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Immigration Procedures

Volume 963: debated on Monday 19 February 1979

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

12.32 am

After the disclosure earlier this month that a virginity test had been carried out at London airport on an Asian lady arriving to marry her fiance, there has been a widespread outcry, first in The Guardian and subsequently in the rest of the media, from the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, from the Indian Workers' Association, from the Commission for Racial Equality, from the Equal Opportunities Commission and from many outraged members of the public. There has been an outcry also from the Indian Government and the Indian press.

The disclosure of that test has led to more revelations and to discussions of other practices which are carried out by immigration and entry clearance officers at posts overseas. My purpose tonight is to draw attention to those practices rather than to the virginity tests. I want from my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary a promise of a public inquiry into the practices and the way that they are carried out.

Two things become clear. First, if we had a freedom of information Act this issue might not have arisen. We might have been able much more easily to demand to know the facts had such an Act been in force. Secondly, if we had Select Committees to monitor Government Departments, and if there had been one to monitor the Home Office, we might have been able to find out what has been happening.

I want to begin by referring to the virginity tests and by paying tribute to the lady who was courageous enough to complain. She suffered very much, and we should try to let her know that she has done a public service by revealing what happened to her. Suspicions have existed in all sorts of organisations and among a large number of members of the public that such tests have been carried out in the past. But since Asian women are extremely modest, and since this kind of test is frightening, painful and morally affronting, it has probably been difficult for any women who have been subjected to it to discuss it even with their families and fiances.

I want to tell the lady concerned, and any others who have undergone a similar ordeal, that I am sure the House would wish to endorse the public apology which the Home Secretary made in answer to a parliamentary question from my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr. Bidwell), who is her Member of Parliament.

We all welcome my right hon. Friend's immediate action in issuing instructions that such tests must not take place, and the instruction also from the Foreign Office that such things must not happen in our posts overseas. That is entirely as it should be, and all of us were encouraged by the commendable speed with which the instructions were issued.

I have since received from my hon. Friend the Minister of State a letter in reply to my own protest. While he has tried to explain the situation, I confess that I found his letter complacent and rather grudging. Indeed, it by no means answers completely either my letter or the questions which I and other hon. Members have tabled about this test. The letter does not say, for example, and neither did the answer to the questions, whether the practice was known about at ministerial level.

I have been busy telling people—and, indeed, really believing it—that since my hon. Friend the Member for York (Mr. Lyon), when he was Minister of State, told us that he had issued instructions for the practice to cease, it had in fact ceased and had crept back only in some individual way on the part of some individual immigration officers, and that neither my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary nor my hon. Friend the Minister of State could have known about it. I should like an assurance that they did not know about it. But if they are able to give an assurance that they did not authorise it, who did? The House should demand to know who did in fact authorise it.

We ought to know at what level in the Home Office this practice was known. Who were the people who made the decision that these tests should be carried out? Were they in the Home Office itself, or was the practice restarted by individual members of the immigration service?

For offensive and discriminatory practices to be ordered by anyone is, in my view, wrong, but if they be ordered by an immigration officer, who is the equivalent of an executive officer in the Civil Service, or even by a chief immigration officer, who holds the equivalent grade of a senior executive officer, that is, to my mind, to give people at a relatively junior level in the Civil Service powers which they should not have.

Tests such as these are discriminatory, and doubly so. They are sex discriminatory because they can be carried out only on women. Who ever heard of a virginity test being carried out on men? They are racially discriminatory because they have been carried out on women who come from a cultural background which places particular emphasis on female modesty—in other words, on Asian women.

I asked for a breakdown by country of origin of the figures for women who had had to submit to this test and I got no answer. I am willing to bet that no immigration officer has ever tried to inflict the test on a white woman passenger. I am sure that he would have got a clip over the ear if he had tried to do so. So it would seem that Asian women can be asked, or have been asked, to submit themselves to it, but white women can- not have been. There are a number of questions which the Minister of State and the Secretary of State have not yet answered, and I hope that they will be answered tonight.

