With permission, Mr. Speaker, I wish to make a statement about visas.
As the House will know, I announced on 1 September that the Government had decided, in principle, to impose visas on citizens of Bangladesh, Ghana, India, Nigeria and Pakistan. On 6 October I announced that the change in respect of the Indian sub-continent would take effect from 15 October. For Ghana the date of implementation will be 23 October. It will be some time yet before the necessary arrangements for staff and accommodation can be completed in Nigeria, and we shall announce a date later for implementation. The necessary changes to the immigration rules have been presented. I hope that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House will find time for them to be debated before Parliament is prorogued.
Four of the five countries I have mentioned already require visas of British citizens. We would have preferred to continue to allow their citizens to come here without prior examination, requiring pre-entry clearance only for settlement, employment and similar purposes. But the pressure on the immigration control made that arrangement increasingly unsatisfactory and occasionally unworkable. The volume of traffic and its difficulty alike increased. Excluding British and other European Community nationals, the number admitted grew from 6 million in 1981 to 8·5 million in 1985. Whereas 13,000' of these passengers were refused admission and removed from the United Kingdom in 1981, the figure was nearly 18,000 in 1985 and rose to 22,000 in the 12 months ended June 1986.
Passengers from the five countries constituted a significant proportion of these refusals: 49 per cent. in 1985 and 53 per cent. in the year ended this June. There has been no change in the qualifications for entry or in the practice of immigration officers. So these figures reflected the growing pressure of people not eligible for admission seeking to come to this country. The need to examine more passengers in detail at the port of entry submitted not only them but others to delay. While passengers were being examined, they had either to be given temporary admission, often at risk to the control, or to be kept in detention, neither of which was satisfactory.
When those seeking entry as visitors from a particular country include a sizeable minority who may be trying to come here for other purposes it is, in our view, much better that the necessary inquiries and authorisations should he made before the journey starts rather than under pressure at the port of entry.
In order to safeguard the interests of bona fide visitors, my right hon. and learned Friend the Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary has strengthened the staff of our posts in the sub-continent so that visas can be issued in an orderly manner.
During the four days before the introduction of visas, there was a sharp increase in the number of passengers from the sub-continent arriving at London Heathrow. Included among these were a substantial number of young men, particularly from Bangladesh, who were clearly trying to use the last days of the old system to take advantage of its weaknesses. Despite the acute physical difficulties, I decided that these men should not all be temporarily admitted at once but should be examined in the usual way. I am glad to report that, thanks to much patient hard work by the immigration service, this process is now virtually complete. Since the introduction of the new system last week, incoming flights have included only a handful of people from these countries without visas, and the system is now working satisfactorily.
For the countries concerned, it will now be at our overseas posts, and not at the ports of entry, that the main decision will be made. The guidelines on the handling of Members' representations will in our view need altering to reflect this. At the port of entry, the immigration officer will normally no longer have to exercise a judgment on whether a passenger—claiming, say, to be a visitor—is bona fide.
That judgment will now be exercised when the visa application is considered. There is, of course, a right of appeal against refusal of a visa. I do not believe that, in addition to this safeguard, the airlines or travel operators should be led to believe that individuals arriving here without visas will be automatically admitted if a Member of this House intervenes on their behalf. This is a matter which the House will want to discuss, and I shall accordingly place the necessary amendment to the guidelines in the Library and the Vote Office tomorrow. I shall not implement this change regarding Members' representations until the House has had an opportunity to discuss it.
In conclusion, I wish to record my warmest thanks to all of the various services at Heathrow and elsewhere who rallied with speed, resourcefulness and efficiency to cope with the intense pressures of last week. The outcome, I believe, is that we have introduced what will prove to be a major improvement in the working of our immigration control. As the new system settles down it will improve the position of all bona fide travellers and ease the strains, particularly at Heathrow, which have gradually built up over the last year.
Hon. Members will know that almost the first thing seen by people arriving at Heathrow airport is — [AN HON. MEMBER: "You".] It is certainly not the Home Secretary, who never bothered to go and look at what he had done. What the Home Secretary and the rest of us can see at Heathrow is a huge sign proclaiming, "Welcome to Britain". Last week, the Home Secretary ensured that, for large numbers of people arriving at Heathrow, including hundreds whom the Home Office subsequently recognised as bona fide visitors, the welcome to Britain was personally humiliating for the visitors and shaming to this country's reputation.
