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Entry Clearance (Indian Subcontinent)

Volume 405: debated on Tuesday 13 May 2003

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3.30pm

I am delighted to have the opportunity to raise in the Chamber the important issue of the entry clearance operation in the Indian subcontinent. The issue has a profound effect on my constituents. At every surgery that I hold in my constituency, half the people coming to see me have a problem with the way in which the service operates, which makes about 30 cases a week. It is therefore understandable that I am concerned about the deficiencies in the operation.

Both the Minister and I are former Ministers with responsibility for entry clearance. I was sorry that my hon. Friend gave up that portfolio because, with his experience in the Home Office, he had a good understanding of the matter. As I was when I spoke from the Front Bench on the matter, he will have been given a speech prepared by officials to tell the Chamber how well things are going. I am not here to criticise unnecessarily; I want to see a better system emerge so that, as a consumer of the service and a passionate supporter of the Government, I can tell my constituents that the Labour Government have improved the visa operation.

Let me agree with the Minister about what has gone right. The operation in the Indian subcontinent is impressive. I am sure that he will dazzle us with statistics reminding us that Mumbai, Delhi, Islamabad, Dhaka and the other operations in the Indian subcontinent comprise the biggest visa operation on the planet. He will, and I do so too, pay tribute to the work of entry clearance officers and entry clearance managers. He will tell us that the people at the joint entry clearance unit, which is now called UK Visas, do a splendid job, and I agree that they do.

The Minister will explain that the new visa centres established in the subcontinent are a success. I know that they are and I am glad that they have achieved what the former Foreign Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook), intended when he set them up. I am particularly pleased about what has happened at Ahmedabad and Syletett, where there was initial reluctance. However, I want the improvement to go further.

I want to single out for praise a number of first class officers who are a credit to the service: Chris Dix in New Delhi, Colin Mulcahy in Islamabad and Janet Battersby, who is now somewhere in the subcontinent. Robin Barnett does a very good job as head of UK Visas, when he can be found. On the single case that he dealt with when I approached him, I was very pleased with his hard work and the result of his deliberations. I have nothing but praise for people such as Suroth Miah and Gary Truman at UK Visas, but sadly they are neutered by a process that cries out for reform and that places all power to make visa decisions in the hands of ECOs. The people who work at UK Visas should be paid more.

I do not want the debate to sound like all our yesterdays, but I worked with many of those people, including the excellent David Reddaway who is now our man in Canada, and I am sorry that his departure to greener pastures has seen the service go downhill. There is, of course, an ongoing problem in Islamabad, where the office has been closed for several months, but it is up to other hon. Members to raise that matter in the House because I have had little to do with it.

The real problem in the subcontinent is Mumbai and I want to illustrate it by referring to an ongoing case. It sums up, first, what is wrong with Mumbai and, secondly, what a lot of time is wasted by Members of Parliament in trying to deal with those matters—frankly, some ECOs disrespect Members.

Mr. and Mrs Rajani made an application to come to this country for a two-month visit on 4 April 2003. They were refused. The grounds on the refusal notice were:
"You plan to spend all of your savings including your pension. I am not satisfied that your future intentions are as stated."
They were coming to this country for a religious purpose—to attend a ceremony involving the sister of a member of their family—and to see their family. Much as they admire new Labour, they had no intention of remaining in the United Kingdom. Their sponsors have impeccable credentials and I have known them for 16 years. I have met them and I know that they have enough income and savings to support their family during a two-month visit.

I rang Mumbai and spoke to the entry clearance manager who is temporarily in post. I faxed a letter and contacted UK Visas. My office faxed another letter. I tried to get hold of Mr. Barnett, but he was not available. His answering machine told me to ring Clare Handyside and her answering machine told me to ring Emma. I rang Emma, but no one answered. I rang the private office of the permanent secretaries office and asked who was the director in charge of this area. The person who answered told me that there was a reshuffle going on in the Foreign Office and that they did not know who was in charge of the matter, but took on responsibility to contact me and made four calls to UK Visas. I rang again in the afternoon but no one responded.

Eventually, Nick Astbury, the deputy head of UK Visas rang me and tried to resolve the issue. He gave me a road map—my hon. Friend the Minister will approve of that term—and I was happy to clutch that road map as a means of resolving a standard visitor's visa case. He said that Mumbai wanted confirmation that the sponsor could pay for the trip and told me that that was the only outstanding point. We faxed the sponsorship letter to UK Visas several times, but, sadly, its fax machine had run out of paper. Paper was eventually restored to the fax machine and the information went through. Having been told that the only outstanding point was that concerning income, which is clear in the refusal notice—that is what Members of Parliament see at their surgeries when constituents come to see them—I was then told by Mr. Astbury that Mumbai stood by its original refusal.

