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Lord Rennell: My Lords, I should like to speak on the issue of short stay visas for non-member nationals visiting the UK. At the moment, a citizen of Tashkent in Uzbekistan who wants to visit the United Kingdom has to apply to Moscow for his visa, with all the appropriate documents. In addition, he is then required to visit the British Embassy in Moscow for an interview. That is a round trip to a foreign country of more than 4,000 miles. It is expensive and time consuming. The United States, France, Germany, and Israel, and other major and minor trading companies have visa issuing facilities in Tashkent. UK companies are at a disadvantage, in particular at a time when trade with Uzbekistan and other Russian and CIS countries is growing quickly.
We have a reputation to uphold. Our embassies and consular offices are a haven for our citizens worldwide. I believe that our foreign friends also have their perception of help and friendliness when they visit our offices abroad. My reason for speaking today is to ask my noble and learned friend on the Front Bench for his consideration that, in addition to the report that we are discussing today, Her Majesty's Government will not forget the high reputation for fairness and efficiency which our diplomatic representatives have. I ask that the Government ensure that our consular visa services retain that reputation.
I should like to give an example of my concern. A British company with offices in Moscow and Tashkent wanted to bring a young Uzbek trainee employee to the UK for basic training and a short English course. Having
When the unfortunate Mr. Khafizov, who spoke little or no English and had probably never been out of his country before, arrived for the second time in front of the firm but fair immigration officer, he must have had a very hard time. The report of the interview reads as follows:
I was rather shocked to read what seemed to me a rather bullying sort of interview. Here was a person who could not speak English; he was not accompanied by a friend or by his own interpreter; and he was probably unaware of the interpretations of the questions that were put to him. One can also only presume that the explanatory letter from the sponsoring company had been mislaid and that it was certainly not read by the interviewing officer.
I am of course aware that it is all too easy to find faults. There is no doubt that the visa office in Moscow is under great pressure. It may be no great consolation to know that we are not alone in this problem. The United States Ambassador in Moscow recently defended his embassy against Russian accusations of rudeness. Nonetheless, he promised to increase personnel and space in order to speed up the visa issuing process. In the Soviet era, the US embassy dealt with 3,000 to 4,000 visa applications a year. Today, more than 130,000
I was very pleased to read in a Written Answer from my noble friend Lady Chalker of Wallasey that there are plans to commence visa services in Uzebekistan soonindeed, it is hoped no later than the first quarter of 1995. Those plans, together with further visa issuing facilities in Belarus and other CIS countries, will help enormously in relieving the strain on Moscow's resources.
Finally, I ask my noble and learned friend Lord Rodger of Earlsferry to ensure that during the careful study of the report that is in front of us today we do not lose sight of the importance of the United Kingdom's good reputation for providing an expanding, efficient and friendly visa issuing facility.
Lord Dubs: My Lords, this report is very useful, and it throws light on an area of policy which is not generally all that well understood. It incidentally also throws light on European decision-making processes. I have long argued that some areas of policy that have hitherto been very much within the national domain are increasingly being determined by Brussels. I refer, for example, to policy on asylum seekers and refugees.
Perhaps I may turn to a number of concerns that are highlighted by this report, and first, the secrecy with which these decisions are made or approached in Brussels. Although today we have a chance to talk about the convention, had it not been for the issue of Gibraltar which gave rise to its delay, it might well have been implemented, signed, sealed and settled before we had had a chance to consider some of the details. The secrecy that surrounds some decision-making by the Council of Ministers is undesirable. It lacks accountability and is essentially undemocratic. We ought to encourage more openness and transparency. Even if we look at measures which I have found undesirable, such as the Asylum and Immigration Appeals Act, at least that had the benefit of procedures which were open, which could be understood and on which every individual citizen of this country could make his or her views known to politicians.
In contrast, the lack of transparency that emanates from Brussels precludes this type of approach. In the past we have had interesting leaks. The Guardian occasionally carries very interesting stories about matters which are being kept secret. But surely we should not have to rely on leaks in order to keep ourselves informed as to what is under discussion.
