Orders of the Day — Mr. Amarjit Singh

– in the House of Commons at 11:27 pm on 23rd January 1996.

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

Photo of Mr Trevor Skeet Mr Trevor Skeet , Bedfordshire North 11:44 pm, 23rd January 1996

I want to raise the case of Mr. Amarjit Singh, who wishes to come to this country to see his grandmother who has terminal cancer. He has made three applications—one on 17 August 1993, another on 24 October 1994 and a third on 28 March 1995—all of which have been refused. Many of the reasons that have been given for refusal are, in my judgment, insubstantial.

An example of that with the third application was the allegation that Mr. Singh did not have full knowledge of his grandmother's illness—yet he received his information from the high commission doctor, so that should have been adequate. It was also said that there was no evidence confirming his business in India or that he had lived with his grandmother since the death of his father in 1979.

The sick lady, Mrs. Seso Kaur, wrote to me on 25 April 1995 saying: I brought up my grandson from a toddler when his father … died. I even gave up my work in a local school so that my daughter-in-law [Amarjit's mother] could take my place to earn some money in order to raise her family. It is worth observing that the other argument that was advanced related to the paternal uncle. It was suggested that there was no reason why Amarjit Singh should visit his grandmother to the exclusion of the paternal uncle and other, closer, relatives. That argument was adequately answered by the consultant, Dr. K. Farrington, in his letter of 2 November 1994. He said of the sick lady: She has a strong desire to see her grandson, Amarjit Singh, whom she brought up from a baby and who lived with her until she came to this country 6 years ago and for whom she naturally feel close ties and affection. It is apparent that some of the reasons for refusal were thin indeed.

On 5 September 1995, the sick lady wrote: It would seem there is no end to the tragedy in my family. You are already aware of Amarjit's father's death. And now his mother, Mrs. Joginder Kaur has also died on the 28/8/1995. I am now extremely worried not only about Amarjit but also about his younger sister Usha Devi who is 17 years old. It is rather interesting in such a case to have blatant refusals from the high commission in India, which is supposed to be doing a proper job.

I want to refer to the medical condition of Mrs. Kaur. There have been seven communications, three of them to the high commission in New Delhi—the communications by consultant J. H. B. Saunders on 1 December 1992; by Dr. Agrawal, the GP to the high commission, on 5 October 1994 on the lady's medical condition; and from Maria Eckford, social worker to the high commission, on 1 October 1994. The high commission was apprised of the situation and of the lady's deteriorating circumstances as far back as 1992, yet there have been constant refusals.

It may be important for me to bring the House up to date. On 3 January 1996, consultant Ken Farrington BSc MD FRCB wrote: Further to my previous letters about this lady, I am writing to advise you of a change in her circumstances. She has now developed a recurrence of her carcinoma of the gall-bladder. I am afraid her prognosis is now very poor and very limited to weeks. She is still desperate to see her grandson and I would appeal to you to do all you can to ensure that this is possible in the required time-scale. In his earlier letter of 24 November 1995, Dr. Farrington said that Mrs. Kaur had chronic renal failure and had been receiving haemodialysis programmes since September 1994. An earlier letter gives a good indication of the way Dr. Farrington feels about the matter. In his letter of 19 December 1994, he wrote: I was appalled to hear that this man's Visa application to visit his grandmother in the UK has been refused, in spite of my strong support … I would urge you most strongly to grant this Visa to allow this humanitarian visit as soon as possible. I need hardly say that the consultant has responded most positively, and I give him full marks for the attention that he has paid to this case. He wrote me no fewer than six letters—on 2 November 1994, 19 December 1994, 11 January 1995, 19 April 1995, 24 November 1995 and 3 January 1996.

It would seem to be an overwhelming case, and I am grateful to my right hon. Friend the Minister for coming here tonight to put forward the case for the defence for the entry clearance officer in New Delhi. For humanitarian reasons, we should consider this case much more deeply than it has been considered up to now. Two Ministers have been involved, and I have seen both on the matter. I am grateful to the present Minister for writing to me on 22 January.

I shall put certain specific points to my right hon. Friend, as I want to give him a full opportunity to state his case. There is no need to interview Mr. Singh again, as three rejections have been made on rather insubstantial grounds. There is no proof of guilt—only suspicion. The compassionate case now outweighs any doubts about the attitude of Mr. Singh, which can be explained by family distress. If there is any further delay, the course of the disease is liable to overtake any further consultation. Innocent cases are apt to be sacrificed, while international swindlers manage to foil the most skilful diplomats.

