§ 3.54 p.m.
§ Mr. R. T. Paget (Northampton)
I beg to move, in page 3. to leave out lines 7 and 8.
We have now an annual opportunity to discuss the affairs of strangers within our gates. I believe that it is to the credit of our Parliamentary institutions that this should be so. Each year we discuss the rights, responsibilities and difficulties of aliens within this country, and so far, in so far as I have been able to observe these debates, instead of there being an expression of xenophobia, which so often occurs where majorities resent minorities among them, hon. Members have risen to ascertain whether the lives of these people can be made easier and freer.
It is in that spirit that I rise to draw the attention of the Committee to various proposals which have been made at the Council of Europe to enable the lot of aliens to be made freer and easier.
The first point that I want to raise is the question of refugee passports. Ever since the days of Nansen, whose wonderful work, practically single-handed, on behalf of refugees is, I believe, one of the 1663 great stories of humanitarian endeavour in the history of the world, and upon the basis of one man's tremendous reputation and faith, a document was provided for those who had been homeless and expelled which enabled them to become, in a certain sense, citizens of the world.
The necessity to bring home to people the idea of the rights and difficulties of people who are without a country, or who, because of intolerance, cannot return to their country, has been very constantly before our minds. Great advances have been made. The numbers of the refugees after the last war were tremendously swelled, but, as a result of agreements arrived at in both London and Geneva, a form of passport was provided for the refugee who had settled in a country which would enable him to travel upon the country within which he was settled undertaking to receive him back.
Recently, in Paris, a meeting was held between a committee of the Council of Europe and the High Commissioner for Refugees, who came over from the United Nations. As a result, certain proposals were made. I do not say that they are very wide and important proposals, but they are, none the less, proposals to which I feel Her Majesty's Government should give more serious consideration than they have so far done.
The first recommendation which was made concerned the form of refugee document which should be issued. The report says:It is considered by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, and your Committee endorses this view, that besides conforming in text to the provisions of the Convention, refugee travel documents should also be uniform in appearance, so as to make them easily recognisable to consular and frontier officials and thus contribute to speed up frontier formalities for everybody. With this object in view, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees prepared a specimen travel document …which was duly submitted.
Therefore, it is proposed that the refugee passport should be something in common form, of a common appearance, so that it can be recognised at frontiers and at consulates and will provide a recognised status for these people. It is something which both the High Commissioner and the Council of Europe have regarded as important.
1664 The reply which the Government have given is that they quite agree but they have a stock of some 16,000 of the existing documents and these must be used up before they can comply with the request. Really, if we are to take part in the activities of international organisations, if we are going to that expense at all, ought we not to take their recommendations a little more seriously than that? Is it not frivolous to say, "Here is a good recommendation; we quite agree with it, but we must use up our own stationery first"? I ask the Government to reconsider this matter. In all conscience, one finds on the Continent the attitude that it is not always M. Molotov who says "No," but it is "les anglais qui disent toujours 'Non'."
Far more important that that, which is a small matter, is the question of visas. Why should we require visas for refugees, if we do not require them from the citizens of the countries which issue the refugee document? Visas tend to be an expensive matter to people of small means. Why are they necessary? I want the Committee to consider what is the point of a passport. I would submit that it certainly has no security function whatever. If a spy arrives, one may be quite certain that the people who send him have provided him with a passport and probably with half a dozen. Equally, he will have no difficulty in having visas. He will have plenty of those, too.
Passports provide one with no assistance whatever from a security point of view. The whole point of the passport, and in my submission the only point of the passport, is that it enables one to get rid of somebody, if one wants to get rid of him, because if he has a passport, that amounts to an undertaking and a recognition by somebody of a liability to take him back, if we wish to deport him.
§ Captain J. A. L. Duncan (South Angus)
If one has a criminal in this country, one can take his passport away and prevent him leaving the country.
§ Mr. Leslie Hale (Oldham, West)
And no right to say that a man is a criminal before he is convicted.
§ Mr. Paget
That is the situation, but we are not here considering what passports we give to people. We are considering what passports we accept from people. It would be out of order to consider what passports we give to people.
By the London conference on travel documents for refugees and the Geneva Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, the country issuing the refugee passport undertakes precisely the same responsibility as the country issuing a domestic passport, that is, an undertaking to take the man back without a visa or anything else during the currency of that document.
§ Sir Beverley Baxter (Southgate)
I am asking this question for the benefit of the public at large. There is some doubt about people leaving the country without a passport. I went to the Continent the other day and my passport was examined by British officials when I was leaving the port and eventually by the French. If I had had no passport, would the British official have been satisfied? I am asking that so that the position can be elucidated. There seems to be some confusion.
§ Mr. Paget
All I can say is that if the British official had attempted to stop the hon. Member for Southgate (Sir B. Baxter) from boarding the ship, or had attempted to hold him, the hon. Member could have brought an action against him for assault and wrongful arrest and the officer would have had no answer whatever. The only function of the examination of the passport at this side is to warn people that they may be in difficulty on the other side if their passports are out of order.
§ Mr. Paget
I have been diverted, Sir Charles. We are concerned with passports for coming into, not for leaving, the country. My remarks arose out of the hon. Member's interruption.
For a long time we required visas from the member countries of the Council of Europe. We have now abolished that 1666 requirement. It took a lot of argument to get those visas abolished. There will be precisely the same arguments against my contention. They will he that we must exclude the undesirable alien and exclude people whom we might subsequently have to deport. All these arguments were brought up, as the hon. Member for Belfast, North (Mr. Hyde) knows, when we first pressed for the abolition of these visas. But visas have all been abolished now, except for the refugee.
What is the difference in the position for the refugee? The Home Office, in a letter I received, said that, first, there were those who were well established in the country from which they came. They could go to the consulate and get a visa without reference back to London. How does the consul know whether a man is a well-established or an unsettled refugee when that person calls at the consulate and produces a refugee passport? The point is that nobody gets a refugee passport unless his settlement has been accepted by the country which issues that refugee passport. The refugee passport is a recognition by the issuing country that the man is settled there and has the right to go back. The question whether he is well established or unsettled is something for the issuing country to decide before it issues the refugee passport and the issuing of a visa cannot add anything at all to that.
The Home Office letter said that, finally, there was the undesirable refugee whom we wished to exclude. I would be very interested to know how we exclude those by the visa system. How does a consul, who has never seen the man before—because he will merely go to the consulate with his refugee passport and give his address—have the remotest idea whether he is an undesirable refugee or not? The emigration officer may have some lists or records. He may be in a slightly better position than the consul, but, broadly speaking, visas are of no assistance at all in keeping out undesirable aliens. The organisation which is effective for that is Interpol, the police liaison between various countries. Visas have nothing to do with that.
Therefore, I strongly urge that here is a matter which has been tried out and which is working in part of Europe. It is working in all the Benelux countries none of which is now requiring visas from refugees. It is working very comfortably 1667 and, after all, they are rich areas with full employment, where one might expect people to want to go. Although we were told when we were asking for the abolition of visas that it was awkward and difficult, have any of the prognostications proved true? Not a bit of it. It has worked perfectly satisfactorily. The abolition is working in the Benelux countries. Why cannot we follow that practice now? If the Government want a trial period, why not get in touch with the Benelux countries and say, "Let us work an arrangement of no refugee visas between ourselves. Let us come into your club." When that is working satisfactorily others can be brought into the arrangement.
In these times of oppression it is the refugees who have been the greatest sufferers. To a large extent they are suffering for our convenience, our safety and our peace. If we were in a position to do right and damn the consequences, we should not leave the Baltic States, those very decent republics, in the hands of autocracy. Those Baltic people would not be refugees, nor would the Poles, for whom we went to war, nor the Czechs, were it not for the circumstances. They are refugees because the needs of our safety and the settlement of the war made them so, and I feel that we should go to the very limits in trying to help them.
Here we have a recommendation from the High Commissioner for Refugees and from the Council of Europe. I urge the Home Office to take it seriously. If we are to join and go to the expense and trouble of sending delegates to these international institutions, it is time we took them and their suggestions a little more seriously and dropped the attitude which says that we cannot carry out these recommendations because it would mean getting some more stationery.
I turn, finally, to the proposal concerning passports themselves and the suggestion that we should accept documents of identification other than passports. If you will permit me, Sir Charles, I will put this in the form of what we should do for outgoing documents, because this would be a reciprocal arrangement and the document which I shall describe as issued by ourselves would be the sort of document which we should receive. It is easier to explain the position in our own terms.
1668 The suggestion here, which also enamates from the Council of Europe, is that anybody who wants to go on a holiday should simply go to any tourist agency, where he or she would buy a return ticket to any destination within the Council of Europe. The ticket will contain a space for a photograph and on the back would be a number of questions, such as name, address, height, age and whatever may be required. That return ticket would have a photograph stuck on it by the purchaser and would be taken either to his employment exchange, where he is known, or to his National Insurance office, where he is also known, and it would be stamped. I suggest that that document should be accepted as a travel document for the period of its currency. It is a return ticket; the man would go from this country and would have to come back on a certain date. During that period it would provide the necessary identification.
There ought to be agreement between the members of the Council of Europe that the country which issues and stamps these return tickets should be willing to accept the people back if the receiving country decides to deport them.
In this country it is relatively easy to get a passport, although even here the ordinary man living in a provincial town, who has perhaps saved, has done well and has had a rise in wages, and who, for the first time, feels that he would like a holiday abroad, will find that the problem of getting a passport even in England, bearing in mind the various people whose signatures have to be obtained, is fairly considerable.
In many countries abroad it is vastly more difficult. In Italy a man has to get a clearance that the Army does not want him, a clearance that the police do not want him and a clearance that his family do not want him before he can get a passport to go abroad. Italy is the worst example, but passports are not easy or cheap to get in a good many European countries.
Why should we not accept the simple travel document of this sort for a short, temporary visit, limited possibly to a month or six weeks—a return ticket which identifies the holder? I put that forward as a suggestion. It seems to me to be a good suggestion. It appealed to and was accepted by the Council of Europe. I hope that the Government will take this suggestion seriously.
§ 4.15 p.m.
§ Mr. Sydney Silverman (Nelson and Colne)
I do not want to detain the Committee for long, but for a number of years we have taken the opportunity of the Expiring Laws Continuance Bill to deal with various aspects of the position of aliens in our law.
I have always expressed the view that to leave so many of these matters, affecting, as they do, the liberties and fortunes of so many people, entirely at the uncontrolled and unfettered discretion of a Government Department is wholly wrong. I see the Joint Under-Secretary of State looking questioningly at me. Perhaps if I made an attempt to define the implied criticism, I suppose it would be said that it was not unfettered and not uncontrolled because the Department remains always responsible to the House of Commons for its administration. It would be said that this debate is proof that its discretion is not unfettered and uncontrolled because its whole administration is subject to our scrutiny on these occasions.
That, of course, as a generalisation is perfectly true. But it means that matters of which complaint may be made come under the scrutiny of the House long after they have occurred and long after there is any possibility of producing any effective results. We can, of course, put Questions to the Home Secretary about individual cases if we hear of them. We can table Questions—and this has been done frequently—about the exercise of the discretion by the Minister, either in an individual case or in a class of cases as a matter of policy. If we are not satisfied with the reply—and not many are satisfied with the answers—we can raise the matter in a more extended though short debate on the Adjournment.
The number of cases of which hon. Members are made aware must necessarily be small; the number of occasions when a decision of the Home Office receives attention in the newspapers and public opinion is roused one way or the other about it is, again, small; the number of occasions upon which an hon. Member may have a more extended debate or call for a fuller explanation is limited. I feel that in previous debates the Committee has largely shared my dissatisfaction and disquiet at the fact that no reality of control is provided in this way.
1670 The Home Secretary's powers are unlimited. I do not want hon. Members to be put off the discussion of the general principle by being reminded, as they always are, that the Home Office is a very enlightened and civilised Department; that no Home Secretary has ever made a wrong decision; that they do not, in fact, do harsh, oppressive and tyrannical things, and that, whatever may be said about the principle or theory of it, in practice it works very well. I do not know whether any man can say whether it works very well in practice, but even if it did it would still be a wholly undesirable practice.
If we are to have, as we must have, some legislation dealing with the rights of aliens, let us have it on a permanent basis. Let a Bill dealing with the matter be introduced into the House of Commons. It will have to have a First Reading, just as other Bills have to have First Readings. When it is presented and has its First Reading the House may proceed with it, as it sometimes does with Bills. Then comes the Second Reading, in which the whole principle of the Measure is fully discussed, and if it is thought desirable a vote is taken. Unless the House of Commons accepts the principle as laid down in the Second Reading, the Bill is rejected.
§ The Joint Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Sir Hugh Lucas-Tooth)
The hon. Member said that he objected to the Home Secretary having so many powers, and went on to argue that this matter should be dealt with by permanent legislation. I am not quite clear whether he is arguing that this permanent legislation should give the Home Secretary permanent powers of this kind, or whether he wants to take power away from the Home Secretary altogether.
§ Mr. Silverman
I did not make it clear, because I had not reached that part of my argument. I recognise that it would be of no use to make the merely formal point that I have made unless I were prepared to go further and say what kind of legislation I should like to see introduced.
I was next going to say that the Bill would then reach the Committee stage, which, in a matter such as this, is a very important one. Hon. Members may 1671 remember that about two years ago an attempt was made to consolidate the law concerning aliens. We had said for a long time that the regulations which gave the Home Secretary his powers were very old and were passed under quite different conditions, and that many of them were wrong. I admit that the Home Secretary—partly in deference to debates which we had had from time to time—attempted to consolidate them. Many powers were dropped and some new ones were taken and put into a new Aliens Order, which the House debated at some length.
When the House debates an Order, however, it has not the power which the House of Commons possesses when it sits in Committee upon a Bill. It cannot refer to one part of the Order and say, "We do not like that power at all; take it out," or, as to some other power, "This is all right in principle, but we do not like the way in which it is done. Let us have it amended in some stated way." Neither does the House have the power to say certain other things, to which I shall refer in a moment. When the House is debating an Order, even upon a Prayer against it, it is severely embarrassed by its impotency to effect any change in that Order. At the end of the day the House must accept it all or reject it all; it cannot change a comma or alter the crossing of a "t."
In those circumstances, it seems to me that even if the answer to the question I asked were to be that the Home Secretary should keep every one of his present powers unaltered, I should still say that something would be achieved by putting those powers into a Bill and giving the House an opportunity to change, amend, adapt, modify or reject it—bit by bit and part by part—at its discretion, even if, in the end, no changes were made.
I now want to answer the question I was asked. I would not be satisfied to leave these matters in the exclusive discretion of the Home Office. I think that there should be a right of appeal. Some opportunity should be given for third party judgments in these matters. When a man presents himself at our door and asks for admission it is intolerable, in a free country, that he can be sent back at the bare ipse dixit of the aliens' officer at the port, supported afterwards in many 1672 cases, by the Home Secretary if Questions happen to be asked about it in the House.
I know of no other free country in the world that does that. When that power is extended—from casual visitors who present themselves at our door and ask, perhaps, for temporary admission, or with a visa which has already been granted—to people who have been long resident in this country, it is not compatible with the principles of a free country to leave their fate, without recourse and without appeal, entirely in the hands of one Minister. We never sought to do such a thing until 1914, when we first took certain of these powers. In 1919, in the aftermath of the First World War, an Aliens Order was passed which remained in force through the entire period between the wars.
I am not saying that Executives or Governments are not entitled to have very great and sometimes only slightly limited powers in times of great national emergency. When the country is at war, we give all sorts of Governments and all sorts of Ministers all sorts of powers which we would never regard as permissible or compatible with our way of life except in times of grave, critical urgency and emergency. Here we have large numbers of people, and the Home Secretary can take any one of them, particularly if he happens to be stateless, as many of them are, put him in prison without a charge and keep him in prison without a trial, and he can do that indefinitely if there does not happen to be a country which is ready to receive him and to which the alien is ready to go. That can be done without any reason ever being given to anyone.
If it is not done capriciously, and I am sure it is not, then it can only be done for reasons, and the reasons may be based on statements or information. The person concerned has no right, under our existing law, to be told what the reasons are. He has no right to know what is alleged against him. If one does not know what is alleged against one, one cannot answer it. Even when it is known what is alleged against him, as occasionally it is, there is no opportunity to test the evidence on which the charge is made.
§ Viscount Hinchingbrooke (Dorset, South)
The hon. Gentleman is being a 1673 little confusing, though no doubt unintentionally. He said earlier that anyone can be turned back at a port and returned to his former country. Will he say how this process of appeal goes forward in that case?
§ Mr. Silverman
I had indeed left that part of it, and was dealing with the position of the people we have here and who have been here for many years. In the United States of America they have absolutely no difficulty about it. If a man is stopped at one of the ports in the United States, he can appeal to the Immigration Board, and there is an open hearing. He is entitled to legal representation, to cross-examine witnesses, to call witnesses of his own. Would it really be impossible to devise a comparable system in this country, or would it be more dangerous for us to do that than it is for the United States? I can see no reason why it should be.
I have never yet heard in any of these discussions, and I have taken part in a great many now, any reason given why we should not do it, except the stock Departmental reply which every Minister always makes and will go on making in comparable circumstances until the crack of doom: "I have the utmost confidence in my Department; the present system is working perfectly, and I see no reason to change it." But that is not a reason; that is not an answer. No one has ever said that it would be impossible to provide some kind of third party judgment. Of course it would be possible. Then why do we not do it?
Now I will come back to the point at which I was interrupted and to the position of the alien already in this country. I repeat that he can be arrested at any moment without charge, imprisoned without charge, detained in prison without trial and without limit of time.
§ Captain Henry Kerby (Arundel and Shoreham)
Is the hon. Gentleman aware of any such cases? Could he give us sonic examples?
§ Mr. Silverman
Examples of people arrested without charge and detained for long periods of time? There are many such examples. If the hon. Member for Arundel and Shoreham (Captain Kerby) would like to have some examples, I will not overload my own speech with them 1674 or delay the Committee, but I am sure that if he will inquire at the Home Office, some of the records, at any rate, could be produced, because there have been many such cases.
§ Mr. Silverman
What is perfectly clear is that in the operative Order the power is there. It would be no answer to me to be told that it was never used. If we do not need to use it, why have it? If we do need to use it, why not disclose the grounds for it, or some part, at any rate, of the evidence upon which the charge is based, do what is to be done in the matter openly, and give to a man whose whole future may be involved the opportunity of clearing himself if he can?
If a Bill were introduced to deal with this point, if, on consideration, the Minister were able to satisfy the House of Commons that it is better not to give any such right of appeal, or any hearing of any kind, the House of Commons or the Committee might say that the matter really had Parliamentary sanction after full consideration. That is not the position now, and that is part of the answer which I gave to the Joint Under-Secretary. The hon. Gentleman asked me whether I wanted the present powers of the Home Secretary to remain the same or to be limited. For myself, I tell him quite frankly that I would like them to be very severely limited, so that the ultimate responsibility, where the alien desired it, would rest with some kind of third party tribunal, which would have the possibility of testing the appropriateness of the action proposed by the Home Secretary in each individual case on the evidence in that case, a thing which the House of Commons is not well fitted to do.
That is the general position. I do not want to repeat or to prolong the argument about it. The Committee has heard me express my view on many occasions, and there are no new arguments as far as I know, except that I hope I may be pardoned for saying that I personally have no confidence that the Home Office will not make mistakes in matters in which it has an unfettered and unlimited discretion. I do not want to introduce matters which have nothing to do with this Bill and which might possibly be out of order, but there are evidences of the exercise of 1675 a discretion from time to time in matters where the Home Secretary has a theoretical responsibility to the House of Commons, as a matter of constitutional principle, but in which, in fact, neither the House of Commons nor the public ever receives one scrap of information of any kind, and where the public, or at any rate a large section of it, is and remains embittered, dissatisfied, anxious and uneasy.
