HC Deb 09 December 1943 vol 395 cc1167-76

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Clause stand part of the Bill."

Mr. S. O. Davies (Merthyr)

It is rather difficult to follow what is actually covered by this Bill and the extent to which particular laws are to be continued. I am particularly anxious about the Act relating to the special areas—

The Chairman

I am afraid that the hon. Member cannot raise that question on this Clause; there will no doubt be other opportunities.

Question put, and agreed to.


Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this be the Schedule to the Bill."

Mr. Rhys Davies (Westhoughton)

I wish to ask a few questions—and they will not be unfriendly—on the Aliens Restriction (Amendment) Act, 1919. There is a great deal of prophecy that the war may end in 1944, and, consequently, the House of Commons ought to have an answer to certain points which arise out of this Act. The first question which I wish to put to the Minister, is whether the Regulations under this Act are to be continued after the war. The aliens who are now in this country and who are affected would be glad, I am sure, to know what is to happen to them after the conclusion of hostilities. Secondly, it would be interesting to know how many aliens have actually reached this country since the war began. I do not think we have had the actual figures of that kind so far. Finally, there is an important point which I think will appeal to all hon. Members. What is the intention of the Government in regard to repatriating these poor people when peace returns? There must be 60,000 or 70,000 or even more of them in this country. As hon. Members know, I once had something to do with this problem, and I can speak with a little knowledge of it, and I would not like to think that the British Government, having given asylum to these unfortunate refugees during the war, should immediately repatriate them when the war ends perhaps to countries where they may be put into concentration camps once again. I hope that the Government will not repatriate any refugees until they are absolutely certain that when they reach their native land, they will not be persecuted by Governments.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Home Security (Miss Wilkinson)

The position as regards the various points raised by my hon. Friend is as follows: As he knows well, Section 1 of the Aliens Restriction Act, 1914, enables His Majesty, in time of war, or in time of imminent national danger, or grave emergency, by Order in Council to impose restrictions on aliens and to make such provision as may appear necessary or expedient for carrying these into effect. At the conclusion of the last war this power would normally have lapsed but as the hon. Gentleman also knows the conditions at that time were such that it was felt necessary to continue it, and this was done by Section I of the Aliens Restriction (Amendment) Act, 1919, but only for a period of one year. Since 1920 therefore this law has been continued every year by means of the Expiring Laws Continuance Act. It was under the old law, that of 1914–1919, that the Aliens Order of 1921 was made and it is under this Order that control is exercised over aliens. They are required to register their presence here and their addresses and their entry and departure, so that they can be deported or detained if this should be necessary.

The general control that is exercised over aliens is under these Orders. In time of war or danger the power of imposing restrictions on aliens by Order in Council is provided for by the Act of 1914, so that, actually, while we are at war, there is really no necessity for the continuance of Section 1 of the 1919 Act. But because of the long period which must elapse after the end of the war before normal conditions are likely to be restored, not only in this country but in the world at large, this continuance becomes necessary. Nobody, I think, imagines that we can go back completely to pre-war conditions immediately hostilities cease and therefore it has been considered desirable, since the outbreak of war, to include this Section in the Schedule to the Expiring Laws Continuance Bill and that the power which is vested in the Secretary of State to make this Order should be capable of being exercised at any time and not only in time of war, imminent national danger or grave emergency. Unless the Section is continued, the whole of the present control of aliens would disappear at the end of the war, or at the end of any period of emergency conditions which might be regarded as following the end of the war, and it would become necessary then to pass fresh legislation immediately, or the Executive would have no power to exercise any control over aliens landing or residing in the United Kingdom.

That is the general background to the questions which the hon. Gentleman has asked, and it is one of which he himself knows a great deal. Coming to the actual numbers for which he asked, out of a total of 277,169 foreign persons over the age of 16 registered with the police on 31st March, 1943, 124,804 have been given permission to enter this country under a condition which requires them to leave on a date to be determined by the Secretary of State. The hon. Gentleman will thus see that there is a considerably larger number than the 70,000 mentioned by him, who must leave the country when directed to do so by the Secretary of State. Among these, as the hon. Gentleman said, is a considerable number of refugees who came from Austria, Germany and Czechoslovakia before the war, owing to Nazi persecution. Many more refugees have reached this country since May, 1940. There are, approximately, 27,000 seamen who are largely nationals of the Allied Powers in Europe and who are giving excellent help in our war effort. Although no steps have obviously been taken during the war to restore them to their own country or to effect their removal to other countries willing to receive them, their ultimate disposal is naturally a matter of grave concern to His Majesty's Government, and it will eventually have to be dealt with under the powers vested in the Secretary of State by the Aliens Restriction Acts, 1914 and 1919, and the Orders made under them which my hon. Friend administered during his term in the Home Office.

