HC Deb 26 July 1951 vol 491 cc805-14

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Mr. Royle]

11.38 p.m.

Mr. Wedgwood Benn (Bristol, South-East)

The subject I wish to raise this evening is the question of British immigration policy. Perhaps I may begin with a personal case which came to my notice, as a result of which I have given some thought to the Government's attitude to immigration. This case has nothing extraordinary about it, for it is concerned with a Greek family in Alexandria. One son of that family came to live in our country, was naturalised, and is a constituent of mine. A daughter married and went to live in South Africa, and another son remained with his mother in Alexandria. Six months ago she left to live with her daughter, and the boy was there alone.

The matter came before my notice when my constituent told me that his brother would like to come here to live, but was refused permission by the Home Office. My constituent then asked my help, and I communicated with my hon. Friend's Department. I received a reply in a letter concerned with the policy of the Government, and I should like to read extracts from that letter to the House. So many foreigners want to live here with relatives and friends that we can only take those who are in distressed circumstances and need the care of a relative here. Mr. Stavrou"— that is the name of my constituent's family— is apparently a young man who is settled in Egypt and able to stand on his own feet. I am afraid he does not appear to come within the scope of our policy. I wrote again to the Home Office, and my hon. Friend replied: We could allow him to come only if he was able to obtain a job here, for which the Ministry of Labour could issue a permit…we cannot let him come and look for work. I quote this because, as I have said, I am concerned here with an ordinary case.

This man wants, for a very understandable reason, to come here to be with his brother. He speaks and writes English, so far as I know, and has a job at the present time; and whatever skill he has would enable him to get a job in this country. The request is supported by my constituent's local vicar, who is extremely respectable—in fact, the whole case is very respectable. The reason that this case interests me and should, I believe, interest the House is that it throws some light on British immigration policy. When I put down a Question to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Home Department about British immigration policy on 20th June, the reply was framed in similar terms to the letter I quoted. In it was this passage: …there are no formal rules governing the admission of foreigners, who may wish to reside here, and applications are dealt with on their merits in the light of the general principles which I have announced to the House from time to time."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 20th June, 1951; Vol. 489, c. 63.] The legislation which governs the present British immigration policy is contained in one or two Acts of Parliament. The first—under emergency powers—is the Aliens Restriction Act, 1914, and then we have the Aliens Restriction Act, 1919, which were designed in time of national emergency to give the Government the power to control immigration and the movement of aliens in this country, those wishing to enter this country, and so on. The first Act was passed on 5th August, 1914, and was specifically designed to deal with an emergency situation. It was consolidated in 1919 as part of a permanent programme of immigration and alien control.

I believe it is the history of the way that control was made permanent which gives us a clue as to what is wrong with British immigration policy at the present time, and that is, that it is essentially a restrictive policy. That is not such a revolutionary statement as it may sound. It is possible to argue that our immigration policy at present tends to restrict immigration rather than to control it positively in a satisfactory way, and that there is nothing basically wrong with it from the point of view of legislation. I know that an hon. Member on the Adjournment may not propose legislation; but legislation is not in any case necessary to achieve the purpose I have in mind.

The Aliens Restriction Act, 1919, gave the power for Orders-in-Council to be made. The King made the main Order-in-Council, the Aliens Order, 1920, and under that Order complete power is given to my right hon. Friend to make all the regulations necessary for immigration. The Aliens Order, 1920, sets out certain categories of aliens who are completely excluded, such as those, for example, who are unable to support themselves, those without a labour permit, lunatics, idiots, those mentally deficient, undesirable people, and those found guilty of extraditable crimes. At the same time, this Order gave the Home Secretary absolute power to exempt any person or class of persons unconditionally or subject to his conditions. So the Secretary of State could admit lunatics, idiots, mentally deficient persons, or even those, as far as I understand it in reading this Order, who are guilty of extraditable crimes.

The machinery is available if we care to use it in a proper way, and it is quite feasible for the Secretary of State to make orders governing immigration policy if he chooses which would alter the basis of the policy pursued at present. I take this opportunity of congratulating the Home Secretary on the very generous policy that he has pursued. I do not want to be ungrateful or ungracious in my reference to his powers. He has been very generous to distressed persons abroad who wish to come to this country.

On 13th November, 1945, my right hon. Friend announced in the House a policy of controlled immigration for distressed people which has, no doubt, been a source of great relief and satisfaction to many people who would otherwise not be able to come to this country. Since the war something in the neighbourhood of 200,000 persons have come in under this provision. I do not think it would be permissible to pass over this section of the Secretary of State's powers without saying how generous he has been.