My main purpose is to widen the issue beyond the virginity test and to ask whether the other practices that are carried out by the immigration service and entry clearance officers are not equally dubious. There has been a great deal of disquiet about revelations on the use of X-rays. The evidence is alarming. It has alarmed qualified radiologists, members of the medical profession and the World Health Organisation. The WHO has said that it exposes those tested to unnecessary radiation risk, especially, as has happened in one instance, if the test is carried out on pregnant women. That is something that we would never allow in Britain through the National Health Service.

It is common practice—all Members of Parliament with immigration cases know it—that at our embassies and high commissions abroad X-rays are used to determine the age of a child or young person. Following the hullabaloo that has arisen—many of us have been protesting about the use of X-rays to determine age—medical opinion, too, is beginning to query the practice. It is beginning to say that it is an unreliable method of determining age.

One of my constituents is a young lady aged 19. She has been engaged for some years to a boy of her own age. When the time came for him to enter the country, he applied in the normal way for entry as a fiance. When he was interviewed, he was asked to submit to an X-ray test. He thought that that was strange but he submitted to it. He was informed that he was not 19 years of age but 13. The matter has gone to appeal. My constituent is affronted that her fiance's birth certificate should be disbelieved. He has a valid birth certificate. She is upset that she should be thought to be a baby-snatcher. She said:
" No way do I ever want to marry a kid of 13."
It is clear from the descriptions which I am sure all of us receive from our constituents and from other evidence that, far from merely checking the documents of applicants for entry and courteously making inquiries, many entry clearance officers start from the standpoint that applicants must be lying and are probably not the persons they claim to be.

Tricky questions are asked. Often they are asked of the children, and of children in the same family, separately. For example, they are asked "How many people are there in your family? How many sisters, brothers, uncles, aunts and cousins do you have? How many rooms are there in your house? What is the relationship and the distance between the kitchen and the living room?" I should find it hard to remember the disposition of my flat, and I can understand how others become muddled about these matters.

One of my constituents came to Britain in 1963. He raised enough money to be able to bring his wife to join him here in 1973. The application was refused because there were discrepancies between his story about the number of buffalo on his father's smallholding and his wife's story about the number of buffalo. Trivial matters of that sort have caused a great deal of trouble and have caused many families to remain separated.

It is high time that the secret instructions given by the Home Secretary to immigration officers under the immigration legislation were made public. The instructions to entry clearance officers should also be published. When so much power lies in the hands of relatively junior officials, it is essential that we know the nature of the detailed guidance. If the guidance is unacceptable, we can campaign to change it. If it is reasonable, public opinion will be reassured and we shall know when the cases are brought to us whether the guidelines have been breached in any way.

I am talking about the frequent rudeness and abuse to which those arriving at London airport are subjected by members of the immigration service. I am talking about the personal and offensive questioning that they have to undergo overseas and here at ports of entry. I am talking about the often unnecessary detention at Harmondsworth and Gatwick. In 1978 at Gatwick there was one instance of detention lasting a little over seven months. I am sure that much of that detention is unnecessary. All that could be exposed and restricted if we knew the exact nature of the guidelines.

Many tourists come to this country—Americans, Canadians, New Zealanders, Australians and so on. If they are white, they come in properly as visitors. They are not questioned. They are not rounded up after staying here for a month and shoved into Pentonville prison. But if they are black they often are.

We must make the immigration service and the entry clearance service subject to proper scrutiny and ministerial control. We have no procedure for investigating complaints about the behaviour of officials. If we complain to the Minister, all that he does is to ask the immigration service about which we have complained for a report about itself. And the Minister always upholds the findings of that report from his own service.

Many organisations—I mentioned them before—have complained and caused an outcry about what has happened about virginity and other tests. I know that the whole matter has caused resentment in the entire Indian subcontinent.