§ Mr. Raymond Gower (Barry)
I have a great deal of sympathy with what the hon. Gentleman is saying, but I should like the hon. Gentleman to explain how such a tribunal may be tried in cases where refugee aliens are applying to enter the country and where objections may be made on matters of subtle policy which would not satisfy such a tribunal.
§ Mr. Silverman
I do not quite know what the hon. Gentleman means by "matters of subtle policy". I can understand very well that in a particular case the Home Office might well say, "Here is a matter in which the security of the nation is involved, and the evidence is of such a nature and was procured in such a way that it would be against public policy to produce it." I have no objection to the Home Department saying so in such a case, but saying so to the appropriate tribunal and letting the appropriate tribunal decide whether, in that particular case, the evidence ought to be heard or not.
Every practising lawyer in the Committee will know that the courts always have an inherent power to hear evidence if they close the court, which is some protection. There may be cases in which no evidence can be produced at all. If the Committee were considering a Bill about this matter, the Bill might be so drafted as to give the Home Office a power in particular cases to certify to whatever tribunal was involved in any particular case that it was a case where public security was involved. On such a certificate, the tribunal might take whatever course the Bill provided, and all these matters could be considered. When it comes to a matter of policy, the more subtle the policy the more open the argument should be. There is a point at which policy is so subtle that only an official mind is capable of appreciating it, and only then if nobody asks any questions.
1676 Matters of policy are obviously not to be administratively determined and ought to be settled by the House of Commons. The policy that I am thinking of is that third party judgment where a man's future, his liberty or his happiness is involved. A wide variety of matters have given rise to great public anxiety as to the way in which the discretions already vested in the Home Office are exercised, giving absolutely no confidence to many of us in continuing a system under which many people are potentially helpless in the hands of the Department.
§ Mr. Ede (South Shields)
My hon. Friend has used a colourless word "tribunal". Would it be a tribunal that settled the matters before it? Would it be a court of law? Would it be a tribunal like that which heard cases under Regulation 18B during the war? This was a tribunal that advised the Home Secretary, who could over-ride its findings if he thought that public policy had been neglected by the tribunal.
§ Mr. Silverman
Both methods are, of course, possible. I prefer at the moment not to choose between them. The most colourless tribunal is better than no tribunal. A tribunal with some powers, however limited and however capable of being over-ridden, is, in any case, better than no hearing of any kind at all. Once the Committee came to the conclusion that this was a matter for which they wished to legislate, the Government Department would consider which policy it wished to recommend in such matters. The House of Commons could then consider whatever proposal was made. I would not say that I have no preferences of my own, but they are irrelevant at the moment.
I am pleading now for taking the matter out of the sole hands of the Government Department and for submitting it in some degree, in some fashion, to some kind of third party judgment in which the man would have an opportunity of knowing the charge and the complaint being made, and some opportunity of dealing with it in a fashion which does not rest purely upon an argument between himself and his conscience. I hope that my right hon. Friend may accept so much of the principle—
§ Mr. Silverman
I appreciate that. If the general principle for which I am contending were to be accepted, there obviously would have to be much clearer definitions than I have so far attempted of the kind of machinery which would be appropriate to carry it out. I would prefer for the moment to confine myself to pleading for some change in a law which makes the Home Secretary absolute in these matters.
There have been recent cases where a general principle has been adopted. The most notable one, which I do not attempt to debate now—it is over and done with long ago—was the famous so-called "peace conference" in Sheffield, three years ago.
§ Mr. Silverman
It was in 1949 or 1950. That was the first occasion on which the matter was debated at any length in the House of Commons. The principle has been acted upon repeatedly since, sometimes in circumstances that were scarcely analogous so far as anyone could make out, in the most recent of them, at any rate. The general principle is that whatever free speech might mean for citizens of this country, or for people normally resident in this country, it does not apply to people who come in only to exercise it on a particular occasion. If persons want to come in to advocate a course of action in international affairs which the Government did not take, or which they may have thought was contrary to the policy which the nation wished to follow, the persons who desire to come in and do it should be forbidden to do it, and citizens who want to hear them should be prevented from hearing them.
It seems a remarkable principle. There would be no point whatever in the right of free speech to the empty air. The right of free speech is as much the right of the audience to listen as it is of the speaker to speak. When we refuse to a foreigner the right to speak on a British platform we limit, to that extent, not only any rights which he may have but the rights of the people of this country to take part in free discussion and to hear 1678 all views. This seems a very relevant matter at this moment when one bears in mind that the policy is that of the Government Department and has never been submitted to Parliamentary discussion or approval at all. It is not part of an Act of Parliament.
§ Mr. Ede
My hon. Friend knows that I was responsible for the action that was taken in this case. He and the hon. Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Hale) sitting beside him, fiercely debated it against me in the House. I am prepared to abide by the weight of that discussion in dealing with it. It was not the decision of the Department. The decision was mine, taken personally, for which I and no one else has ever been responsible. It is quite wrong for my hon. Friend to continue to talk about "the Department."
The policy of "this Department" depends upon the views of the Minister who has been appointed to preside over it. Its policy varies in accordance with the variation of the views either of an individual Minister or of a succession of Ministers. So far as this decision which my hon. Friend is debating is concerned, I have never sought to hide myself behind the Department. It would have been wrong of me to have done so, because the decision was mine. I answered in the House for it, and I continue to believe, in spite of what my hon. Friend feels, that the decision I took was right.
§ Mr. Silverman
I agreed with every word of that. This is exactly what I am saying—that the matter was the personal, individual decision of the Minister of the day. All decisions of Departments are the decisions of the Ministers of the day. That is our constitution. The Ministers are responsible for them, and no one is entitled to inquire what consultations any particular Minister may have had, or with whom. My right hon. Friend puts the position, as he always does, perfectly clearly and authoritatively, and, so far as I can understand it, in a manner to which no one can take exception. Obviously, it was the decision of the Minister. That is the point which I am making. It was a matter of major policy which was the decision of the Minister.
§ Mr. Silverman
Under the power given by regulation. All that we can do in regard to all the regulations which have ever been made under the Act is to accept the regulation as it is proffered to us or refuse to accept it. What I am asking the Committee to consider, as I have done in all these debates for a number of years, is whether that is the right way so far as the fortunes of some obscure individual may be concerned, and whether it is the right way in matters which are not the concern of some individual but of national policy with international repercussions and international consequences.
I am saying that these things ought to be governed, like all major aspects of our national way of conducting our affairs, under the considered sanction of Parliament and not capriciously by each Minister in turn. I say "capriciously" in deference to what my hon. Friend said just now about policy changing from Government to Government, from Minister to Minister, according apparently, if we understand aright, to the personal predilections of whoever happens to be the Minister at the moment. I think that that is quite wrong.
In this particular matter I was discussing whether an essential liberty is involved, the liberty of free speech, and it is most unfortunate that it should be so decided at a time when we are complaining that our own endeavours to reach other people over the air are being prevented by Governments in other countries.
I should like to tell the Committee of an experience of my own, in 1950. A year or two ago I was a guest at the annual dinner of the Foreign Press Association, just before the Sheffield decision which my right hon. Friend talked about. Among my fellow guests was my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition, who was then Prime Minister, and the right hon. and learned Gentleman the Member for St. Helens (Sir H. Shawcross), who was at that time Attorney-General. They both made speeches. In those speeches they explained in advance the decision which my right hon. Friend was personally to take within the next few days. They explained why people were going to be prevented from coming here, and how wrong it would be to allow them to come here, for the purpose of making speeches and undermining the loyalty of citizens in this 1680 country to their own Government, their own régime and their own way of life.
They were very eloquent and persuasive about it. Indeed, they almost persuaded me. They might very well have persuaded me, had it not been that three days later I was driving my car from a by-election meeting at Bristol to the House of Commons in order to save my right hon. Friends, who were then threatened with a vote of censure and had a very exiguous majority to depend upon. I turned on the wireless in my car, and I heard about the debate then proceeding at a committee of the United Nations about the jamming of radios. I heard the late Mr. Vyshinsky defend the jamming of broadcasts to the Soviet Union on the same grounds, and, believe it or not, in the very same phrases that I had heard the then Prime Minister and the then Attorney-General using to prevent a patriarch of somewhere in Eastern Europe from coming to Britain to make a speech at Sheffield about what might he called the "phoney" peace policy.
It seemed to me that the two things cancelled one another out and left me with my previous naive belief in the virtues of free speech unimpaired. These things are not matters for the Committee now. I am not seeking to say that the merits of them one way or the other can be debated—
§ Mr. Ede
On a point of order. My hon. Friend has delivered a very considerable attack upon myself, and he now announces that this is not a matter before the Committee in the hope, I suppose, Sir Charles, that he has now covered up his tracks, and that if I should, at a later stage in the proceedings, wish to deal with the matter, he will be able to rise on a point of order and ask whether you did not accept his view that this was a matter not before the Committee?
§ Mr. Silverman
I share my right hon. Friend's belief in the right of free speech, even in the House of Commons, and I certainly would not have thought of objecting or interfering in any way. In fact, it may be that in the warmth that one generates in developing an argument in the House of Commons I have—I do not know whether that is so—used language 1681 that would bear the interpretation which my right hon. Friend has put upon it—an attack upon him. Nothing of the kind was in my mind. I believe that the decision taken about Sheffield was wrong. I said so at the time, and all that I am saying now is that I remain of that opinion.
The matter with which the Committee is concerned now is whether these things ought fairly to be left to the Departmental, executive decisions of a Minister or whether they ought not to be governed by statute, and I hope that I have persuaded the Committee—and I have certainly taken up more time than I intended to do—that the time is already later than it need have been to have all these matters carefully considered in a Bill which the Government of the day ought to place before Parliament, and which Parliament ought to consider.
§ Mr. Montgomery Hyde (Belfast, North)
I had not intended to intervene in this discussion until I heard the speech of the hon. and learned Member for Northampton (Mr. Paget). As he referred to me in his speech, I feel that I should like to say a word or two in reply. I promise not to keep the Committee for very long.
The hon. and learned Member referred in generous terms to the work done by the sub-committee of the legal committee of the Council of Europe, which concerns itself with the question of the simplification of frontier formalities. I had the privilege of serving on that committee for rather more than two years, and of being its chairman for nearly that length of time. When that committee came into being there were very few member States in the Council of Europe which did not insist on visa requirements for the subjects of their fellow members States. Now there is complete freedom of travel between all the member States of the Council of Europe, in addition to other countries, such as Switzerland and Portugal, which are not members of the Council of Europe. Outside the Iron Curtain, the only country in Europe which insists on visas is Spain. Visa, passport and travel requirements generally are reciprocal, and if we wish our citizens to have the maximum amount of freedom and ease of travel on the Continent and elsewhere we must be prepared to facilitate the entry of aliens into this country.
1682 5.0 p.m.
The hon. and learned Member for Northampton made some very pertinent and, if I may say so, some very sensible suggestions about the treatment of refugees. Referring to the light green travel form issued by the Home Office he said that that Department had stated that, as there were still 16,000 copies of the form in stock, it was impracticable, or inconvenient, to substitute the standardised document recommended by the 1951 Geneva Convention relating to the status of refugees. It should be a comparatively simple matter to pulp the old copies and use the paper for making the standardised blue forms. I hope that the Joint Under-Secretary will give us some encouraging news about that.
A rather more important suggestion of the hon. and learned Gentleman related to visa requirements for refugees. When refugees have had their good standing vouched for by the foreign countries sponsoring them, it seems rather hard that they should be put to the trouble and expense of obtaining visas. We do not get a lot of refugees, but we have a great historical tradition of granting refuge to those who are in need. If a query arose about an individual refugee I should have thought that the immigration officer at the port could report it and a further investigation be made.
We have an example of general freedom of travel in the Benelux countries. There the refugee visa requirement is not necessary. Indeed, the citizens of the Benelux countries do not themselves require passports. There is complete freedom of travel throughout those countries, as there is also throughout the Scandinavian countries. I earnestly commend the suggestion of some such arrangement as a passport union. It is something to which we could subscribe with considerable advantage.
It is a very far cry from those halcyon days before the First World War when the only countries in the world for which passports were necessary were the Ottoman Empire and Czarist Russia. I doubt whether we can ever get back to such a state of affairs, but we can make travel conditions easier. That, however, can only be done on a basis of reciprocity. If we do not facilitate the travel of those visiting our shores, we cannot hope that our citizens will enjoy facilities when they 1683 go abroad. I only wish to say in conclusion that I identify myself with the very cogent arguments—particularly in relation to refugees—which have been put forward by the hon. and learned Member. They have my warmest and most cordial support.
§ Mr. Hale
We always listen to the hon. Member for Belfast, North (Mr. Hyde) with respectful attention, because we know he always advances a liberal-minded viewpoint on many social questions. It is refreshing to hear that view from Belfast, because the voice of Belfast has not always been heard in those tones.
When the hon. Member says that we may never see the world operated on the lines of 1914, no one would really challenge him. There are, perhaps, no words quoted more often in this House than those of Sir Edward Grey, as he then was, to the effect that lights had been put out in Europe that might never be relit. Perhaps Shakespeare put it better when he said:I know not where is that Promethean heat that can thy light relume.It is the job of this House to try to turn on those lights again. It is not for us to say that we can never see them come back. The vital job of democracy is to see what we can do to restore some of the things of value that passed away in 1914.
I remember quoting a very moving passage from Alistair Cooke's book on the trial of Algar Hiss. I shall not quote it again, but he said that if Hiss is guilty the debt he owes to humanity is the encouragement of persecution and the spreading of suspicion. It is the wearing down of libertarian views. It is the justification of the persecution that follows.
That was the trouble about our debate on Burgess and Maclean. I was not desperately worried myself about their disappearance, and I have not taken part in the discussions about them, but the harm they did when they left the country was to justify action against other people, was to strengthen the view of those who felt that political persecution could be justified on empirical grounds and should be extended. I know that I should be out of order if I pursued that subject at any length, but there are some matters about which I find myself the only one in step.
1684 Were I in charge of the Foreign Office, I would throw it open to the public every Saturday morning, sell cups of coffee at 6d. and copies of documents at 2s. 6d. apiece. When I express such sentiments I am thought to be joking, although every Foreign Secretary in turn has talked of open diplomacy, has said that our affairs should be handed over to the United Nations and that we should abandon secret arrangements and treaties. Then we wonder why other countries regard us as a hypocritical nation. The result of it all is that at the moment we are still reading history to find out what really happened on 4th August, 1914.
It is not in order for me to mention what happened on 4th August, but it is in order for me to mention what happened on 5th August. On that day the House was devoted to a very long discussion of the Glasgow Corporation (Tramways etc.) Bill. It is one of the historical curiosities that, on the day when even HANSARD came out almost in headlines, the Home Secretary or someone produced a manuscript document dealing with aliens and said that he wished the House to pass it. Two or three people asked questions; it passed its First, Second and Third Reading and Committee stage in one or two pages of HANSARD and was never even printed so that hon. Members could read it.
No one would challenge that procedure at that time. The justification at that time was that of the 300 aliens, then to be called enemy aliens, whose deportation had been ordered by the Home Secretary in the preceding twelve months, sixty were back in London. One takes almost hysterical measures at a time like that. Obviously, strong measures were justified and there was not time for long and detailed discussion. But it was a wartime Measure, a Measure which could be justified only in the circumstances of those days, and by saying, "Here we are at war just across the Channel. We have potential enemy aliens, we have spies; we have people carrying on espionage for the enemy and people who may be passing signals to aircraft and so on, and the Government have to have the widest possible powers to deal with that." And that was that.
In 1919 there was some discussion. The then Home Secretary said that he wanted 1685 power to carry on the Measure for 12 months. He said that there was need to deal with a number of interned enemy aliens. There were people coming out of internment who had been found guilty by tribunals of, at any rate, hostile activities and of acts inconsistent with the retention of citizenship or residence, and the Government had to have powers to deal with them. Indeed, the Home Secretary specifically referred to the pledge given by the Prime Minister in his Election speeches during the recent Election when he said that enemy aliens would be sent out of the country to return to their homes. On those terms, and only on those terms, the House said, "We will give you twelve months to do the job." We have renewed it every twelve months since 1919.
It is a rather poor comment on the foreign policy of the present Government if they really mean to say that we are still in such a severe emergency as in August, 1914, or in 1919. In the 1919 debate there were some remarkable speeches. I will confess quite frankly that when I was thinking over this matter this morning I thought that sometimes we were getting worse in our dealings with aliens. In actual fact I thought of a rather rash and harsh attack on the right of political asylum, as a genuinely careful examination of the precedents would show that we gave the right of political asylum generally to revolutionary heroes who fought against the Governments we disliked and were less generous to those fighting against the Governments we did like.
One could quote Mazzini as an example of generosity in the right of political asylum, but it was not until a debate in the House of Commons that it was found that the Home Secretary of the day was intercepting his correspondence and sending complete copies of it to the Neapolitan Government. Having read the debates of 1919, and remembering the debate of 1946, there is no question whatever that there has been a great improvement. I think that humanity owes a great debt to my right hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Mr. Ede), who was Home Secretary during that difficult period, for the liberal policy he displayed. My right hon. Friend described me as attacking him violently over the Sheffield Peace Conference decision, but I do not think I did that.
§ 5.15 p.m.
§ Mr. Hale
But to wind up a debate does not mean that one makes a violent attack upon an individual. So far as I remember, I said that, on balance, I thought that my right hon. Friend had come to a wrong decision. The explanation may be that my right hon. Friend has never heard me when I am violent.
In this matter my right hon. Friend adopted a very humane attitude. It was a very notable victory for the libertarians that in those days we did have that approach to the alien problem; and that such things could happen as one of the most distinguished living Jews, Mr. Victor Gollancz, making an appeal for decent treatment of ex-enemies who had almost exterminated the German Jews in circumstances of unparallel cruelty—
§ Mr. Hale
I was about to say, almost exterminated the Jews, when I realised that I should be saying something which could not be defended. And then there is my hon. Friend the Member for Nelson and Colne (Mr. S. Silverman), who himself actually visited Belsen camp and, in spite of that dreadful experience, has found it possible to remain an internationalist and one who believes in human brotherhood.
Here we are, in 1955, asking for this power for another twelve months. With regard to the exchange between my right hon. Friend and my hon. Friend the Member for Nelson and Colne, after all, the Home Secretary acts as a tribunal. When he conies to a decision, he is exercising all the power of a one-man tribunal in doing so. In many of these cases his decision is final and cannot be appealed against. He is doing informally what a tribunal would do more formally and be more open to certain rules of evidence, and so on. I am not sure that rules of evidence are desirable in matters of this kind. That is the frightful dilemma confronting us—one of the real dilemmas of our time. We have only circumstantial evidence unsupported by affidavits, and there must be certain cases in which we have to act on supposition and information which we have every reason to believe. That is one of the real difficulties 1687 of our time, and one which perhaps affects our lives gradually in many ways.
I saw the Order Paper of the House of Commons used to put down a Motion, signed by a single hon. Member, in which exhortation is given as to the type of evening parties which elderly policemen should attend. This is a new example of guilt by association, and shows the extent to which men's minds may be dragged from one enormity to another. I hardly think, with all its powers and wisdom, that this House is the proper place for exercising paternalism over elderly policemen as to their evenings out.
There are two things which could happen, and I think that both ought to happen. We ought to have more international conferring on this matter. The hon. Member for Belfast, North referred to the Council of Europe, and so did my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Northampton (Mr. Paget). There is no reason why we should not have agreement among the members of the Council of Europe and covering their colonial territories. At this moment, although a British subject from the colonial territories does not need a visa to come here, he needs visas to go to countries where a British subject resident here does not, and often he has great difficulty in obtaining them. There is no doubt that political discrimination is exercised with regard to colonial visitors and the issuing of visas. My hon. Friend the Member for Nelson and Colne slipped up in one observation he made. He said that it was all wrong that this should be done at the caprice of the Home Secretary. I would not use the word "caprice," but I should expect a Conservative Home Secretary to take a different view on matters of liberty from that adopted by my right hon. Friend the Member for South Shields, and I have no doubt that there has been an alteration since my right hon. Friend left the Home Office.