Why, in the first place, did the Home Secretary last month decide to impose visa requirements for just five countries? The number of visitors to Britain from those countries is less than one third of those from Australia, New Zealand and Canada, and it has risen proportionately much less during the past three years than has the number from Australia, New Zealand and Canada. The Home Office cites the growing refusal rate, but it is not some act of God. Rather it is a deliberate policy of the Home Office. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] Hon. Members are right to applaud that, because it is true.
Can the Home Secretary deny that the Foreign Secretary was opposed to the imposition of these visas? A month ago, the Home Secretary made a speech in which he moaned about the baleful influence of pressure groups —"serpents" he called them. Is it not a fact that he has himself caved in to blackmail from one such pressure group—the breakaway immigration service union, the spokesmen of which have, during the past few days, made statements that have bordered on racialist?
Of course, the reason for imposing these visitors' visas is not one of administrative necessity but one of racial discrimination. That racial discrimination has been highlighted by the degrading scenes at Heathrow airport during the past few days. Anyone could have forecast that the announcement, several days ahead, of the imposition of a visa requirement would lead to a last minute rush. Indeed, I was told by senior immigration officials at Heathrow last week that such a rush was actually anticipated.
The Home Secretary claims that contingency arrangements were made. Did those contingency arrangements allow for almost intolerable pressures on the staff of the British Airports Authority, to whom I pay tribute for the way in which they sought to cope with those pressures? Did those contingency arrangements include cramming 300 people into one small gate room? Did those contingency arrangements include holding in police cells people accused of no crime? Did those contingency arrangements include accommodating other detained people in expensive hotel accommodation with the taxpayer having to foot the bill?
Is the Home Secretary aware that if he were a local councillor he would be surcharged for that wasteful expenditure, because that chaos and that expenditure are the fault of the Home Secretary who decided the policy and chose the date?
Will the Home Secretary give us some information about arrangements for issuing visas in the country of origin? Why is that by last Wednesday, six weeks after the decision to impose visas, the extra officers had still not been sent out to those countries?
The Home Secretary spoke about interference with the stop system for hon. Members. Is he aware that the leaking to the press of that proposed restriction of hon. Members' rights was highly offensive to the House? Does the right hon. Gentleman recall that on 26 March this year he pledged to the House that there was no suggestion of denying to hon. Members what he called the "valued" stop facility? How can he, in honour, break that undertaking?
Is not the Home Secretary also aware that under the visa procedure the stop facility will still he needed in emergency circumstances—
But, Mr. Speaker, there are large numbers of people in this country who have the right to hear the answers to the questions that I am putting and who will take it ill if hon. Members are not allowed to make representations on their behalf.
Is the Home Secretary aware that last Wednesday, Mr. John de Llanos, the assistant chief immigration officer at terminal 3, told me that possession of a visa would not of itself guarantee entry to this country—despite what the Home Secretary had said?
Is the Home Secretary aware—
We are indeed dealing with an abuse, but it is an abuse of the human rights of large numbers of people. Conservative Members are showing, in the way in which they are treating these exchanges, that they give a damn only for the human rights of those with white skins. The Home Secretary has treated people who went to the airport and their relatives, who had come here on visits, as was shown by the Home Office decisions in a majority of cases, like second-class human beings. He would not have done so if their skins had been white, and hon. Members know that.
The right hon. Member is, of course, entitled to ask his questions, and I shall try to answer them, but first I must say that the right hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friends cut ludicrous figures as they ambled about Heathrow asserting that all the young men there from the sub-continent were genuine tourists. What total twaddle that was. Are we really asked to believe that those young men all happened to choose the third week in October to come and see the tower of London? The truth is, as has emerged in all our debates on the subject, that the right hon. Gentleman and his colleagues want to tear a hole in immigration control so wide as to make it meaningless.
I shall deal with the specific questions asked by the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman). The five countries which I listed were chosen because they are countries from which come a substantial but growing minority of people whose claim to come here simply as visitors arouses doubt. They are the only five countries to each of which 1,000 passengers were returned last year.
Hon. Members will find in the Library a list of countries from which we require visas and those from which we do not. It shows how absurd it is to claim that the restriction is racialist. I do not feel racially aggrieved, nor did the Leader of the Opposition when he went to India, to find that an Indian visa is necessary. I am sure that as the new system settles down Indians will not feel racially aggrieved either.
We switched 54 extra staff from the immigration service to Heathrow to cope with the situation. If we had followed the advice in which I continue to get in letter after letter from Opposition Members, we should have experienced rush and pressure, not for two or three days, but for two or three weeks, or longer.