The Select Committee on Overseas Development has been in India during the past fortnight and I can tell my hon. Friend that representations were made by parliamentarians of the Lok Sabha. They will be pleased to hear what my hon. Friend has said tonight.

I am sure that that is true, because I have seen the Indian press. I believe that the Indian Parliament reassembled today, and there will probably be a debate on the matter.

Let me reiterate my three demands. We need a public and independent inquiry into the conduct and control of the immigration service and into the conduct of our officers overseas. We want the publication of the detailed instructions that are given to them. Finally, we want the establishment of an independent procedure for investigating complaints.

If those three things are done by my right hon. Friend, he will do much to allay the alarm that has arisen amongst Asians and lessen their sense of affront. It will help to repair the damaged relations between Britain and India, and this is important. It will lessen the sense of shame, and it is a sense of shame that is felt by many people in this country, that such things can happen here. It will show that when we protest, as we rightly do, about limitations on human rights imposed by other countries, we are doing everything possible here to ensure that human rights are respected. We have, after all, obligations under the United Nations Convention on Civil and Political Rights, which prohibits
" cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment ",
which is precisely what we have been handing out to the people whom we should be welcoming here. It would also reassure those who believe in combating racialism and who trust the Government to do the same thing. Anything less than agreement to those three demands will leave an ugly smear on Britain's face.

12.48 a.m.

This debate affords me an opportunity to clear up misunderstandings which have arisen about our immigration procedures and to announce some steps that I propose to take.

First, it is important to consider the recent incident in the context of the immigration control as a whole, and many of the comments which have been made about the recent case—which I shall come to in a moment—seek to draw conclusions about the whole procedure for examining people wishing to come to this country.

During 1977 the immigration service examined and admitted to the United Kingdom, in accordance with rules approved by the House, more than 12 million people subject to control under the Immigration Act. In the course of those examinations about 15,700 people were found not to be qualified for admission under the rules and were refused leave to enter. In other words, only about 0·1 per cent of those arriving at the ports were refused entry.

The refusal rate is naturally higher in respect of countries from which there is strong pressure to emigrate but, even so, of those from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh who arrived here in 1977, 0·8 per cent. were refused admission. That is substantially lower than the refusal rate from a number of other countries.

It is an unfortunate but undeniable fact that a proportion of those coming here attempt to do so by pretending to have qualifications under the rules which they do not have. Many hon. Members will know of individual cases where this has been shown to be so. There are those who claim to be dependants but who are in fact married, independent, and so on. I do not want to go into all the cases. They are not imagined deceptions. It was for this reason that an independent procedure was set up in the late 1960s. Such cases are known and experienced daily. It is therefore to be expected that in a proportion of the cases coming before him the immigration officer will suspect deceit and have to inquire into it. Nothing in the recent case, or in the instructions which I gave in the light of it, alters the fact that the immigration service must inquire into cases where evasion of the controls authorised by Parliament is suspected.

Let me now come to the particular case. The immigration officer concerned suspected that a woman seeking entry as a fiancee might already be married. If she was the wife of someone other than the man said to be her fiance, she would obviously not have been eligible to enter as his fiancee. If she was already married to him, she would have required an entry clearance as a wife seeking to come here for settlement. It is a fact that entry clearances are required for wives and not for fiancees.

Although we may now discount those suspicions in this case, it does not follow that it was unreasonable for the officer concerned to have them. The immigration rules approved by Parliament state quite clearly that
" A passenger who intends to remain in the United Kingdom for more than six months should normally be referred to the medical inspector for examination."
This is in the interests of public health and to prevent advantage being taken of the facilities provided by the NHS by those not entitled to make use of them. In 1977, 45,000 travellers were medically examined at the ports of entry in accordance with powers and rules approved by this House.

As a fiancee, the woman in this case was required to undergo the usual medical examination required under the rules to which I referred for a person coming to settle here. From the inquiries that I have made, I understand that in referring her to the medical inspector for this purpose the immigration officer asked if, in addition, he would give his opinion whether she had borne children. In this case—I am giving the facts of the matter—the woman's written consent to an examination was obtained after its purpose had been explained to her in her native tongue. In saying that, I fully understand that there must have been, whatever the circumstances, an element or duress involved.