In total, I and my staff had made 25 telephone calls and sent six letters. A total of eight personnel from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office were involved, as were an entry clearance officer, an entry clearance manager, two private offices and two Members of Parliament. My only recourse, under the guidance for MPs, is to see the Minister, who is abroad. However, I understand that the information has been faxed to him and that he is considering it.

It is very difficult for me to know what Mr. Rajani has done in his past to upset the entry clearance officer so much that all the information required, according to its own refusal notice, and information requested by the deputy head of UK Visas was cast aside by the entry clearance officer.

I have one more refusal notice to bring to the Minister's attention as an example. Jackie McFarlane, also from Mumbai, told us about a Mr. Jayendra Rajyaguru, another applicant who was unable to come to this country. She refused him admission on the grounds that he did not display sufficient closeness to the applicant. However, Mr. Rajyaguru is the father-in-law of my constituent, Mr. Mistry, who lives on Halkin street. The relationship between a son-in-law and father-in-law is a matter of permanence, law and fact. It is not a matter of speculation and Mr. Rajyaguru can produce a photograph of himself and his son-in-law to show that, whether Mr. Mistry wanted to change his father-in-law or not, he is Mr. Mistry's son-in-law, who wanted to come here on a visit.

In 1997 the new Labour Government declared their intention to establish a new family visitor visa for those wishing to visit a close relative and the Government gave people a right of appeal. My hon. Friend the Minister was in the Home Office then and should take credit for what was done. Fees were introduced—people thought that they were too high—and then abolished, for which we were grateful. I feel very sad that the Government are failing to honour their commitments in this area. A right of appeal that takes eight months to exercise is no right of appeal. Someone who applies now to come for a wedding in June will not be allowed to come. If they are refused, they will have to appeal, but the appeal will not be heard until January 2004. That is not acceptable.

ECOs are unwilling to state clearly why they have refused a visa and, more important, to state in plain English what can be done to satisfy them. I am pleased that the Select Committee on the Lord Chancellor's Department, of which I am a member, has agreed to set up an inquiry into immigration appeals. I believe that I have persuaded it to look abroad and to work with the Home Office, the Home Affairs Committee and the Foreign Affairs Committee to develop a joint approach for Parliament.

Richard Dunston, the immigration policy officer at the National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux, has written an excellent report and analysis of ECOs' decisions in 2002. It is such a good report that I would like to read all of it out, but there is not enough time. The headline information is as follows: in the period 1 August 2002 to 30 November 2002, the refusal rate was 27.5 per cent.—up from 20 per cent. In Mumbai, the refusal rate went up from 16.4 per cent. to 33.5 per cent. In Delhi, it went from 29 per cent. to 59.4 per cent.—an increase of 104.8 per cent. The number of applications is down, but the appeal rate is going up. Fifty per cent. of appeals are allowed by adjudicators, which shows the poor quality of some ECO decision making.

For my staff and me, dealing with ECOs in Mumbai is like doing the dance of the seven veils with a Sellotape wraparound. The ECOs must change their attitude. Mr. Astbury told me that UK Visas was supposed to be an intelligent post box, and so it should. There is no doubting Mr. Astbury's intelligence—he used to work for me. However, despite its rebranding, UK Visas has been turned into a meaningless post box during the past two years. It has become nothing more than a paper-pushing exercise despite the hard work and commitment of really high-calibre people such as Carol Doughty and other staff, who have absolutely no power to do anything. Just one ECO can hold the whole system to ransom.

In conclusion, I call on my hon. Friend the Minister to do five things. First, I ask him to publish the report that the Home Secretary commissioned in January 2001. It was promised in May 2002. In December 2002, it went to the Lord Chancellor's Department, which said that it would be published in late 2003. It has not come out. Secondly, I ask my hon. Friend the Minister to ask the Minister with responsibility for entry clearance, when he returns from Latin America, to visit the Indian subcontinent to review the visa operation, which he still has not done.