§ Mr. S. Silverman
I dare say I expressed myself carelessly and loosely, but I did not want to suggest either that the present Home Secretary or my right hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Mr. Ede), or any other former Home Secretary, had ever acted capriciously. The use of the word "caprice" arose out of something said by my right hon. Friend about the change of Ministers, and, of 1688 course, it is a caprice of fortune which determines who shall be the Home Secretary at a particular moment.
§ Mr. Hale
Oh, yes. If the hon. Member wants to put that point, let us have it; of course it is. In Colonial Territories was the case of Dr. Jagan not a matter of politics? When colonial libertarian leaders are sent out of the country or reduced from power, when passports are refused to be issued, of course it is a matter of politics.
§ The Temporary Chairman (Mr. Frank Bowles)
The hon. Member is going a little wide of the Amendment. He must confine himself to this country so far as aliens are concerned.
§ Mr. Hale
I quite agree, Mr. Bowles, that British Guiana is a long way off. I seemed to be all right so long as I was in France, and I apologise for crossing the Atlantic.
The Home Secretary has no right to come to this House—he does not even come but sends an Under-Secretary—year after year and say, "Give me these powers," and then, when we ask, "What have you done about the matter?" say that he has done nothing. Ernest Bevin hoped to see the day when passports would cease to exist, and, of course, so do we all. What are we doing about starting that? When was the last international conference which discussed this whole question? I know that little observations pass from Home Office to Home Office about visas and so on and that one or two minor restrictions have been abolished, but when was the last international conference on international travel and freedom of travel?
This matter is of more than passing importance. There is no greater contribution to international peace and understanding than freedom of travel. It would be a very good thing indeed, and 1689 one day, I hope, under the nationalised transport services, the children of this country will be able to spend holidays in France, Italy and Germany and have more opportunity for a free interchange of views. We talk about the Iron Curtain. The best thing to do with the Iron Curtain is to pull it down, but at the moment both sides seem determined that it shall stay. Why not do something about it?
The second method is the method one has always got to take. The greater the country the easier it is for it to make a generous gesture. A great country does not have to consider matters of face. We should not worry too much about strict reciprocity. Let us give a lead and say that we believe in the faith of our fathers, we believe in the human individual, we believe in human rights. When we signed the Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 we meant it, and we should start by a series of gestures to put it into effect.
§ Mr. Hale
I am obliged to my hon. and learned Friend. I did not know that. I am grateful to him for telling me, for of course that is how it has to be done.
What the Under-Secretary can do in this little matter—which in many respects is a big matter because it commences a process—is, instead of coming next year and saying "I want this Act," to take the opportunity of saying to the House: "Now I am going to set about altering this thing. I shall try to produce the sort of laws which are necessary in peace time. In the meantime, I shall try to see that these regulations are progressively abandoned. I will deal with passport difficulties and transport difficulties and I propose"—this is the Under-Secretary speaking, not me—"to light one of the lights which Sir Edward Grey said would not be relit in his lifetime, but which we want to see relit in our lifetime."
§ Viscount Hinchingbrooke
These annual debates on restrictions on aliens are, I think, of immense value to the country. The more one thinks about the 1690 restrictions that have been imposed, and are continuing to be imposed, the more anxious one gets about the whole topic. At times I have thought it would be wise to try to press the Government to set up a Select Committee to look into the situation. Then it occurred to me that automatically, by chance or design, there is an occasion presented to us—which we are enjoying this afternoon—to look into these matters.
I think I have been present at, though I have not always contributed to, this annual debate every year since the war. Today we seem to have a fresh element introduced by the hon. and learned Member for Northampton (Mr. Paget) and my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, North (Mr. Hyde), in that, for the first time, they bring from Strasbourg a series of resolutions for this House to consider. We have always complained that there was no chance of Parliament debating what happens at Strasbourg. We have not yet succeeded in having a general debate in this House on the political debates in Strasbourg and the general conclusions reached there, but today, on a specific issue, for the first time in my experience we have a direct report by representatives from this House about what has been decided there and what the Continent thinks the British Government ought to do.
So far in the speeches made today there has been a wide endorsement of the views expressed by those hon. Members. I think it is encumbent upon the Under-Secretary of State to state the views of the Government on this matter. I think my right hon. and gallant Friend the Home Secretary ought to go a little further, because I see in this business of annual reviews a parallel with what is being done with reference to emergency legislation. Every year we return to the attack on emergency powers of home legislation. Every year the Home Office is able to lay out a record of progress and to say that certain orders have been reduced, certain restrictions abandoned, and that the House and country are steadily going forward towards ways of greater freedom. Can we not achieve some result in legislation relating to restriction of aliens in the same way?
The hon. Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Hale)—I thought correctly—produced the atmosphere of those very restrictive and very unpleasant Orders 1691 controlling the lives and free travel of aliens, the atmosphere of the 1914–18 war. I have just looked at that flimsy piece of paper, marked 5th August, 1914, the same tattered piece of paper which has been passed along the benches and which was printed in the first days of the First World War. It reeks of barbed wire and machine guns. Why can we not begin to tear it up, to take little corners off it every year, come to this House and produce a more agreeable, a more amenable, a more liberal and freer atmosphere for these people?
I saw some of these people this summer when I came back from Germany. It was at Harwich, and I have asked Questions about Harwich and what is being done on the Ministry of Transport side to improve conditions for the reception of these people. There is a little element of the Home Office at Harwich, a good deal of immigration formality. To see these people coming over here for purposes of travel, enjoyment and trade, herded into little queues like goats, is a despicable sight.
On the occasion when I passed by, the train was actually leaving. A burly policeman, who was acting in the splendid robust manner of British policemen, walked down the line of the queue and said, "Anyone for this train?" A poor, wretched, wizened little Continental woman, clutching all her bags and her parcels round her, had to be prized out of the queue from the goat pen and taken forward to reach the train in time, Meanwhile, the British passengers were sailing by up another passage, honoured customers of the State compared to these poor unfortunates from foreign lands.
What is being done about that? Can we get to 25th November, 1956, and come down to this House on another day's debate and be told that something has happened about Harwich, about Folkestone and Dover and the other ports? What is the justification for the policy of inspecting these visas at the port of entry or putting all these people to such inquiries that they miss their trains and their opportunities? If there is a justification, I would like very much to know what it is.
1692 Is the justification that, once they have entered the country, greater freedom is accorded to them than is the case with aliens in Western European countries? If so, let us have the argument. At present, one hears the protestations made by the travellers and by the travel agents, and it all compares very badly with the experience of many of our own people when we go overseas.
This summer, I went behind the Iron Curtain. I went for a week to East Germany. I secured a visa from the Russians. With that visa I went through the Iron Curtain in eight minutes. The car was not inspected, nor was my luggage inspected. I was not asked any questions about currency. I was not asked what my purposes were. I could go in through the Iron Curtain with that visa and travel where I liked in conditions of complete freedom.
Compare that with the arrival of these simple democratic Westerners at the port of Harwich. And yet we proclaim that we have a superior ideology to some of the other countries overseas. Something must be done about this. As the hon. Member for Oldham, West said we must try to re-light some of the lamps of before 1914.
There is another short matter on which I should like advice. It arises from our debates in 1949 and 1950, with the Member for Nelson and Colne (Mr. S. Silverman) leading, myself sandwiched in between, and the right hon. Member for South Shields (Mr. Ede) winding up the debate, as, I think, he intends to do from his side of the Committee tonight. History repeats itself in a curious way in the House of Commons over a period of ten years.
We had a conference the other day of planning architects. I do not want to go into the details of who was prevented from coming, who was inconvenienced and so on, but it secured attention in the public Press and Questions have been asked in the House chiefly by Members opposite. It is the same principle as at Sheffield. Nothing has been done about that sort of situation since the Sheffield occasion. Here we are, a Conservative Government, but the same old Home Office—no change; the same restrictive, formal, curious manner, curious for this reason. If a man is an avowed Communist, he can come to this country. He 1693 cannot do it in the United States, but he can do it here, thank goodness. In the case of a collection of Communists who proclaim that that is what they are, and who claim, moreover, that they have come over here to suborn the purposes of the State, they can still come because we laugh at them and know that they will fail. They cannot do that in the United States. But if a collection of people deny that they are Communists and the Home Office says, "We think you are Communists," they cannot come.
§ Sir H. Lucas-Tooth
I think my hon. Friend is implying that some alien or aliens were refused permission to come to the planning conference to which he has referred. No alien was denied admission to this country to attend that conference.
§ Viscount Hinchingbrooke
I must submit to correction on a point of detail. But there is an element in it still, and there has been no substantial change in Home Office practice for the recent conference since the Sheffield event. If I am wrong, I shall he glad to be corrected. I hope that my hon. Friend will be able to correct that impression, because it is a fundamental question.
What is the justification for this treatment of parties of people who declare that they are innocent and democratic but whom the Home Office thinks are not so? Are they more dangerous than those who declare that they are what they are? Only if we have a feeling that the British people, in their determined democratic method, are not able to overcome them in argument and persuasion, or if we proceed on a basis of fear that our own polity is more vulnerable than that overseas, is there justification for this policy. But if we believe that democracy is a weapon of attack and that our ancient ways of freedom are fundamental to our country and capable of achieving friends and allies overseas, there is no justification of this negative treatment for those foreign nationals who wish to come over here. I hope that the Home Office tonight will be able to report substantial advance, if not in practice, at any rate in thinking, and that next year when we come to this matter again there will be something tangible to record.
§ Mr. Ede
My hon. Friend the Member for Nelson and Colne (Mr. S. Silverman) 1694 has explained to me that he has to leave the Committee for some other purpose and will not be able to hear what I may have to say about him. I make that explanation before I start, because I should not like it to be thought that I was saying anything about him in his absence without knowing that it is impossible for him to be here. But I am quite certain that hon. Members who heard what my hon. Friend had to say would expect that I should say something on the points he has raised. What I mean to say for a start is that I do not intend this afternoon to re-argue the case that I made five years ago and which at that time was not challenged in the Division Lobby after a very full discussion had taken place.
I am quite sure that we would all wish to congratulate the noble Lord the Member for Dorset, South (Viscount Hinchingbrooke) on being able to get into East Germany in the way that he described. One must expect that, instead of seeing, as we do now, the Hotel Bristol recording the travels of an earlier noble Lord on the Continent, in East Germany and, possibly, farther East people will in future look out for the Hotel Hinchingbrooke, being quite certain that there they will get the best and most expensive provision made for them.
I should like to join myself generally with the line that the noble Lord adopted. During the period I was at the Home Office I announced successive liberalisations of the immigration policy for relatives of aliens who were in this country, thus enabling families to be reunited, and that at a time when I had to give very serious consideration to the question of admitting more people into the country, at a time when food certainly was short, which had also to be considered.
One of the problems that confronts every Home Secretary on this matter is this. We should like to admit as many skilled craftsmen as we possibly can, for the sake of various industries which are short of labour. Unfortunately, most of the applications that I had to deal with came from members of the learned professions in foreign countries who were in danger of persecution or in acute poverty, and whom it was not possible to integrate into our civilisation in the same way one could a skilled artisan. For instance, I admitted one Czech lawyer, and it was pointed out to me that to admit one 1695 lawyer skilled in Czech law was not fair to the people who did not manage to get his services when one of their competitors did. However, when one had admitted two Czech lawyers, that about exhausted the opportunities available in this country for Czech lawyers. To have admitted more might have produced difficulties of employment, with which one had to be concerned at the time I am mentioning.
I join with the noble Lord in saying that I should like to see year by year some statement made as to the way in which the door has been thrown a little wider for persons against whom there is nothing to be said, but for whose admission there is something to be said, as our economy increasingly makes their admission possible.
I resented very much what was said in connection with the Home Department by my hon. Friend the Member for Nelson and Colne, which he fully epitomised the other day, when he said:I do not know what dark, secret, noisome influence it is in the Home Office that seduces every Home Secretary in turn."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 15th November, 1955; Vol. 546, c. 209.]There seems to be a feeling amongst hon. Members that although the President of the Board of Trade has some influence on trade policy, that although even various Secretaries of State for the Colonies have some influence on colonial policy, the poor individual who is sent to be Secretary of State for the Home Department becomes subject to what is called some "dark, secret, noisome influence" which seduces him. I understood that seduction was always carried on by persons who attempted some exercise of attraction. One would not expect that a dark, secret, noisome influence could possibly be used as a preliminary to seduction. It seems to me more a case of so assaulting a person that seduction after that is inevitable.
I will give the Committee two examples which, I think, prove that it cannot be the permanent officials of the Home Department but the personality of the Home Secretary which has something to do with this matter. I instance the case of Gerhardt Eisler during my time at the Home Office, and the case of Dr. Cort during the time there of the present Lord Chancellor. If those cases do not illustrate the way in which the personality 1696 of the Home Secretary has a commanding influence on policy in this matter, I do not know what could. I regard what happened to Dr. Cort as one of the worst examples of illiberal action on the part of a Home Secretary to be found in the history of our country.
The former Home Secretary, now the Lord Chancellor, devised a measure whereby 21 outstanding Orders under that Section of the Act we are now renewing were consolidated, so that there is now one Order giving the whole of the Regulations under which this law is now administered. That was a very great advance, but we all hoped, as many of us said, that, the Regulations having been consolidated, they would be brought before us in a Bill, so that the Committee could have an opportunity of bringing the law on the subject up to date, and of giving its approval to the law as it should be in future.
Last year I asked whether it was proposed to introduce such a Measure. I ask the question again this year, for I go with my hon. Friend the Member for Nelson and Colne and my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Hale) in saying that I think that now, after 41 years of temporary legislation, we ought to have acquired sufficient experience of it to enable us to consider a Bill upon it, and in all detail.
In contradistinction to what my two hon. Friends said, however, I would add that I do not think we can have a tribunal to review the decisions of the Home Secretary in this matter. That proposal raises precisely the same difficulty that there was in administering Regulation 18B. If the tribunal decides against the Home Secretary, he is then responsible for administering that with which he does not agree, and we cannot expect a Secretary of State to defend a policy with which he disagrees. It may be advisable, however, to have some body which, in certain circumstances, could advise the Home Secretary before he reaches his decision.
Let me assure the Committee of this, in which my right hon. Friend the Member for Grimsby (Mr. Younger), who was Under-Secretary of State for a time when I was the Secretary of State, will bear me out, as, I am sure, the present Joint Under-Secretary of State will, that each of these cases in which an alien is submitted 1697 to some restriction or is denied admission receives the careful, personal attention of one of the political heads of the Home Department.
I am quite sure that the present Joint Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department will agree with me that no person in the Home Office on the political side will ever shrink from stating that he has the personal responsibility for the decision that is reached. But if, after he has come to a conclusion that it is unsafe for various reasons for an alien to remain unrestricted in the country, or that he should be kept out of the country, some tribunal says that despite his decision the man is to be relieved of the restriction or is to be admitted into the country, then, in view of the heavy responsibility that falls upon him, he could not be responsible for continuing to defend that policy in the House of Commons.
There have been debates from time to time in the House on the affairs of individual aliens. I hope that that will continue to be the case. I hope that it will be understood that any of these actions of the Home Secretary are administrative actions on which he can be challenged and that he will be expected to defend his actions. It may be that he will have to plead that there are considerations of security, and that public policy has made it impossible for him to give his exact detailed reasons, but I am quite sure that no Home Secretary worthy of the name will ever resent having questions asked in the House of Commons or having to deal in correspondence with these matters.
I join with the noble Lord the Member for Dorset, South in expressing the hope that we may have a steady and gradual liberalisation of the action that is taken. I know the heavy responsibility that falls on the Home Secretary in many of these matters. I do not want the Under-Secretary to say that, of course, the Chancellor has told us that our economic circumstances are at the moment pretty bad and therefore we must not expect anything much for the future. As our economic circumstances improve and, as I hope, less distrust and fear among the nations comes to exist, we may find it possible to revert more and more to the policy that existed in the early years of this century.
1698 I join wholeheartedly in what my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Northampton (Mr. Paget) said. I am quite certain that if a spy wants to get in, he will be provided with documents so perfect that their very perfection ought to excite suspicion. I have no doubt, although I have no personal experience of it, that on occasion we provide gentlemen and ladies whom we wish to have as agents abroad with similar documents which would deceive the very elect. There is no proof yet that our secret service is less efficient in the way it gets into foreign countries than the secret services of other countries who wish to obtain entry here.
I do not regard the aliens law under these regulations as being much of a contribution to security in the political and secret service sense of the word. I hope that the time will come when all the reforms to which my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Northampton referred as being advocated from Strasbourg will be embodied in the practice of our country, for I am quite certain that if we could do that we should resume our position as the leader among the liberal nations of the world in this matter.
§ Mr. B. T. Parkin (Paddington, North)
It is obvious, from the number of hon. Members who wish to take part in the debate, that the Committee owes a debt of gratitude to my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Northampton (Mr. Paget) for raising this subject in the form of an Amendment. It would be a mistake if we were to regard the formal tabling of Amendments, possibly with resultant withdrawals, as an annual token Adjournment debate on which we could raise matters related to the administration of the law relating to aliens.
When I put my name to the Amendment I meant that I really felt that the Section of the Act could be withdrawn and be replaced by some positive legislation which would not only codify the experience that we have had in this country but which would be easily understandable by the alien who lives in our midst, and would give him the reassurance that there is a code to which he can apply and a court to which he can go to have his simple rights settled.
It is not even a question of our catching up with the decisions of Strasbourg or the application of the 1699 Charter of Human Rights. We have not yet caught up with our own traditions of the past. Reference is often made to the liberal-minded Aliens Act, 1907, but we can go many centuries further back and find that we had reasonable and friendly traditions in relation to foreigners.
I read only two or three years ago casually of the way in which the Corporation of the City of Bristol had formally abolished the "Court of Pie Powder" which for some years had had only a ceremonial function. I thought it was rather sad that in none of the newspaper or official comments did it appear that anybody seemed to know exactly what was the function of the court or what its name meant. It was, of course, a corruption of the Anglo-Norman courts of pieds poudreux, the dusty-footed foreigners who tramped from one part of Europe to another and knew, when they reached a free city, that there was a court there at which simple justice would be done between them and other citizens.
We have these debates each year on an Amendment such as this, and each time hon. Members have an opportunity of bringing to the attention of the Home Office changes in some aspects of the problem with which it has to deal. If I bring to the attention of the representative of the Home Office now some special cases it is not because I accept this as the way to do it. I still protest that we should have proper legislation and proper tribunals.
There are one or two new types of alien with whom we have to deal. Indeed, the position is uncertain and must be very disquieting for the Home Secretary these days. He never quite knows who is a British subject and who is not. We are discussing today legislation which was panic legislation in 1918, co-ordinating hasty Orders put together in 1914 and passed by that famous Parliament which was described as being composed of hard-faced men who looked as if they had done well out of the war.
It has been said that they were sent here on a mandate to hang the Kaiser. It is a curious trick of fate that the son of the Prime Minister of that day has, by a recent decision of the Court of Appeal in this country, been given power to hang the Kaiser, and it may be that the reason 1700 he is not with us today is that he is closeted in the Home Office with some of these Clauses or with some of his more morbid advisers, thumbing the pages of Gotha's Almanack to see which descendants of the aristocracy of Europe he can extradite because they have now been made citizens of this country overnight. It would be interesting to know how many of those with foreign titles are now British citizens.
Indeed the implications of that decision are alarming. Tsar Nicholas II spoke perfect English, corresponded in English with his cousin the Kaiser, and is, by this recent decision, a British citizen. But to my recollection he was always described as "The Little Father of all the Russians." A distinguished scientist, writing in a Sunday newspaper, is at present trying to convince us that fatherhood is not a biological matter but some sort of social obligation. If it turns out to be true, there is the alarming possibility that we may discover overnight that not only all the Russian refugees in this part of the world are British citizens, but that half the population of Siberia has a right to a vote because of an address in Millionaire's Row. That might have effect on a by-election in South Kensington.