I make my final plea to the Minister. On grounds of pure humanity, it his duty to overrule the entry clearance officer who has found it difficult to see beyond the paper before him. The question is whether my right hon. Friend has the courage to use his discretion.

When we set up an instrument for very good reasons—checking visas at the place of origin to find out whether people are entitled to come for a short stay in the United Kingdom—certain aberrations creep in. The bureaucrats intervene and humanity is disregarded.

In cases such as this—I have tried to settle it with the Minister, but have had to make it public—my right hon. Friend has a way out. He can get assurances from the family, from the temple to which this man is attached and from me that he will return on the date indicated. My right hon. Friend can also lay down conditions for his stay in the United Kingdom. He can say that he is not entitled to come here for three months, but can stay for only one week—or 10 day—and must report to the police every day and return at the end of the stay.

That would make the visit possible and enable my right hon. Friend to meet the interests of a lady who is dying and making her final plea to the state in defence of which he will speak tonight.

Photo of Mr Jeremy Hanley Mr Jeremy Hanley , Richmond and Barnes 11:56 pm, 23rd January 1996

My hon. Friend the Member for North Bedfordshire (Sir T. Skeet) raises some important issues, and I welcome this opportunity to comment on the operation of our entry clearance system overseas and to make some points about the Singh case, although, as I hope that the House will understand, I am constrained from discussing that in great detail for reasons of confidentiality towards the applicant. I am particularly grateful to my hon. Friend for the regular courtesy in the way in which he has expressed himself to my predecessor and myself.

First, some general points. Operating cost-effective immigration controls abroad entails facilitating the entry of genuine visitors. We need to facilitate the entry of business people, students and others who qualify under the immigration rules, while preventing the admission of those whose real intention is to work or settle here illegally.

I am conscious of the fact that business and tourist visitors provide a significant proportion of this country's invisible earnings. The United Kingdom is the world's sixth largest tourist destination, with about 20.6 million visits in 1994, and it is the third largest destination for international conferences.

The tourism industry contributes 5.3 per cent. of gross domestic product and creates 1.5 million jobs, so it would clearly be foolhardy to operate a visa-issuing system that was so restrictive or obstructive that it damaged such an important contribution to our national economy. Obviously, we are careful to avoid doing so, as becomes clear from a glance at the figures.

In 1994—the last full year for which figures are available—out of the 20.6 million visits, our embassies and consular posts overseas processed 1.32 million visa applications. More than 1 million of those applications were for short-term entry clearance, either to visit this country or to study here for a period of less than six months. Of that number, just over 900,000–901,560 for the record—visas were issued, mostly on examination of the paperwork or after an interview lasting less than three minutes. I regard that as providing an efficient and professional service to travellers.

Entry clearance is carried out in 159 posts and accounts for 9.3 per cent. of Foreign and Commonwealth Office expenditure overseas. After the introduction of the common visa list later this year, that is likely to rise to 10.13 per cent. Entry clearance work is demand-led but fees for entry clearance work covered 83 per cent. of its cost in 1993–94 and it is Government policy to move eventually to self-sufficiency on a full-cost basis.

The level of entry clearance fees, which is reviewed annually, was last raised in January 1995. The fee for a settlement entry clearance will increase in two further stages to achieve full cost recovery in 1997–98. Work in 1994–95 required 915 man-years of staff time and generated £38 million in entry clearance fees.

At present, nationals of 87 countries require visas to enter the United Kingdom, but that figure will rise to 101 as a result of the common visa list. Our visa operation overseas is managed from the London end by the migration and visa department of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, which, in conjunction with the immigration service of the Home Office, runs 10 training courses a year for 120 to 140 prospective entry clearance officers. Each course lasts for three weeks, at the end of which time officers are expected to have a clear understanding of the immigration rules and the necessary knowledge to relate each individual application to those rules. No officer is posted overseas to do entry clearance work unless he or she has successfully completed that course.

Entry clearance officers, although relatively low in rank, are people of integrity, who are fully trained for their work. However, the training of entry clearance officers does not stop with the successful completion of the training course. Once in post, officers receive guidance and on-the-job training from the entry clearance manager and from his or her more experienced colleagues. Most of our larger visa issuing posts also run regular training courses for their staff. A series of regional training conferences has been held over the past two years.