Thirdly, I ask my hon. Friend the Minister to appoint a first secretary for immigration in Mumbai. The situation is still in transition, and there appears to be a lack of leadership. My constituents tell me that officers could be more polite and that they treat letters of support from MPs with contempt, in some cases waving them away. Fourthly, I would like to arrange a delegation of Members of Parliament to visit the Foreign Secretary and the Minister with responsibility for entry clearance. The Foreign Secretary knows about the problem, because he has one of the biggest case loads of visa applications from the Indian subcontinent.

Finally, I get the impression that ECOs think that MPs are irritants in the system. We stand in the shoes of our constituents and expect to be treated with respect. The system is not about keeping people out of Britain but about allowing visitors to come and visit their family here. We must be able to explain ECOs' views to our constituents and vice versa. Chris Dix and Colin Mulcahy have shown how that can be done. If they disagree, they tell us why. They do not always say yes, but they give valid reasons that we can pass on to our constituents. They, too, want a system that is firm but fair.

My constituents and those of other hon. Members deserve better. I make it clear to the Minister that my interest will not end here. I will be back again and again on this issue, until we have some real improvements.

3.44 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs
(Mr. Mike O'Brien)

The way in which UK Visas has improved its service in recent years is a great tribute to the work that many have done—the officials in particular, but also my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz), who presided over UK Visas and must take the credit for the things that are going right. However, some things have been going wrong in recent years, and no doubt my hon. Friend would put his hands up to that too, as we all must. As a Minister who formerly dealt with UK Visas—I handed over that responsibility a few months ago to the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Bill Rammell)—I must join my hon. Friend in accepting the responsibility.

Sometimes things do not go exactly as they ought to. Indeed, I have been tearing my hair out about some of my constituency cases. I have been perplexed, annoyed and astonished by the quality of some of the answers that I have had to visa cases. Probably most Members of Parliament who deal with constituency cases have felt the same perplexity.

That said, however, there has also been an enormous improvement in the quality of the service in many respects. Officials are working enormously hard to get what they do right. In many cases, they are responding to MPs' requests for information much more quickly than they did before. The quality of service has improved, as my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East said. It is important to make that point because with the brickbats must also come praise where praise is due.

My hon. Friend mentioned the Rajani case. The 25 telephone calls and six letters certainly do not sound very good. I do not know all the details of the case because the file is with my hon. Friend the Undersecretary—I cannot say that he is looking at it as we speak because he is in south America and the file is with him— because there is some concern about how the case was handled. The Foreign Office stands by its decision. However, it takes the view that the case was not well handled. To the extent that it was not well handled, I extend the apologies of the Foreign Office to my hon. Friend and, most particularly, to the sponsor, who is his constituent, and to the applicant, who has a right to a better quality of service from UK Visas and the Foreign Office.

When my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary returns with the file, I hope that we can arrange for him to meet my hon. Friend to ensure that the case is dealt with in the round, and that whatever decisions need to be taken are taken and whatever lessons need to be learned are learned.

My hon. Friend asked a series of questions. First, will we publish the report that he tells me was provided in January 2001? I will certainly talk to my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary about that when he returns and pass on that request.

Secondly, will my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary visit India, Pakistan and Bangladesh? Well, I have certainly made that visit and found it very important. I have been to Delhi a couple of times and examined the visa operation. By and large it is good, as my hon. Friend knows. That is a tribute to such people as Colin Mulcahy—I too met him and was enormously impressed—who turned around a difficult operation in Delhi and made it one of the most effective operations that we have. Good managers are difficult to come by. Colin happens to be one, and my hon. Friend mentioned a number of others. When we find them, we make the best use of them that we can.

We will consider whatever questions are raised about the operation in Mumbai, but it is important that we also ensure that, when things are going well, as they often are in Mumbai, the staff do not feel undermined, chastised or criticised by MPs if one case does not go well. Those members of staff are working hard, doing their best and achieving improvements in the quality of service.

As my hon. Friend will know, I agreed before he even spoke about these matters. Could he also make representations to the Lord Chancellor's Department? As he knows, the problem starts at the posts abroad. In many cases, we want to say to our constituents who have a right of appeal, "Exercise your right of appeal and have your case heard before an adjudicator." The problem is that a delay of eight months means that we cannot say that. That is why we are forced to put so much pressure on UK Visas and to go to Ministers to ask for overturns. If that system were working, the whole system would be more effective.

