Previous SectionIndexHome Page

8.39 pm

Keith Vaz (Leicester, East): I shall speak briefly, as many right hon. and hon. Members wish to speak. I want to raise two issues of concern to my constituents, the first of which relates to the previous portfolio of the Deputy Leader of the House, who was Minister with responsibility for entry clearance.

Last weekend, I was inundated at my constituency surgery with complaints about the lack of visa facilities in respect of posts abroad, particularly in the Indian subcontinent, Pakistan and India. I was astonished to

22 Jul 2002 : Column 749

discover that the Government have closed the personal services that are offered to visitors who seek to come to this country for short-term visits.

As the Deputy Leader of the House knows, the entry clearance operation in India and Pakistan is the largest in the world. In 2000, 73,000 visas were issued in Mumbai, 70,000 in New Delhi, 64,000 in Islamabad and 32,000 in Karachi. The House will therefore understand the seriousness of the present situation. This is the busiest period for visitors visas, because this is the wedding season for the Asian community. That is acknowledged, because in the old joint entry clearance unit in London—now renamed UK Visas—additional staff were taken on at this time of year to deal with the extra applications. At the moment, very few applications are being dealt with, because the posts have closed to those who wish to make applications for visits.

We all understand the background to that decision—the tension between India and Pakistan and the decision taken by the Foreign Secretary to issue travel advice and to withdraw staff from India and Pakistan. However, the situation has improved. Indeed, tensions between India and Pakistan have receded and the ban on direct flights between Islamabad and New Delhi has been lifted. However, there has been no consequential increase in the staffing of our high commissions in those two countries.

The result is that I and, I am sure, other hon. Members have had constituents ringing to say that they cannot make simple applications for visitors visas. They are expected to drop their applications in a box in Mumbai or New Delhi. The applications are taken away and sifted, and the applicants are then contacted. People have little chance of getting a visa to come to a wedding or for a short visit to the UK if they have not applied before. That was confirmed to me by UK Visas just before the debate began. Those applying for a visa for a wedding or a visit for the first time will not be able to come this year. Indeed, they will not be able to come until the level of facilities has increased.

I have arranged a meeting with the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for North Warwickshire (Mr. O'Brien), for Wednesday, but I hope that before then some rapid progress can be made in the way in which those applications are handled. If the House rises before the difficulties have been resolved, constituents will make representations to hon. Members throughout the summer and we will have to contact the Foreign Office and disturb Ministers on their holidays or on other important business. That will not be popular. Therefore, I urge the deputy Leader of the House to pass on a message to the Foreign Office and remind his colleagues that the matter must be resolved immediately.

One constituent was told, when he visited the high commission in Delhi today, that he would be notified of his visa being issued through the national press in India. He has to make sure that he buys the newspaper every day to learn when the high commission is ready to issue the visas. That is unacceptable and I hope that something can be done.

My second point also relates to the travel advice in the subcontinent. I received an e-mail from the former chief justice of Goa. I declare an interest, because I went to Goa for my honeymoon, although it lasted only three days because I was summoned back to vote on the Maastricht

22 Jul 2002 : Column 750

treaty by the present Foreign Secretary. The e-mail informed me that because of the travel advice, bookings for Goa—probably the most popular destination in India—have reduced to a trickle and flights are on the verge of cancellation. Annually, the bookings for the winter holiday season in Goa start in June and, by 31 August, 60 per cent. of the bookings have been made. The chief justice's message is that unless we receive some clarification about the travel advice that has been issued by the Foreign Office, the tourism industry in India will suffer greatly.

I hope that my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister will ask the Foreign Office, and my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary, whether he is in a position to review the travel advice that he has issued so far. We all understand why the advice was issued and when it was issued. We understand entirely the important role that my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has rightly played in the war against terrorism, and his efforts to bring a diplomatic solution to the problems between India and Pakistan, and no one but him could have done it because of his knowledge of the sub-continent and his interest in the affairs of the Asian community. However, on reaching an important stage, we should consider the advice again and ascertain whether it can be refined and changed to allow British citizens to travel to the subcontinent.