It is true, as the hon. Gentleman has said, that there is something in favour of having permanent legislation to provide for the control of aliens in the United Kingdom, but as he knows very well, it is unlikely that the state of this country or of the world in general immediately after the end of the war would provide the necessary setting in which it would be really possible to draw up a permanent Act, or rather a permanent Bill, which we could lay before Parliament. The only alternative to a permanent Act is to secure that for some time to come and until conditions are more stable the power to control aliens should be vested in the Secretary of State year by year by preserving on the Statute Book Section 1 of the Aliens Restriction Act, 1919. I, like other hon. Members who have had a great deal to do with these refugees, know of their appalling state of terror and how unhappy they are. We do not want them to feel that they are going to be thrown out the moment that the war ends, and the advantage of legislating in this way for the control of aliens by means of an Order in Council is that it provides a flexible instrument which can be amended, as fre- quently as is found necessary, to meet a constantly changing and unforeseeable situation. Much as I would like to give an answer to my hon. Friend, it is utterly impossible at the moment for the Home Secretary to commit himself in any way, because nobody knows what the conditions will be, but, by maintaining this arrangement, it does give us a flexible instrument for dealing with the situation.

Mr. Silverman (Nelson and Colne)

I think the Committee will be grateful to my hon. Friend for what she has said. I do not want to deal now—it would not be right for me to do so—with the whole question of the disposal of refugees and aliens after the war, particularly with the large class of Stateless ones, who are obviously going to be a very great world problem and one not to be solved merely by this country, but by agreement with other countries who share the responsibility. I would like to say that I hope nobody is to be forced back anywhere. I say no more than that at this stage, because I know my hon. Friend understands what I mean, but I do want to say a word about the undesirability of continuing the present position indefinitely, because, under the present position, aliens are completely at the mercy of the Secretary of State. I know that Secretaries of State vary, and I am not going to compare one with another—certainly not at this stage—but aliens have no appeal to any advisory tribunal, they have no appeal to the courts, they have no rights under the Habeas Corpus Acts, and they have not even got the right that the detained persons under Regulation 18B have of appearing before a tribunal and being given some information and some opportunity of answering what is said against them, however inadequate an opportunity it is. Still, it is some opportunity and, in the case of aliens, there is no opportunity at all.

People are taken by the Secretary of State under his powers, and they are interned; they are detained. They never know what it is that is said against them. They never know who it is that says it, and they never have any opportunity of replying to it. They are not merely completely at the mercy of the Department, completely at the mercy of the police, often completely at the mercy of a secret foreign police—because the Home Secretary himself by the very nature of the case can know nothing about it personally—but they are in complete ignorance, helpless, isolated, with no knowledge of the language, no friends, and no legal rights at all except the opportunity of presenting petition after petition, as many of them do, appealing to the mercy of the Minister. It may well be that in times of emergency all that is inevitable and there is no more satisfactory way of dealing with it, but it really is a shock to learn that this position has existed since 1914 and has been continued for nearly 25 years and, as far as this House is concerned at any rate, almost in a state of absence of mind. I doubt whether individual Members in this House have realised that every year since 1920 they have been renewing these powers for a period of one year. I do not think they have realised what it was they were doing on each occasion and what responsibility they were taking, and, difficult as it may be, I should have thought that at the end of 25 years there was a case for investigating whether it would not be possible to put these matters on a considered legal basis as a permanency.

It is not right that people should be left without any rights at all or any knowledge of what their legal position is except that they are at the discretion of a Minister who is, of course, responsible to a House which could do nothing about it and could only interfere in an individual case by involving the fate of the Minister concerned and the fate of the Government, which would be a totally disproportionate thing to do. I am not prepared to oppose this matter at this stage, but I would like to have some assurance that it is not going to drag on in this indefinite, inconsequential way for ever, especially as many more people are involved at the present time than used to be. I would like to have some assurance that the question is being considered and that at some time or other, at a not too distant date, we shall be given by the Department some proposals that we can consider to see whether we cannot in some way restore this flotsam and jetsam of world revolution to the family of nations on a basis of some kind of equality with the rest of the world.

Mr. Graham White (Birkenhead, East)

The chances of Parliamentary procedure have led us almost unexpectedly into the consideration of one of the most difficult and intractable human problems that we shall have to deal with as soon as the war comes to an end. There will be some 40,000,000 souls who will have to be transferred from one part of the world to another, and I rise merely for the purpose of saying that I think it would be a most lamentable thing, with regard to the attitude of this House and the deep feeling that has been aroused over the question of letting these escaped people come to our shores, if there were any doubt that we are not doing enough, and whether the Government are doing all they can to help them. This is an anxiety which is deepened and increased by the knowledge that if we say too much or, indeed, if we say anything at all, we may hinder the Government or do something contrary to the interest of those who are seeking to escape from the worst tyranny the world has ever known. There are many who would like to push the Government to do far more; there are many who are intensely dissatisfied with what the Government are doing, but what I rise for is to say that I think it would be a lamentable thing if we in this House should give the impression that we were thinking rather more of how we were going to get rid of these people than of helping them. We want to help them while the war is on and to do our utmost to help them when the war is over.