When the system was set up, we hoped that some decisions could be made on paper much more quickly than they are. That was the object of the exercise. However, we find that, when new systems of appeal are set up, the sheer numbers quickly overwhelm the process, and the taxpayer must often meet the cost. One reason why initially we charged significant fees for appeals, with the result that there were considerable protests, was that when the income is coming in it is much easier to employ extra staff to meet the demand. However, when one relies entirely on the taxpayer meeting the costs of people from abroad who want to visit relatives in the UK, the cost falls on the Chancellor, the Budget and the taxpayer. The taxpayer's resources are limited and do not immediately stretch with the increase in demands.

There is a balance to be struck. People protested about the high fees, so they were reduced, but the consequence is that there is no readily available income stream that would enable the Lord Chancellor's Department and others to expand the system of appeals as quickly as might be necessary to meet the demand.

My hon. Friend also asks whether my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary would see Members of Parliament about visas. My right hon. Friend is always willing to meet groups of MPs. I cannot give a commitment as to the date, but I am sure that if my hon. Friend put together a group of MPs who wanted to talk to my right hon. Friend, he would be willing to see them to discuss these issues, no doubt together with my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary.

The other point raised by my hon. Friend related to the attitude of staff members of UK Visas towards MPs. UK Visas, like all public services, is accountable to Parliament and to the people who pay taxes—the British public. UK Visas is also the interface between Britain and people from other countries, who expect quality of service and fairness from Britain.

I was referring not to the attitude of UK Visas staff, but to the attitude of the staff in the posts abroad.

I am grateful for that clarification. The staff in the posts abroad also recognise that they are the interface with people from other countries and are paid by the taxpayer to provide a good quality service. By and large they do that, and my hon. Friend has recognised that. There have, however, been instances— my hon. Friend has experienced them, I have experienced them and, as I have said, most MPs have experienced them—when the quality of the work is not as good as we have a right to expect. In those circumstances, it is important to have systems of management and appeals that rectify individual cases and faults in the system as quickly as possible.

The role of an MP is to act as the spokesperson for the British taxpayer. Where the British taxpayer's relatives cannot get a visa to which they should be entitled, the MP can be a spokesperson for those relatives too. In those circumstances, the people from UK Visas should pay due regard to the MP's role. However, in law the staff of UK Visas and the staff at posts abroad have a legal responsibility to make a decision according to the law. In fulfilling his legal responsibility to make the right decision, the entry clearance officer cannot let the mere fact that an MP has written a letter be the deciding factor; his decision has to be based on the application. If he believes that there is serious doubt about the information that has been supplied, he should refuse the application. That was the position when my hon. Friend was dealing with such issues; it was the position when I was the Minister dealing with them; and it is the position now. The ECO will pay due regard, within proper proprieties, to any letter that he receives.

Constituents often ask me, "Will you write a letter to support my relative coming in?" By and large, I do not know the relative so I refuse. However, if I happen to know an individual, I might be able to write a letter about him. My hon. Friend mentioned a case in which he knows the family concerned and can make reference to what he believes to be the veracity of the sponsoring family. Unless he knows the family abroad, he cannot say anything about the applicant, whom he does not know. When the ECO looks at a letter from an MP, he has to be aware that his decision must be made on the basis of the information provided by the applicant, who is probably not known to the MP.

I agree entirely. Most constituents who come to surgeries to see their MPs expect them to send letters of support; some do and some do not. However, the issue that I described goes further. It concerns cases that we take up, as Members of Parliament, beyond the letter. In such instances, ECOs should give us credit for not taking up every single case, just as the Minister does not. Members of Parliament filter out certain cases that they feel merit particular attention. Those should be given proper consideration.

Many MPs filter, and the quality of much of that filtering is good. Some of it is not so good or non-existent. I have heard that some just write letters. I know that my hon. Friend, like most MPs, does not do that; neither do I. When I was at the Home Office, we received lots of letters on lots of issues, and it seemed that some MPs had a breathtaking level of social contact with their constituents. However, I do not accuse anybody of impropriety; it is merely that some people accept cases and make representations.

We need to arrive at a situation in which MPs know that if they have relevant information they can provide it. If they know a particular sponsor well, let them say so and give their views. However, the ECO has ultimately to make the decision based not on the sponsor or on the MP's letter—although those factors must be taken into consideration—but on whether the applicant has given sufficient information to show that his application should succeed. If the person has not given sufficient information, it should be rejected. That is the basis on which such things should be done.

My hon. Friend knows the job well, and he will know that I have a speech here containing bedazzling information on the quality of operations of UK Visas. I could have delivered it to him and sparkled with erudition and my mastery of statistics. Given that I have replied to most of his points, I shall save him the bother of bedazzlement and leave it at that.