I rise to draw attention to the case of Sibtain Bokhari, his wife and four children, who are aged between eight and 14. They were deported as failed asylum seekers on 22 January.
Mr. Bokhari was a rights worker at the Lahore Bar and a Shi’a Muslim in a Sunni-dominated area. His chambers were trashed, his house was stoned and he was threatened. I understand that all of that was accepted by the adjudicator and the tribunal, yet they still ruled that he should return to Pakistan. They did so because those things did not constitute persecution by the state, which is true, and because they said that he could rely on the protection of the police—that is much more arguable. I disagreed with the decision and made representations along that line.
I know as little about violence, tolerance and community tensions, and the threats to rights lawyers in Lahore as the Minister does, so I was not exactly qualified to deal with the issue. My concern is not the principle of the family’s going, or the ruling of the tribunal or the Minister, but the manner of their going and his responsibility for that. Although I hope that he will introduce an element of independence into the adjudication process, as his race monitor has recommended, that is not part of today’s discussion, which is about the deportation of the Bokharis.
The manner of the Bokharis’ going is part of a numbers game: the aim is to get as many failed asylum seekers out of the country as possible. As a result, the easy victims, such as the Bokharis, go first. I shall go into poetic mode and say that the heart is God, the name is Byrne, women and children get first turn. The Minister has boasted on Radio 4 that he is now deporting one failed asylum seeker every 26 to 27 minutes, so the Bokharis gave him a good two and a half hours of happy motoring in the deportation programme. Questions arise from that and I should like to put them to him.
I made representations to the Minister for a substantial period, many of which centred on the family’s adjustment to Grimsby. Both the Bokharis were school governors in the town and were training as classroom assistants. All four of their children were doing well at local schools. So we are talking about model pupils and model citizens. The representations made through me to the Minister by the Grimsby Telegraph, the schools, church groups, friends and ordinary citizens all supported that idea and argued that the family should be allowed to stay on that basis.
My first question is: does any of that count? In each reply, the Minister has effectively said, “That is all very well. I am glad to hear that they are good citizens, but”. The “but” means that the Bokharis would have done better by disappearing into the night, going to ground and going into hiding, like so many other failed asylum seekers, who do not get expelled because they have disappeared. The immigration and nationality directorate does not know where such people are, so they do not get deported. By being model citizens and by being in the public eye, the Bokharis made themselves an easy target for the deportation process.
I was making representations partly on the basis of my first question—whether any of that counts. However, I was also doing so on the basis of evidence that Mr. Bokhari was getting—I could not obtain it myself—from Lahore. Lawyers were giving reports about the problems and the possibility of violence that he would face, and the violence that had taken place. Family were telling him about their fears about what would happen if the Bokharis were returned. Newspapers talked about communal violence, terrorism and instability in the area. I sent all that evidence to Ministers as part of my representations.
My second question therefore is: is it any use making representations to Ministers or is doing so just a drawn-out, protracted farce? There is no evidence that the representations were listened to, looked at or read. All the evidence suggests that documents were not translated from Urdu. I do not know whether or not the Minister speaks Urdu; I do not. The whole process was like throwing stones or pennies into Gaping Ghyll in Yorkshire. One can throw them in but nothing happens; there is not a sound and they disappear. It makes me think about the process of adjudication by Ministers, particularly given the fact that they confirm the verdict of the tribunals in the overwhelming majority of cases. It would be nice to know how many of those verdicts he rejects. So what is the use of the representations?
That leads me on to my third question. On 21 September, I wrote to the Minister insisting on a meeting with him, but he told me that a meeting was not necessary. I wanted a meeting because it was my right to have one and because Mr. Bokhari was still gathering evidence from Pakistan. The meeting had not taken place when the IND swooped on the family and carted them away. My third question is: did the IND know that a meeting had not yet been held and that representations were still ongoing or was it acting automatically? Did the Minister know that the IND was going to do the raid and take away the family? Is he told of such planned raids? Is it right that they should occur when representations are ongoing and when a meeting has been requested?
The whole family were originally taken away in a dawn raid on Monday 6 June 2005. I tabled questions about dawn raids but the Table Office told me that the Home Office does not like the term “dawn raid” because of its jackboot overtones. I can understand that, so let me immediately admit that I was wrong to call it a dawn raid—it occurred at 6 am, so it was a pre-dawn raid.
