Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Lord Clinton-Davis: My Lords, I have great sympathy with the argument of the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, especially in relation to aberrant activity on the part of immigration officers abroad. However, I am not convinced that the machinery he has chosen to deal with the problem is either adequate or right. To graft on to the police complaints procedure something of this nature is misguided. I understand that it was necessary to do this within the compass of the debate, but in terms of acceptance of the amendment it would be a misjudgment.

Perhaps I may ask my noble friend who is to reply to the debate what action can be taken in the circumstances described by the noble Lord in his opening speech. If aberrant behaviour is indulged in--and I am convinced it is--what swift remedy applies? One does not want to see situations that drag on and become purposeless because of the long passage of time.

It is important to establish some form of independent body to deal with such matters promptly and with understanding, staffed by people with experience of immigration and asylum issues, as has been called for. Furthermore, it is important for the

2 Nov 1999 : Column 852

reputation of this country. From my own experience--admittedly it was some time ago when I was in practice and dealing with immigration matters--I know that when offensive conduct does occur it is essential for it to be dealt with. It is damaging to the country if a festering sore is allowed to develop because of a few--it is right to say only a few--aberrant immigration officials.

I urge the noble Lord to recognise that this is a very different problem from that which underlay the setting up of the Police Complaints Authority. That form of machinery would be wrong, but the noble Lord's arguments are compelling.

10.45 p.m.

Earl Russell: My Lords, a number of years ago, two of my undergraduate contemporaries married each other. They went to live in Hong Kong, where they had a son. I remember asking them whether they were afraid that when they wanted to come back to England, their son might have trouble with British immigration control. They replied very simply, "No, he's white." If they said that, and I could not tell them that they were unjustified to think that way, what might one think if one's own relatives daily had experience of the kind of action envisaged here?

I cannot stress enough how important it is that all concerned with the enforcement of the law--that includes immigration and entry clearance officers to a far greater extent than ever before--retain the confidence of the whole community in which they enforce the law. If officers of the law come to be seen as the agents of one part of the community and not of the whole, it is the beginning of a slippery slope leading to the situation described in the Patten Report. I do not ever want to see mainland Britain descend all the way down that slope. The amendment of my noble friend will erect an avalanche break on that slope, and it will erect the break in a place where it will be extremely valuable and is much needed.

If the Minister listened carefully to my noble friend's statistics, he will have heard that very far from all complaints are justified. There will be circumstances when even in the short term the Government may be very glad to have such an amendment on the statute book.

Lord Avebury: My Lords, my noble friend may recall that in the 1970s I was an active caseworker on behalf of the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants. That was when Ministers had far greater areas of discretion which they could exercise in relation to immigration matters. I must have dealt with literally thousands of cases in those years. When people complained of racism or offensive behaviour by immigration officers, at the time the only thing that one could do was to take up the matter with the Minister concerned. Presumably that is still the case. One would write, and no doubt others in the JCWI were equally assiduous in taking up cases with Ministers. I can honestly say that in all the years I worked on those cases, not one single allegation was ever confirmed. Not one immigration officer was

2 Nov 1999 : Column 853

disciplined, dismissed or suffered any penalty in respect of the allegations made by the clients with whom we dealt. If the Minister cares to ask the JCWI, he will find that my words are true of the whole of its experience.

Lord Clinton-Davis: My Lords, with respect, I think that the noble Lord is perhaps guilty of some slight exaggeration. I cannot point to the cases now, because it is such a long time since I was in the House of Commons, but I can distinctly recall instances where it was said that the matter would be pursued vis-a-vis the officer who was alleged to have committed the offensive conduct. Perhaps the noble Lord is reflecting a position on the basis of his own experience, but it is not one which I recall entirely myself.

Lord Avebury: My Lords, I am not sure whether I was unlucky or whether I am accurately remembering what happened at the time. But I certainly do not recall ever winning such a case. Obviously, many allegations of this kind are not made in good faith. The person has lost his application to come to the United Kingdom and feels aggrieved. He may feel that it was because of racism on the part of someone in the Immigration Service. If one said that 95 per cent of the cases were attributable to those reasons, there would still be a nasty residue of 5 per cent that one felt were due to the characteristics of the immigration officers concerned. But there was no way of getting to the bottom of the matter. Once the Minister in charge of immigration at the Home Office, or at the Foreign Office as the case may be--my noble friend said that the point applies to entry certificate officers in overseas posts--had said that the matter had been thoroughly investigated and he had found no truth in the allegation, as a Member of this House or of another place one had come to the end of the process. There was nowhere else to appeal and there was no independent procedure or mechanism by which one could get at the files, as one can in the case of the prisons ombudsman.

If someone in prison has a complaint against prison officers, he can go to an official who has power to question all the people who know something about the case. He can look at the papers and reach a conclusion. My noble friend is asking for a similar procedure that will apply to immigration officers. I hope that when people in the immigration and nationality department read this debate they will not say that your Lordships are trying to get at them. I hope they will understand that what we are seeking is merely a procedure which applies to many other parts of the public service.

Perhaps I may take the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, back to our Report stage debate on 20th October when I pointed out that if the Home Office were to accept designation under Section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act it would be possible to examine discrimination by immigration officers in the Province. Under Section 75, if the Home Office is one of the designated public bodies it has to carry out an assessment of its own compliance with the equality provisions of the Northern Ireland Act 1998. That would apply not only to discrimination in relation to race but it extends even

2 Nov 1999 : Column 854

into gender and sexual orientation. It could well be that if later on the Home Office became subject to this procedure in Northern Ireland we would have a mechanism for testing its fairness and compliance with the equality provisions that we should like to see it observe. However, in the rest of the United Kingdom there would still be no mechanism.