The right hon. Gentleman mentioned detention costs which do cause concern. Last year we got back about three quarters of those costs from the airlines under existing arrangements. They will be billed again for the events of last week. The problem of detention and detention costs is one reason—not the main reason—why we are doing away with the present system and causing the discussion and argument, if any, to be resolved before the journey begins rather than when it ends at Heathrow, with all the problems that that brings.
The right hon. Gentleman asked about staff overseas. A total of 39 extra staff are being sent—16 are already there and four more are going today.
The right hon. Gentleman's researches into Hansard did not carry him far enough. He quoted my remarks, but when we discussed the matter in March I was very careful not to rule out further change. That is why I deliberately said:
we shall have to keep a close watch on the way in which t hat position develops during the summer and be ready. if necessary, to adapt further our arrangements and systems." —[Official Report, 26 March 1986; Vol. 94, c. 958.]
The right hon. Gentleman reasonably asked about the operation of the new guidelines which I shall table tomorrow. The House will want to look at them carefully and to debate them. I accept that there will be exceptional circumstances as well as normal circumstances and that we shall have to define what they are.
I think that it is a substantial advance that in normal circumstances judgment should be exercised in a calm atmosphere overseas rather than in a hurried and pressured atmosphere at Heathrow.
Order. I remind the House that there will be a debate on the subject before we prorogue. I appeal to hon. Members to ask questions and not to make comments that they might make in that debate.
Is it not sad between two senior Comonwealth countries that Mr. Rajiv Gandhi should accuse the Government of racism because they have followed India's example in requiring visas? Is it not common sense that much disappointment and unnecessary trouble can be avoided for poor people in these countries if their position is clarified before they leave home?
Is it not true that the Home Secretary under his suave exterior, is presenting an extremely ugly policy that is, in essence, a message to foreign visitors that black faces are not welcome here? How, otherwise, were seven students who arrived here from Chad last week—invited by the British Council and paid for by the Government —refused entry by immigration officials at Heathrow and sent back to Chad at British taxpayers' expense?
I shall certainly look into the point that the hon. Gentleman has raised, which is new to me. However, it has nothing to do with my announcement today. I hope that he will do me the courtesy of looking at the list, when it is available, of countries from which visas will be required and those from which they will not be required. He will then realise how ludicrous it is to suppose that it was drawn up on a racial basis.
Is my right hon. Friend aware that there is a warm welcome for this reform, which is long overdue and which will relieve pressure on the vastly overworked immigration service at Heathrow? Is not that service entitled to our thanks and gratitude for its work on this problem during the past few months?
Will my right hon. Friend bear in mind that Members of Parliament do not want to act as a court of appeal for the decisions of immigration officers? Will he consider whether the benefits of the visa system should be extended to every country outside the Common Market? There are many advantages to be gained from that, especially for security and the prevention of terrorism. It would also make clear, once and for all, that this reform is not in any way motivated by racial considerations.
I am grateful for my hon. Friend's support. When the European Ministers met yesterday, we set in hand the formation of a working group to study the sort of problems that he mentioned. We all tend to think of these matters in terms of our own circumstances, but in fact there is hardly a country in Europe that, in different ways, is not feeling the pressures to which Britain has had to respond.
Does the Home Secretary recall that soon after he was appointed I wrote to him suggesting that he visited Heathrow to witness the delays and difficulties? Had he done so, he would have recognised what the rest of us recognised a long time ago —that the delays and difficulties could be overcome by the appointment of more immigration officers, and more interpreters and the provision of better accommodation. Indeed, that could have been done for a fraction of the £14 million a year that the visa system will cost.
Does not the Home Secretary understand that the objection to the visa system as being racist flows from the fact that white South Africans, Americans and Australians are not required to have visas to come to Britain for a holiday, but Pakistanis, Indians and Bangladeshis who wish to come here on holiday are so required? That is why the measure is seen as a racist and offensive move. It is doubly offensive that the Government sought to introduce it when this House was in recess and therefore unable to debate it, still less to approve it.
Visitors from the Caribbean do not require visas in most cases, while visitors from eastern Europe do require visas in most cases. Will the hon. Gentleman please look at the list to which I have referred, as he will then realise the nonsense of his remarks?
I have visited terminal 3 and the immigration control at Heathrow, although not specifically in response to the hon. Gentleman's suggestion. He knows as well as I know that it is nonsense to argue that the problem could be solved by increasing staff, building new detention centres and employing more interpreters. As the hon. Gentleman knows from his constituency post bag, the problem is one of occasional surges. They have occurred at various times during the past few years, and unless we staff up at Heathrow to an incredible and wasteful extent we would still have the pressures which, at particular times, make the system unworkable. Therefore, the more we consider the problems to which the recently buried system gave rise, the more sensible it seems to exercise a judgment overseas and not at the airport.