My fourth question is: why are we still using such a brutal procedure—pre-dawn raids—to deal with failed asylum seekers and their families? Why are we raiding them in the early hours of the morning and getting their kids out of bed before they can go to school? These are the methods of barbarism; they are not the methods of a decent humane society. Such methods were used on Ruth Turner, the Prime Minister’s gatekeeper.
Pre-dawn raids produce widespread indignation and are monstrous, but they are an everyday story of asylum folk because they happen all the time. Why should we use that approach? Why should we use that brutal method to deal with these cases, which involve families appealing to stay in this country?
The raid was witnessed; of course, the neighbours came outside because they heard noise. A friend of the family told me:
“The children were brought out 1 by 1 and put into a car then Mrs Bokhari was brought out. Mr Bokhari was brought out screaming. He only had his nightwear on and no shoes. 2 of them put Mr Bokhari in a separate car, pulling him down the street. These children will be scarred for life. They looked so frightened. When they’d been taken away, more neighbours came out and said how disgusted they were at the treatment of such a lovely family.”
That approach causes shock and horror, and dislike among the neighbours. Why are we taking it? My fifth question is: why was the pre-dawn raid so badly prepared? No domiciliary assessment seems to have been made. Mr. Bokhari is a diabetic and needs to have three insulin injections a day to keep him in a reasonable state, but all the insulin was left in the fridge and he was taken away without it. He was taken to Yarl’s Wood, with the family, without being treated. I understand that he received no injections for 36 hours. He was carted off despite my having made representations that he should not be left like that because he is a diabetic. The family were not told where he was. He was brought back three days later somewhat bruised on the wrists and on the head.
When people rang in during that period, they were given various interpretations of where Mr. Bokhari was. One person was told that he had been taken to Heathrow, which naturally caused a lot of alarm. At that point, the Minister suggested a meeting. I thought that he was covering his backside by doing what he should have done earlier: holding a meeting. I did not want it to be merely a formality, so I suggested that Bokhari should be taken back to Grimsby before the meeting. However, the Bokharis told me that they were being deported on the 8.25 flight on 22 January. I agreed to a meeting, spent the weekend preparing the case, and met my hon. Friend on 15 January when his secretary assured me that the new date was just a formality and would not apply until my hon. Friend had made his decision. Bokhari trusted me when I told him that and I trusted the Minister. Question six is: was that a mistake on my part?
On Monday 22 January I was talking to the eldest son on the telephone just before midday when the call was cut off. The next call from the Bokharis came from a car when they were being taken to Heathrow. I rang the Minister’s office. He was not there, but his secretary assured me that the Minister had not made a decision. I relayed that to the Bokharis and told Heathrow. The last contact was at 8 o’clock when the eldest son telephoned from the plane. In the background I could hear Mr. Bokhari shouting, Mrs. Bokari sobbing and the kids crying. That was the last contact I had with them. Evidently, the Minister had decided, but no one knew that. I do not whether the IND knew, but by then it was irrelevant because the Bokharis were on their way. The Minister’s fax reached my office in Grimsby at 5.30 when, predictably, it was closed. His e-mail reached my inbox at 8 o’clock, and his letter arrived the next day. Question six is widened to: is my hon. Friend really in charge, or does the machine steamroller on to maximum deportations while the Minister meekly runs behind ratifying its every move because it is too late to do anything else by that stage?
I hope that none of this will damage my hon. Friend’s reputation or stop his remorseless rise. He is apparently the only functional part of a dysfunctional Department. His efforts are so stakhanovite that he is almost certainly in line to become the Daily Mail’s Minister of the year, although I see in today’s Daily Mail that the Bokharis’ deportation might not have taken place this week because the deportation centres are now being filled with criminal asylum seekers or immigrants released from jail. I will make this question seven: are they too full to deal with the Bokharis?
The Minister is now more popular among readers of the Grimsby Telegraph’s website than I am, which will be tragic for me when I face the next election. I shall give a sample quote from Annie, who said:
“SEND THEM HOME…6 more gone! They should all be sent home…give us back all of our houses, flats and apartments, corner shops, takeaways, restaurants, chemists to name but a few!! OUT WITH THEM ALL!!!”
That is stirring stuff. I am receiving mail from liberals who were shocked by the process, but they usually end by saying that they will never vote Labour again, which does not make me too happy.