All applications for entry clearance to the United Kingdom are considered in accordance with the statement of changes in immigration rules laid before the House on 23 May 1994. All applications for entry clearance must be made overseas. Applicants are required to complete a visa application form and pay the appropriate fee. After the application and any supporting documents provided by the applicant have been checked, an entry clearance officer can, in straightforward circumstances, issue the visa without further inquiries. In fact, about 68.3 per cent. of all applicants are dealt with in that way.

The balance of applicants are required to attend an interview to establish their intentions. Those who are unable to speak or understand English are interviewed in their own language with the aid of an official interpreter. At the beginning and end of the interview, the applicant is asked whether he or she could understand the interpreter and the questions. If there is no official interpreter, arrangements can be made for interpretation. A personal interview is thus an essential part of the entry clearance process where the application is less than straightforward.

Interviews are conducted according to standard guidelines and are designed not to intimidate or otherwise distress applicants. ECOs endeavour to ask questions in a courteous and tactful way and make allowances for applicants who appear nervous, especially those who have previously been refused entry clearance.

It is regrettable that not all applications are successful, but it is important to keep a sense of proportion about the refusal rate. In 1994, we issued about 1 million visas, and over 90 per cent. of those who applied for entry clearance were granted it. I should add that a decision to refuse entry clearance is never taken lightly. I can assure my hon. Friend that, in reaching their decisions, entry clearance officers take all the relevant factors into account, including information supplied by right hon. and hon. Members and by sponsors. Correspondence is also taken into account. I have seen the files. I have seen files at many posts throughout the world. I make a point of looking at files and the evidence written down by ECOs at interviews. It strikes me that, ultimately, the applicant's motives and intentions decide whether entry clearance is granted. That is so in the case of Mr. Amarjit Singh.

The facts of the case—I repeat that these are the facts that I am prepared to give tonight for privacy reasons—are that Mr. Amarjit Singh has applied three times for entry clearance to visit his seriously ill grandmother. There is no doubt of that. But he has failed to satisfy an entry clearance officer on each occasion that he genuinely seeks entry only for the purpose and period stated, that he is a genuine visitor and will leave the United Kingdom at the end of his visit.

As my hon. Friend said, entry clearance was refused in August 1993, October 1994 and March 1995. At interview, the entry clearance officer learned of the compassionate nature of the case. It also emerged that Mr. Singh is young—he is 25 years old—and earns a modest monthly income. He told the ECO that an aunt living in the UK helped to support the family in India and would pay for his visit. Mrs. Kaur also has closer relatives living in India who have not applied for entry clearance to visit her.

My hon. Friend has been assiduous in pursuing this matter with my Department. No hon. Member could have done more. He has written several times in support of the application and had a meeting with my predecessor on 6 February 1995 to discuss it personally. He had another meeting with me on 4 December 1995. He handed over additional evidence of the deteriorating health of Mr. Singh's grandmother, Mrs. Seso Kaur, which was passed to the ECO. But that does not necessarily say anything about Mr. Singh's intention to return to India.

The ECO was aware of the compassionate circumstances—Mr. Singh's grandmother's illness—and took that into consideration. But he also had to take into account Mr. Singh's personal circumstances in India and other factors that emerged at interview. As in all cases where an application is refused, the decision on Mr. Singh's latest application was referred to the entry clearance manager in New Delhi. He also gave proper consideration to the compassionate circumstances and to my hon. Friend's representations of interest and support, but was satisfied that, on the evidence available, the decision was correct and in accordance with the immigration rules. It is not reasonable to review a case that has already been thoroughly evaluated in the light of my hon. Friend's strong representations since 1993 without fresh evidence.

The judgment of those two officers was applied independently to the question whether, on the balance of probabilities, Mr. Singh was a genuine visitor who would leave the UK at the end of his visit. Using the balance of probabilities as the benchmark means that an ECO must be "satisfied". That is all. He need not be convinced outright or subject to gilt-edged, copper-bottomed assurances or guarantees, but simply satisfied.

The balance of probabilities works like any other balance: if one puts more weight in the form of new evidence on one end of the scales, they will tilt in a different direction. That is the way forward in this case, and my hon. Friend mentioned certain details that could be useful on a further application. A fresh application based on satisfactory evidence that only a visit is intended could be helpful.