Is my right hon. Friend aware that he is right to move to reduce the chaos that has existed at Heathrow airport in recent months? Does he appreciate that the visa system will be of advantage to Birmingham families and to visitors from the countries referred to because of the certainty that will exist, providing that my right hon. Friend can ensure that emergency cases relating to bereavements or illness, for example, are dealt with efficiently?
There must, of course, be scope for dealing with emergency cases speedily, and my right hon. and learned Friend the Foreign Secretary has that in mind. My hon. Friend, who speaks from long experience, has it exactly right. One of the groups which has suffered most from occasional pressures at Heathrow has comprised the friends and relatives of bona fide visitors to this country from the sub-continent. This group has had to wrestle with uncertainty and delay, and the problem of Members' representations. [HoN. MEMBERS: "What problems?"] I hope that as the new system settles down those who comprise this group will find that they are among the chief beneficiaries.
Is it not appalling that the reason given for the introduction of the policy that the Home Secretary is seeking to defend today lies precisely with the policy and practice of the Home Office? Of almost 500,000 visitors in 1985, there were only 182 eventual overstayers.
Is it not the case that masquerading as expressions of fact are expressions of opinion? For instance, it is said that there has been no change in the practice of immigration officers. We have no proof of that and nor can such proof be adduced. The Home Secretary has said that temporary admission was a risk to control. Again, that is an expression of opinion and not of fact. He has said that the recent increase in the number of immigrants from the subcontinent was the result of a move to take advantage of the previous system. Again, that is an expression of opinion.
Has not the change in policy, which will be so divisive to communities in urban areas, been caused by the Home Secretary's own policy, which he is now seeking to be confirmed by his expressions of opinion?
Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that there are those on the Opposition Benches who will not accept that a policy is justified by what other countries do to us? It seems appalling that fellow members of the Commonwealth are not allowed into Britain when representatives of South Africa are.
I think that the hon. Gentleman is wrong on all counts. The number of absconders is substantially higher than he stated, and it has been growing. At terminal 3, it was 255 in 1985 and 430 in the year to June 1986. The number of absconders would have been substantially greater if we had not had the detention arrangements which the Opposition have criticised continually. If we had followed their advice and given temporary admission to everyone who came to Britain as a visitor, I have no doubt that the absconder figures would be substantially greater.
I believe that the arrangements which we have made will, as they settle down, prove to be of major benefit to bona fide travellers, who represent more than 90 per cent. of those who arrive from all the five countries which I have mentioned. Those who suffer from them will be only those who try to take advantage of the arrangements to sneak in for other purposes and those on the Opposition Benches who prefer a system of immigration control which is feeble and cosmetic.
Will my right hon. Friend be reassured of the rightness of his decision to curb this random activity by hon. Members? May I remind him that not two weeks ago, having received a representation to put a stop on a deportation and having considered it most closely and declined to intervene, the Leader of the Opposition's office was on to my hon. and learned Friend the Minister of State, Home Office within an hour demanding that action be taken without having made any checks on the validity of the representation? Is not this exactly the sort of misuse to which my right hon. Friend is now trying to put a stop?
I think that all right hon. and hon. Members have had difficulty in using the stop facility. They have had difficulty in judging when to impose a stop and when not. There was a justification for the facility — the unique ability of an hon. Member to change an administrative decision—when immigration officers at Heathrow were making judgments on the worth of stories, which obviously were value judgments. In those circumstances, there was a reason for having a unique facility. In the majority of instances that will no longer be the position. The judgment will be made overseas, and there will be the right of appeal against it. At Heathrow the question will be whether a person has arrived with a visa. That will change the entire situation as far as the House is concerned.
Despite the gloss that the Home Secretary has put on this issue, he must be aware that in a multiracial area such as Brent, South, where 50 per cent. of the population is black, the new system will be seen as racist. This will be a great blow to the passive integration that we have secured over a period. Why have relatives of some of my constituents been put into prison at Leamington? Is he aware that if a person has been in prison, despite the fact that no crime has been committed, the family will be aware for ever after that the individual has been in prison? Was there no other accommodation available apart from that at Moreton?
If a measure, regardless of the merits of it, is described by enough people as racist, there will be those who believe that for a time. I believe that as the system operates that belief will subside and will be shown to be nonsense.