At the same time, the very flexibility of these provisions means also that there are inherent disadvantages in them. There is no queue of people wishing to immigrate to this country. If a man wants to come here he has to show that he is in a specially skilled category in order to obtain a Ministry of Labour permit, or that he is a distressed person, or that he has some close relative. This restrictive approach has governed the whole of our policy up to the present time.

I think that there should be a more positive approach, and that basically we should accept the right of everyone to come in, and then make our exclusion orders and so on. Although this would seem to make a terrific difference, I do not think so, except that we would recognise the right of people, who want to, to come in, whether for a good reason or not. There ought to be the right for these people to find themselves in some sort of queue where others were in the same position as themselves.

The Home Secretary said in the letter I quoted that there were very many foreigners who wanted to live here. I put down a Question on 20th June to the Home Secretary asking him how many applications for permission to enter this country for permanent residence were received from non-British nationals in the years 1945–50; how many were refused, and under what headings the grounds for refusal could be grouped. In his reply, the Home Secretary said that no record was kept of the numbers of applications and refusals for permission to enter the country, and that he did not think that the labour involved in keeping such a record would be justified.

At any rate, however right the Home Secretary may be when he says that so many foreigners want to live here, his Department is unable to produce any statistics. In view of the large number of people who want to live here, it would be interesting to know how many people we would be prepared to accept. Up to this point I have been trying to show the way in which our policy is executed, and to show the advantages and disadvantages behind it.

Basically, I feel that the problem is not a moral one. It is one on which we react instinctively. With inherited liberal principles, I feel that the free movement of all people is a good thing and one to be encouraged, and I am sorry to see the Liberal bench, normally so crowded, so empty tonight. The Declaration of Human Rights has for one of its Articles the right of the human being to take a nationality, to change it, and not to be denied the right arbitrarily to change it. I realise it is not as easy as that, but most of the difficulties are definable difficulties based on facts and situations which the economic planners now available to Government Departments should be able to grasp and measure. I believe that the basic problem which prevents more immigration is an economic one.

Immigration and alien-entry restriction is basically the same sort of restriction as tariffs and duties, which are to prevent unfair competition from abroad. In this case, it is unfair competition from aliens coming to this country who might not be able to organise themselves adequately in unions and who might undercut the worker at home. That sort of economic difficulty can be measured year by year. Between the wars, when there was a great deal of unemployment, it was an acute problem.

At present, when unemployment is 1 per cent. in the country as a whole and there are 500,000 unfilled vacancies, it is no problem at all. It is the reverse. It might well be that Mr. Stavrou, if he were able to come to this country, might be able to fill one of those vacancies. At any rate, the economic problem now works the other way and tends to make us believe that immigration should be encouraged.

We have to have as a basis of our annual immigration policy some sort of quantitative calculation. As a rough estimate, one might work out some relationship between the number of unemployed and the number of unfilled vacancies and relate that to the number of people who emigrate in the course of the year. I do not want to appear to be making this too simple. But in 1949, for example, 145,000 people emigrated from this country and only 60,000 immigrated into this country. That situation does reveal some ground for manœuvre with our immigration policy. If we relate it to the current employment situation we can get some sort of a basis.

Having got the overall total—this is where the positive approach comes in—the question is how we should allocate that total among the people who want to come in. American immigration experience is something that we might well study. They have their list of exclusions—idiots, paupers, alcoholics, people guilty of misdemeanour involving moral turpitude—whatever that may be—and political anarchists who advocate the overthrow of the Government of the United States by force. And here I must say that I often wonder how George Washington himself would have got into the United States before the Revolutionary War if he had been obliged to say that he was not advocating the overthrow of the Government of the day.

At any rate, there are the normal exclusion provisions in the American immigration laws, and their basic method of calculating residual immigration is by the quota. The quota is based on the number of foreign-born residents in the United States at a certain date. A given proportion are admitted every year. For example, 60,000 British may be admitted every year, 20,000 Germans and 100 Indians. That does enable one to know where you stand. So far as American immigration is concerned, if you are not in one of the excluded categories, you or your wife may qualify for the quota. If you want to go there you can get on the list, and ultimately get in—leaving aside political considerations, which I do not want to enter into.

It is a rigid system, and has all the disadvantages of rigidity. Recently a special Act was passed by Congress to admit a British woman who had got tuberculosis while in this country and was returning to join her husband. That was a very generous action, but it is a weakness of the rigid system that the Secretary of State has not the same power there that the Secretary of State has in this country.

