HC Deb 23 October 1956 vol 558 cc599-610

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

9.18 p.m.

Mr. Denzil Freeth (Basingstoke)

It is, possibly, unfortunate that Scottish Members have taken a shorter time to debate the Education (Scotland) Bill than I had hoped and certainly than my constituent, whose case I am bringing to the notice of the House, had hoped, because my constituents are probably not in the Galleries of the House.

The case which I wish to raise tonight deals with the mother and sister of my constituent, Mr. Schmidt, of Abbotts Ann, in Hampshire. Mr. Schmidt was a prisoner of war in this country. At the end of the war he settled here and married an English woman. He himself, together with his mother and father and family, although born in the Ukraine, had German parentage. At the end of the war his mother and father and his unmarried sister disappeared and he could not get into touch with them. Indeed, it was not until December of last year that Mr. Schmidt heard that his father had died in Russia and that his mother and sister were alive and had been deported to Siberia. I say "deported to Siberia" because I think that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary will agree that no one goes to Siberia for pleasure.

Mr. Schmidt is now an engineer living in this country and earning good wages and his wife is also working. They own their own house in Abbotts Ann. When they knew that Mr. Schmidt's mother and unmarried sister were still alive they decided, naturally, that nothing could be more right than that they should try to get Frau Schmidt and her daughter to this country for care ; and not only for care by Mr. Schmidt, but that they should be got out of the clutches of the Communists in Russia.

Mr. Schmidt has been in touch with an organisation in Germany which exists to try to help people get back people deported from Germany to Russia at the end of the last war into the care of their relatives in free Europe. The first step for Mr. Schmidt was to try to obtain an entry visa to this country for his mother and sister. This visa application was refused by the Home Office on 21st June of this year. It was then that Mr. Schmidt and his wife came to see me. I wrote to the Home Office, detailing the case as I saw it, and the reasons why it seems to me right and proper that the Home Office should grant an entry visa to this country for Frau Schmidt and her daughter.

I ask the House to realise that even were my hon. Friend to agree to grant a visa, it would be by no means certain that Frau Schmidt and her daughter would be allowed to leave Siberia. But, as an essential prerequisite to taking any further step to try to obtain their release from Siberia—a place from which surely we would all do our best to get anybody released—it was essential that there should be an entry visa granted for these two women to enter this country.

My hon. Friend replied on 13th July, and I quote from his letter : We have to be fairly strict at the present time in the rules which we apply to the grant of visas for permanent settlement because there are so many people who, in the conditions existing in certain European countries, would be only too anxious to come here. On compassionate grounds, while visas are being given to enable a mother to come to live with her son, visas are granted only if the mother has been left isolated without other children in the country in which she is living, and is suffering real hardship in consequence. Sisters are not normally admitted save in very exceptional circumstances. I felt that that was a little callous, to say the least of it, and I am afraid that I was not very cheered by the last sentence of the last paragraph of my hon. Friend's reply : The most I am able to say is that if the official body in Germany"— my hon. Friend was referring to the body with which Mr. Schmidt has been in contact— is able to secure the repatriation of Mr. Schmidt's mother and she is in distress in Germany we shall be prepared to consider whether, in that situation, she can be allowed to come to live with him in the United Kingdom. I do not think that I have read anything for a long time which is quite so stonyhearted as that.

Mrs. Schmidt, the daughter-in-law of the woman in Siberia, wrote to me. Does not my hon. Friend realise that neither Mr. Schmidt, nor Mrs. Schmidt, nor I, nor he, can no more get a plain statement that Frau Schmidt is in distress, or that anybody living in Siberia is in distress than we can walk in today and get them out? Every letter written by anybody in Siberia today, particularly by a German national who has been deported to Siberia, is read by the authorities. These people have to be very careful what they write. How can they possibly write that they are in distress and in need of a British visa?

The daughter with whom Frau Schmidt is living earns 220 roubles a month. To try to turn Russian money into equivalent British buying power is not easy. The official exchange rate is totally unrealistic. Perhaps it is indicative of the living conditions to say that sugar is 11 roubles a kilo. That means that the wage of Frau Schmidt's daughter, to keep Frau Schmidt as well as herself, is equivalent to earning £5 per week in this country and paying 5s. a 1b. for sugar alone.