I sympathise with what the hon. Gentleman has said about the circumstances of detention. There are now between 80 and 90 Asians currently detained, some in a detention centre and some in a youth custody centre. All of them are there because right hon. and hon. Members have imposed a stop. I hope that right hon. and hon. Members who are in that position will make their representations quickly so that these cases can be properly determined.
Is my right hon. Friend aware that many of my right hon. and hon. Friends will welcome some reduction in our duties in asking for a stop order to be made when we have no means of checking satisfactorily the facts that are put to us? We realise that when we make representations they must inevitably on occasion lead to overstaying and evasion of the Immigration Act.
I think that many hon. Members on both sides of the House have found it extremely difficult to judge when to exercise a unique right which has been theirs. When we debate the matter, as we obviously should, we shall have some further examples and illustrations to give and to make on how difficult things have become, and the House will then make up its mind.
If the Home Secretary had spent much of the past nine or 10 days at Heathrow, as many hundreds of Asian families have, perhaps he would not be so complacent. If he had spent five of those days constantly speaking to his office over the telephone trying to ascertain whether his constituents' relatives were being held in some of the places to which he has referred, again perhaps he would not be so complacent. Perhaps then, like families in Coventry, he would have recognised this apartheid in tourism to be the racist measure that it is.
Why are the Government using this racist card unless they are worried about their prospects over the next few months or unless they are trying to support the campaign of the Daily Express, the Daily Mail, the Star and The Sun? What about compensation for the loss of earnings, for accommodation costs and the cost of petrol to travel up and down the motorways over the past 10 days that have been incurred by families who have been so worried about their relatives that they have turned up at Heathrow every day? When will the Home Office cough up and compensate these families?
Without knowing it, the hon. Gentleman has made a powerful case for abolishing the system which we have just demolished. It is partly because of the inconvenience to sponsors and relatives in Britain, as my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Hall Green (Sir R. Eyre) has said, that the present system is open to criticism. It is precisely because neither my hon. Friend nor I is not in the least complacent about the way in which the system has worked with increasing difficulty over the past year or so, despite the efforts of the immigration service, that we have changed the system.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that most reasonable people of all races will think that the visa scheme is a good scheme? Why is it necessary, with the visa scheme, to retain the Member of Parliament stop system? Apart from the fact that an hon. Member cannot really judge a case, when he is faced with a problem and rings an immigration officer at Heathrow, the immigration officer has no idea whether he is a Member of Parliament or not. Surely it is high time that the stop system ceased.
How do the Government expect to create a multiracial society when they continue to discriminate on racial lines against the relatives and friends of many of their citizens of non-white origin?
There is a major difference between the Opposition and the Government in that respect. I am absolutely convinced, as I have been for many years, that we shall not get harmony in our cities or good race relations in constituencies such as that of the hon. Gentleman unless people feel that there is firm but fair immigration control. The Labour party, in all its policy pronouncements, especially those of the Leader of the Opposition in his irresponsible statements in India, has opted for the repeal of the immigration legislation. The right hon. Gentleman, quite foolishly, has committed the Labour party to returning to a non-visa system. Labour Members seek to build, in their own minds, a control which is simply cosmetic and which would have so many holes in it that it would not serve any useful purpose. Instead of being a recipe for harmony in our cities, it is a recipe for greater tension and more bitter feeling.
Is my right hon. Friend aware that I was in Colombo last week and that I asked of Sri Lankans whether the visa control system, which has been in force for some months, was working to their satisfaction? The answer I received from Tamils, Sri Lankans and other members of the community was that it was working perfectly well. Is that not a portent for the workings of the system in Bangladesh, India and other countries that have been mentioned?
I am obliged to my hon. Friend. More than a year ago we had to impose visas rather suddenly on visitors from Sri Lanka. The system has settled down satisfactorily since then. I am grateful for my hon. Friend's confirmation of that.
What practice will the Home Secretary adopt for people coming to Britain to seek political asylum who, by their nature, will not have a visa? Is the Home Secretary aware of the immense practical difficulties for students from west Africa who quite properly come here as visitors to fix up their colleges and from whom we earn millions of pounds in foreign exchange? Will the Home Secretary be relatively generous on the issue of entry certificates for visas for students who can then convert them to full-time student visas when they arrive in the United Kingdom?
My announcement does not affect our obligations as regards asylum. I shall look into the point about students. Only two of the five countries are in west Africa. People must be able to show—I am sure that in the majority of cases, students or not, they will be able to do so—that they are bona fide visitors. I shall consider whether there are any particular problems regarding Ghana and Nigeria. If the hon. Gentleman wishes to press his point, I shall be grateful for details.
