Mason Family (Sierra Leone)

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 1:45 pm on 6th February 2002.

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Photo of Angela Eagle Angela Eagle Parliamentary Secretary (Home office) 1:45 pm, 6th February 2002

I am extremely grateful that Dr. Cable wrote me a rude letter because it helped me to realise that something very wrong was happening with this case, which is one of many thousands that cross my desk. It also enabled me to examine closely what had happened.

I begin by offering my unreserved apologies to the applicant and her family for the delay and distress that has been caused, and to apologise to the hon. Gentleman for the fact that some of his inquiries about the progress of the case received inaccurate replies from my predecessors and, initially, from me in my letter of 14 December.

I and my officials in the Immigration and Nationality Directorate are deeply embarrassed at the string of errors that have made these apologies so necessary. The mistakes were not made deliberately, as the hon. Gentleman was gracious enough to accept, but unfortunately, it was one of those cases, among the hundreds of thousands that we deal with every year, in which everything that can go wrong does, not only at the embassy but, subsequently, in the Immigration and Nationality Directorate. For that I am very sorry.

The only thing to do in such cases is to apologise, which I have done, and to do everything possible to try to put things right. We also need to learn lessons for the future. The first of those actions has already been taken, as the hon. Gentleman was kind enough to acknowledge. The appeal papers are now with the Immigration Appellate Authority, where they should have been a long time ago, and dates have been set for a preliminary hearing this month and a substantive hearing in April. Of course, that in no way compensates for the delays that the applicant has experienced or the additional stress that must have been caused.

I should also say that the examination of what went wrong in the Immigration and Nationality Directorate has highlighted several problems involving entry clearance officers in particular. Some have already been addressed and will not occur in subsequent cases and others are being addressed now. I hope that that sort of oversight will never happen again. As a Minister, it is especially difficult to discover that one's replies to other Members of Parliament, signed in good faith, have not been acted on. The loophole in the Department, whereby there is no system for ensuring that ministerial replies are acted on, is being closed.

I do not want to spend time on the details of the case, as the hon. Member for Twickenham has already outlined it. None of that is in doubt or an issue between us. He is right to say that the process of appeals against entry clearance decisions from overseas is that they are lodged with the entry clearance officer and passed to the IND for the papers to be checked, copied and assembled into an appeal bundle and passed to the appellate authority, with a copy to the appellant's legal representative. The appellate authority then lists the case for hearing. Both the delays at the embassy and the unfortunate delays at IND meant that this case was not progressed.

I hope that the hon. Member for Twickenham will accept my apology and my reassurances that I am doing all that I can to ensure that this loophole for entry clearance cases is closed. I can assure him that I will not be signing any other letter to an hon. Member on an entry clearance case before I have checked that the matter has been actioned by officials in my Department.

The case has been unacceptable in many respects. I did my best, as soon as it came to my close attention, to ensure that progress was made. The hon. Gentleman has been quite gracious and correct in saying that I cannot influence the outcome of the case, but at least we have ensured that action is taken. Although that does not compensate for what happened, we will at least be in a position for a decision to be made on the case in the not-too-distant future.

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will accept that we will ensure that it does not happen again in other cases. I also hope that he will accept not only my apologies but my congratulations, first for writing me a nasty letter and secondly for raising the issue in Westminster Hall, which has given me an opportunity to explain what went wrong and set out what we are doing to ensure that it will not happen again.