Leaving aside the purely biological speculation about this decision, I suggest that there are certain types of aliens who are now bringing themselves to the notice of the Home Office. I want to deal with one kind earnestly and seriously because I hope this problem will be taken up by those organisations which are still interested in feminine emancipation, the successors of the Suffragette movement. Since the days when this Act was passed a great deal of progress has been made in the emancipation of women, but it is not yet possible for a woman to transmit her nationality to her child.
I will give the example of a gentleman who thought he was my constituent until recently. He is a happy person and has made no tragedy out of the difficulties in which he has found himself. His mother was a domestic servant. In order to preserve the fiction of a marriage she crossed the Channel and her child was born in Dunkirk, where he was registered by her at the town hall. She brought him back a few years later and handed him over to foster parents who received him with 1701 affection and warmth, and brought him up as a normal, happy, English child. He knew that they were his foster parents.
He went to an English school, learning an English occupation afterwards, and did his National Service, registering when it was announced over the radio that people of his age should do so. It was not until long after, when he had the idea that he would like a holiday abroad, that he applied for a passport. To cut the story short, he now needs an international travel document to get out of this country and a visa to get back again because of a defect in the law which does not allow a woman of British nationality to transmit her nationality to her child.
Of course it would be out of order for me to develop this point unduly, Mr. Bowles. You would rule that it came under the heading of the Nationality Act and not under this Bill. I am suggesting that there are aliens being created accidentally. I have in mind a precise case which has been brought to my notice. It is that of a British woman who marries a man of foreign nationality, serving perhaps in one of the Allied Forces. Suppose she joins him there, in Germany, and her children are born there. Maybe he dies or, as sometimes happens, the marriage breaks up, she comes back to this country and has alien children in her charge.
I hope that the Joint Under-Secretary of State can at once give reassurance to such people as to what is the administrative attitude we take towards minors of alien nationality. Yet there still remains the problem of the adults who discover by accident that they are not British. More important is the problem of the political refugee who is not a particularly distinguished person or particularly famous but one who wants to be left alone.
Political refugees come from various parts of the world. We know that there are in this country at present some Americans who are recognised officially as being political refugees. The number is large. I have heard a figure of 1,500 mentioned. I should not like to provoke any great research into aliens from the United States who are resident in this country, who are in their own minds only temporary political refugees, who have no desire to take up a permanent status, who cannot believe that their country will never receive them back again, who are 1702 away from it because of some of the provisions of a certain law. It is not for me, in this Committee, to discuss the implications of the laws of other countries, but I am concerned with our own responsibilities in the matter.
After all, Article 14 (1) of the Charter of Human Rights states that everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution. There is not the slightest doubt that this applies to some people who, by the operation of the law, find themselves in the position in which they have to answer certain questions, in some cases implicating their own friends, and they find it impossible to earn a living in their homeland but expect one day to go back. They do not want a lot of fuss made about it. Certainly they do not want their individual names or cases brought up for discussion in this House. That is reasonable. But they are a great problem, and we ought to know what view the Home Office takes about it.
There is one man who has not been able to seek sanctuary from persecution whose name can be mentioned—Paul Robeson. It is possible to mention him in this Committee without further harm to himself because all the world knows about him. I am not concerned with the circumstances which have brought about his persecution in his own country—or at least, if I am concerned, I am not allowed to express that concern at the present time. What I am concerned about now is the attitude of my own country to its own obligations under the Charter of Human Rights. After all, Paul Robeson belongs to the world, and it is not right that for the rest of his life he should lose his opportunty to pass on his culture to the world—
§ The Temporary Chairman
I must point out to the hon. Member that Paul Robeson is not in this country and therefore cannot possibly come within the scope of this Bill. Therefore the hon, Member cannot refer to him.
§ Mr. Parkin
It was unfortunate that I should cite that example because there are certain countries from which individuals seeking to escape from persecution or from a situation in which they are unable to earn their living in any circumstances, are prevented from leaving them because the regulations of all the airlines and shipping lines and other means of exit from those countries will not allow a 1703 passenger to set foot on them until he has travel documents which will permit him to step off the plane or ship or train at the other end. There are some cases in which people seeking to escape that kind of persecution cannot get away because they cannot set foot, at an intermediate stage, in a country such as this one. If someone should fortuitously associate these remarks with the name I mentioned accidentally just now, and which I was out of order in doing, perhaps they will draw their own conclusions.
In that connection I hope that when the Joint Under-Secretary of State replies to the debate he will indicate what he proposes to do about aliens who are aliens only because their British mothers have been unable to pass on to them their own nationality; about those people who may become British subjects at any moment although they never worked for this country—perhaps some sort of amnesty ought to be announced in advance for the crimes which they may have committed against the country to which they did not know they owed allegiance; and lastly, and much more important, our obligations under the Charter of Human Rights in relation to political refugees, who have, according to the Charter, the right to claim asylum. Of all countries, surely this one, with its old traditions, ought to open its gates to them.
§ Mr. J. Grimond (Orkney and Shetland)
I should not detain the Committee further were there not one or two points on which I should like to ask for enlightenment. I am well content to leave the general case as it has already been put by previous speakers, because I agree almost entirely with what has been said by speakers from this side of the Committee, the noble Lord the Member for Dorset, South (Viscount Hinchingbrooke) and the hon. Member for Belfast, North (Mr. Hyde) in pointing out the dangers of the present position, and the desirability of getting back to a freer and more enlightened state of international relations.
However, I am a little in doubt as to the remedy that we ought to recommend for the unsatisfactory position in which these very important decisions are now left largely in the hands of the Home Secretary. It has been made clear by the 1704 right hon. Member for South Shields (Mr. Ede) that they are very much the personal responsibility of the Home Secretary, and that the Home Secretary's view of them naturally alters, perhaps according to his political outlook, and perhaps according to his personal experience or predilections.
The position is particularly difficult today when we are faced with the main problem of Communism. The habit seems to have grown up of branding institutions and individuals as Communist, of refusing them entry into the country, and perhaps of saying that they are "cover-fronts" for Communism if they hold conferences. There is no means by which people who are directly or indirectly accused of being Communists can defend themselves. It is not at the moment libellous in this country to call anyone a Communist. The Home Secretary, probably rightly, refuses to give reasons or the evidence upon which he bases his opinion, but very great harm may be done to such people.
Several hon. Members have suggested that there should be a tribunal to assist the Home Secretary. The right hon. Member for South Shields sees difficulties about a tribunal, and, although I lack his experience, I appreciate his point of view that if the tribunal is an advisory body, it may not add very much to the volume of advice which the Home Secretary can already get, and if it is empowered to take decisions, it might disagree with the Home Secretary and put him in a very awkward position. Unless he had, as he no doubt would have, the ultimate responsibility for the safety of the country, the Home Secretary might find himself in considerable difficulties.
I do not think that this is a matter which Parliament should leave in its present position. It has been said that what we are doing is continuing a state of affairs brought about in a hurry during war and carried on year by year because no one has had the time or energy to think it out anew. Today the world should be trying to slacken off some of the bonds of war, and if it is necessary to replace them by some safeguards against Communist or treason of one sort or another in order to make our security more effective, the Government 1705 should tell us what their thoughts on the subject have been.
This matter is raised year after year. If the Government do not like the idea of a tribunal and do not like making the legislation permanent, what are they able to suggest which might assist the Committee? I should have thought it should he possible to make the legislation much more precise and bring it before the House, have the matter properly discussed, and at least lay down the bounds more precisely than at present. Whether a tribunal is possible, I should not like to say.
I believe that the people of this country are much saner than the Government sometimes think they are. I honestly think that the Government over-rate the influence which a conference on town planning can have, even supposing that it is a cover-front for Communists. I believe the Government over-rate the dangers of a few aliens getting into the country and spreading seditious doctrines. I think the country could stand it. I am sure we lose far more by all the regulations against aliens than we gain by catching one or two unfortunate people who may have bees in their bonnets about Communism or anything else.
§ Sir H. Lucas-Tooth
The hon. Gentleman is labouring under a misapprehension. Not a single alien was forbidden to come into the country to attend the planning conference.
§ Mr. Grimond
I am not saying that one was. All I am saying is that the Home Office went out of its way to forbid individual civil servants attending the conference in case the poor innocents should be led astray by Communists. I merely give that as an example of the kind of attitude which pervades our thinking about aliens.
The Home Office might tell us what estimate it puts upon the danger of aliens getting into the country or remaining in the country—and spreading sedition. I know that we have been given figures from time to time of the number of people affected by the Act, but how serious does the Home Office think the situation is? Is there, for instance, any evidence that the Armed Forces have been seduced from their duty by aliens? Is there any evidence that a large number of criminals 1706 have entered the country because we have been too lax?
This may be trying to prove a negative, because the Home Secretary may say "No, but the mere fact that we have these powers has prevented these people from coming in." Nevertheless, the Home Office must have some idea whether it is a serious danger against which we are guarding. I find it very difficult to believe that it is, partly because I cannot help thinking that many of the measures that we take to prevent people from entering the country must be ineffective.
I possess three passports. They are covered with hieroglyphics of every conceivable nature, and whenever I show them, the officials have no idea what they are about or why I have three of them. I have had to fill in a great many forms, and I have filled them up differently, and, frequently, nonsensically, but never has anyone questioned them. I suppose there must be some official who checks them.
§ Mr. Grimond
That is exactly the point that I am making, though I never filled in my forms so imaginatively.
§ Sir H. Lucas-Tooth
Was the hon. and learned Member for Northampton (Mr. Paget) filling in an application for a passport? If so, I think he would have found that it would have made some difference.
§ Mr. Grimond
Even if we filled up forms in the names of Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin we should get in all right. I have the greatest difficulty in believing that all this palaver is needed for security purposes.
The noble Lord the Member for Dorset, South, in an excellent speech, made one slightly false point when he said that if a man announced that he was a Communist he was allowed in but if he announced that he was not a Communist, he was not allowed in. I imagine that if one is going to undermine a country one does not announce that one is a Communist. The difficult cases are those of 1707 people who seem to be good Liberals, good Socialists or even good Conservatives, and appear to be interested in all sorts of matters touching on dangerous subjects but are not at first sight Communists. I appreciate that it is a difficult matter to assess whether they are here for wicked purposes or not, but I cannot believe that the assessment is much helped by the present procedure at the ports and airports with passports and documents of various sorts. I have the greatest difficulty in believing that, on balance, this country really gains by keeping in being this sort of legislation.
One of the results of the sort of general atmosphere of suspicion in the world is that we see all sorts of bogies in places where they do not exist. I suspect that very few people would get into this country and do much harm if we did away with a lot of the visas, forms and passports by which we seek to control their movement today.
§ Mr. Kenneth Younger (Grimsby)
The Joint Under-Secretary has many points to answer and I do not want to stand between the Committee and him. The question which I particularly hope he will deal with is what he thinks would be the effect on a Kensington by-election if some members of the Romanoff dynasty suddenly found themselves British subjects and were able to cast their votes. That was probably among the more difficult conundrums put to him in the course of the debate.
These debates, which have taken place annually since the war, and, I suppose, since the First World War, have done great credit to the sentiments of the Committee and those who have taken part, and the most admirably liberal and international sentiments have been expressed. The present holder of the office of Joint Under-Secretary of State to the Home Department will probably agree with me in wishing that these were the sentiments of the whole population. But it was not my experience, when I had to act under my right hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Mr. Ede) in administering this Order, that the views put forward in the Committee represented any more than one section of opinion in the country.
The hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Grimond) seemed to suggest that we could do without this type of 1708 legislation altogether. He would find, if he were to propose such a thing, powerful interests and very numerous people who thought that it was essential to have a control of some kind, and much less liberal sentiments would be expressed if this matter were to become a live issue.
There has been one new element in the debate, at least since I took part in these matters, and it concerns the points raised by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Northampton (Mr. Paget) and by the hon. Member for Belfast, North (Mr. Hyde), who referred to the proposals made in the Council of Europe for simplifying and liberalising the systems of passports and visas, particularly in relation to stateless persons.
That is a subject on which I do not claim to have any special knowledge, but I hope that we shall have some enlightenment from the Joint Under-Secretary. During the time when I was officially engaged in these matters I found that there is an awful lot of waste of effort and wasted work, particularly in relation to the question of visas. It is arguable whether dispensing with visas is always to the benefit of the would-be traveller, who sometimes gets to the port before finding that he will be stopped, whereas otherwise he might have found before he started that he would be stopped.
The protection which visas give is very slight indeed, and I should welcome any information the Joint Under-Secretary can give of an intention to facilitate the travel of bona fide persons who are refugees in many cases, often refugees of long standing. It is one of the great hardships and disabilities from which these people suffer.
On the more important question of what we should do about this type of legislation and how control, if there must be control, is to be exercised, it has always seemed to me that this is one of the responsibilities which the Home Secretary has to shoulder. He has many very difficult responsibilities, not least the one of advising on the use of the Royal Prerogative. This is another and I do not believe, whatever we may be able to do in the way of alterations in the form of the law, that we shall be able to relieve him of this responsibility.
Nevertheless, as at present administered, the law is very anomalous and I think that the Home Office would agree 1709 that these powers are very wide indeed. Although it would be difficult to define them more closely, they are undoubtedly far wider than the Home Office normally needs. No doubt they cover exceptional cases. That is one anomaly. Another is that, although we have to renew this Act annually, very few of us regard it as being a temporary part of our legislation.
Whatever we were to do, I do not think that we could get away from the basic point that this control can be exercised only by the use of a discretion. The one thing that might, at any rate theoretically, be done is what is always suggested by the hon. Member for Nelson and Colne (Mr. S. Silverman), and which was repeated today. It is that we should make the Home Secretary's decision in some way subject to review by a tribunal. I respectfully agree with what was said by my right hon. Friend the Member for South Shields. If there were a tribunal of that sort, it would have to be advisory—preferably advising before the Home Secretary gave a preliminary decision rather than reviewing the decision afterwards. My right hon. Friend gave reasons why that was so.
If we w ere to put powers of this kind in an Act of Parliament, which is the sort of thing one would normally expect to be done under our procedure, we should be likely to end with the Government of the day demanding—and probably getting—the insertion in that Act of powers virtually as wide as those which are in the Aliens Order, for the reason that the administration must be a matter of discretion and the discretion must be wide. We here come up against one of the fundamental points, which has not been put in quite this way in the debate, of whether the administration of such powers is a question of policy or of law. My hon. Friends who have been keen to get the Home Secretary subjected to some kind of tribunal have seemed to suggest that this is something in which one can have a kind of court, with recognised members adjudicating on the merits of a particular application.
I very much doubt whether that is really applicable. It is not always realised that in by far the greater majority of the cases that come forward the issue is not whether an individual is a desirable person; it is a broad question of policy. For instance, my right hon. Friend referred to the steps he took with regard 1710 to the distressed relatives in Europe of aliens in this country in the years after the war. We had to limit the categories which we were prepared to see establishing themselves here, not because we thought that they were undesirable people and not on any grounds into which a tribunal could have looked, but simply on an estimate of the number of people who might be involved if we did not so limit the categories.
A new category might admit another 10,000, 20,000 or 100,000 a year and at that time, in the circumstances of Europe after 1945, if the doors had been really open, it would not have been a matter of tens of thousands, but millions. I very much doubt whether a tribunal, as opposed to the executive arm of the Government, could have decided such questions. Considerations of policy are always fluctuating, very often not because of conditions in this country, but because of conditions abroad and it would be a very great pity, if by trying to observe proper Parliamentary forms, we were to end with a system more rigid than that we now have.
§ Mr. Paget
Of course, the Government would have to lay down the policy. It would be for the Government to say what categories would be admitted; it would be for the tribunal to say whether a particular person came within the category. I agree that in present circumstances the tribunal could only advise and the Home Secretary would always have the ultimate power.
§ Mr. Younger
This is one of the things which at some time it would be valuable to discuss.
Where there is some very limited class of cases, as for instance that of aliens who have been living in this country for many years, and where there has been the threat of a deportation order, that might properly be made subject to some kind of semi-judicial procedure. But the point I was trying to make is that this is not a judicial question. It is not a question where one can refer some kind of principle to a tribunal for application to a particular case, without ending with a far more rigid system than the one we have got. It is true, as anybody who has been at the Home Office knows, that in exercising discretion Ministers work to some kind of conventional system based 1711 partly on precedent; but they can do so much more flexibly than any tribunal. A tribunal would be a dangerous thing.
When my hon. Friend the Member for Nelson and Colne seemed to be quoting the United States as a country which operated the sort of system he wanted, I found myself saying, "Is the United States' example really something we want to copy?" I am not an expert on its machinery and it may be that, looked at from the theoretical and legalistic point of view, the machinery of the United States may be better than ours. I am certain, however, that in practice the system there is worse. It is infinitely more bureaucratic. It is infinitely more difficult, in America, to get an exception made on grounds of humanity and compassion than it is in this country. We should be wrong to think that we should be solving what is a genuine dilemma simply by adopting some formal machinery.
Last year my right hon. Friend the Member for South Shields indicated to the Government that he thought that they had missed a chance to put all this matter on a right basis when they consolidated all the Orders into a single Order. He suggested that that was a time when, instead of doing that, they could have introduced permanent legislation. There was something to be said for that point of view: and I ask the Joint Under-Secretary to consider it even now.
Even if it is true that this is an infinitely variable problem in dealing with which one wants the maximum of elasticity, even if it is true that the decision has to be left to the Home Secretary, even if it is true, as I believe it to be, that we might end up by giving the Home Secretary as wide powers in legislation as he has at present, it is not too much to suggest that a full discussion, once in a generation, with suggestions being made from the House of Commons, would not be excessive. I cannot help wondering whether it would not be advantageous at some time to have a Bill introduced. The only controversial point would be that there would be attached to it a Schedule, or something of that kind, which would contain provisions at present contained in the Aliens Order.
1712 No doubt this would be very tiresome for the Department and for the Ministers involved in debates. There would be innumerable Amendments and probably the Ministers would have to resist most of them. At the end there would probably be only a few modifications, a few delimitations, of the Home Secretary's existing powers. It might be done in another way so that, after permanent legislation, there was power to amend by a Statutory Instrument which would give Parliament the opportunity to discuss the actual administration of the Order when each modification of it became necessary.
In these annual debates we operate under fairly strict rules of order covering what we may discuss, and it is important that Parliament should have constantly under review the way in which these powers are administered. My one plea to the Joint Under-Secretary is that, in addition to answering the questions which have been put to him, he should invite his right hon. and gallant Friend the Home Secretary to consider whether there is not an argument for having a really full discussion once in a generation, of the powers which are permanently required and which I believe will prove to be very wide.
§ Sir H. Lucas-Tooth
I am glad to say that I find myself in general agreement with what has been said by the right hon. Member for Grimsby (Mr. Younger). This has been a vigorous debate, and it is now my duty to defend the powers which will be given to the Home Secretary if the Aliens Restriction (Amendment) Act is included in the Schedule. I do not at all complain at the very close examination which the Committee has given to the matter. Certainly, I agree with the right hon. Gentleman, and indeed with all hon. Members who have taken part in the debate, that these powers are very wide. It is right that the Committee should examine them closely.
The right hon. Member for South Shields (Mr. Ede) suggested that there might be a statement made about the annual improvements which have taken place with regard to the liberalisation and the administration of policy on aliens. I do not think that it would be easy to make a specific statement in detail because, as the right hon. Gentleman will appreciate, this is a wide and necessarily somewhat fluid subject.
1713 I can tell him that the total landings of aliens in the United Kingdom have been rising for several years and the increase has been of the order of 15 per cent. last year. I can also tell him that the number of those aliens coming here either as residents or for employment, when they became resident, is now between 35,000 and 40,000 a year; so that, without specifying particular alterations in detail, there has been quite a considerable increase in the number of aliens coming here. I can assure the right hon. Gentleman that the distressed relatives scheme and other aspects of policy dealing with compassionate matters remain certainly no less liberal than they were when he was at the Home Office.