Surely there can be no question about the requirement of visas for foreign visitors when countries as far apart as the United States and Bangladesh demand them for our citizens. I add my plea to those of my colleagues who feel that the system should be extended to all countries outside Europe. Fully supportive of my right hon. Friend, I ask him whether he has a rough idea of how long it will take to process ordinary visas on the sub-continent.
I think that it is too early to say. For the reason that I gave in answer to one of my hon. Friends, there must be a procedure for dealing quickly with urgent applications. I believe that some of the press stories about the length of the time that will be taken are greatly exaggerated. Not all applications will have to be dealt with by way of interview. It should be possible to deal with many by post. There will be problems as we shift from one system to another. My right hon. and learned Friend, with my support, has increased the staff available. I believe that there is a good chance of the system settling down with delays that do not go beyond those which most people encounter in making other arrangements for a journey.
It depends on a person's passport. As I have said, the five countries were chosen because they were the five countries in which there was a still small but growing minority of people who presented themselves as visitors but about whose bone fides as visitors there was doubt.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the introduction of visas will be a major benefit to all bona fide visitors, and it is only those with whom we should concern ourselves; that the maintenance of firm and fair immigration control is in the interests of all our constituents, especially those in the ethnic minority communities; and that the promises of the Opposition parties to remove immigration control threatens the excellent community relations that are enjoyed in Slough and most other towns in this country?
Is the Home Secretary aware that what occurred last week at Heathrow airport illustrated the sheer incompetence and hysteria of Government policy on this matter, and that the misleading impression was given by the Government, and certainly by the Tory press, that people who arrived during those few days came here for settlement when that was clearly not the case? Why should the right of hon. Members to take up matters on behalf of their constituents be taken away, even if it displeases some immigration officers at Heathrow? If our constituents, despite what is being introduced, want us to take up matters concerning relatives and friends, why should we not be in a position to do so in the same way as we take up issues concerning housing, supplementary benefit, and so on? Our rights should be protected, or we shall resist what the Home Secretary has just stated.
If the Government's proposals are accepted, the hon. Member will be in exactly the same position as regards immigration cases as he is as regards housing and social service cases. If the House approves our proposals, he will not be able to exercise what is a unique facility and change an administrative decision before his representations are considered. If an hon. Member writes to a council and suggests that somebody deserves a council house, that person is not given a council house while the hon. Member's representations are considered. That is the difference. There is no way in which we should diminish the right of hon. Members to make representations. What we are simply saying is that, in the new circumstances, we need new procedures and that the automatic stop exercised at the port of entry is no longer appropriate.
The hon. Member's view of what happened over the past few days is quite different from mine. It is clear to me that what we saw was the last throes of a system that had ceased to work. It was not the first time that that system had come under pressure. It came under pressure in the spring and summer of last year, the summer of this year, and again last week.
Apart from the manifestly good sense of the proposal, is it not much kinder, more considerate and more humane that genuine visitors should know, before they leave their country, that when they get here there will he no hassle? Will not the measure cut out much of the criminality that goes on in countries with the bogus sale of passages? Is not the synthetic indignation of the Opposition an indication that they care more about those who are not genuine visitors than those who are?
My hon. and learned Friend is right. One of the bad features of the system which we have changed was the opening it gave to unscrupulous travel operators in the sub-continent to fill young people with bad advice as to what would happen at Heathrow, with results with which all right hon. and hon. Members are familiar. That is one of the bad features which we have done away with.
Are not young men just as eligible for admission as visitors as any other group? Is it not likely that the large number of those who turned up recently at Heathrow were there simply because they knew and their relatives knew that, once the introduction of the visa system had been accomplished, they were the people least likely to be allowed entry?
Of course, there is no reason why young men should not come here as visitors. What staggers belief is that such a large number—several hundred young men from the sub-continent — should decide that the third week in October was the time to make the visit. I believe from the inquiries which are being made that among those people—not the lot—were a large number who would have come anyway in coming months, hoping to take advantage of the old system. When they realised that the old system was going to change, they thought that they would try it on straight away.
Does my right hon. Friend accept that the humiliating and degrading scenes to which the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) referred in a staggeringly inappropriate question are the products of the present system? Will my right hon. Friend accept that many of us who have urged constantly upon him that he introduce a system that avoids precisely that humiliation and those degrading scenes are delighted that he has done so and that we now look forward to enabling bona fide visitors to this country to enter without any discrimination applying to them on the basis of their counry of origin—entirely as all hon. Members would wish?