Photo of Mr Trevor Skeet Mr Trevor Skeet , Bedfordshire North

In his letter to me, my right hon. Friend said: As mentioned in my letter of 15 January, the way forward is for Mr. Singh to submit a fresh application which can be considered by an ECO. You will appreciate that I cannot guarantee the outcome in advance. That will be a decision for the Entry Clearance Section at New Delhi. Time is short. Such cases can go remarkably fast. Is my right hon. Friend prepared to assure me that, if an application is made, Mr. Singh can, if authorised, come to this country within a week?

Photo of Mr Jeremy Hanley Mr Jeremy Hanley , Richmond and Barnes

If a fresh application is made, I can assure my hon. Friend that the entry clearance officer will look at the evidence as presented to him. The evidence that my hon. Friend listed in his contribution this evening could well help to tip the balance, but I cannot say that. It is for the entry clearance officer to come to a conclusion and for the entry clearance manager subsequently to consider it.

I sometimes have reason to write to hon. Members expressing disappointment that, despite protestations to the contrary beforehand, an applicant granted a visa in the light of an hon. Member's intervention has subsequently applied to remain here permanently. It pains me to have to embarrass hon. Members in such a way, but it illustrates the fact that hon. Members are as capable as anyone else of being deceived. I do not necessarily believe that in the case of my hon. Friend; I believe in his total sincerity.

If the evidence that my hon. Friend mentioned in tonight's debate is given in writing, perhaps we can look at it again. It is for the ECO to look at that; it would be wrong for me, merely because of pressure from my hon. Friend, to make a decision and to make a statement in the House. It would mean that justice was subject to pressure—perhaps even bullying, although my hon. Friend could never be called a bully, because he makes his points so courteously.

Photo of Mr Trevor Skeet Mr Trevor Skeet , Bedfordshire North

Under the rules, the Minister has a discretion. In 32 years in the House I have noticed hard cases, but I think that this is the hardest case. The Minister could exercise his discretion and overrule the ECO. He could decide that the case is now serious; he should consult the consultant; he should take into account what the family think about it; he should pin his researcher down to a briefer period. I should have thought that on that basis he would be adequately covered. Has he any proof over the 30 years of serious mistakes that I have made in evaluating people who come to me?

Photo of Mr Jeremy Hanley Mr Jeremy Hanley , Richmond and Barnes

As the Minister responsible for entry clearance matters arising overseas, I am occasionally asked to reverse ECOs' decisions, but I rarely feel able to do so. It is unnecessary, because adequate safeguards already exist to ensure that the decision that is made is fair. ECOs' decisions are subject to review routinely by the next tier of management and randomly through the offices of the independent monitor Dame Elizabeth Anson.

Dame Elizabeth was appointed under the Asylum and Immigration Appeals Act 1993, with terms of reference that require her to take a sample of about 1,800 refusals a year drawn randomly by an established statistical formula. Only rarely, therefore, will there be any reason for ministerial intervention in the decision-making process. Normally, the immigration rules must be followed. But when new evidence is presented, representations can and do result in the ECO reversing the decision without the need for any ministerial involvement. In her 1995 report, Dame Elizabeth said that she had received a number of letters from right hon. and hon. Members who have been successful in obtaining a favourable decision.

I have visited a number of entry clearance posts and found them to be staffed by well-motivated officers who are anxious to be seen to apply an immigration procedure that is firm but fair. I have visited the entry clearance office in New Delhi; I have met the entry clearance manager and the majority of entry clearance officers. I am impressed with their genuineness and assiduousness—as was my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary when he visited that office in New Delhi. There has been a staggering change in that office in the 10 years since I was last there. We now treat people, not just as humans, but in comfort and compassionately, which is vital if we are to carry out an important service, with people who deserve to be treated properly.

We still have to remember that we are dealing with humans, and human nature being what it is, there will always be those who set out to defeat the system for their own personal ends. If we treated people with suspicion from the outset, the numbers that I have mentioned would show that. The majority of people receive entry clearance, and there is the chance to make another application and, therefore, to succeed in time.

I am convinced that the entry clearance system at present in place is operated fairly.

The motion having been made after Ten o'clock, and the debate having continued for half an hour, MADAM DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned accordingly at fourteen minutes past Twelve midnight.