This is an occasion to review the whole position, and I should give the broad picture to the Committee. During the twelve months ended 30th September last, 1,069,560 foreign passengers entered the United Kingdom. A large majority of those were tourists—visitors. Of the total, only 1,751 were refused leave to land under the powers of the Aliens Order.
§ Sir H. Lucas-Tooth
That was the figure.
I propose to give the breakdown of that figure. Of those, 496 were refused leave to land because they had insufficient means; in other words, they came here with no money. A further 155 had no passport or other appropriate travel document; 129 came seeking employment without a Ministry of Labour permit; 45 were refused leave to land on medical grounds; 70 were personally objectionable, for the most part they were known criminals; and there were about 800 who were excluded either by a combination of these circumstances—that is to say, they were kept out on more than one of these grounds—or because they were coming here and attempting to settle in contravention of the general restrictions which we are bound to impose.
During the same period my right hon. and gallant Friend made 149 deportation orders. They were not all enforced. Of the total, 139 were enforced or, if not 1714 actually enforced, the subjects of the orders left under threat of enforcement. The Committee might like to know how many of those concerned were what might be called "old residents". In fact, four orders were made against pre-war residents. One of them was revoked on reconsideration, and therefore it did not take effect. The other three were in respect of mental cases. They concerned elderly people who had no means of getting home to their own relatives, and the deportation orders were made in order to make it possible to pay for their passage back to their own countries.
The Committee will appreciate that there is still a very great pressure to immigrate into this country. We have a high level of employment and a high standard of living, and the social services are a considerable attraction. In the face of that pressure it is necessary to maintain a fairly strict control. Except for one or two hon. Members opposite, everyone, I think, recognises that it is necesary still to maintain control, however much we might like to go back to what were described as the halcyon days before the First World War.
§ Mr. Hale
I understand the position is that if one possesses money, one can come into the country. For the people who possess money, restriction is exercised against them accepting work when they are in the country. They are refused a renewal of their permission to enter if they accept work contrary to the undertaking which they gave when they came here. The result is, therefore, that the Home Office is able to exercise that sort of control on work, quite apart from this business. But would the Joint Under-Secretary tell us what happens when a poor wretched man arrives at a port penniless or, as he said, too poor to be admitted? What is the Christian attitude that we adopt? What in fact is done with the fellow? Is he "bunged" back, completely penniless?
§ Sir H. Lucas-Tooth
If someone arrives at a port here and tries to land without any good cause and without any money, those responsible—in the ordinary way he would come by ship—would be the shipping company or whoever it may be was controlling the ship. They would take him back from whence he came. That is what happens.
1715 The hon. and learned Member for Northampton (Mr. Paget) raised the question of passports and visas. The first point we must bear in mind is that the main function of a passport is to establish the identity and nationality of the holder. That is an advantage which is not confined merely to aliens holding passports. In fact, if people are properly documented on coming into the country, they can come in quickly through the controls, and the main criticism of my noble Friend the Member for Dorset, South (Viscount Hinchingbrooke) is not likely to arise.
§ Viscount Hinchingbrooke
But that is precisely where it does arise. All those people I saw on the last occasion were fully documented, but they were still kept in the pen.
§ Sir H. Lucas-Tooth
I do not want to go into that aspect of the matter at the present moment.
My noble Friend will realise that when a passenger arrives at a port in this country, the first official he sees is the immigration officer. If there is a delay, he tends always to blame the immigration officer, although it may well be that the delay is due to other causes. It may be in the Customs or on the part of the transport authorities. But certainly, good documentation is the first essential of speed in passing through the immigration control.
§ Sir H. Lucas-Tooth
The matter has been looked into, as my noble Friend is aware. The noble Lord, Lord Mancroft, looked into the matter carefully, and he had a number of Press representatives with him. They all came to the conclusion that the arrangements concerning immigration control were satisfactory.
The second function of a passport is to provide a simple means of record. The passport is marked by the immigration officer at the time the alien comes into the country and is given leave to land, and any conditions are marked in the passport. Therefore, by looking at the passport on any future occasion an immigration officer can tell what is what might be termed the "immigration history" of the alien.
§ Sir H. Lucas-Tooth
I am not assuming that every alien is a spy, or what you will. This is a control which is, as I have explained, applied to over a million people. If we are to keep some control over the number of people, we must have some kind of documentation and record of what they are doing. It is no use saying that a man must not stay in this country if in fact he goes across the Channel and comes back after one day to resume a further period of residence. That would be making a mockery of our immigration law.
§ 6.45 p.m.
§ Sir H. Lucas-Tooth
Not even the most extreme xenophobe in this House would claim that the vast majority of aliens are forgers. Most aliens in fact have passports which are perfectly properly used. They do not get another passport to mislead the authorities.
§ Mr. Hale
The hon. and learned Gentleman says that the undesirable alien will probably act undesirably, and the vast majority of desirable aliens will act desirably. That seems to be a fairly simple proposition to understand. But the one in ten thousand that we want to keep out is precisely the man who would come back with a clean passport.
§ Sir H. Lucas-Tooth
As I have explained. I am not dealing with the one case in ten thousand, but with the general control of more than a million people. For that purpose it is essential to have some reasonable method of keeping control, and we cannot do it in any other way.
It is important that in these documents there should be a space for endorsements to be made and that the documents should be reasonably durable. A British passport costs 20s. for five years and may be renewed for a further five years for 10s. I do not think anyone can complain that that is an outrageous fee. I cannot answer 1717 for what is done by foreign Governments in this connection, but I hope that in due course they will all be as reasonable in their charges as we are.
We cannot have alien control without documentation of some kind. A number of suggestions have been made from time to time to simplify this documentation, including the use of out-dated passports, identity cards or driving licences. One thing is certain, that if we adopted any of these methods, it would make things much more difficult for the immigration officer, and there would be greater delays at the entry ports. That is the reason why we cannot accept any of these schemes.
The hon. and learned Member for Northampton proposed a scheme by which an intending passenger should get a ticket with a photograph of himself and have it validated in some way as a travel document. If we had a large number of officials capable of making the necessary validating stamp, or whatever it might be, obviously we should open the door to all sorts of difficulties and corruption. If, on the other hand, we confined it to a limited number of officials who could make the necessary validating stamp, we should be no better off than if we made people get passports. All we should be doing would be suggesting that they should get passports by some other means than the regular channels. I quite agree with the hon. and learned Gentleman that it would be most desirable if we could return to the days when we could all travel freely, but as long as we have to have some control of aliens I believe that the passport is as simple, as cheap and as easy a method as can be applied.
The hon. and learned Member asked about visas. The United Kingdom has ratified the 1951 Convention on Refugees, and this lays upon the country ratifying an obligation to issue a travel document to a refugee who is a lawful resident within the country. The hon. and learned Member asked why we had not put into use a new form of travel document which had been proposed. I am told the position is that we now have about 16,000 of the old forms. As far as make-up, contents and format are concerned, those forms accord with the proposed new general forms. The only difference is that whereas the United Kingdom cover of the present book is brown and yellow, it is proposed that the new form should be 1718 blue in colour. The cost of making the change would be £5,000 and it does not seem worth while to spend that amount of money simply to change the colour of the cover.
§ Sir H. Lucas-Tooth
For 16,000 forms. That is what I am advised would be the cost of carrying out the change.
§ Mr. Parkin rose—
§ Sir H. Lucas-Tooth
Hon. Members must do their own arithmetic. That was the cost of procuring the 16,000 forms, which would be wasted if we were to change over merely for the sake of doing so.
§ Mr. Hale
If it really costs 6s. 6d. to publish a passport, we could provide these people with a free copy of the Bible, which would give a great deal of information about the way to deal with aliens, and it could have all the necessary material endorsed inside the cover. That would save at least 3s. or 4s.
§ Sir H. Lucas-Tooth
I have not the exact information, but I strongly suspect that these forms date from the time when another Government were in power, a Government who ordered them and no doubt fixed the price. I do not want to go into those details. The fact is that we have these forms, and it would be extremely wasteful to change over.
Unlike the national of a European country, a refugee in such a country must have a visa in order to come here. I think I can assure the hon. and learned Member and the Committee that an established refugee in a European country would really have no difficulty whatever in getting a visa; indeed, I do not think the hon. and learned Gentleman disputed that fact.
The purpose of a visa is to enable some inquiry to be made by the visa-issuing authority in the country where the refugee is residing. The hon. and learned Gentleman asked what sorts of inquiries are made. In the first place, the visa-issuing officer has some knowledge of the local circumstances of the place in which the refugee is residing; the kinds of people living there, and so on; and, in the second place, if an application is made 1719 he has the opportunity of making an inquiry in this country. Very often the question arises whether the family, relations or friends of the refugee here are such as to justify the issue of a visa, and inquiries can then be made if a visa is required.
The hon. and learned Member also asked why we insisted upon a visa in that class of case. These are people who are travelling, not with passports, but with other kinds of travel document, and these cases are necessarily the most difficult type. In particular, a person who holds a passport is generally returnable, even after his passport is expired, but that is not true of a person holding a travel document. If the requirement that refugees must have visas were abolished it would have two effects. First, it would throw a greater burden upon the immigration staff, as they would have to make much more careful inquiries because the individuals concerned produced only a travel document and not a visa at the preliminary inquiries. That would lead to delays.
Secondly, there would be an increase in the number of cases in which permission to land was refused. That would certainly lead to hardship, because the individuals concerned would have made fruitless journeys. It may even be that a certain number of individuals would be unnecessarily—I do not say improperly—refused leave to land simply because it would not be possible for the immigration officer to assess the facts. He would not have them. It might appear from what came to his knowledge that there was a good reason for refusing leave to land, whereas with a visa the matter might have been cleared up satisfactorily from the point of view of the refugee. The fact that we require a visa is, on the whole, to his advantage.
At present there are 200,000 refugees in camps in Europe, and that number is not diminishing. On the contrary, I believe it is still tending to increase. For that reason we feel that in the case of this class of resident overseas it is necessary to continue to insist upon visas.
A good deal has been said upon the subject of the need for permanent legislation. This is the fifth occasion upon which I have defended the Aliens Order at this Box—four times during the discussion 1720 upon the Expiring Laws Continuance Bill and once upon the consolidating Order—and it has been constantly suggested on each of those occasions that permanent legislation should be enacted. I should have been pleased if there had been permanent legislation, because it would have saved me a good deal of trouble.
The result of the procedure which we have this afternoon, however it may have arisen, is not in itself altogether unsatisfactory. The Home Secretary has power to amend the Regulations when necessary, and in these days, having regard to the state of the world, it is sometimes necessary to amend these Regulations more often than one would wish to introduce amending legislation. Of course, these amendments are subject to the control of this House.
In the second place, the machinery means that there will be an annual review of the exercise of these powers, and that review is made to this Committee when we are legislating. Therefore, on the whole, I think it gives a rather wider power of debate than if we were in Committee of Supply, which would be the alternative method if there was permanent legislation.
We discussed the position very fully last year, and I then explained the attitude of the Government. The relevant part of my speech will be found in the OFFICIAL REPORT of 3rd November, 1954, col. 510. I then dealt at some length with the reasons the Government felt unable to introduce anything in the way of permanent legislation; and what I said then still holds good. If I may repeat it very shortly to the Committee, it is that it is impossible by statute to define the kind of hardship which has to be taken into account when dealing with these cases.
A good deal has been said about the possibility of having some kind of appeal from the exercise of the discretion of the Home Secretary. The hon. Member for Nelson and Colne (Mr. S. Silverman) suggested that there should be some system of the same kind as there is in America. If, in fact, we had a similar system to that in America—a quota system—we could have a Bill, but I do not think anyone in this House really suggests that it would be an appropriate system for us 1721 to seek to introduce in this country. If we were to try to have permanent legislation, we should have to get over the difficulty that security questions would have to be considered by some sort of tribunal, and I do not believe that the House would think that this is the sort of question which should properly be considered by a tribunal.
§ Mr. Ede
Last year, it was suggested that the consolidating Order should be presented to the House as a Bill, which could be discussed. I can see no reason why that should not be done, and inasmuch as all these points are now dealt with to the satisfaction of the hon. Gentleman under the Regulations, why will it be unsatisfactory to deal with them in a Bill in exactly the same words as those in the Regulations?
§ Sir H. Lucas-Tooth
The right hon. Gentleman will appreciate that the subject-matter of the regulation is largely machinery of the sort that is normally dealt with by regulations; in other words, if we were to have a Bill, the Bill would enable the Home Secretary to make regulations very much on the lines of these Regulations. What has been suggested in the debate is that the substantive rules should be dealt with by permanent legislation, and that was certainly the gravamen of the argument of the right hon. Gentleman's two hon. Friends below the Gangway. It is not possible to deal with that kind of question while considering what is in the present Regulations, because what is in the present Regulations could well remain in regulations even if we had permanent legislation.
§ Mr. Ede
I had hoped that the hon. Gentleman had noted that I evinced a very diluted enthusiasm for most of what my two hon. Friends said. I cannot see why, if a consolidating Order, under which we now operate, is submitted to the House as a Bill, any of the troubles which the hon. Gentleman instances would arise, any more than they do under the existing legislation.
§ Sir H. Lucas-Tooth
Of course, I quite agree that we could enact any regulation as a Bill, but these are machinery Regulations.
What I am saying to the Committee is that I do not believe that it is the kind of legislation which would either be acceptable to the House or would carry 1722 out what is the intention of those hon. Members who wish to deal with this matter in a different way. It is essential to preserve a great deal of flexibility in the present circumstances, and it is also important that Parliament should have direct control over the policy that is being pursued. As the right hon. Member for Grimsby said, these are largely questions of policy, and not matters which could be decided in a court of law.
I believe that the present procedure, though it may have arisen accidentally, is, for practical purposes, as good as can be devised. I can assure the Committee that these are matters which are kept under constant review in the Department. The debate which we have every year means that these matters are considered, reconsidered and considered again, including all the points that have been raised in past years and some of the points that have been raised today. I will certainly undertake to the Committee that all the points that have been raised in the debate will be considered and will be kept under review. In the meantime, I am quite certain that the best course to take, if the hon. and learned Gentleman is willing, is for him to withdraw his Amendment, and to allow us to continue for another year, when, no doubt, the matter will come up for consideration again.
§ Mr. Paget
I am bound to say that I hope that when I have to report what the Under-Secretary of State has said to the Council of Europe at Strasbourg it will make more sense to them than it does to me.
Let us look at his answers. Firstly, we get a direction in the form of a formal resolution of the Council of Europe endorsing a formal resolution of the High Commission of Refugees of the United Nations and I am asked, as British representative, to go back to them and say that the British Government do not feel that they can conform to that kind of resolution because the cost of stationery is too expensive. We are then told that it is too expensive because an existing stock of some 16,000 of these refugee documents had cost £5,000. I am bound to say that I would love to have that printing contract if it is ever going again. Perhaps I may be considered. They are the same documents, but in blue instead 1723 of green. Could we not approach Messrs. Pullars? Could we not dye them? Really, when we send people to be delegates of Her Britannic Majesty to international councils and we ask them to put up with that sort of thing on behalf of the Government, it is testing us a little hard.
Let us look at the second suggestion which comes from the Council of Europe. Visas are necessary for a refugee, but not for the citizen. Let us take the case of the Belgian Government. The Belgian Government issue a passport to somebody, and that is a document saying that Belgium is prepared to have him back. Alternatively, the Belgian Government issue a refugee document, which is a document saying, "This is a person who is living in Belgium, who has settled in Belgium, and whom we are prepared to have back." What is the difference between these two?
We are told that the established refugee has no difficulty in obtaining a visa. If there is no difficulty in obtaining a visa, what is the point of a visa anyway? What is an established refugee other than a refugee who has got a travel document issued by the country in which he is established? What other test is there? How do we find out? Then we are told that it will be of great value if these refugees have visas because the consul knows the locality. Why a knowledge of local topography should be of such vast advantage on these occasions passes my comprehension.
Again, there is the point about making inquiry in this country. The Council can make inquiry in this country. If that is necessary for the refugee, why is it not necessary for the ordinary Frenchman, German or Belgian? The Government issues one document for the refugee and another for its own national. We are told that this would increase the number of refusals of leave to land. Of course it would. The only effective way of having nobody refused leave to land would be for everybody to have a visa or to be refused a visa. Then nobody would require permission to land. If we are to have people here from all these countries without visas because they have one kind of document, why not accept them if they have the other kind of document?
1724 This is what we have been hearing. It does not make sense to anybody here, and it will not make sense to anybody at the Council of Europe. It will be the old experience; after a certain amount of hammering the Government will do all these things. They will abolish these visas and give us a document that conforms. All the present arguments will then be contradicted at that Box, and possibly by the very Under-Secretary who has produced them.
For example—and I agree that this is taking the matter a little bit further—there is the question of a temporary passport in the form of a return ticket. Are we to have a lot of officials to validate that? I thought I had made this point clear. When it came to identification, the ticket would be validated by the social insurance office in the locality in which the holder lives. All these countries now have a social insurance system. The local official would know him and would be in the best position to identify him. The official is in a far better position to do that than is the man at the Foreign Office who issues the passport.
The man gets his identification. If it is a matter of knowing when he arrived, we look at the date on the ticket. If it is a question of knowing when he is returning, we look at the date of expiry of the ticket. We can confine the visits to under a month if necessary. Does that hit our security or our labour laws? No, those are controlled by our labour regulations. What does it hit?
This has been a profoundly unsatisfactory answer. In asking leave to withdraw the Amendment, I hope nobody will be under the illusion that anybody is in any way satisfied with the answer. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ 7.15 p.m.
§ Miss Margaret Herbison (Lanarkshire, North)
I beg to move, in page 3, to leave out lines 14 and 15.
I am asking the Committee to leave out Section 1 of the Road Traffic Act, 1934, which deals with the 30 m.p.h. speed limit. In subsection (5) the Minister, if he wishes to put on or take off a speed restriction, must hold a local inquiry. It says that before exercising his powers under the subsection the Minister 1725 shall first of all let the local authority know what he is going to do and then he shall hold a local inquiry.
My researches show that initiative in putting on a 30 m.p.h. speed limit in any area lies with the local authority. It is very good that this important matter of safety for our people should in the first instance lie with the local authority, who with the advice of local representatives and of the chief constable, in almost every instance knows whether or not there should be a speed limit. The people in the locality have the best knowledge and the greatest experience in these matters. If the Minister takes a different point of view he may inform the local authority that that is the case and hold a local inquiry. That is a safeguard.
I have also discovered that in most instances the initiative in derestricting an area comes from the Minister. That is not such a good thing, but so long as the Minister is bound to hold a local inquiry it is not too dangerous. The safeguard is there, and those who really know the area can say what they feel about the matter at the inquiry.
My researches also show that one can spend too much time in a debate like this in dealing with a particular case, but that one may give an illustration to show why one is asking to have a Measure deleted from the Schedule. I want to show why there should be a local inquiry into every proposal for derestricting a road. I raised by correspondence with the Minister, and secondly by Questions in the House, a question about part of a road in my constituency that had been derestricted. Yesterday I got no information from the Minister additional to what he had given me in a letter. That was most unsatisfactory. All that he was willing to say was, "Alone I done it." Nobody had advised him to do it and, if they had, he was not going to tell me or the House of Commons who had advised him in the matter.
I know where the initiative came from in this instance. The initiative did not come from the Minister. The initiative did not come from the local authority, nor from the chief constable. The initiative came from the three automobile associations of this country. So far as I can gather, they were the only people who made any representation to the Minister. The Minister thereafter decided to 1726 derestrict that road. He informed the local authority he would do so. I have all the correspondence from the local authority. I have the letter from the chief constable. The chief constable was completely opposed to the derestricting of this road.