Mr. Edmund Harvey (Combined English Universities)

I would like to support what my hon. Friend the Member for East Birkenhead (Mr. Graham White) has said. It is of the utmost importance that we should maintain the noble tradition that this country has maintained for centuries as a place of refuge for the oppressed and persecuted of every country. I am very glad at the sympathetic way in which the Parliamentary Secretary has dealt with the immediate situation, and we all feel confidence in that spirit with which the Home Secretary and all his colleagues wish to meet the very many complex difficulties that arise in respect of these our guests, some of whom I believe will, in the end, not be guests but will become most valued fellow citizens. In the past refugees have given to this country some of our most valuable citizens, men who have made great discoveries in science and astronomy and have contributed to art and music, to culture and industry. They came, or their fathers or grandfathers came to us as refugees from other countries for freedom for their faith or political views. We shall always want to remember that when we try to deal with the exceedingly complicated difficulties connected with this problem.

With regard to the very interesting legal question which has been raised as to the position of the renewal of this Act, while it is undesirable at such a time as this to have any permanent Measure enacted, I hope that we may have from the Minister an assurance that the whole position will be considered in the future for a suitable occasion and that we shall not have an indefinite prolongation of a Measure which was conceived purely as a war-time enactment. I happen to be one of those Members who were present in 1914 when this Measure was originally carried, in the utmost hurry, through the House, and there was no consideration given that would ordinarily be given in Parliament to a Measure of this kind. It was conceived as a purely war-time emergency Measure. Then came the Act of 1919, which again renewed it only for a year, because that again was a time of confusion and not suitable for permanent legislation. We have gone on renewing it year after year. About five or six years ago, on a similar occasion on the passing of this Bill, I raised this very question, and then the Under-Secretary at the Home Office could not, of course, give an assurance himself, but the Home Office by that very fact was appraised of the position that this ought not to go on indefinitely without consideration being given to the preparation of a permanent Measure for a suitable date. It would not be right to ask the Government to promise such a Measure now or in the near future immediately after the war, but they should consider replacing this temporary war-time Measure by one suitable for permanent legislation and worthy of the great and noble tradition that this country has maintained for so many years.

Mr. Benson (Chesterfield)

I was rather depressed by the underlying implication of the speeches we have heard on the subject that this country must continue to remain an asylum for refugees. I am hoping that sooner or later there will be no need for asylum for refugees and that if we can get some reasonable settlement in Europe we shall not have these miserable people being chased from one country to another and finally landing up in the great democracies as the only places where they can hope to escape from terror and the concentration camp. We do not hear of British refugees leaving Great Britain. At least we have not heard of it for many centuries. I think the Pilgrim Fathers were about the last. I hope that hon. Members will rather concentrate their minds upon the idea of seeing whether we can make Europe a place where our guests can live in comfort rather than that they should have to escape to us.

Mr. S. O. Davies (Merthyr)

May I put to the Financial Secretary to the Treasury or to the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Labour a question on the Special Areas (Amendment) Act, 1937. May we have an assurance that in regard to the schemes already approved by the Commissioner for the Special Areas which have been held up because of the war the sums of money necessary to carry out the schemes after the war have been earmarked and are fully covered by the Expiring Laws Continuance Bill now before the Committee?

The Financial Secretary to the Treasury (Mr. Assheton)

My hon. Friend was good enough to write to me on 1st December, and he sent me with his letter the schedule of the schemes for the County Borough of Merthyr in which he is particularly interested. He wanted to know whether these schemes would go on when hostilities cease. I understand that no undertakings have been given that schemes that were approved by the Commissioner for the Special Areas before the war will be put into operation when hostilities cease. It is felt that it is impossible to give such an undertaking, because circumstances have changed so since then, and there may be many cases in which a scheme which was appropriate at that time will be no longer appropriate. In order to illustrate the point to the Committee, I need only mention the case of hospitals. I am not referring to any particular scheme, but to hospitals in general. The various discussions which are now going on with regard to the future of the medical service in this country make it clear that there may be alterations in plans that were made before the war. Therefore, I am afraid that, though I would like to have been able to help my hon. Friend, it is impossible to give an undertaking on the lines he has asked.

Mr. Davies

I appreciate the difficulty of giving a general undertaking, but, in respect of schemes approved by the Special Commissioner as being necessary before the war, can we not assume, if circumstances have not changed, that these schemes will be carried out as originally intended at the end of the war?

Mr. Assheton

I did not want to deprive my hon. Friend of reasonable hopes. I merely did not want to give any undertaking which might be thought to commit the Government and which in the event would prove to be unwise.

Question, "That this be the Schedule to the Bill," put, and agreed to.

Preamble agreed to.

Bill reported without Amendment; read the Third time, and passed.