus on Bangladesh? I do so because the problem is largely confined to that country. No one that I can find knows of anyone who suffers from this injustice and comes from any other country. I should like to know whether the Minister is aware of any other cases, and if he is, whether there are more than 15 or 20. There were some wrong refusals of that kind in Pakistan, but those kept out have generally made their lives in Pakistan, or have come to the UK through the tradition of cousin marriages in the Pakistani community.

I pay tribute to the justice for over-aged applicants campaign. It has not won anything, but it has kept going for 20 years. It should be admired for its dogged persistence on behalf of victims of that injustice. It believes that less than 1,000 people would qualify. Its evidence is that when the Conservative Government announced a limited concession in 1989--four years after DNA testing was invented--only 550 people applied, of which 115 were successful. More recently, the Government ran a big publicity campaign in the UK Bangladeshi community that urged people affected to contact them. Only 100 such people did so, and many of those had applied and been refused under the 1989 concession.

Ten years on, it is unlikely that people who tried then would do so now. It would mean uprooting themselves, and any new family that they have formed overseas, to join parents from which they were wrongly kept apart. It is even less likely that anyone who had not tried to access his or her rights in the 15 years since the invention of DNA testing would consider migrating. Under current immigration laws, applicants who have married in the meantime would have to show that they could support and accommodate their spouse and children without recourse to public funds. In my view, it would be wrong in terms of the commitment and numbers to include them in an estimate of the consequence of introducing a fair and just policy.

I urge the Home Office to announce a new and final concession that would apply to people who were refused as children on relationship grounds, who still have a parent settled in the UK and who have proved their relationship through DNA testing. The first step should be to provide an opportunity for them to register their case within a given period, which would follow a long tradition within immigration law. Indeed, there is a similar requirement in the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999. The burden of proof of being the relevant individual and of having applied in the past should be on the applicant, but records of applications at the British high commission or the Home Office should be conclusive, as should original documents and authorised DNA tests in the possession of applicants.

If the Home Office believes that numbers are an issue, it would be possible to impose a quota on the number of people allowed entry. It has apparently been argued that there is no precedent for a quota in British migration law. As the Minister and I know from working together in the early 1980s, that is not true. In those years there was--indeed, there still is--a quota for United Kingdom passport holders, who are British nationals who are not British citizens. Since the early 1970s, there has been a national quota of 5,000 per year that is not fully used. In 1999, only 330 of that quota were admitted for settlement, so there is plenty of space. If, as expected,

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only a few hundred people in the category that I am discussing apply, their applications could be dealt with in a shorter period.

Such a change would not greatly increase the administrative work to be done in high commissions. Dhaka keeps detailed records and checks them in relation to visitors and other applicants to see whether people have family who have come here in the past. Its historical records are extensive and it dealt with 18,000 visa applications in 1999, so a cohort of such people would not add substantially to the work load.

Rectifying the injustice is the right thing to do. Some people were wrongly refused entry due to the type of questioning and the inappropriate standard of evidence demanded, so we should now carry out the commitment that we made in the past to allow their evidence to be used. I hope that the Minister can confirm that the Department is not aware of a great number of cases from countries other than Bangladesh. If he can, I hope that he will agree to meet me and other hon. Members to discuss how we might create a system that would have a chance of dealing with the injustice, rather than taking the ostrich view--burying our heads in the sand and hoping that the problem will go away. As policymakers, we may believe that the problem is disappearing, but for the families who are permanently kept apart by this unfair rule, it will not go away. We have a duty to those families; we made a commitment to them in 1972 and now is the time to honour it.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Nicholas Winterton): Before I call the hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Ms King), I advise the Chamber that she has sought my permission, that of the initiator of the debate and that of the Minister to participate in our half-hour Adjournment debate.

