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I too have reservations about not having a full hearing, but I accept that by having a hearing other than an oral hearing a great deal of time and money are saved. Therefore, as the noble Earl, Lord Russell, said, that may be acceptable in this instance. However, I should be very upset if that were extended to asylum applications where the substance of the case could only be put at a full hearing. But in this case that may just be acceptable. However, I repeat that this amendment seeks to safeguard against the pain and anguish caused by refusing entry to people who wish to be visited by close members of their family.
Baroness Williams of Crosby: My Lords, a very strong case has been made in support of this amendment which seeks to provide a right of appeal. This is a very modest amendment indeed. The right of appeal is limited by excluding oral hearings.
I wish to put before the House one other factor which is important. We have a substantial number of families living in this country whose parents were born or originated in other parts of the Commonwealth. It is vital that those communities are made to feel fully part of our citizenship and are treated on an equal basis with all other citizens. Indeed, during our debates today the Minister has said repeatedly that she is strongly in favour of good race relations.
Apart from hurt to families, to which reference has already been made, there is the important issue of race relations. Rightly or wrong, people from ethnic minorities in this country feel that they are treated differently from those who come from other sections of society in respect of visits by their relatives to this country. There are a number of cases where people have come here for a wedding or in some cases for a funeral and have been refused entry clearance, often on somewhat thin arguments. I hope that the Government will consider allowing a right of appeal in those cases so that there can be second thoughts about whether or not refusal of entry clearance is soundly based.
Baroness Blatch: My Lords, the intention behind this amendment is to re-establish a limited right of appeal for those refused entry clearances to visit their family members who are resident in the United Kingdom. That is the intention but the wording is deficient. I will return to the deficiency in the wording in a moment, but first I will deal with the general principle of whether there is an
Noble Lords will remember that the Asylum and Immigration Appeals Act 1993 withdrew a number of rights of appeal which had previously existed under the Immigration Act 1971. One of these was the right of appeal available to those refused entry clearances as visitors. The rationale behind this decision was clear. Only limited resources are available to fund the immigration control and the related appeals system, and it is essential to concentrate resources on those cases which vitally affect a person's long-term future.
The Government welcome genuine visitors to the United Kingdom and do not underestimate the importance of family visits. However, it must be clear that family visits do not have the same long-term impact on a person's future as, for example, an application for entry for settlement following marriage or as a dependant.
There has never been any intention to restrict the number of people visiting the United Kingdom. The criteria under which applications for visit entry clearances are considered have not changed. A number of measures have been introduced to ensure that would-be visitors are not disadvantaged. The refusal notice is more detailed, providing clear reasons for the decision. Information leaflets have been revised and expanded, and sponsors and applicants can provide fresh evidence and secure much earlier reconsideration. Perhaps more importantly, decisions to refuse applications for visit visas are reviewed within 24 hours by a senior officer. The post of independent monitor, as mentioned by my noble friend, was also established to review a random sample of entry clearance decisions and to present an annual report to Parliament.
I turn now to the question of restoring limited appeal rights for those refused entry clearances for family visits. This amendment proposes adding a new tier to the already hard pressed appellate system with adjudicators determining cases on a papers-only basis. On the face of it, that would simplify the process and reduce the additional burden on the system. But, if I have understood this measure correctly, the intention behind introducing papers-only determinations is to ensure a quick decision. That would mean that a person originally refused an entry clearance to attend, say, a family wedding in the United Kingdom, would still be able to attend the wedding if the appeal was allowed.
We cannot accept the justification for according that level of priority which, however simplified papers-only determinations may be, must involve diverting resources away from the determination of appeals on matters of such lasting importance as asylum and marriage. There are only so many adjudicators.
I referred earlier to deficiencies in the wording of the amendment. In that respect, it should be noted that it gives no indication of what constitutes "family" for the purposes of establishing an entitlement to a right of appeal. However, there is a more fundamental flaw. If accepted, the amendment would provide a limited right of appeal to anyone refused an entry clearance,
My noble friend referred to yet another friend of mine, Dame Elizabeth Anson, who is the monitor and who has now made two detailed reports on the entry clearance operation. She has visited posts overseas and has looked at samples of cases. Many of the points are being followed up in some detail by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Given what has been said about the amendment, one would think that, somehow or other, the Government are not concerned about family ties. During the course of today, I thought that I had said enough to prove that the Government do indeed regard family ties as being very important in so many ways. They certainly take them seriously.
I believe that the proof lies in the figures relating to this particular issue. The figures for 1995 show that l,l67,000 applications were received and that l,042,000 were acceded to; that is, 93.5 per cent. of those who applied for entry clearance did in fact receive it. That means that only 6.5 per cent. of those who applied were refused. The noble Earl is not at present in his place, but he referred to the case of an Australian who, on entry here, was disappointed. However, we are really talking about applications that are made in country. It is the entry clearance officers in country who receive the requests for entry clearance papers to visit relatives in this country. As I said, well over 1 million applications are received and still over 1 million are accepted.
I believe that our case is a good one. Nevertheless, the 72,000--the 6.5 per cent.--who are rejected would require in the case of my noble friend's amendment being accepted, in addition to the 24-hour review and the monitoring exercise, another paper exercise review to see if those decisions could be reversed. Again, it is a matter of priorities. We believe that the other part of the system dealing with applications for asylum and other means of entry into this country should be given priority.
Baroness Flather: My Lords, I am a little disappointed with the response of my noble friend, particularly as she points to the defects in the amendment. In my six years' experience in this House it has been rare indeed to find no defects in the amendments tabled by those on the Back Benches. I accept that there may be enormous defects, but it is the matter of principle that I wish to emphasise. I clearly stated that principle. I am not impressed by the fact that the measure does not define the family, or that--in a legalistic way--one can say that any person visiting any family (regardless of whether it is their family or not) would be covered by this amendment.
If my noble friend feels that there is no way in which there can be a limited right of review--it is almost a review by an adjudicator rather than an appeal--surely there has to be some other method of dealing with the situation. As I have said already, the independent monitor is not satisfied with the review taking place within 24 hours. I am worried that there has not been a definite response to the first report. She has now issued a second report which deals with all these deficiencies. As far as I know, there has been no public response to it by the Government and no promise that anything will be dealt with.
I shall not press the amendment to a Division but I urge my noble friend to take this matter away and reconsider it. Perhaps she could try to place herself in the following situation, and try to imagine how one feels when one is a citizen of a country but one cannot have one's parents, brothers or sisters to visit. Obviously the measure would be limited to close family members only. That can easily be defined in consultation; it is not a problem. I hope that there will be further consideration of this issue. If there is to be no right of appeal, perhaps there is some other way to deal with this situation. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.