Even if the Minister cannot accept my noble friend's amendment as it stands I hope he will be able to tell the House that the Government will introduce a procedure or mechanism which enables complaints to be heard by an independent authority so that people can at least be satisfied that when they think there is racism or there has been offensive behaviour they can obtain some remedy.

Lord Bassam of Brighton : My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia is to be congratulated on his persistence and determination, and perhaps also on his lateral thinking on this issue. He has skilfully returned to a subject that he raised in Committee and on Report. I know that he feels strongly about it. I, too, share his desire that immigration officers should be clearly accountable for their actions when exercising their powers. An effective complaints system is vital to maintaining public confidence in the way they operate. Noble Lords on both sides of the House have made that point in a compelling way. The Government would not be seeking to introduce new powers unless we were entirely satisfied that such oversight existed.

However, I cannot agree that establishing a statutory system or requiring the Police Complaints Authority to investigate complaints against immigration officers would be right. Noble Lords may possibly need to be reminded that the Police Complaints Authority does not investigate complaints; it merely supervises. The Complaints Audit Committee does the same, but with one critical difference. The Complaints Audit Committee, whose application is within the Immigration Service, provides much closer supervision by examining each and every case in detail and on its merits.

My concern--and it is one that we have long held--is that we need to have a sense of proportion in relation to the complaints process. That is an important factor. More importantly, I should be fearful that, in the light of experience, the noble Lord's proposal would work against the best interests of those whom he deems to be in need of assistance under the terms of his proposal.

As I advised the House at Report stage, an independently and objectively monitored system for overseeing complaints against the Immigration Service is already in place. Listening to some of the comments in this debate, it might almost be imagined that we have no system for the investigation of complaints.

We need a system that serves the complainant first and foremost--and we believe that we have such a system; one under which quick action to eradicate malpractice is possible; which is flexible enough to respond to different types of complaint; and which delivers conclusive results. The system that is currently

2 Nov 1999 : Column 855

in place works. It is not failing. In over 30 per cent of cases, complaints are upheld--compared with, on the admission of the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, a figure for the Police Complaints Authority of just 10 per cent of complaints upheld. Those who have been found guilty of an offence have been warned, or otherwise disciplined. I am advised that many have been dismissed.

We do not jump around, celebrate, wave our hands and advertise those facts widely in public. We quietly get on with the business of investigating such complaints properly and prosecuting them through our internal complaints process. Silence as a means of frustrating investigators has not been an issue. We have been able to apologise or compensate through ex gratia payments where complaints have been upheld quickly--in a matter of weeks, not months or years, as might happen with a more cumbersome statutory system.

The immigration complaints system is independent. It is not aligned to that of the police. It has been in place since 1994 and is tried and tested. Each year it improves a little more, spreads its wings a little further, and public confidence in it is clearly growing. We do not want to lose that. That is why we are giving the Complaint Audit Committee an enhanced role in monitoring complaints arising out of the exercise of new powers contained in Part VII of the Bill.

The noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, has proposed that the Police Complaints Authority should be required to investigate all complaints against immigration officers exercising their powers under the immigration Acts. Again, I respectfully point out that the Police Act, to which the new clause set out in Amendment No. 58 refers, does not extend the power to investigate complaints to the PCA. The role of the PCA is, as I said, merely to supervise the investigation of certain categories of complaint and to review disciplinary proceedings arising out of substantiated complaints. The PCA is not resourced to investigate complaints; nor is it legally empowered to do so.

I respectfully draw the attention of noble Lords to the fact that 90 per cent of complaints against the Immigration Service--there were only 370 in 1998--relate to issues of service quality which can be sorted out quickly without the need for legislative sledgehammers. The types of person the noble Lord envisages sitting as "immigration members" of the authority already carry out this function as members of the Immigration Complaints Audit Committee. They are appointed by my right honourable friend the Home Secretary as respected members of the community with experience in race relations, community relations and immigration law. It is worth repeating that members of the committee have unfettered access to every single complaint investigation and are free to make critical comment on the quality of the investigation and its conclusions. They have access to Ministers and produce an annual report for the Secretary of State which is placed in the Libraries of both Houses.

2 Nov 1999 : Column 856

Any complaint which alleges criminal activity by a member of the Immigration Service will be investigated independently, and quite properly, by the police. Immigration officers will be legally accountable in the exercise of their powers. Powers of entry, search and seizure are limited by the provisions contained in the Bill. They will be required to have regard to the relevant provisions of the PACE codes of practice when exercising these new powers. The codes not only govern the exercise of statutory powers but also serve to regulate the manner in which officers conduct their duties. Immigration officers will be no different. If they breach operational guidelines, they will be accountable and properly disciplined. They have been in the past and will continue to be. We believe that the enhanced procedures are capable of handling the type of complaint that may arise out of the exercise of the new powers contained in this Bill. Nevertheless, we have not closed the door to further changes and improvements once we have had the opportunity to examine the impact of the new powers through the limited introduction that we propose.

11 p.m.

Lord Clinton-Davis: My Lords, I thank my noble friend for giving way. Do these procedures apply equally to immigration officers who serve abroad? How can delay be minimised in relation to complaints that arise abroad?

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page