1.11 pm

Ms Oona King (Bethnal Green and Bow): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) on securing a debate on an issue that I have raised continuously since I was elected. Although, according to the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, I represent the most deprived area in Britain, and have seen many cases of injustice, few have seemed as grave as the ones under discussion. They include the cases of young teenage boys and girls who were refused entry clearance to join their families because the entry clearance officers in Dhaka, New Delhi or Islamabad were not satisfied that they were "related as claimed." That injustice is bad enough, but it was compounded by the failure to correct it once proof of the children's identity was available. The entry clearance officers made a mistake. We all make mistakes, but few have consequences as grave as that.

The advent of DNA testing in 1987 gave us the opportunity to rectify such mistakes, and enabled those under 18 to submit successful applications for entry clearance to join their families in the UK. For others, however, the mistake has ruined their lives and they have had no opportunity to see it rectified. Many of those wrongly refused in the 1970s were teenagers, so by 1987 they were in their mid or late 20s and therefore could not benefit from the new DNA tests because they were no longer dependants. Why were they no longer dependants? Because the Home Office had taken 20 years to recognise their claim.

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Following a public campaign, the Home Secretary introduced a concession to the immigration rules in June 1989, which allowed those who had had DNA tests proving that they were "related as claimed" to enter the UK if they could show compelling and compassionate circumstances. That was welcome because it allowed a small number of children to be reunited with their families.

Many more families remain divided and I would like to give the Minister some examples in my constituency. Joytun Bibi is a mother who has seen her son, Nizam Uddin, three times in 24 years. Mehrun Nessa has seen her son, Iqbal Hussain, twice in 17 years. Shoznoo Bibi has seen her son, Ataur Rahman, four times in 20 years. Rois Miah has seen his sons, Aftab and Moklis, only on half a dozen occasions since they were refused entry clearance in 1972. Many of those mothers and fathers are now elderly and frail. For example, Mehrun has arthritis and recently suffered a stroke that left her unable to walk; she is too ill to travel, and knows that unless the Home Office reconsiders, she will never see her son again.

I am not a parent, but the Minister is, and it should not require too much imagination--even for people who are not parents--to understand the desperate sorrow and anguish that this woman must be suffering.

The Home Secretary met the justice for over-aged children campaign, of which I am the chair, in November 1998. I was grateful that my right hon. Friend carefully considered the issues that we raised, but I was disappointed that his final decision was not to relax the concession. He said that he was concerned about the possibility of large numbers of potential reapplicants that might arise under a relaxed concession. I was initially quoted a figure of 60,000. If that were true, the Home Secretary would have been right to be concerned, but I can assure the Minister that that figure is mythical. I am not sure where it came from, but we cannot accept it.

My hon. Friend the Member for Slough went into the figures in detail, so I shall not repeat them. However, a further indication of the actual numbers can be gleaned from the fact that in 1991 only 550 cases had been considered under the concession, of which only 115 were conceded. The Home Office argues that there might be many thousands more because only those eligible would have applied, but that is not borne out because 80 per cent. of those who applied under the concession were rejected. More important, it is not borne out by anyone with even a passing knowledge of people who may have spent the last 20 years separated from their child. Those parents were overjoyed when they first heard about the concession, especially regarding compelling and compassionate circumstances. What could be more compelling and compassionate than being wrongly separated from one's child or parents by an arbitrary decision that one is "not related as claimed"? The numbers involved are minimal and would certainly be fewer than those rightly benefiting from other concessions introduced by the Government.

The 1989 Commission for Racial Equality report on immigration control and procedures records that 90 per cent. of those refused on the grounds of not being

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related as claimed were subsequently able to establish their relationship through DNA testing. I cannot believe that the British Government and Home Office could hide behind a mistake when it is now possible to put it right. So much has been put right in the immigration service and it is right to congratulate the Government on achieving that. Nowhere is the new professionalism in the immigration service more evident than at the British high commission in Dhaka. With the odd exception, arbitrary refusal is a thing of the past.