Since I am bound not to give too many details, I cannot give all the details I have here, but they are matters which everyone ought to know about this shocking case. Here is a road which is built up on one side and with shops and an entrance to a colliery on the other side. It is a road which everyone wishing to travel east from that place has to cross in order to get a bus. When there is a big association football match or Rugby match in Edinburgh one can scarcely cross the road, yet it has been derestricted by the Minister with no inquiry and against the advice of the local authority, the local representative and the chief constable. This is a road in which there are at least two entrances from other roads. I often use one of those entrances when driving in my car, and I find the greatest difficulty in getting on to the main road safely. How much more difficult is it since the Minister has de-restricted the road.
The road was derestricted in May, and there have been three accidents in the few months since. One accident was most serious when two people were very seriously injured and three people were injured less seriously. Just beyond that part of the road there is a village which is considered so dangerous for traffic that not only is there a 30 m.p.h. speed limit but along both sides of the road are railings. It looks like a zoo with railings to keep animals off the road. Yet, just beyond the approach to the village the road has been derestricted by the Minister. Cars fly along at 60, 70 and sometimes 80 m.p.h. Before they can be pulled up for the village street they have passed right through the village.
This road has had a bad history of accidents. I feel that the Minister has been completely wrong in what he has done. He has allowed himself to be swayed by the road hogs, whose greatest interest is getting from one point to the other in the shortest possible time. He has put their interests before the safety of children and old people in that part of my constituency. My people feel very angry. They are worried, and the three 1727 accidents which have happened in that short time have not decreased their worry.
I know the Parliamentary Secretary may tell me that the Minister does not need to hold a public inquiry because, after the 1934 Act, there was the Act of 1936 dealing with trunk roads in which it is stated that a public inquiry is not needed. If a public inquiry is not needed, the Minister ought to be able in answer to a letter from an hon. Member, or in answer to Questions in the House, to give the considerations which made him think that it was better to decontrol than to control this portion of road. He ought to be bound to give those reasons to the local authority and to the chief constable. He has not done any of those things. In every bit of correspondence in this case the Minister has been hedging.
I make a plea to the Joint Parliamentary Secretary tonight to do what a previous Parliamentary Secretary said the Ministry actually did. That gentleman is no longer a Member of this House. Sir Gurney Braithwaite, when Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry, said in a similar debate to this on the Expiring Laws Continuance Bill on 2nd December, 1952, on this important topic of the speed limit:… my Department always work in closest co-operation with the police who are responsible for the enforcement of the speed limit and who fully realise the importance of keeping traffic down to a safe speed in built-up areas."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 2nd December, 1952; Vol. 508, c. 1375.]Is that no longer the policy of the Minister? Does he no longer work in the closest co-operation with the police and chief constables? Does he now work in close co-operation only with the automobile associations, whose greatest interest is to ensure that there shall be the least regulations on people who use cars?
Because I fear for the safety of my people in the village of Harthill, because I know this road so well, because it is only a few miles from my home, I ask the Joint Parliamentary Secretary to ask the Minister to give further consideration to this specific case which I have brought before him. I am convinced that if he gives further consideration to this case he can come to only one conclusion—that he will have to restrict that area of 1728 trunk road near Harthill which he was de-restricted.
§ Mr. A. E. Hunter (Feltham)
My hon. Friend the Member for Lanarkshire, North (Miss Herbison) has made a very human speech which I am certain will touch the heart of the Minister. I think all motorists welcomed the 30 m.p.h. speed limit in built-up areas. Most motorists are careful drivers and are concerned about the safety of our people.
§ The Deputy-Chairman (Sir Rhys Hopkin Morris)
I must point out to the hon. Member that this Amendment is to delete the 30 m.p.h. speed limit.
§ Mr. Hunter
If you would allow me, Sir Rhys, I was just coming to that point. I hope very much that I shall be in order. I am always very pleased to accept your guidance. The 30 m.p.h. speed limit was first introduced in 1934 and, by the will and pleasure of Parliament, every Government since that date renewed it. At first it was art experiment introduced to safeguard the lives of people on the roads. Although accidents on the roads are far too numerous today, without the 30 m p.h. limit in cities and built-up areas the accident rate would be heavier.
It would be wrong to abolish the 30 m.p.h. speed limit in towns, cities and built-up areas, and in special areas where road accidents and deaths are more frequent the limit should be lowered. The speed limit gives people a feeling of safety and protection. In those certain dangerous areas one can argue for special speed limits to make for the greater safety of the people. The heavy toll of sad road accidents and deaths still shocks and saddens the nation.
Every day, every week, every month, one reads of road accidents in which people are killed and injured. I am certain that mothers and fathers in our great cities and towns would feel much happier about the safety of their children if the Minister would give special attention to speed limits in dangerous areas in cities where casualties are high. The 30 m.p.h. speed limit, introduced in 1934 and renewed subsequently by every Government in turn, now comes of age, being 21 years old. It is an experiment which most hon. Members will feel was worth trying. I hope that the Minister will give special 1729 attention to the question of speed limits in the dangerous areas and black spots in the built-up areas and in the very cities to which I have referred.
§ The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport and Civil Aviation (Mr. Hugh Molson)
It is one of the peculiarities of our procedure that the hon. Lady the Member for Lanarkshire, North (Miss Herbison) has tonight moved an Amendment which would bring to an end the 30 m.p.h. speed limit everywhere, in order to hang upon the Amendment the argument that she would like the 30 m.p.h. limit applied in her own constituency.
I have furnished myself with a number of arguments from reports on road safety to establish the point that it is desirable to have a 30 m.p.h. speed limit in built-up areas and that from the time when the 30 m.p.h. speed limit was introduced there followed a rapid reduction in the number of fatal accidents and serious injuries.
But in the Report issued by the Road Safety Committee in 1944, over the signature of the right hon. Member for Derby, South (Mr. P. Noel-Baker), the Committee said that it was only in suitable areas that the 30 miles speed limit was desirable. The Committee stated, in paragraph 81:If the speed limit is to be effective it must be applied with discretion so that it will attract the respect, good will and co-operation of the public. If, for example, the roads constructed primarily to meet the needs of motor traffic, subsequent to 1918, were restricted on a wide scale, motor vehicle drivers would be resentful and would cease to afford their co-operation.On the same page of the Report, the Committee stated:Restriction of speed should not be imposed it the desired effect can be achieved by other means. We suggest for example … On important traffic routes the speed limit should not be imposed for the convenience of frontagers: access to the carriageway should, as far as possible, be restricted by means of guard rails and crossings at a separate level, or traffic might be controlled by means of a co-ordinated system of traffic signals.The hon. Member for Feltham (Mr. Hunter) spoke of the feeling of safety and protection which is afforded to pedestrians by the 30 m.p.h. speed limit. It is the view of all who have made the closest study of this matter that the 30 m.p.h. speed limit, unless it is in a genuinely built-up area, can be a snare and a delusion.
1730 In the first place, a vehicle travelling at 30 m.p.h.—that is, within the law—on a dry day, with thoroughly satisfactory brakes, requires 45 ft. in which to draw up. It is, therefore, most undesirable that pedestrians should be under the impression that even in an area where the 30 m.p.h. speed limit applies, they are not under an obligation to exercise the very greatest care.
Where the motorist does not see that he is in a built-up area, it may be unfortunate but it is the fact that the speed limit is not observed and is not respected. Recently, a study was made by the Road Research Laboratory upon this point. At the beginning of its quite long Report appears this summary:Observations before and after the imposition of speed limits on roads on the fringes of existing built-up areas suggest that the limits had no marked effect on speeds. Roughly 50 per cent. of drivers travelled at speeds greater than the 30 m.p.h. limit.To emphasise this point further, although it is not perhaps germane to the point that the hon. Lady has raised, I would make the further quotation:Commercial vehicles are subject to speed limits at all times. Observations in non-built-up areas show that about 60 per cent. of vehicles limited to 30 miles an hour and more than 90 per cent. of those limited to 20 miles an hour travel at speeds greater than their legal limits.It is because of these well-established facts that in the Ministry of Transport we take the view that however desirable it may be—and, indeed, it is—to have a 30 m.p.h. speed limit in genuinely built-up areas, it is only a snare and a delusion to apply the 30 m.p.h. speed limit in areas which are not genuinely built up.
§ Mr. Albert Evans (Islington, South-West)
Is the hon. Gentleman now saying that the police authorities find that enforcement of the law is not possible?
§ Mr. Molson
Yes, that is exactly what I am saying. It is the observation of everyone that it is quite impossible for police forces, at the present strength, to enforce the 30 m.p.h. limit, except with the co-operation of motorists.
§ Mr. Molson
I was saying that the 30 m.p.h. speed limit is effective, and has reduced accidents in areas which are genuinely built up and where the 30 m.p.h. limit is seen by motorists to be desirable. What I am saying is that where it is applied in places which are not genuinely built up, the speed limit is not observed. That is the distinction which was made in the 1934 Act between built-up and non-built-up areas.
It is because of that view of ours that my right hon. Friend was not willing to apply a 30 m.p.h. restriction in the case of the road to which the hon. Lady has referred.
§ Miss Herbison
It was not a case that the Minister was unwilling to apply a 30 m.p.h. speed limit. It was his readiness to take away the existing 30 m.p.h. limit.
§ Mr. Molson
The derestriction took place last spring. What the hon. Lady is asking for is that a 30 m.p.h. limit should be applied at the present time.
The road in question is an important trunk road. Trunk roads are deemed to be of importance for through traffic. In all these matters the Ministry has to try to balance the importance of keeping traffic moving and the importance of road safety. Clearly, in the case of trunk roads, we are more reluctant to apply speed limits than in the case of non-trunk roads, which are of less importance to through traffic.
In the case to which the hon. Lady has referred, the northern side of the length in question is, as she herself admitted, undeveloped except for a length of about fifty yards on which there are a colliery entrance, a petrol filling station, a shop, a hairdresser's establishment, a private garage and a Gospel hall. The road is straight, with extremely good visibility, and has a gentle rise westwards.
There have been accidents there, but many of them of a trivial nature. Only three pedestrians were involved, one a child who ran on the road carelessly, another a child who tried to cross while masked by a standing car, and the other an adult who walked into a cyclist. There is no reason to suppose that any one of 1732 those three accidents would have been averted if there had been a 30 m.p.h. speed limit.
Observations since derestriction took place do not indicate that there has been any significant increase in speed or that embarrassment is caused to pedestrians by excessive speeding. This, then, is clearly a case of a road which is not in a genuinely built-up area, and for that reason my right hon. Friend is not able to alter his decision.
§ Miss Herbison
What we have been told now by the Joint Parliamentary Secretary makes the case even worse than it appeared on the information which we had before. What, in effect, he said was that motorists pay no attention to a 30 m.p.h. speed limit unless in the centre of a town. He spoke of a part of the road and said it was an open road, and then he said that on the stretch of road we are talking about there were a shop, a garage, a Gospel hall and an entrance to a colliery. He said they were all on the side which is open, which is not built up.
If he had been able to tell me that the chief constable backed up what he said, that it was impossible because of the nature of the road, to impose the speed limit, then, of course, he would have had some case, although not a complete case. However, what the chief constable in effect said was that this was a road a small part of which had been de-restricted, and that the difference between a car travelling at 30 m.p.h. and one travelling at 60 m.p.h. was that the latter saved three seconds. That was one of the things the chief constable told the Minister when he wrote to him. That is an important consideration for the Joint Parliamentary Secretary, who said that this was a trunk road and that the purpose of trunk roads was to allow traffic to move speedily.
I am sure that there is not an hon. Member on this side of the Committee, not a person in Harthill and Eastfield, no one anywhere in Scotland, who will not be seriously perturbed at the result of this debate, because the answer of the Joint Parliamentary Secretary will leave us all convinced, as it certainly leaves me convinced, that the Minister has given way to the vested interests of some road hogs and has put the safety of our people second. I am very sorry indeed. Of 1733 course, I must withdraw the Amendment. However, the debate has served a purpose.
I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ 7.45 p.m.
§ Mr. Thomas Fraser (Hamilton)
I beg to move, in page 3, to leave out lines 28 and 29.
My hon. Friend the Member for Lanarkshire, North (Miss Herbison), in moving the previous Amendment, began by saying that she did not want her Amendment to be accepted, and moved it to permit of a discussion, which has proved to be somewhat enlightening to those of us who have listened to it. I am in a position different from that of my hon. Friend, because in moving this Amendment I do so in the hope that the Government will see fit to accept it.
This Amendment proposes to take out of the Schedule Section 4 of the Local Government (Scotland) Act, 1951.
I would remind the Committee that Section 4 of the Local Government (Scotland) Act, 1951, is a provision that local authorities' borrowing will be controlled by the appropriate Minister. It was provided in 1951 that control would be exercised for three years. The Committee should know that until 1951 this was a matter governed by a Defence Regulation made in the war years. In 1951 the Regulation was expiring, and the Government of the day, of which my hon. Friend the Member for Lanarkshire, North and I had the honour to be members, decided that it would be untimely to allow the control to go, and, therefore, we put it, as a temporary provision, into the Bill that became the Act of 1951.
My hon. Friend the Member for Lanarkshire, North justified the provision at that time, and a year ago, when the Committee considered the 1954 equivalent of this Bill, I quoted the whole of her speech. I am not going to do so tonight, but I did so then because that speech set forth the whole justification for this provision when it was made.
Between 1951 and 1954 there was, of course, considerable improvement in the availability of building materials and the like, and it was possible for the Government to forgo not only some but all of the building controls. Indeed, it was in 1734 the week that I criticised the retention of this provision a year ago that the then Minister of Works announced the surrender of the last of the building controls.
In defending this provision last year the then Joint Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, now the Minister of State, Scottish Office, defended it on the grounds that it was necessary to have the control because it was not only a question of building restrictions and building materials but a question of money, and he asserted that it was not only local government money but also central Government money. I suggested then that he had made a mistake, but in the circumstances in which the debate took place I was not allowed to pursue that argument. However, this is local government-owned money.
We are not here concerned with the capital developments being undertaken by local authorities which are grant-aided developments. If they are grant aided the authorities have to apply to the Government for approval of the projects before they obtain approval for borrowing, and when they get approval for the one they get approval for the other. Here we are concerned with those projects considered and put forward by local authorities, and for which there is no grant aid from the Government. The Government exercise this meaure of control over those authorities at a time when they do not exercise such control over any other person or any other authority.
A plea is currently being made to every organisation and every person in the country to exercise restraint in undertaking new capital development, yet to the local authorities it is not only a plea but, because of the provisions of this Act, It is a requirement that they shall seek the permission of the Secretary of State. That seems to me wrong, and I hope that the Joint Under-Secretary of State for Scotland will not say in reply that there is Government money involved because of equalisation grants. The authorities which are most likely to undertake big capital works which will necessitate borrowing money over a period of years are just the authorities which receive nothing at all from equalisation grants. I think of cities in particular.
Nobody thought in 1951 that this provision was to be a permanent feature of our legislation. The 1951 statute was a little 1735 Act with four Sections, three of them permanent and one temporary. This was the temporary one, and I submit that the justification put forward for continuing it last year was no justification at all. I doubt whether there is justification. We certainly ought not to continue this provision unless there is some sounder justification for it than was given a year ago.
§ Captain Duncan
I do not understand the speech of the hon. Member for Hamilton (Mr. T. Fraser). He is seeking to leave out certain lines in the Schedule which refer to Section 4 of the Local Government (Scotland) Act, 1951. I have looked up the Section. The whole point of it appears to have nothing to do with the Secretary of State. It provides that certain words in the Local Government (Scotland) Act, 1947, referring to a two-thirds majority of the council of a country or of a town council shall be omitted.
§ Mr. Fraser
The hon. and gallant Member says that Section 4 of the 1947 Act provides that the borrowing can be undertaken only if two-thirds of the council agrees. But the 1951 Acts sets that aside and the borrowing can now be done only with the consent of the Secretary of State.
§ Captain Duncan
It seems to me a much narrower point from my reading of both Acts than the hon. Member tries to make out, because the only words sought to be left out of Section 4 of the 1951 Act deal with the question of whether there is a two-thirds majority of the council or not, and nothing else seems to be relevant. It seems to be extremely doubtful whether the hon. Member is right in raising the subject so widely.
§ Captain Duncan
The words seem strictly limited to Section 4 of the 1951 Act, and it seems to me that, in view of the need for the restriction and restraint of capital expenditure by local authorities, the extra restraint exercised by the need for a two-thirds majority should be retained.
§ Mr. Willis
The intervention of the hon. and gallant Member for South Angus (Captain Duncan), is rather unfortunate. He may not have read Section 1736 259 of the 1947 Act. If he does so, he will see that if the words referring to a two-thirds majority of a council are deleted the local authority then has to obtain the permission of the Minister concerned, but if the proposal is carried by a two-thirds majority under the terms of Section 259, the approval of the Minister is not required. Therefore, this is a rather important matter and, by its very nature, it affects in the main the larger local authorities.
Section 4 of the Local Government (Scotland) Act, 1951, makes it obligatory upon the local authority if it undertakes capital work, even though it is going to pay for the whole cost itself, to obtain the permission of the Minister. This seems to be putting the local authority in a rather ignominous position when it is spending the money of its ratepayers. I do not know whether this provision also applies in England. If it does, there is no reference to it here. We should have some information from the Minister about why the provision has been continued.
The Joint Under-Secretary of State for Scotland might tell us, for instance, the value of the capital expenditure undertaken by the larger authorities to which this provision applies, and the amount of capital expenditure saved by reason of the fact that the Government have the right to prevent the spending. We should have that information to enable us to judge the value of continuing this provision. If the amount saved is negligible, there is no reason for continuing it, and if the Government are not in possession of that information, they ought not to be seeking powers to continue it.
If the Government are seeking powers without the necessary information about savings effected by the provision, it seems a very unbusinesslike procedure indeed. When we who are now on this side of the Committee were in power we heard a great many taunts about the gentlemen in Whitehall knowing best, but this is a case not only of the gentlemen in Whitehall and St. Andrew's House knowing best but telling the ratepayers what they may or may not do with their own money. I should like to see hon. Members opposite justifying this in their constituencies, after their speeches in Scotland about interference with the liberty of the individual. This requirement that the larger authorities in Scotland must seek 1737 permission to spend their own money on any undertaking which they think is in the interest of the citizens as a whole is preposterous. We ought to have more information. Unless this procedure really has an effect upon the economy of the country by the saving of substantial sums, the Government ought to withdraw this provision.
§ 8.0 p.m.
§ Mr. William Ross (Kilmarnock)
When I first read this Bill I was surprised that the Government had included this Section of the 1951 Act for continuance. I had thought that the freedom lovers of Fielden House would have decided to dispense with this power to control local authorities. Of course I am a simple-minded fellow and have not all the wisdom of the people from Edinburgh. I am a simple man from Ayrshire. I thought the Conservatives meant what they said.
§ Mr. James McInnes (Glasgow, Central)
I hope my hon. Friend is not referring to the hon. Member for Edinburgh, East (Mr. Willis)?
§ Mr. Ross
I have to remember that he is an Englishman; in fact I believe he is a man from Norfolk. I thought that after the great crusade by the Conservative Party, after all these years of telling the people that they would set the local authorities free and of sneering at the Socialists for having a strangle-hold over local authorities, they would cut the shackles. I am surprised at what was said by the hon. and gallant Member for South Angus (Captain Duncan). If he had taken the trouble to read the debates we had last year on this subject, he would realise that the Chair did not rule Lord Strathclyde out of order when he replied to the debate and referred to this point. The fact is that the Government are retaining a power over the local authorities which is not extended to any other enterprise in the country.