My hon. Friend is right. I have been rather impressed, despite all the obfuscation, at the number of people from the ethnic minorities who, in one way or another, made that point to us in the past week.
Order. There is to be a debate later on this matter. I have received no fewer than five applications under Standing Order No. 10 and there is also a ten-minute Bill on the Order Paper. If hon Members will look at the provisional selection of amendments on the Bill, they will see that we have a very long day ahead of us. I shall allow questions on the statement to continue until 4.30 pm, but then, I am afraid, we must move on.
Is the Home Secretary aware that many of us view the introduction of visas with deep concern and apprehension, and a little suspicion. perhaps because it applies only to coloured people? Will the right hon. Gentleman convey to the staff at the office of the Minister of State—the hon. and learned Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Waddington) — the thanks of those who have had this task for the courteous and helpful manner in which they have always dealt with our telephone calls and inquiries? Will the right hon. Gentleman undertake to return to the House when the system has been working for a few weeks to clear up many of our concerns and the questions which he has not been able to answer this afternoon— for example, what will happen in an emergency and what will happen to students? Will he undertake to make a further statement when the scheme has been working for a few weeks?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for the way in which he has tackled this matter and especially For his thanks, which my hon. and learned Friend the Minister of State will be glad to pass on to his staff. Of course the House will want to keep this matter under its eagle eye. We can do better than the hon. Gentleman suggested. We clearly need to have a debate earlier than he suggested to deal with those questions, especially representations by hon. Members. Thereafter, let us see how we get on. The House will certainly want to be kept informed.
Does my right hon. Friend understand that his statement will be widely welcomed by all sections of opinion? Will he disregard the Opposition's protests, which are not supported outside the House and which, I believe, are not supported by many ordinary Labour voters?
Is the Home Secretary aware that at a well-attended public meeting called by the London borough of Newham there was unanimous opposition to and great resentment about the imposition of visas? Does not the right hon. Gentleman realise that a correct and cheaper solution would have been to employ more immigration officers at Heathrow? Does he realise that this scheme will cause great hardship to thousands of relatives of my constituents who now fear that they will have to make long journeys and endure long waiting periods to obtain visas? What specific assurances can the right hon. Gentleman give on that last point? How long will people have to wait for their visas?
So far, the average handling time in the subcontinent has been within the same day. We shall see how we get on. This shows that adequate preparations have been made. There will be a settling down period, but I should be genuinely disappointed if the hon. Gentleman were able in a few weeks' time to make a genuine complaint on that point.
In all normal circumstances, the possession of a visa will bring about entry. The law does not actually guarantee that. It puts the legal duty on the immigration officer, as the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) knows. The whole point of the visa system, which will certainly operate in this way, is that normally in the overwhelming majority of cases the possession of a visa will bring about entry.
I thank the staff of the Department for being very helpful. If Ministers were half as helpful, we would not have our present problems. Is the criterion by which a visa is issued simply that a person is a genuine visitor or will this machinery be used, as machinery has been used in the past, to produce an unofficial quota system?
The criteria will be exactly the same as in the past. There has been no alteration in the criteria or definition. The change will simply be that discussion will take place overseas and not here.
Is my right hon. Friend aware that the visa system just introduced has been widely acclaimed because it is seen as just and fair to the genuine visitor while at the same time it combats illegal immigration, which many believe is often aided and abetted by Labour Members? Will my right hon. Friend pay particular tribute to many of my constituents who work in the immigration service at Heathrow airport who have been put under intolerable strain in the past two weeks and who have been working long hours in difficult circumstances?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. That is one reason why I specifically mentioned those officers in my statement. The views of those who have to operate the immigration service should not be decisive in the forming of policy, but I see nothing wrong in my hon. Friend or myself paying careful attention to what they say.
Will the right hon. Gentleman give instructions to his junior Ministers and his officials to treat visitors to Britain more humanely? Since last year, I have dealt with hundreds of cases, as Ministers know. I have been appalled at the way in which those visitors have been treated in the past two or three weeks. They have been given inhuman treatment. They have not been allowed to know where their relatives are. They have been refused answers on the telephone. They have made numerous visits but still have not been given the information that they require. These visitors have had insults piled upon their injuries. Will the Home Secretary ensure that instructions are given so that these unfortunate people are treated in a much more humane and decent way? Will he ensure that they are given the information to which they are entitled and, more importantly, that Members of Parliament are given the information to which they are entitled about the whereabouts of the people on whose behalf they are trying to act?