I did not interrupt my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Blackley (Mr. Stringer) because I know that many others wish to contribute to the debate, but he missed one important name when he referred to the list of people who had helped bring the Commonwealth games to Manchester. His role in achieving that, as leader of Manchester city council, needs to be acknowledged by the House. We are grateful for all that he has done. I know that he wanted to get the Olympic games to Manchester in the past, but was not successful. I know that my hon. Friend will continue to support his home city.

A part of my constituency is the Hamilton estate in the northern part of Leicester. It is a new estate, and the pledge is to build 4,000 homes. Two thousand homes have already been built. I was pleased to hear the statement by my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister setting out his radical reform of the planning system. I welcome his statement, which represents the most radical planning moves for almost a generation. However, I am worried that there is no clarity on planning gain, which is one of the most important ways in which the local community can benefit from planning permissions being given to big developers. We do not have firm and fair rules on planning gain.

On the Hamilton estate, there are 2,000 homes. When they were built, there were the promises of a doctor's surgery, a community centre, leisure facilities and an additional school. None of these promises has been forthcoming. We have only a large branch of Tesco. I am not opposed to Tesco, where I shop occasionally. However, when people buy pretty expensive houses in that part of the city, they expect to get more than a supermarket. They expect to get everything that was promised. I do not think that the local council extracted a sufficient degree of planning gain when planning permission was given to the supermarket.

It is important that we remind developers that in exchange for the huge profits that they make by building new homes and securing new supermarkets, they must give something back. I am sure that this issue affects other

22 Jul 2002 : Column 751

right hon. and hon. Members. It is important that developers realise that they must make a contribution at the start.

I hope that the message will go from the House before we rise for the summer recess that there is a need to ensure that the old section 106 agreements and the planning system are not merely made more efficient and more effective, although that is what we all want. We want a planning system that will not result in a huge amount of money being given to planning silks and planning inquiries, such as the terminal 5 inquiry, which cost almost £90 million. At a much more local level, developers who obtain planning permission should be told at the start that they will have to put something back.

I hope that the Minister will have sufficient information to pass on to relevant colleagues. If that can be done before the House rises for the recess. I know that my constituents will be grateful.

8.49 pm

Mr. Christopher Chope (Christchurch): I, too, wish to raise an issue with the Government that relates to the operation of the licensing system. The hon. Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz) has spoken on behalf of those of his constituents who are affected by visa delays; I wish to raise two constituency cases involving very small businesses that are being starved to death by regulation and, in particular, the inequitable operation of the licensing regime for arms export licences.

I shall not quote the name of the small firm because this issue is commercially very sensitive to that firm. It is only after having failed to get satisfactory replies to parliamentary questions and to letters to Ministers that I have decided that I must raise the issue in the forum of this debate; otherwise, after Wednesday, there will be no chance to save it from what will be its certain demise, unless the Government do something about the problem that I shall describe.

The firm employs about half a dozen people and 90 per cent. of its business is supplying spare parts for military aircraft to the Indian market, many of which go directly to the Indian Government. It has operated under an open individual export licence. Such licences are normally renewed every two years.

Last year, the firm applied for the routine renewal of its licence, but it received a temporary six-month extension instead of a renewal. It was then led to believe that the renewal would be granted as soon as that extension period expired, but a few days before that six-month extension expired, it was informed that the substantive renewal application still could not be determined and that it could have a further extension, but excluding exports to India. Of course that was not very helpful to the firm because 90 per cent. of its business is with India, particularly the Indian Government.

So the firm has been pushed into making standard individual export licence applications for each spare part that it wishes to export to India. Many of those spare parts are for the Jaguar aircraft, which is being built under licence in India—still, I understand, with the Government's approval. The company has made those individual applications, but it cannot obtain any decision.

22 Jul 2002 : Column 752

The managing director has now sent me a letter in which he says:

He goes on to say that each licence application takes a long time for him to prepare and send, but he can get no result from the Department.