Building controls are relevant to this discussion and an answer given in the House today shows that £20 million worth of building is going on at the present time in this country of offices, cinemas, public houses, etc. [An HON. MEMBER: "In London."] I know well from my travels around Scotland that there is similar building going on there 1738 with no control by the Government. If, however, a local authority decides to build out of its own finance a community centre or an old men's cabin, it must go to St. Andrew's House and to the Secretary of State for Scotland in order to get his permission to spend its own money. These are the crusaders for freedom. I have not asked why the Secretary of State is not here. I know why. This is the day of the flitting. They are moving from College Street, where they have learned nothing, to Dover House.
§ Miss Herbison
The very fact that my hon. Friend has mentioned that move ought to strengthen our case, because one of the first things this Government did when returned to office was to say, "No, we will not have Dover House, we cannot afford the money at the present time."
§ Mr. Ross
I was going to suggest that it would have been better if the position had been reversed; if the Government had gone to the local authorities and had asked if they could spend the money to go there. Of course the local authorities might have sent them to another place. Here we have this shoal of Dover soles or dictators of Dover House proclaiming that the local authorities cannot spend their own money without leave. I wonder how many speeches on this theme the Joint Under-Secretary of State for Scotland made in Craigton during the last election, that one of the first things he would do when he got back to the House of Commons as Joint Under-Secretary of State for Scotland would be to insist that Glasgow should not be allowed to spend its own money as it liked?
I do not know what the excuse will be this time. Will it be inflation? Will it be that the country is again on the brink of bankruptcy? That was not the excuse last year. Last year it was a question of the cash, although it was a false argument because for every other item of capital expenditure by a local authority which is grant-aided authorisation has to be obtained first from the Department. So that what we are concerned with here is the narrow point that the Secretary of State and his Department insist that before a local authority embarks on any project which would involve expenditure of its own money, and 1739 for which it seeks borrowing powers, the Department will say yea or nay.
This is in 1955. This is at a time when the building of cinemas, of public houses, of filling stations is allowed all over the place on a national scale, although we see the results locally. Is the hon. Gentleman going to tell us that it is all fitted into a plan for restraining the use of the national resources? Is he going to tell us that only the local authorities have to be penalised in this way, that this stranglehold must be maintained only on them? Up to now in this debate there have been discussions of Amendments which eventually were withdrawn because the only way we could get any discussion was by putting down an Amendment. But here we are in earnest, hoping to persuade the Government that they will give up this miserable control. We shall get an opportunity later in this Chamber of voicing our opinion of what has been happening elsewhere in Committees, but the fact is that this Tory crowd in Scotland have gone control crazy and they will give up nothing.
§ Mr. Ross
I will not repeat arguments which may be reported elsewhere, but the fact is that hard-pressed local authorities—and they have their financial burdens today—will not sit solemnly in council and decide to proceed with capital expenditure unless it is really needed. They are aware of their financial difficulties. In the full knowledge of that, and of the burdens they can bear, they decide to go forward with a scheme and then the Joint Under-Secretary of State, with the other dictators of Dover House, says, "Only if we will let you." It is time local authorities were freed from that silly shackle of control. I ask the Joint Under-Secretary and the other Joint Under-Secretary—and I would ask the other Joint Under-Secretary if he were here too—
§ Mr. Ross
Yes, because they have all made speeches on this point. I have been reading through some of the Scottish election addresses made by hon. Gentleman opposite, and he will hear about them later. They all made great play with the power of control. Here is 1740 the opportunity for hon. Gentlemen opposite to live up to their preachings, to live up to these brave speeches, by dispensing with some control. To my mind this control is out of keeping with everything else that is being done because local authorities are controlled by the electors in what they spend. So it is not asking too much that this control should be given up now, four years after it was passed, and when it was passed for only three years.
Has it ever been used? We are told that it might be used. Emergencies are cropping up in all the speeches of the Joint Under-Secretary. So he must retain powers for emergencies. Why does he not wake up and realise that the local authorities in Scotland are responsible bodies? They are prepared to see their way to meet the expenditure for which they require these borrowing powers. So I sincerely hope that the Joint Under-Secretary will give a satisfactory answer tonight by saying that he will accept our Amendment.
§ Mr. McInnes
My hon. Friend the Member for Hamilton (Mr. T. Fraser) clearly indicated that Section 4 of the Local Government Act (Scotland), 1951, was taken from the Defence Regulation. It was introduced into the 1951 Act because it was necessary to control the country's capital investment programme. If I remember correctly, it was specifically introduced for a period of about three years.
I hope that this evening we shall not witness a spectacle similar to the one last year when we sought to repeal the Section. The then Joint Under-Secretary became very confused upon the issue. He began to fumble verbally about building restrictions, building licensing, building materials and all the rest. When we pointed out that the Section had nothing to do with those things, he became involved in questions covering the Government's whole capital expenditure, and did not seem to appreciate the difference between capital expenditure which is grant aided and that which is not grant aided. We had the inevitable result: he refused to accept the Amendment which we had tabled.
My hon. Friends have stated their case very clearly, and I merely wish to ask one or two questions. Am I correct in assuming that at present the Government 1741 control about 95 per cent. of local authority capital expenditure? They control it through health, education, housing, police, fire and many other services. I believe I am correct in further assuming that Section 4 of the 1951 Act affects only an infinitely small number of items in local authority financial operations.
I would assert—one of the Joint Under-Secretaries can correct me if I am wrong—that many large local authorities deliberately ignore the provisions of Section 4 of the 1951 Act, proceed upon capital expenditure by way of non-State-aided schemes and hear absolutely nothing about it from the Scottish Office. If such a situation exists, surely it is justification for repealing the Section.
It is an irritating provision, and needless in the light of present circumstances. As my hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock (Mr. Ross) said, we hear much about Tory freedom and how it functions. Here is a splendid opportunity to get rid of an irritating, pin-pricking little provision which means absolutely nothing to the Scottish Office. I do not think the Scottish Office exercises the control which the Act provides that it should exercise. My hon. Friend the Member for Hamilton has put forward an almost unanswerable case, and I shall be delighted to hear from one of the Joint Under-Secretaries what justification there can be for continuing this needless, pin-pricking provision.
§ 8.15 p.m.
§ Miss Herbison
I take it that the Joint Under-Secretary of State who is the hon. Member for Craigton (Mr. J. N. Browne) is to reply to the debate. I am not at all surprised that out of the three Joint Under-Secretaries he has been chosen for this task. I understand that this is a Home Department matter, and I thought another Joint Under-Secretary of State was responsible to us for that Department, but I think the Scottish Office has been very wise to choose the hon. Member for Craigton.
My hon. Friends have spoken a great deal about Tory promises to set the people free. I am certain that some chemists have made a small fortune in the last four years providing Tory Ministers and hon. Members with remedies for indigestion, because they have had to swallow so many of the 1742 things they said during the six years when the Labour Government were in power.
I was the Joint Under-Secretary who was responsible for the Measure in 1950. I am glad to see here another Joint Under-Secretary, the hon. Member for Dumfries (Mr. N. Macpherson), who then had certain words to say about it. If the hon. Member wishes to refresh his memory—perhaps he did so, and that is why he is not doing the job tonight—he will find that on 28th November, 1950, he said:Authority is asked in this Bill to restrict to three years only this limit on borrowing powers whereby, even with the two-thirds majority, permission to borrow must be sought from the Secretary of State. We have been told time and time again that the control at capital expenditure is one of the essential controls which the Socialist Government intend always to exercise. In that case, why should three years be mentioned?…Is this just another bit of camouflage, or do the Government really think that we shall get round that recovery corner in three years?I wonder what he thinks tonight. His Government—I do not know whether one can call them "his Government"—
§ Miss Herbison
—have been in power for four years, and when they went to the electorate in May they painted the rosiest picture of our wonderful recovery and the prosperity of our country. They have had opportunities to do away with the Section, but they have not done so. Tonight they seek power to continue it. Do the two Joint Under-Secretaries who are present feel that the control is necessary? Do they now wish to eat their words? They are in a very difficult position. How applicable the words,Oh what a tangled web we weaveWhen first we practise to deceive!are to this Government and particularly to one of the Joint Under-Secretaries.
The other Joint Under-Secretary—the one I thought would be replying to the debate—had this to say in the same debate in 1950:There are local authorities throughout the country"—hon. Members should note the marked contrast between his words and those of the other Joint Under-Secretary—and I am not thinking only of Scotland"—so he blamed England, too—…with great majorities"—1743 I think he must have been thinking about Wales—…sometimes with very little sense of responsibility"—
§ Miss Herbison
and sometimes dominated by a powerful personality with not very much sense of responsibility, and I should like to see some check, through the central authority, on the rates in certain circumstances.There must have been a real tug-of-war between the Joint Under-Secretary who is the Member for Fife, East (Mr. Henderson Stewart) and the Joint Under-Secretary who is the Member for Dumfries. Perhaps the Joint Under-Secretary the Member for Fife, East won and had to stay away in case it was clear what the Government really felt about local authorities.
I want to take up very little more time, except to say that we are glad to see that we have the hon. and gallant Member for South Angus (Captain Duncan) present in the Committee. On that occasion he said:The reasons for the Bill have been expressed as the decreased value of money…"[OFFICIAL REPORT, Scottish Standing Committee, 28th November, 1950; c. 1767, 1775 and 1785.]He went on to tell us how far it has gone down. Are those the reasons today? Is the £ today worth more than it was in October, 1951? Of course it is not; it is worth much less, and perhaps that is the very reason why the Government are now trying to continue this provision. I am trying to find reasons for their action and to help them, because they are in a very difficult position indeed.
I do not think that our local authorities are irresponsible people who are sometimes led by dominant personalities who are irresponsible. I think that our local authorities are responsible. They are far more responsible than many of the private enterprise firms which were given the liberty more than a year ago to go ahead and build whatever they wanted. It is of course true that the Government are trying, with the credit squeeze, to do something to such firms, but if they have the money, they can do what they like, but the local authorities are treated in a very different manner. The Joint Under-Secretary will need to 1744 have a very good case, altogether different from that of his noble Friend now adorning another place, in order to convince us that this provision should stay on the Statute Book.
§ The Joint Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. J. Nixon Browne)
I should like to clear up the point put by my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Angus (Captain Duncan). What the hon. Member for Edinburgh, East (Mr. Willis) said was correct. I hope that that will clear the matter. I must thank the hon. Member for Hamilton (Mr. T. Fraser) for the very moderate tone in which he moved the Amendment and assure him that, in my reply, I propose to discount any element of Government money, although there could be some element, such as the Exchequer equalisation grant, and my predecessor was correct when what he said was taken in that context.
We are talking about Government control of public expenditure which, as the hon. Member for Glasgow, Central (Mr. McInnes) said, is a very small section, and it is not right to draw comparisons between that and Government control of private expenditure which has to be dealt with in other ways, and reference to it would be out of order in this debate. The hon. Member for Edinburgh, East asked a very pertinent question. He asked what happens in England. In England and Wales Ministerial control of capital borrowing by local authorities does not rest on temporary legislation, but has been in force for about a century.
§ Mr. Browne
I like the interjection of the hon. Member for Kilmarnock. In Scotland we do not always want to do something because England does it. In Scotland before the war county and town councils could, in general, borrow without the consent of a Minister, provided a resolution to borrow secured a two-thirds majority. I want to get these next words on the record. In 1939 central control was introduced by a Defence Regulation. In 1947 the pre-war position was reenacted in permanent legislation, but the Defence Regulation continued to prevail against that. In 1951 the Defence Regulation went and was replaced by the temporary legislation which we are now proposing to renew for another year. The Committee will be interested to know that 1745 the local authority associations were informed, before this year's Expiring Laws Continuance Bill was introduced, that it was proposed to continue the control for another year and they did not object.
§ Mr. Browne
I am afraid that I cannot answer that.
Local authorities are responsible, as the hon. Member for Hamilton knows, for a very large share of the country's capital investment programme. On 26th October, the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Secretary of State addressed an appeal to local authorities to review their programmes of both revenue and capital expenditure with the special object of ensuring, first, that their total capital expenditure for 1956–57 did not exceed that of 1954–55 and, second, that no new works even those already authorised were undertaken unless they were satisfied that those works were urgently necessary to meet the needs of the area.
Over a large field of non-grant-aided local authority expenditure—that is town halls, parks, recreation grounds, the improvement of local amenities—the control over borrowing provided by Section 4 of the Local Government (Scotland) Act, 1951, is the only means by which the Secretary of State can exercise a restraining influence.
§ Mr. Willis
The Joint Under-Secretary keeps talking about this large section of public expenditure. Will he give some indication of how large this non-grant-aided section is?
§ Mr. Willis
Are we to understand that the Government are re-enacting this Measure without any knowledge of what it entails?
§ Mr. Browne
No, but I do not have that information with me. On this question of giving information, I stand on 1746 a Ruling given last year when the Chairman repeated a Ruling given by one of his predecessors in 1948. It was that a Member…can generally…discuss an Act which he wishes or does not wish to continue, but he cannot do so in too great a detail."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 3rd November, 1954; Vol. 532, c. 545.]
§ Miss Herbison
One can understand that one might not go into detail, but the whole justification for continuing this provision for another year depends upon the answer to the specific point: how much money is involved.
§ Mr. Browne
Oh, no. However great or however small, this is Government policy and the control of investment. It would be very bad indeed to say, "This is only a little sin and therefore we may sin."
§ Mr. Browne
In this case we may be.
It would be quite inconsistent with the Government's policy of retrenchment in capital investment, and with the message of the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Secretary of State to local authorities, to allow the control of local authority borrowing to lapse at the present time. If Section 4 of the Act of 1951 were not renewed, local authorities in England and Wales as well as in Scotland might feel that they had no confidence that the Government are in earnest in their efforts to bring the demand for capital expenditure within the limits of the nation's productive resources.
The hon. Member for Lanarkshire, North (Miss Herbison) spoke of promises of prosperity made by the Government and took that as a reason why we should accept the Amendment; but surely, prosperity is here at last and we must be jealous to preserve it. She quoted from previous debates and we had a lot of legitimate good fun. I have been reading from a previous debate and I am sure that if he had been here the person whom I should like to quote would have been glad to know that I am quoting from something he said. I quote it in no party political spirit, no partisan spirit at all. 1747 On 28th November, 1950, the late Hector McNeil wound up for the Government on the Second Reading of the Bill. This is what he said:There is an obligation on all of us, as individuals, as a Government, as members of local authorities and as members of all kinds of social institutions to limit at this time our natural inclination to spend, provided we have the funds, to essential spending."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, Scottish Standing Committee, 28th November, 1950, c. 1798.]Though the causes prompting those words have changed, the words are as true today as they were then. I ask the Committee to reject the Amendment.
§ Mr. T. Fraser
I do not think that anybody can feel at all satisfied with the reply of the Joint Under-Secretary of State for Scotland. He concluded with a quotation from a speech made by the late Hector McNeil in the dying days of 1950, and said that there was today a need for this control equal to the need there was then. But he also said that the prosperity that we had achieved had to be preserved.
§ Mr. J. N. Browne
The hon. Gentleman will realise that whether it is Socialist scarcity or Tory prosperity, or over-prosperity, the medicine may well be the same.
§ Mr. Fraser
I do not quite follow that remark, but if there is anything in what the hon. Gentleman has just said then the more prosperous we become the more controls will have to be imposed.
§ Mr. Fraser
The more prosperous we become the more controls will have to be imposed. I am going to Greenock this weekend, where there is certain political activity, and I shall be delighted to tell the people there what the Joint Under-Secretary has said about the need for the central Government to exercise control over the local authorities.
If the hon. Gentleman wishes this power to be continued for the reasons that he has given to us, he has a duty to put the provision into a permanent statute. This provision was written into the law as a temporary provision with the justification that was given and accepted by Parliament at that time. If the justification has been changed, and if it is to be justified by the kind of argument that we have had from the hon. Gentleman, then the provision ought not to be in a temporary 1748 form but should be enshrined in permanent statute. What a commentary on all the propaganda put across in Scotland by the Tories in recent years about, "setting the people free" and "the gentleman in Whitehall knows best."
The former Joint Under-Secretary was wrong a year ago. We were not calling on the authorities like the Glasgow and Edinburgh corporations nor the Town Council of Turriff. We were calling on those great bodies who do not get a penny from the Equalisation Grant and the Joint Under-Secretary did not know what he was talking about. That is why he concluded by saying that he had answered me and had nothing more to say, when everyone knew that he had not answered me.
Today the Joint Under-Secretary has given an answer: that this Government do not trust the local authorities. We shall take care to remind local authorities that after the Election the Tories can be trusted to act differently from the way in which they acted immediately before, and that the speeches they make after an Election bear small comparison with their speeches before an Election.
I do not know whether we should trouble the Committee with a Division on this matter, although I feel strong enough about it to go to a Division. In any case I do not think that we should withdraw the Amendment but, at least, we should allow it to be negatived.
§ Mr. A. Evans (Islington, South-West)
I beg to move, in page 3, to leave out lines 41 to 44.
The Committee will recognise that this Amendment is moved in order that we may have a short discussion on the working of the Furnished Houses (Rent Control) Act, 1946. It is suitable that at least once a year we should look at the operation of that Measure, and it may be that, when we have considered the matter, we shall decide that the Act may very well continue.
We should also take the opportunity to pay a tribute to the work of the rent tribunals. These tribunals do a valuable job in the various localities. They put right many cases in which excessive rents have been charged, and their very existence tends to check landlords from charging excessive rents in this time of shortage 1749 of housing accommodation. Were there no tribunals, the courts would be faced with a volume of difficult disputation. The work of the tribunals has been well maintained. Not only do they continue to deal with cases under the Act, but also with an increasing number of cases brought under the Housing Repairs and Rents Act, 1954.
Perhaps the Minister can tell us how far that Act is being used, and how much advantage is being taken of it to appeal to the tribunals. I am in direct contact with one tribunal which sits in the northern part of London, and which deals with a very large area. I understand that that tribunal—and I suspect that this is true of others—is very heavily engaged; indeed, from the number of sittings which it holds each week, one could say that it is overworked. I understand that it holds eight or nine sittings each week.
The Parliamentary Secretary knows that in recent years there has been a tendency to cut down the number of these tribunals or to amalgamate certain of them. I should like him to tell the Committee whether the remaining tribunals find themselves rather overloaded, with more work than they can cope with effectively.
We might also be given some information about local authority records. We know that under the Act a local authority has the duty of keeping a register of the decisions of these tribunals and the rents which they decide are reasonable in each case. I wonder whether all local authorities keep those records efficiently and up to date. From my own experience I should say that they do maintain the records efficiently, but I should like the Parliamentary Secretary to tell us whether some check is made of those records, to make certain that the relevant part of the Act is being effectively carried out.
The number of prosecutions under the Act is not very large. If the decision of the tribunal is ignored, and an excessive rent is charged, the local authority alone may prosecute where an offence appears to have been committed. A considerable difficulty has arisen in regard to these prosecutions. I understand that in nine out of ten cases in which it is believed that an offence has been committed and an excessive rent charged, insufficient evidence has been available to warrant the local authority going into court. This 1750 situation arises because many tenants, at any rate in some areas, are not well able to express themselves. Many are foreigners, or overseas British nationals, who may be unable to speak English. In those cases, even where it would appear that an offence has been committed and a prosecution should be initiated, because of the fact that the tenant is inarticulate it is felt that the local authority could not successfully go into court.
If there were a rent book—a written record of the excessive rent being charged—the position would be clear, and the local authority could go forward with confidence, thereby successfully enforcing the provisions of the Act. It is this absence of a rent book which prevents the local authority from doing its duty and enforcing the provisions of the Act. I should therefore like the Parliamentary Secretary to tell us whether any consideration has been given to a possible amendment of the Act, so that, as in the case of other Rent Restrictions Acts, we might have an Amendment making it obligatory on the landlord to issue a rent book. If that were done, the Act would be strengthened and the purpose of Parliament would be fulfilled. At present, because of the absence of written evidence as to offences, it is estimated that in a very large number of cases the Act cannot be enforced, and the intentions of Parliament cannot be carried out.