I asked my questions in the hope of receiving some answers, but before sitting down, I want to correct an impression. The Independent said last week:
“Our Government’s treatment of this family makes me ashamed to be a Labour MP.”
I did not say that and I would not say that. I am proud to be a Labour MP, but the way in which the Government treated the Bokhari family makes me ashamed.
It is a pleasure, Mr. Hood, to speak again under your chairmanship.
I am grateful for the opportunity to respond not only to the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell), but to some of the discussion that he has chosen to have in The Independent. I have probably spent more time on this case than on any other since I became a Minister. I have been involved in looking at and answering my hon. Friend’s representations at all stages. I regret that he has not reflected the application, work and emotional impact that such cases sometimes involve not just for the Ministers who are responsible for making these important decisions, which they are charged and paid to do, but for immigration judges, caseworkers and front-line staff, and indeed the civil servants who work hard in my office. The impact of such cases is significant, which is why it is misleading for anyone ever to say that family removal cases are somehow easy targets. They are the hardest of all, and the House should remember that. There are many myths about the immigration system. There are stories about numbers and about abuse of benefits, and sometimes there are myths about the removal of families. I shall try to answer most of my hon. Friend’s questions briefly.
For any immigration control system to work, it is important that those who do not have the right to be here are, ideally, stopped before they arrive, but if they are in the country they should be quickly, safely and securely removed. I bend over backwards to help people to go home voluntarily, which is why we have put in place schemes such as the assisted voluntary return scheme. It is not popular with tabloid newspapers; it is not popular with the Daily Mail or the Daily Express, which attacked it remorselessly yesterday, but we put it in place because it is the right thing to do and a sensitive way of helping families that should not be here to go home.
However, despite that help and support, people sometimes do not want to go home voluntarily. Families and individuals arrive in that position when a decision has been taken on their case and in cases involving claims for asylum. Consideration has been given to the Government’s obligations under the 1951 convention on the status of refugees and the European convention on human rights, which the Human Rights Act 1998 incorporated into British law, involving not only article 3, but article 8, which covers the right to family life. When unsuccessful applicants are notified of a decision, they are, rightly, given the right to an independent appeal. That allows independent immigration judges to review the evidence to ensure that civil servants in the IND have not made wrong or misguided decisions, but have taken the full facts into account and applied the law correctly. The protection system is comprehensive, and that was the system that was put into action in this case.
Because of the comments that have been made, I want to say a little about this case. The family entered the UK as visitors on 27 September 2003, and although they entered as visitors, they claimed asylum three days later. After consideration of their application, it was refused, and the family, as was their right—it is a right that we defend—sought an appeal. The adjudicator heard evidence at great length. Having read the judgment in full, I believe that a carefully reasoned determination was given, and it was by no means unsympathetic, but none the less the appeal was dismissed. Substantial evidence was submitted to the tribunal, but it concluded that it did not in any way undermine the conclusions of the adjudicator and the appeal against the decision of the adjudicator was refused.
That meant that by 15 October 2004, the family had exhausted all appeal rights and were subject to removal. They were detained prior to removal on 15 March. When IND officers attempted to effect the removal, the family initially refused to leave the detention centre, and I am informed that they became abusive. As a result, the removal had to be deferred, and the family was given temporary release while my hon. Friend’s representations were considered. As he is aware, removal was deferred by my predecessors, so I subsequently had the opportunity carefully to consider his many representations. However, it is sometimes difficult for an elected politician to overturn the decision of an independent immigration judge, and that was even harder when no substantial new evidence was presented, despite my pleas for such evidence.
The family continued to refuse to leave voluntarily. On 9 January, therefore, immigration officers visited the home again to effect removal. Again, the family was unco-operative throughout the visit. As a result, unfortunately, it was necessary to handcuff Mr. Bokhari for his safety and for that of his family. It is sometimes necessary for the IND to enforce removal in that way. The visit will also often take place early in the morning, simply because that is when the family is together. I have made it my business to go along on such visits sometimes, because it is important that I, as a human being, understand their impact, as well as the realities and implications of my actions, for which I am responsible to myself and the House.
Sometimes, restraint methods are used, and that is possible under the law. However, they are only ever used to protect an arresting officer or the person who is being arrested. Although I can speak only from my own experience, I believe that the tact, skill, diplomacy and care shown by front-line immigration officers is second to none. When one asks them which cases are easy and which are difficult, one gets a pretty simply answer: the removal of families is, to use a phrase that was once used to me, “gut-wrenching work”—it is extremely difficult. Many immigration officers have families of their own, but they do their job with some professionalism and skill.
