HC Deb 28 July 1950 vol 478 cc842-9

11.11 a.m.

Lieut.-Colonel Hyde (Belfast, North)

I am glad to have this opportunity of raising a question which is of importance to those whose business or pleasure obliges them to travel between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland is an integral part of the United Kingdom but it has been found necessary to exercise a certain control over travellers, who are obliged to be in possession of travel permits in the form of passports or travel identity cards when they pass betwen these two component parts of the United Kingdom.

The travel identity card is a simpler document than the passport. I have an example of it in my hand. So far as Northern Ireland is concerned, it is somewhat infelicitously coloured green. I should have thought that red, white or blue, or perhaps orange, would have been a more appropriate colour. The traveller's passport, or travel identity card, has to be examined at the ports of embarkation in the respective countries. The travel permit system was instituted in the early years of the war, and it was borne cheerfully by the people of Northern Ireland, but we are now in the sixth year of peace, uneasy though that peace may be, and in Northern Ireland we are beginning to wonder whether this system of control or restriction has become permanent.

It involves delay and irritation, not to say expense. Travellers have to queue, sometimes in draughty sheds, so that their cards or passports may be produced and examined by the immigration officials. I have only the very highest praise for the way in which the immigration officials carry out their duties. I have been through their hands many hundreds of times and I have been greatly impressed by the courtesy and efficiency with which they do their work. My criticisms and suggestions are directed to the question whether the time has come to terminate this system or at least to modify the form in which it operates.

The subject has been raised before in the House. In the last Parliament it was raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, South (Mr. Gage) and by the hon. Member for Wycombe (Mr. Haire), and I put a Question about it to the Home Secretary in the present Parliament. The right hon. Gentleman's answer has always been the same, that the reason for the continuance of this system is the possibility that undesirable aliens may be able to enter Great Britain from Eire by way of Northern Ireland.

I wonder why there should be so many more undesirable aliens than there were in 1939 when we had no such system. I shall be glad if the Under-Secretary of State would tell us who the undesirable aliens are and why they should now be regarded with suspicion any more than they were 11 years ago. If these aliens really are so undesirable, it seems rather hard that we in Northern Ireland should have to put up with this, because the system as it is operated now does not give us any protection at all in Northern Ireland. It is operated only at the ports through which people travel between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

I suggest that the really undesirable people who come from Eire into Northern Ireland are those who have nefarious designs on the internal security of Northern Ireland. They want to stay in Ulster, and they should be controlled, but the present system does not control them. I should like the Home Secretary to consider the possibility of removing the system of control from the points at which it is at present exercised to points along the Eire-Northern Ireland border where I believe it is possible to exercise this form of control. The Home Secretary has said that such control along the border is not practicable, but the border is only 180 miles long, which is very short compared with borders in other parts of the world—the United States-Mexican border is many thousands of miles in length—which are controlled very efficiently and effectively by the authorities there.

The Customs and Revenue officials exercise control very efficiently on the Eire-Ulster border. I want to give an example from my own knowledge to show that control can be exercised by immigration officials. An angler was fishing for trout in Lough Melvin which is intersected by the border, being between the counties of Leitrim and Fermanagh. By the time he had caught his 7 lb. trout he was exhausted. He started to catch the fish from the Eire side but he landed it on the Ulster side where he wanted to go in search of a cup of tea or some stronger liquid. He was immediately pounced on from behind some bushes by a Customs official who was no doubt on the look-out for smugglers and suggested—probably with a twinkle in his eye—that the man was smuggling fish. The angler was moved back to the Eire side where he was pounced upon by an Eire Revenue officer who suggested the same thing. That shows that control by Revenue authorities is exercised there, and if it is possible to control contraband, it should be possible to control the entry and exit of individuals.

I realise that it may not be possible altogether to do away with the system, but I urge the Under-Secretary to consider the possibility of removing the control system to the border. I should like to invite him and the Home Secretary to accompany me on a tour of the border. I am sure that that tour would be as profitable to them as it would be pleasurable to me, and I am sure that I could convince them that it is possible to exercise control there. I hope that this will be carefully examined and that the system will be altered in the way I have suggested. That would, at the same time, remove an irksome restriction which bona fide travellers between this country and Northern Ireland have had to endure for too long.

11.18 a.m.

Mr. John E. Haire (Wycombe)

The hon, and gallant Member for Belfast, North (Lieut.-Colonel Hyde) is to be congratulated on the way he has presented the case, and I hope that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State will make the concession which that argument demands. I feel certain that I know the spirit of the people of Northern Ireland—I can declare an interest because I was born there and lived there for 30 years—and I know that they feel very strongly that they are being discriminated against by this long continuing control. We of the Labour Party have said that we do not stand for control for control's sake, and I feel that as it is nearly six years after the war the time has come for a serious review of this control upon travellers between Northern Ireland and this country.

Each year for the last five years this question has been raised in the House of Commons, and we have always had the same answer from the Home Secretary, that it is impossible to remove the control. I hope the Under-Secretary will tell us that at least some revision will be made. After all, in the last five years we have seen the removal of many restrictions upon travel from the Continent to this country and it is now possible for travellers to come here from some countries on the Continent without a visa.

Perhaps we may be told whether more aliens are entering Great Britain from Northern Ireland today than before the war. If we assume that there are 2,000 travellers a day from Northern Ireland, how many of these are aliens? Does that proportion whatever it is justify the continuation of this control? If my hon. Friend knows the Northern Ireland police as well as some hon. Members opposite and as, I suppose, I do, he would know that they could smell an undesirable a mile away. I personally agree with the hon, and gallant Gentleman when he says that these restrictions ought to be controlled by the police in Northern Ireland.