The campaign acknowledges that an over-aged reapplicant will have to show how he or she will be maintained in UK accommodation without recourse to public funds. That is right and proper, but I sincerely and genuinely urge the Minister to examine the proposals outlined by my hon. Friend the Member for Slough and supported by myself. I give the last word to my constituent, Joytun Bibi, who said:

1.19 pm

The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Paul Boateng) : This has been an important debate, in which my hon. Friends the Members for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) and for Bethnal Green and Bow (Ms King) have made significant contributions based on their constituency experience. In the case of my hon. Friend the Member for Slough, considerable professional experience of these issues at the highest level is also involved.

The right to family life is guaranteed by article 8 of the European convention on human rights, which has been incorporated into United Kingdom law in the Human Rights Act 1998 introduced by this Government.

It is always important to recognise the significance and value of family life and the undoubted wrench that patterns of migration and settlement can involve when parents are separated from their children for however short a time. It has long been the thrust of our policy in respecting family life and the rights incorporated in the convention to seek to reunite families where relatives are settled here. In the vast majority of cases "family member" is held to mean spouses and the children of persons settled here, although in exceptional circumstances the definition can be extended to other dependent relatives.

The closeness of the connection by blood and the level of dependency must be the determining factors. Dependency will vary in accordance with age when there is a relationship between a parent and child. There must be a cut-off point. The cut-off point that we have arrived at in our law is 18, when childhood is said to end and adulthood to begin. Our immigration law and rules reflect that. Not only must they have enshrined within them the proper strictures of the convention, but they must be capable of being defined in such a way as to demonstrate the essential characteristics of good law: clarity and finality.

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Those considerations must be in the forefront of the minds of those who have a responsibility, as we do in the House, to legislate, whether in primary or secondary legislation. It is important that we get the balance right in immigration law. At the heart of our approach is the requirement of both fairness and firmness. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, in responding to representations of the sort that we have heard in Westminster Hall today, must always bear in mind the need for that balance.

Ms Oona King : Given that the Home Secretary previously said that he was not able to reconsider the matter because of the numbers involved, would my right hon. Friend agree to a meeting with the MPs concerned if we can show that these numbers have been substantially exaggerated?

Mr. Boateng : I am coming to that in my own inimitable way. It may not be as fast as my hon. Friend would wish. I will get there.

The balance is one that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has striven in this area, as in every other area, to achieve. My hon. Friend the Member for Slough was good enough to pay tribute to the way in which the Government have sought to get the balance right. That has been in no small measure due to the determination of my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary to do so and the diligence of the Minister of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Mrs. Roche). They ensured that the improvement at the point of application in the subcontinent, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Bethnal Green and Bow referred, was implemented.

A forceful case has been made over the years by the campaign for justice for over-aged children, and the stories outlined by my hon. Friend the Member for Bethnal Green and Bow get to the heart of the

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importance of family relationships. I can understand the passion and commitment that inspires those who started the campaign. We are always prepared to give such campaigns a fair hearing in trying to get the balance right.

An issue has arisen about the accuracy of the estimates that were made at a meeting between the Home Secretary and members of the campaign. We are ready at any time to receive representations to help us to estimate the scale of the problem and to determine how many might want to avail themselves of a concession such as that outlined by my hon. Friend the Member for Slough. She put much thought into its development and the framework within which it might be contained. I undertake carefully to consider her suggestion and to examine the statistics and test them against our estimates; we shall thus arrive at a conclusion on the basis of the best available evidence.

We are determined to get this important issue right. A concession has been made in the past; it is not without significance that in the last year no one made use of it, which raises a number of issues about the demand, or potential demand for any concession.

We need to get things right and to examine the evidence. My hon. Friend took great care in fashioning her proposal, and I give her and my hon. Friend the Member for Bethnal Green and Bow an undertaking to give it the consideration that it is due. At the end of the day, it will be a matter of finality and of clarity--two vital aspects of the law in this, as in every other matter--and of getting the balance right. We will be informed by our respect for family life, our convention responsibilities and the need for firm but fair immigration law.

Mr. Deputy Speaker : I thank the Minister for his reply. We can now move on a few seconds early to the last debate in Westminster Hall today.

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