The medical history of Mr. Bokhari, in particular, was well known, not least because of my hon. Friend’s representations. Detention co-ordinators and escorts were therefore made aware of his potential medical condition in a risk assessment that they were sent before the visit.
Removal did not take place on 9 January, and directions were reset for 22 January. The family was notified on 16 January to allow me further time to consider last-minute representations. On this occasion, the family remained in detention while my hon. Friend’s representations were considered. On the day of removal, unfortunately, the family was once again disruptive and abusive. No member of the family was handcuffed. The only time that a member of the family was handcuffed was when Mr. Bokhari was taken from the home, and that was for the reasons that I explained.
It has been intimated that the Home Office sometimes handcuffs children, but that is absolutely not the case—the Home Office does not handcuff children to effect removal constraint. Control of minors is limited to situations in which it is necessary for an officer to use physical intervention to prevent harm to the child or the individuals present. Children up to and including the age of 17 are considered to be minors.
The fact that the family established itself in the UK was not due to a delay in the processing of its application, which was fairly speedy. Despite full knowledge of its immigration status, however, the family chose to put down roots in the community, as is their right. The decision, the appeal and the permission to appeal to the tribunal were all dealt with in less than 12 months, but the family remained here for a further two years, in the full knowledge that it had no basis for doing so.
The point that I want to make is that the immigration rules are approved by hon. and right hon. Members and by Parliament, so they apply without prejudice to everybody in the country. My hon. Friend said that the members of the family were model citizens, and that may be the case, but it does not follow that there should therefore be some kind of discount from the immigration rules that were approved by this House. The family’s efforts to integrate into the community did not, therefore, constitute sufficient reason to allow it to remain. We cannot go down the route of allowing families to remain on the basis of a subjective opinion about who is nice, who is a model citizen and who is making efforts to integrate into the community. The immigration rules should be applied equally and fairly to everybody.
Some hon. Members argue that we should never remove families, but such a policy would not be sustainable. Furthermore, the exceptions created would act only as an incentive for people to come to this country illegally. That would increase the risk of trafficking, given that three quarters of illegal immigration is, as we know, in the hands of organised crime. It is therefore important that we not only tackle those who traffic others for exploitation, but close down the incentives to cross our borders illegally in the first place. Tackling such abuse and increasing the number of removals reduces the attraction of the UK to those who wish to enter illegally.
I am happy to come to the House at any time to debate the Government’s immigration policy. It is quite wrong to claim that Ministers boast in some way about the number of people whom we remove, and it is regrettable and inappropriate that my hon. Friend should say that. Home Office Ministers are tasked with ensuring that the immigration rules are fulfilled. It is right and proper that we debate the way in which that policy is conducted and the way in which Ministers are held accountable for their decisions. Those are difficult decisions, and the public often have strong views about them, so it is important that right hon. and hon. Members have the opportunity to question Ministers not only about the conduct of Government policy in the round and the development of policy into the future, but, sometimes, about the conduct of individual cases. I promise my hon. Friend that I shall review in Hansard the questions that he has posed. I believe that I have answered most of them in my remarks, but I shall write to him if there are any gaps where I have not dealt satisfactorily with the issues.
I conclude, however, on the point with which I started: many people have been involved in this case. They include the caseworkers who originally processed the decision and the family’s application for asylum when they were visiting the country; the caseworkers who then supported the family; the immigration judge and adjudicators who reviewed the decision; the immigration officers responsible for effecting the removal; the people at the detention facilities where the family were held, including the medical staff; and myself. A large number of people have therefore been involved in the case, and we all take such cases very seriously, because they involve the most difficult, challenging and emotionally fraught decisions that we must take day to day. Such decisions are difficult and have an emotional impact.
Where people disagree with the decisions that are ultimately made, it is wrong to question the motives of those involved. Parliament has made its view clear and expressed the law very clearly. As a result of that law, the people at the IND and Home Office, myself included, must often make difficult decisions. If we make certain decisions, that is not because we are in some way heartless or without emotion—that would be impossible when we have children of our own—but because that is the right thing to do.
Question put and agreed to.
Adjourned accordingly at Two o’clock.