I hope the Minister will tell us what he can about that, and also give us some figures concerning the tribunal's work. It is true that some have been published, but the hon. Gentleman may have some more up-to-date ones. Particularly, I should like him to tell the Committee whether or not he will consider an amendment of the Act, making—
§ The Temporary Chairman (Sir Gordon Touche)
The hon. Member cannot discuss amendment of the Act on this Amendment. The only question is whether the Act should be continued or not.
§ Mr. Evans
I quite understand, Sir Gordon, but I also understood that I was entitled to ask the Parliamentary Secretary whether he had considered that possibility. From my reading of recent debates on the Expiring Laws Continuance 1751 Bill, I gather that there has repeatedly been put to the Minister the question whether he has considered the possibility of amending the Act.
§ Mr. C. W. Gibson (Clapham)
I do not propose to detain the Committee for many minutes, but there is one aspect of the administration of this Act—which, I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, South-West (Mr. A. Evans), has on the whole been very good—which has caused me, and I know a lot of other people, a good deal of trouble.
It is that the people who go before the tribunals under the Furnished Houses (Rent Control) Act really have no security at all, even if they win. It is interesting to note that, according to the Annual Report of the Ministry for last year, although there has been a considerable drop in the number of cases which came before the tribunals, the number last year was no fewer than 7,403. In 2,953 cases, reductions in rents were made, and that the applicants had a very good case is evidenced by the fact that the average reduction in rent granted was 30 per cent. of the rent, which only shows how rapacious some of the landlords of furnished rooms have been over the years since the end of the war.
Indeed, had it not been for the greed and avarice of people of that kind, I do not suppose that we should have had that Act on the Statute Book. It is very significant that, even five years after the Bill became an Act of Parliament, the amount of rent reductions which the tribunals are awarding is as much as 30 per cent. of the rent charged.
Has consideration been given to the present practice of the tribunals of giving the poor tenant three months' grace after he has secured a reduction of rent? Is the Department worrying about whether the procedure ought not to be 1752 strengthened so as to give greater security to the tenants?
Many complaints are made from young married couples who find themselves living in so-called "furnished" rooms, many of which are not properly furnished at all. The rent which they are compelled to pay to the landlord is so heavy that not only does their standard of living suffer but, after a few months, they begin to feel the pangs of real poverty. They get advice, and go to the rent tribunal, and perhaps get a 30 per cent. cut in their rent. Three months later they get another notice to quit. All that they can do is to go back and ask the tribunal for a further extension. In many cases they do not get it, and even if they do they cannot, I understand, get more than another, three months' extension.
That puts a premium on the cruelty of the landlords who are charging extravagant rents. I hear of people in South London paying £3 a week for one miserable furnished room which has not enough furniture in it to make a decent, comfortable home for anybody. Nothing too hard can be said about landlords like that, and, the Act ought to be more strictly enforced to make sure that the landlords do not rob the community in the rents they charge. I know that the present Government believe that this is right in a free-for-all society. If someone has rooms to spare and somebody else has no rooms to live in, it is all right if the owners can squeeze the tenants to the uttermost.
I do not believe that, and I do not believe that it is the feeling of the people of this country. In the London area the true feeling of the people is that the tenant ought in this situation to be given a fair deal. It is unfair to charge these extravagant rents. The tenants ought to be given a fair deal in the rents charged and some security after they have won their case before a rent tribunal. Has any consideration been given in the Department to strengthening this part of the law?
On the whole, the law has worked very well. As my hon. Friend said, the tribunals and their staffs have done a very fine job of work. I know that in my district they take a great deal of trouble to get at the facts. When all is said and done, the majority of rents, even after the tenants have proved their case for a reduction, are still so high that real 1753 suffering and poverty are created. This ought not to be allowed in any humane, modern society which professes Christian principles.
I hope that the Minister can say that it is proposed to consider this aspect of the Act, and, at the earliest available opportunity, to bring proposals forward for strengthening and improving it.
§ Mr. J. A. Sparks (Acton)
I should like to support my hon. Friends in what they have said about the continuance of the Furnished Houses (Rent Control) Act. At the same time I want to protest most emphatically at the administrative action of the Ministry of Housing and Local Government in reducing the scope and the effectiveness of the furnished houses rent tribunals.
I believe that when the right hon. Gentleman who is now Foreign Secretary was Minister of Housing and Local Government the number of tribunals was very considerably reduced, with the result that great inconvenience arose for people who would like to take advantage of the services of the tribunals. I think the figures will prove that since 1951 the numbers of cases submitted to the reduced numbers of furnished houses rent tribunals have been falling. That, I think, has been due to the administrative action taken by the Ministry in reducing the effectiveness of the tribunals—not only in reducing the numbers, but in what appears to me to be a change of atmosphere in the administration of the Act.
There is a great deal that the Minister could do to make the Act much more effective. My hon. Friends have referred to the fact that people who apply to the tribunals for a reassessment of the rents they are paying find that at the end of three months they are served by the landlord with a notice to quit. There is no protection whatever except that they may go to the tribunal and make application for an extension of time. Sometimes tribunals grant the application, sometimes they do not, but when they grant the application all it means is that the tenant gets a further three months' security of tenure, and no more.
If all the 7,000-odd cases mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Clapham (Mr. Gibson) could be checked we should find that a very substantial number of those people no longer live in the places 1754 from which they made the application. Therefore, the people who are over-charging persons who cannot get accommodation are able to get rid of the people who go to the furnished houses rent tribunals. They are not bound to observe the rent assessed by the tribunal. When they relet the room, or rooms, if, by some adroit manoeuvre, they can change the set-up of the furniture, that then changes the basis on which the application for reduction of rent was made, and gives the landlord freedom once again to charge as high a rent as he can get.
These cases are not checked. They are hidden from us. The right hon. Gentleman should give very close attention to the operation of this Act, and do his utmost to strengthen its provisions. I am not sure that the Ministry really knows the essence of this problem. I would emphasise it in this way. The other Saturday morning there came to see me a young woman with her husband and child, aged 5. They were living in a furnished room 11 feet by 8 feet—one furnished room in which the three of them had to sleep, eat and live—for which they were paying a rent of 30s. The landlord, who was already letting other rooms furnished, had another room vacant at the time. Because they were so cramped in their small room, they asked him whether they could have the second room, and he said, "Yes, you can have the second room, but the rent will be four guineas."
That sort of thing is going on in a wholesale way throughout Greater London. The tragedy is that so many young married people, unable to get housing accommodation, first, because they have not the money to buy a place, and secondly, because their position on the waiting lists of local authorities is very low—for local authorities, obviously, are concerned first with families with children—are driven to go into furnished accommodation and pay exorbitant rents.
Not only are these people afraid to go to the rent tribunal to have their rent reassessed, because they know that they will be put out if they do so, but, when a child comes along, in ninety-nine cases out of hundred, the landlord does not hesitate to put them out on the street. Many hon. Members who represent constituencies in the great towns and cities will agree that some of the most tragic 1755 housing cases that we have to deal with are those of the young married couples who have a child and are put out by their landlords.
The Minister could do quite a lot to put an end to that sort of thing. I think he would have the power to register these places. I am not at all sure that in many cases the Inland Revenue is aware of the incomes that come into some of these dwellings. I know that I am rather out of order in mentioning this, but the Parliamentary Secretary is present and I hope that he will listen to what I am saying. He may be able to do something to put this matter right. If eight rooms in a house are let out at £2 2s. a time, £16 16s. will be coming in without the tax authorities knowing anything about it. It will be realised, therefore, what a tremendous racket this is.
Not only does it apply to British people in their own country. Is the Minister quite satisfied that coloured people who are coming over here are not being subjected to the same sort of thing? From time to time we read in the papers of bad and appalling racketeering in the letting of furnished rooms to some of these coloured people. The Minister should give the Committee an assurance that he will use his administrative powers to the maximum to give full effect to the provisions of the Act.
As I said earlier, the Minister has, by administrative action, reduced the effectiveness of the tribunals by cutting out a lot of them, by reducing staff and by making it much more inconvenient for people to refer cases to them. He can put that right if he is aware of the problem. It is just as acute today as when the Act was passed, for the rent tribunals operate in the main in overcrowded, congested areas where the housing problem is acute and where people are driven by dire necessity to take over the tenancies of furnished accommodation.
The Minister should therefore take administrative action to strengthen the effectiveness of the rent tribunals, to increase their numbers in areas where the need exists and to give greater powers to the tribunals themselves to take the initiative. After all, a fair amount of information must come to them from time 1756 to time if they insist that the individuals must go first to make formal applications, knowing at the same time they will be thrown out on the street in six months. The tribunals can avoid that by themselves taking the initiative. I believe they have the power to do so. If the tribunals did that on their own initiative to some extent they would shelter the tenants from the vindictive reactions of the landlords. Moreover, as has been said by my hon. Friends, the local authorities, too, have the power to refer cases to the tribunals, though they, too, are faced with the difficulty that if they do so they may cause tenants to be put out on the street at the end of three months.
There is a lot that the Ministry can do to strengthen the effectiveness of the Act, to give a greater measure of security to tenants who refer cases to the tribunals and to extend still further the power of the tribunals to function in the way in which it was intended they should when the Act was passed. If the hon. Gentleman and the Minister will undertake to, improve the effectiveness of the Act I am sure they will be doing a good thing for the many unfortunate people in our towns and cities who have, because of the housing shortage, to seek accommodation in furnished premises of which the rents are very high and the tenure very insecure.
§ Mr. Charles Doughty (Surrey, East)
I support this Amendment. Indeed, if hon Members opposite press it to a Division I shall willingly vote with them in the Lobby in favour of it. These tribunals have lasted quite long enough. It was the Minister of Health who, curiously enough, in 1946 was the one who was supposed to deal with these matters. However, I am very pleased to see that the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government has not dragged the Minister of Health from the hospitals and other things with which he is concerned to deal with this situation with which he is not.
The situation has changed, thanks to a variety of reasons, one of which is the amount of house building that has taken place in the last few years. Because of that, the problem is not what it was in 1946. A large number of houses has been built, a large number of bomb-damaged houses has been repaired, and the housing situation is better now than 1757 it was then, even though it is not 100 per cent. perfect yet.
Year by year provisions of the Act are continued, which ought not to be. Of course, I join with hon. Members opposite in paying tribute to the conscientious way in which the members of the tribunals have carried out their work, but the tribunals were set up as an entirely new and temporary innovation, and their members, although they have done conscientious work, are not people trained and skilled in dealing with the complicated relationships of landlords and tenants. I am very glad to notice that in the last few years the demands upon their services have been less and less.
We need to be clear about the type of premises we are discussing, and in referring to the relationships between landlords and tenants I am not referring to the landlords and tenants of unfurnished, rent-restricted premises. It is all too easy when talking about landlords and tenants to think of all landlords and tenants, whereas we are speaking only of some, and I have not in mind the landlords and tenants of premises which are let unfurnished on contracts which are expected to endure some considerable time.
I am speaking of furnished premises. The whole essence of furnished premises is that they are temporary. People go to them for a short time and use other people's services and furniture and accommodation before they go on to somewhere else, perhaps of their own. That means that there are hardships on both the landlord and the tenant. We can all come to the Committee, as some hon. Members have done, to talk about hard cases and poor young couples in order to wring the heart of the Parliamentary Secretary. But bad tenants make bad landlords, and the reverse is equally true.
§ Mr. Gibson
Let us get this matter in some proportion. I do not think that any hon. Member has so far referred to individual cases, but I referred to the number of cases that appeared before the tribunals this last year. There were 7,403 cases which resulted in an average rent reduction of 30 per cent., in nearly 3,000 cases. Surely the hon. and learned Member does not suggest that that is not a serious canker in our midst?
§ Mr. Doughty
The figures which the hon. Member has given prove my case up to the hilt. There is only that number of cases out of a population of over 40 million. If we are going to legislate in the House of Commons for every single abuse that takes place in the country we shall be here all day, and all night as well, and I do not suppose that the hon. Member would like that any more than I should. The hon. Member's figures prove my point that these tribunals have fulfilled their function and should go the way of all things which have seen their day.
There is another abuse which is being continued. The register has been compiled since 1946 and kept by the local authorities. One must assume that the rents of furnished premises in 1946 were the fixed, proper ones.
§ Mr. Doughty
I accept the decisions of the tribunals. Does not the hon. Member? But since then there have been new services. Are the people who have provided those services therefore to accept the same wages?
§ Mr. Sparks
Surely the hon. and learned Member knows that the landlord can go at any time to the tribunal for a reassessment of the rent if the cost of the services has increased or he has provided more services. The trouble is that landlords do not go to the tribunals but try to obtain as extortionate a rent as they possibly can.
§ Mr. Doughty
There are faults on both sides, but by the use of extravagant language nobody, neither landlord nor tenant, will prove his case. These tribunals, fortunately reduced in number and fortunately situated in places where few people know where to find them, are staffed by people with no qualifications for the job, and it is time that they were brought to an end. We are interfering with ordinary agreements entered into by grown-up people fully capable of entering agreements.
If we are to say, "What you have agreed must have no legal effect at all," that must be only in serious cases where the public good requires it to be done. Whatever was the position in 1946, there are today no sufficient grounds for continuing these tribunals in being. It is 1759 time that they were brought to an end and were not made part of our national life. I ask that the Amendment be accepted.
§ 9.15 p.m.
§ The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government (Mr. W. F. Deedes)
I am glad that the hon. Member for Islington, South-West (Mr. A. Evans), who opened this discussion, paid a tribute to the work of the people who serve on these tribunals, because on that, at least, I think there can be no difference between us.
§ Mr. Deedes
About the amount of public work they have put in. I do not think the right hon. Gentleman will dispute that. What they do does not pass without criticism—
§ Mr. Deedes
I am dealing with the public service rendered by members of these tribunals, and I thought that what the hon. Gentleman had said might have passed with general agreement. In particular we have reason to be grateful to them for the smoothness and efficiency with which they have coped with the extra work which fell to them under the 1954 Act. My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Surrey, East (Mr. Doughty) may have overlooked that point, about which I shall say more in a moment.
The first question asked by the hon. Gentleman was about the volume of work. He hoped that the tribunals were not being overworked. I can assure him that we keep an eye on that, and I can give figures to indicate that the situation is in hand. The number of cases in respect of the older work—that is, arising from the 1946 to 1949 Acts—has continued to decrease, but that decrease has been masked by a temporary rise in the number of 1949 Act cases brought about by the Housing Repairs and Rents Act, 1954. I will give details in a moment.
With these extra references, the total number of decided cases on the older work of the tribunals was 8,295 up to the end of 31st March, 1955. That is a reduction of nearly 300 on the figure for 1760 the year to March, 1954. The main additional work arising from the 1954 Act was in respect of increases for services and apportionment of the service element in the rents of serviced lettings. In the year to 30th September, the total number of these cases was 4,860.
§ Notice taken that 40 Members were not present;
§ House counted, and 40 Members being present
§ Mr. Deedes
I can give the hon. Gentleman an assurance that these extra cases have been dealt with by the tribunals without much difficulty. There are now 61 tribunals. That is the same total as at this time last year, when we were discussing the tribunals and their work, and the total volume of work this year ran at 13,700 decided cases.
Here I take issue with one remark made by the hon. Member for Acton (Mr. Sparks), who said that by administrative action we had cut down the tribunals and had made their work more difficult. I would point out that at the peak of the tribunal activity 18,351 cases were handled by 80 tribunals and I have just said that this year 61 tribunals handled 13,700 cases. Without putting too much of a strain on the hon. Member's arithmetic or my own, I can assure him that a simple proportion sum indicates that in the last year the tribunals have dealt with about the same number of cases each as they did at the peak period. I hope that reassures him.
We do not check local authority records. Local authorities are supposed to be responsible bodies in this matter, and we have no reason to doubt that they are. The hon. Gentleman asked about the absence of rent books. We have not considered the point that he made. I will look at it. We have not heard of any widespread failure of prosecutions on that account.
§ Mr. A. Evans
The hon. Gentleman should look again at the figures. He will find that it is eight out of ten cases.
§ Mr. Deedes
We will have to look at the matter.
The hon. Gentleman tempted me to go a little outside the rules of order on legislative proposals. The best answer I can give him and to the hon. Member for Clanham (Mr. Gibson) is that the review 1761 of the provision of the Rent Acts upon which my right hon. Friend has given an undertaking, will, of course, be an occasion for considering many of the points which both hon. Members raised.
The hon. Member for Clapham spoke about security of tenure. His hon. Friend the Member for Acton pointed out that the three months can be extended. It can be re-extended by new applications ad infinitum.
§ Mr. Gibson
I understand it is not possible to go on ad infinitum. A family may apply a second time and may get an extension of three months—very often it may not—and then that is the end.
§ Mr. Deedes
I will not enter into a legal argument with the hon. Member. He has his view about it, and I have mine, but I think that the hon. Member for Acton was nearer the point than he was.
The hon. Member for Acton asked not only about strengthening tribunals but about ways of encouraging them to take action. I am not sure how far such encouragement is right and proper in the case of judicial bodies. Surely the proper authorities to initiate action are local authorities; they have the power to do so.
§ Mr. Sparks
I tried to explain the difficulty about local authorities taking action. Very often such action is contrary to the interests of the tenant. If the tribunal itself had power to initiate a case, to some extent the tenant might be protected. I am sure the hon. Gentleman will agree that for every case which goes to a tribunal, at least 50 cases do not through fear of eviction.
§ Mr. Deedes
I cannot accept the hon. Gentleman's figure. He must accept the fact that the proper authorities to initiate action are local authorities, and that to encourage action in other ways is not a proper way to deal with judicial bodies.
I hope that the figures which I have given satisfy the hon. Member for Acton in respect of what he said about the cutting down of staff and the effectiveness of the tribunals.
§ Mr. Glenvil Hall (Colne Valley)
Can the hon. Gentleman say how many cases are now outstanding? That would be a good guide whether there are sufficient tribunals for the work.
§ Mr. Deedes
I cannot answer that question without notice, but I will try to get the figures for the right hon. Gentleman.
I do not want to take issue with my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Surrey, East. I have dealt with the main point, which I think he overlooked, that the 1954 Act added considerably to the work of the tribunals. I cannot accept that the tribunals have outlived their usefulness. In view of the existence of the 1954 Act, that would be an impossible position to take up.
In accounting for our stewardship over the year, I hope I have made plain that there is no questioning of the value of the tribunals or of the need for their continuance. We are satisfied—this is the issue about which most hon. Members have been concerned—that they have the strength needed for the demands made upon them. This is a matter on which we have kept a fairly watchful eye, and we shall continue to do so.
With regard to the wider statutory implications which have been raised, I can only refer hon. Gentlemen to the review foreshadowed by my right hon. Friend.
§ Mr. Sparks
The hon. Gentleman quoted comparative figures—I forget to which years he was referring—and, so far as I could follow his figures, the effect was that the number of tribunals has been reduced by about 20 and the number of cases dealt with has been reduced by about 5,000. That does not indicate that the tribunals are as effective as they were.
§ Mr. Deedes
I am dealing with the question of proportions. If the hon. Member will put 61 over 13,700 and compare it with 80 over 18,351, I think that he will find that it will work out roughly as I said. In reply to the right hon. Member for Colne Valley (Mr. Glenvil Hall), 620 cases were awaiting decision at the end of 1953 and 648 at the end of 1954.
§ Mr. Glenvil Hall
May I trouble the Parliamentary Secretary for another figure? He said that 13,000 cases had been dealt with. How many of these were successful from the tenants' point of view?
§ Mr. Deedes
I cannot answer that without notice, but I will do my best to let the right hon. Member know.
§ Mr. A. Evans
I should like to thank the Parliamentary Secretary for what he has said. It is reassuring to know that he and his Minister are aware of the effect of the tribunals and agree that the Act must continue. I am sure my hon. Friend who opposed the continuance of the Act will also be reassured. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Schedule agreed to.
Preamble agreed to.
Bill reported, without Amendment; read the Third time and passed.