The case has given rise to important and damaging misunderstandings. I have had inquiries made. While it is not possible in the nature of things to say categorically that an examination like that made by the doctor in the recent case had never been made before for the same purpose, I have had inquiries made from the records of medical examinations at the ports. To the best of their knowledge, a vaginal examination for such a purpose may have been made only once or twice during the past eight years, according to the records which have been looked at. That does not excuse what happened, but I am trying to put the matter in perspective.

Nevertheless, as I have already made clear to the House, I considered the reports on this case and decided that immigration officers should not ask the medical inspector to examine passengers with a view to establishing whether they had borne children or had had sexual relations. Identical instructions have been given to posts overseas. The fact of the occurrence, once, twice or three times, was not known to Ministers. Nevertheless, it is a ministerial responsibility, whether we knew or not.

My hon. Friend referred to instructions in the past by a former Minister of State. From the investigations that I have made, I can say that the instruction that was given in Pakistan at that time, even if it had been issued more widely, would not have forbidden the sort of request made in the recent case.

I am also looking into the objects and nature of all medical examinations, in the immigration control context, to establish a standard and acceptable set of procedures. I have done that in consultation with my chief medical adviser, Sir Henry Yellowlees, and I shall announce the conclusions when the investigation is finished. There have to be medical examinations. They must be looked at by a professional to find out the nature of them and the reason for them. When the investigation is finished, I shall, as Isaid, let the House know the result.

The question of X-ray examinations was raised tonight. It has been raised in the last few weeks. I have asked myself questions about the need for X-ray examinations and the method of them. There is the question of X-ray examinations to assess age, as opposed to tests for diagnostic purposes. I judge it to be right, in view of the concern which has been expressed in recent days about such tests, that this question should be properly considered again. I am accordingly reviewing this matter also, taking into full account expert professional advice. We are looking at medical examinations for the purposes of immigration control and at X-ray examinations. It is, I think, time that we looked at these, and I shall announce the findings to the House in each case.

My hon. Friend talked about instructions to immigration officers, and I have looked at these carefully. I have read through the instructions again today. One of their purposes is to deal with abuse, and undoubtedly it would be wrong to publish some of the information that is given in those instructions. It would only help those who want to abuse immigration control. I have looked at them most carefully, and I do not believe that, in the context that we are discussing tonight, anything would be achieved by such publication.

I am well aware of the effect of the recent case on members of the minority communities living here and on those wishing to come here. I deeply regret this and the distress experienced by the woman in the case. I hope, however, that what I have been able to say tonight will put the matter into perspective and add to the reassurance which I hope and believe should also have been provided by my announcement two days after the case came to notice.

In the same spirit, I would also say—I have many responsibilities in this respect—that it is easy to forget the many thousands of cases handled without criti- cism and to draw from the particular case unjustified general conclusions about the operation of the control as a whole.

It is right that in this one aspect, let alone all the others, there should be immigration control. Since hearing what happened, I have asked myself what I would expect for the female members of my own family, and it is on that basis and on the basis of the facts as I have been able to ascertain them that I have looked at this matter.

We shall look at medical examinations for the purpose of immigration control and at the question of X-rays. Thought has been given to this for some time. There is the question of the purpose of X-ray control, and whether it helps. Given the problems arising from X-rays, should it be done? We are looking at that as well.

I would not want to be responsible for an unfortunate case such as we have been considering, but I do not hide from my responsibility. It happened in my time as Home Secretary, if only on two or three occasions, and therefore it is my responsibility. It is sad that that has sparked off the two inquiries that I shall have carried out professionally But at least I hope that out of a most unfortunate incident, which I wish had not taken place, some good will result.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving me the opportunity to announce this tonight.

Question put and agreed to

Adjourned accordingly at one minute to One o'clock.