At the same time, there is a nearer approach to the ideal of universal admission in the United States than there is here. I think we could learn something from that, and that we might change the interpretation of the Aliens Order. If we were to work out some form of migration policy based on these lines we would be doing some service to that free movement of populations which is a vital prerequisite to understanding in all parts of the world.

11.56 p.m.

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

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for informing me of the particular case he was going to raise, and we are all grateful to him for his interesting speech, based on his fundamental belief in the liberal principle he enunciated.

I should like first to examine the working of a quantitative system, somewhat on the lines of the United States, of controlling immigration, and to submit that it is not suitable to conditions in this country and is actually against the interests of certain foreigners, refugees and distressed people, whom we most want to help. It is unsuitable to conditions in this country because we are not a country of immigration like the United States; we cannot plan over a long period to absorb a constant stream of immigrants and reckon on the need for more.

We are a small island with a large population and highly developed industrial life. It is not as if there was a vast exodus from this country of people migrating abroad. In fact, a most interesting result of the last census is that for the first time for a century in the inter-censual period there was actually an increase in population in England and Wales by migration. If there were a great exodus of people it might be argued that with a population of 50 millions we could easily absorb to our mutual benefit large numbers of European immigrants.

It is also against the interests of certain foreigners that we most want to help. Unless the immigration quota was fixed at a very high figure, say in relation to the number of unemployed or the number of people leaving the country, any pressure for admission caused by distress or persecution in the outside world must either be ignored, or met by amending legislation, which is often slow and might well be controversial. For instance, in the United States, where they have strict laws on this subject, they have had difficulties from time to time and it has been necessary to pass laws such as the War Fiancées Act and the Displaced Persons Act, 1948. I come to the point my hon. Friend made about not being convinced of the advantages of the wide powers of the Secretary of State to vary the conditions of entry. I submit that there are real advantages in having our present flexible machinery. First, policy can be modified quickly to meet circumstances as they change, not only at home but abroad. Second, special consideration can be given to exceptional cases.

Our broad general policy since the war has been, first, to admit immigrants who can make a positive contribution to the national economy, and, secondly, to help as much as we can to relieve distress and persecution abroad. That is why my hon. Friend was quite right in using the case of his constituent's brother as typical. Speaking from memory, in the first of the two letters I wrote to him I said I was afraid he could not come here because he did not come into the category of a distressed person, and in the second I told him he could only come here if he got a job sanctioned by the Ministry of Labour.

The figures of immigrants since the war which my hon. Friend quoted are substantially correct. One hundred and twenty thousand Poles and their dependents of the Polish Resettlement Corps have entered this country; 25,000 former prisoners of war, and 94,000 refugees and distressed persons have also come. All but a small proportion have been men and women who could make a direct contribution to our national economy. Then there is the other point. that we have followed our traditional policy of taking in a certain number of refugees and people distressed.

In regard to the first category, if a foreigner is willing to take a job and the Ministry of Labour advises us it is in the national interest that that job should be filled by him and he undertakes to remain in it for the first years of his stay, we allow him to come in, and, in fact, welcome him. Thirty-five thousand have come in every year since the war in that way. We do not allow a foreigner to come here to look for a job, and I think, that is a reasonable safeguard. It is true that at times it may seem we are unnecessarily restrictive, but when we have a system so carefully set up as this, I think on the whole it is justified.

We welcome a foreigner whose employment is approved. For instance, in Italy at this moment we have a selection team choosing Italian workers to work in our mines and on the land. We want not only workers. If a foreigner wants to come here and set up a business and the Home Office are advised by the Government Department most closely concerned that it is in the interest of the national economy that he should come in, and there is no disadvantage about his coming in, then we admit him.

In regard to the second category, we have consistently followed our traditional policy of relieving the victims of persecution abroad. From time to time the Home Secretary admits certain categories of distressed people and refugees. The fact is that our system of admission. based on discretion and not restriction, enables us—and I speak for the senior officials, the Home Secretary and myself—to give particular care and consideration to the distressing cases, especially cases of elderly people who are living abroad in ill health and alone, who have relatives in this country willing to look after them. The very fact of the flexibility and the wide discretion which we have in our system brings great benefit to those people.

I believe that our system is good and fair. Taking into account the fact that we are a small, highly industrialised country which has great attractions to many millions of other people in other countries where there is unemployment, poverty, persecution and lawlessness, the fact that we are the Mother Country of a vast Commonwealth and Empire, standing in close relationship with their citizens, and the fact that we have a high standard of administration in our Departments which have the discretion—that is to say, a great Department of State like the Home Office—I submit that our system is one which works well and that, on the whole, our policy is sound.

Question put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Two Minutes past Twelve o'Clock.