I reject the tone of what the hon. Gentleman has said. I think that, on reflection, he will regret some of the words he used. Of course, any system works better when it is not under the extreme pressures which the former system has been under several times in the past two years. That is one reason why we have changed it.
Will my right hon. Friend accept that most of the concerns of my Asian constituents derive partly from irresponsible scares put around by Opposition Members as to the length of time they will have to wait to get a visa and partly from the lack of information as to who needs a visa? Therefore, will he undertake to mount an extensive publicity campaign, particularly through the ethnic minority press, to reassure my constituents? They are now asking, for example, whether they need a visa if they have indefinite leave to remain. Will he undertake to review the appeal system because of the length of time it is currently taking to deal with appeals and the extra burden that the new system is bound to throw upon it?
Obviously we have done our best to inform all the organisations in this country which might be interested and we will continue to do that because we have to clean up after statements which misrepresent the facts and reassure genuine travellers and their families. Let me look at my hon. Friend's point about appeals. Obviously there may be an increase in the number of appeals and the machinery may need to be strengthened to cope with them.
Is the Home Secretary aware that the sheer machanics contradict the assurances he has given in regard to same day issue of visas, justice, equality and all the other aspects which he has mentioned? Is he aware that his own staff plus those in the Foreign Office have said that the extra burden amounts to at least 20,000 hours per week if each application is given only 10 minutes? Yet the right hon. Gentleman has just announced that only 39 additional staff are going overseas in order to deal with that extra burden. Is not the real reason for the policy to cut by half the number of visitors who are coming to this country?
No. Indeed, that would be absurd given that the overwhelming majority—more than 90 per cent.—of visitors from the countries I have mentioned are clearly welcomed as bona fide visitors and there is no difficulty for them. I said—I do not wish to be misrepresented—that the record to date is of same day issue. My right hon. and learned Friend the Foreign Secretary will do his best to ensure that the delay in obtaining visas, whether issued by post or after interview, will be kept to a minimum. That is why the staffs have been strengthened.
Will my right hon. Friend accept that his statement will be widely welcomed throughout the country, and especially the assurances he has given on the length of time people will be kept waiting for visas? It will be unlike the position of 53-year-old Mr. Surendra Biswas of Middlesbrough, who has been waiting 14 weeks for the Indian embassy in this country to acknowledge the fact that he has applied for a visa to visit his parents in India.
Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that he is completely misunderstanding the stop system if he says that it changes an administrative decision? It does no such thing. It makes sure that no irrevocable action is taken while the decision is properly considered. If a visa is not accepted, as the Home Secretary says that it may not necessarily be, will the stop system operate? What will be the position of returning residents? They are in doubt about their position. Will they need visas? If they are not allowed in, will the stop system operate on their behalf? What about somebody with an urgent family emergency, for example, with news of the impending death of a relative while the embassy is closed at the weekend? Will they be able to get on a plane, come here and make contact with their relatives if they are stopped and if there is a prospect of their being returned? People need to know. These are human predicaments.
The specific questions asked by the right hon. Gentleman are perfectly reasonable. I can confirm that returning residents will be exempt from visa requirements. There will be exceptional cases which the House will want to discuss when we debate the guidelines. Members will naturally want to make representations because there will be cases where, in spite of the visa system, for special reasons it will be for the immigration officer to make a value judgment. Those are the sort of detailed but necessary points that the House will want to discuss, and we will want to put our detailed proposals to the House. I hope that debate can be arranged quickly.
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. In reply to my observations, the Home Secretary said that I would be sorry about raising the questions that I raised. I want to know whether the Home Secretary was making a threat.
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. May I suggest that a statement of this importance on visas is not complete without a question from an hon. Member from the county or city of Leicester where the biggest impact of Asian immigrants has been felt recently? It might complete the proceedings, Mr. Speaker, if you were to extend the time for questions in order to enable at least one hon. Member from Leicester to put a question to the Home Secretary.
As the hon. Gentleman knows, It is extremely difficult for the Chair when such a large number of right hon. and hon. Members wish to take part. All I can say is that those hon. Members who are unable to put a question on the statement are always given priority when the matter is subsequently raised. I keep careful lists on these matters.
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. You asked hon. Members to restrict their questions because of the debate intimated by the Home Secretary. Are you in possession of any information to show that the debate will take place before the 23 October introduction of further visa restrictions on Ghanaian nationals, otherwise the problems experienced today in attempting to raise points could be repeated?