I have tabled parliamentary questions, and I have reached the conclusion that there is Government-inspired discrimination against that firm because another firm in Dorset still has an open individual export licence to supply exactly the same equipment to the Indian market. That firm has contacted the Indian high commission in the past 10 days to tell it that it is happy to supply the very goods that would have been supplied by the firm in my constituency. That is intolerable.

I have written to the Under–Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, the hon. Member for Edinburgh, South (Nigel Griffiths), who has expressed some surprise, although he is meant to be in charge not only of small businesses, but of export licensing. In raising this issue this evening, I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office will ensure that the firm, which will be well known to the Department of Trade and Industry and to the Foreign Office, gets early responses to its licence applications because it will go out of business unless it gets justice, which it deserves.

That is not just an isolated incident. A much larger firm in my constituency has told me that it has had an application with the DTI and the Foreign Office for an export order to Turkey—not one of our well known enemies, but a member of NATO, which we are delighted to see taking on our responsibilities in Afghanistan. That firm won an export order to Turkey at the end of last year. It is still waiting for a result on that application.

The firm wrote to the Foreign Secretary about a month ago and copied the letter to me, and it was led to believe that there would a very quick result. It has still not had that result. It has written an incensed letter to the Foreign Secretary, saying, "Hasn't he the courtesy even to respond to our correspondence?" That order is not small beer; it is probably worth £800,000 or more to that firm in my constituency, with a prospect of follow-on orders as well.

Last Friday, the Quadripartite Committee issued a useful report on export control. At paragraph 92 of that report, the committee condemns the Government, saying:

The export control organisation is not small; it has a budget of £5.25 million and employs 137 staff, yet it seems totally incapable of monitoring its progress towards its own targets. It has a target of dealing with 70 per cent. of applications within 20 days.

The Department of Trade and Industry has been unable to answer a question that I tabled four weeks ago asking how many individual export licence applications had been outstanding for more than three months, more than six months or more than one year. The fact that it cannot answer that question in good time suggests that it is not compiling the basic statistics necessary to determine whether it is meeting its own targets, which is thoroughly unsatisfactory.

22 Jul 2002 : Column 753

My final points concern a slightly different type of organisation, called Bee Diseases Insurance Ltd. It is a registered, limited company run by volunteers, one of whom, the secretary, although not a constituent of mine, lives very close to my constituency in Dorset. He has involved me and other bee-keepers in my constituency in the plight of his organisation. It comprises bee-keepers who subscribe 60p per colony of bees to insure against the destruction of the hives if the bees become diseased with foul brood. The company's total annual income is £20,000. It has been incredibly successful in ensuring that the disease of foul brood has not become a problem for this country to the extent that foot and mouth disease has been a problem and that it has not run rife here as it has in other countries. Australia and New Zealand are considering using the model established by Bee Diseases Insurance Ltd.

What are the Government doing about that small voluntary organisation? Until a couple of years ago, the company paid an annual registration fee of £25 to the registrar of industrial and provident societies, but that fee, which is now paid to the Financial Services Authority, has gone up to £375 a year—a fifteenfold increase. The company also has to pay £130 to the financial services compensation scheme because apparently it has to contribute to the losses suffered by the Chester Street insurance company. It also has to pay £279 to the financial ombudsman service.

Apart from dealing with the costs imposed on the company, which total 5 per cent. of its turnover, the secretary has to spend a great deal of time on administration. He sends off all the paperwork to be dealt with by highly paid officials in the FSA, but he finds that his whole life is being dominated by the voluntary service that he has been providing to the bee-keeping community, which I am sure we all recognise and praise.

In a letter, the secretary says:

He continues:

Because of the burden of regulation, that gentleman cannot find anyone who is prepared to take on the voluntary work he does running that important company, Bee Diseases Insurance Ltd. I am not asking the Minister to provide a volunteer to replace that gentleman; I am asking him to create a climate in which it is possible for a volunteer to come forward to work for the good of the bees of this nation, and for its people.

Next Section

IndexHome Page