I have here a travel permit for Northern Ireland of a more discreet political colour than the one presented by the hon, and gallant Gentleman opposite; it is an earlier one. But if an undesirable alien wanted to enter this country from Northern Ireland it would appear to be the simplest thing imaginable; he would surely have the brains to see through this simple device. The travel permit is issued to any applicant who presents two photographs, neither of which need be attested. He has to present a signature which is put on the travel permit. In this way this travel permit can be obtained by any applicant who sends two photographs, an identity card number and a name all of which could easily be obtained by an alien anxious to enter this country. That seems to reduce the whole thing to a farce and, if that is so, why is all this elaborate machinery of travel permits maintained?

I suggest that it can be simplified and improved; that in Northern Ireland travellers to this country should be divided into two classes, Britishers and aliens, at the port of exit when it would be extremely simple for the Northern Ireland police to ask a few questions and establish a traveller's identity and bona fides. If any undesirable got through that net I should be very surprised. This may be the last opportunity that my hon. Friend will have in this present Chamber to announce a concession, and I think there could be no better occasion than this, for doing so.

11.24 a.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Geoffrey de Freitas)

I wish I could undertake to end this requirement of travel cards which admittedly causes much inconvenience to a particularly loyal part of the United Kingdom. I was asked quite frankly by the hon, and gallant Member for Belfast, North (Lieut.-Colonel Hyde) why there was this system of control and particularly why it was necessary today when it was not necessary 11 years ago.

The root of the matter is that before the war the Irish Free State had an immigration system on our lines; their policy regarding the admission of aliens was similar to ours and the two immigration services worked closely together. The immigration officials visited each other, got to know each other's methods of working, and the policy of the respective Governments was the same. If, for instance, the Irish Free State admitted an alien on certain conditions, we automatically applied the same conditions to him if he came to the United Kingdom, and vice versa. Further, no one admitted to the Irish Free State would be denied admission to the United Kingdom, and vice versa. Over the control of aliens the Irish Free State and the United Kingdom were one unit.

Today, the Irish Republic has no longer the same immigration sytem or the same policy with the result that the Irish Republic admits many aliens who would not be qualified to come to this country whether on a Ministry of Labour work permit, as a distressed relative, or under any other category. The example of the Ministry of Labour work permit shows the importance of aliens control. In Northern Ireland, as in Continental countries which have a land frontier, there is an employment permit sytem. This protects the Northern Ireland worker by controlling the employment of people who do not come from Ulster. In Great Britain, we have many customs, and laws which have developed in a certain way because this is an island. One example is our aliens control which is at the port of entry. It is the only check. We have no employment permit system, and there is nothing in our laws and regulations to stop an employer employing an alien and putting a British subject out of work.

If the Irish Republic would once again join with us in working a common system for the control of aliens, then we would for this purpose become a single unit, and these annoying travel cards could be abolished. What is necesasry is that the United Kingdom and the Irish Republic should agree to follow a similar immigration policy, to set up a similar system of immigration control, and to agree that any alien who had been admitted to the Irish Republic or the United Kingdom and who got into the other country, would be accepted back if the second country did not want him to stay there. Until that happens, we must have this control of aliens because, otherwise, there is a danger of their slipping into this country through the back door of the Irish Republic. It should also be recognised that as a result of modern air travel and also of the way in which shipping has developed, there is a very great increase in the amount of air and sea travel direct between the Irish Republic and countries other than the United Kingdom.

The question arises: If there is to be control, where it should be exercsied? Should it be at the border of the United Kingdom or at the ports of Great Britain? I am hoping to go to Northern Ireland in September and I shall certainly consider the hon, and gallant Gentleman's invitation. When I am there, I shall discuss with the Northern Irish authorities the possibilities of control on the border.

The practice of Customs control is of no help to us in solving the problem. We must remember that on the border between the Irish Republic and the United Kingdom there are only 17 or 18 Customs posts. We could not afford to take the risk in respect of undesirable aliens which is taken by the Customs service. It would require an army of immigration officers to make that control effective. There is no real parallel between that boundary and the U.S. Mexican border and that of the United States and Canada. I have crossed those borders many times. It is very easy to do so, but it is extremely difficult to get into Canada, the United States and Mexico from other countries.

It is alleged that the obtaining of a travel card is an inconvenience, and also that it is too easy to obtain. The truth is between those two extremes. We are satisfied that the present system is a valuable safeguard and a check. However, I will certainly have the suggestions examined, and see what we can do to change the colour of the cards from green to red.

Delay is usually caused by shipping difficulties, and not by the inspection of travel permits. There are queues everywhere; people have to queue when going to the Channel Islands, although there is no question of a travel permit being required. There is only one method of sea travel between Northern Ireland and Great Britain which I know of where no queueing is met with. Three years ago today a constituent of mine with whom I had been on training swims in Northern Ireland, pioneered the swimming route from Northern Ireland to Port Patrick in Scotland. I wish I could undertake to end this system. I can only say that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary is just as anxious as hon. Members from Northern Ireland are to see unrestricted travel between Northern Ireland and Great Britain.

Mr. Gage (Belfast, South)

If the Northern Ireland Government can con- trol the entry of workers by means of the permit system on the border, why cannot this Government do the same thing?

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