I know that the official answer is that the Government never reveal the details of negotiations concerning international treaties. But I would argue that when we deal with matters which have large elements of human rights in them and which are in effect being dealt with in Brussels instead of being initiated here, then the argument that international treaties should not be, as it were, open to scrutiny, falls down. I suggest that it should not be applied in instances such as this.
Not only is there secrecy and a lack of openness and transparency; the report also makes it clear that some of the procedures are complicated and that indeed there is uncertainty in respect of some of the procedures. Some of the witnesses disagreed with each other about their interpretation of some proceduresthey disagreed, for example, on whether it was a treaty or a convention. The report makes clear that there must be doubts about the links between the Dublin Convention, the Schengen Agreement, to which Britain is not a party, the new convention which may or may not be implemented, depending upon the Gibraltar issue, and indeed other matters of policy which European countries have decided, some of which have been implemented through national parliaments.
I would argue that, even if the future course is for the Council of Ministers to play the same part that it does nowwhether that should be the case is a subject for a different debateI would urge that the Council of Ministers should make itself more open to scrutiny and that it should make its proceedings known to a wider public. I believe that when Denmark took the presidency after the United Kingdom, the Danish Government were quite sympathetic to the idea of more openness, but other countries did not like that idea too much.
I now turn to two specific issues which have already been mentioned in the course of this debate. The first is the joint list. I very much agree with the criticisms that were made of it by my noble and learned friend Lord Archer. Perhaps I may raise one or two further issues in relation to that list. I welcome the fact that the report says that if a person is on the list, he or she will be entitled to speedy judicial remedy in the state which put him or her on the list. It follows that it must be made known to that person which was the state which did so.
But let us consider the United Kingdom. We do not have any remedy. Other countries may be better than we are. My understanding is that we do not have any remedy at all. The last remedy that existed was appeal against a refusal of a visa for visitors or students. That was taken away by the Asylum and Immigration Appeals Act. So we do not have any remedy. The undertaking is rather hollow so far as this country is concerned, even if it is a valid undertaking with regard to other countries of the European Union.
But the criticism goes further than that. If an individual is refusedthe previous speaker gave a dramatic instance of such a refusalhe may be refused even if he is not on the stop list but simply because immigration officials have decided that it is not appropriate for him to come to this country. So there is a wider list of people who are refused than the stop list itself. Does such a refusal mean that an individual will automatically be put on the Europe-wide stop list? There is a certain logic which says that that should be the case, but I hope that the answer is otherwise.
In any case, we know very little about our own stop list. I tried to find out about it. I visited Heathrow Airport years ago and was shown round by immigration officials. I saw the black book but I was not allowed to get within three or four feet of it or even allowed to know how many names it contained. But someone told meI picked it up somewhere that there are about
I turn to the carriers' liability Act and fines on passengers who arrive without proper documentation. The report saysI welcome itthat primacy should be given to the European Convention on Human Rights and to the refugee convention. But that might be difficult to achieve in practice. I am rather more familiar with the refugee convention. If an individual is living in a country where the government is persecuting him, it is extremely difficult for him to apply for a passport from that government. One only has to think of an Iraqi Kurd applying for a visa to the regime in Baghdad. It is absurd. Many people who are persecuted simply cannot get passports. Even if they happen to have a passport in the first place, it is very difficult when facing persecution or in fear for one's safety to hang about waiting for some other country to issue a visa.
In that situation, individuals do what any Member of this House would do. Let us be honestif our lives were in peril, we would get forged documents, would we not? Yet, preventing the owner of such a document boarding a plane is precisely what the carriers' liability Act is meant to do. So there is the paradoxical situation that the only way of escape for an individual may be a forged document or a forged visa; but here is legislation intended to stop anyone boarding a plane with such a document. I suggest that there is a Catch-22 situation, and it is hard to argue for the primacy of the refugee convention. I fear that this type of legislation makes it very difficult for people in countries where there is a great deal of persecution to escape and find safety elsewhere.
I conclude by welcoming the Select Committee's proposals with regard to the European Court of Justice. It seems to me that if there is to be secrecy, lack of openness and lack of transparency, then at the very least there should be certain safeguards. There may be other models for safeguards, but I believe that the European Court of Justice represents, in the arguments of the Select Committee, a welcome safeguard. I hope that that is a message that will go from this House to the Government. It is a desirable step forward.
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