This lady has to work for a month and a half to earn enough money to purchase a good pair of shoes. buying nothing else. I do not think that many women would work longer than a week in this country to buy a good pair of shoes, if they bought nothing else. Is this not indicative of the distressed conditions in which Frau Schmidt and her daughter are at present living?

My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State has a phrase in his letter to me of 31st August to which my constituent took great exception. He stated that the British Government—I quote— could not possibly accept an obligation to allow all those who want to come here to do so because, for one reason or another, they find conditions in their own country unpalatable. I do not think that we can fairly say that when a person has been deported from his home in Eastern Germany into Siberia, in Russia, it is a case of finding one's own country unpalatable. Indeed, were it possible for them to go back to their own country they might find it very much more palatable than Siberia. If Eastern Germany followed the example of Poland they would probably find the country very much more palatable. This is not a case of dealing with somebody who happens to have a "grouse" against the Government of a country in which he lived.

When my hon. Friend said, on 31st August, that he could not possibly accept the obligation to allow to come here those who, for one reason or another, found conditions in their own country unpalatable, he went on to say : or they do not like the complexion of the Government under which they are living. Surely the Home Office can realise the difference between living in this country under a Government of the complexion of which one is not particularly fond, and living in a Communist State while not being a Communist. Moreover, in the case of Frau Schmidt, it is not only a matter of not being a Communist but of not being a Russian and of having to live in a Communist State which happens to be Russian and to which she was by force deported. Mrs. Schmidt points out that Frau Schmidt and her daughter are not living in their own country, but were forcibly moved at the end of the war to Siberia, where Herr Schmidt died. It is fair to say that nobody would ever wish to live in Siberia.

I should like to go beyond the very narrow point of my constituent's case, because my constituent is not alone in this matter. There must be in this country a very large number of people who are of German, Polish, Roumanian, Hungarian, or Yugoslavian extraction who wish to get over here relatives who are now under Communist domination. The real point would appear to be on what grounds is the Home Office prepared to grant visas to people suffering under Communist oppression, particularly those who have been removed by Communists from their old homes and old countries and who have relatives here in Britain who can support them or whom they can help?

In the case of my constituents, both Mr. and Mrs. Schmidt are working. Fraulein Schmidt in the Ukraine is working today. She could be working in England and these three people between them could easily earn enough money to support Mr. Schmidt's ageing mother for the rest of her life. The point seems to come down to the extract from the House of Commons OFFICIAL REPORT of 13th November, 1945, which my hon. Friend was kind enough to send me, giving the details of the distressed relative scheme as outlined by the right hon. Member for South Shields (Mr. Ede), who was then Home Secretary.

This was a scheme brought out within a month or two of the ending of the war whereby immigration on compassionate grounds to this country was confined to those who were elderly, living in distressed circumstances abroad and having a close relative here to look after them, but we have come a long way since November, 1945. The war has been over a long time. We have managed to resettle those members of the armed forces of the Governments of countries which are now under Communist domination and who, naturally, did not want to return to them.

I also put to my hon. Friend what would have happened if Frau Schmidt and Fraulein Schmidt had escaped from Communist oppression and suddenly arrived on the coast of this country. Would they not have been allowed in? My hon. Friend wrote back to me : I can only say that foreigners who enter the country illegally are usually sent back to where they have come from, unless they can satisfy us that they would suffer persecution ;". Does anybody, even in the Home Office, really imagine that if a person escapes from a Communist country and is then sent back to it he would not suffer persecution? The distressed relative scheme was a bold, an imaginative and a praiseworthy scheme in the conditions of 1945. It was specifically geared to the conditions of 1945. The right hon. Member for South Shields said : The difficulties are obvious which would be caused by large-scale additions to our foreign population at the present time when there is a shortage of housing and of supplies of many kinds, and when we are struggling to repair the losses and dislocations of a five-year war to which we have sacrificed our resources without stint ;".—[OFFICIAL REPORT. 13th November, 1945 ; Vol. 415, c. 1924–5.] We are now ten years after the end of that war. Is it not time possibly to enlarge the distressed relatives scheme? It was, after all, the right hon. Gentleman the Member for South Shields who went on, on that 13th day of November, 1945, with these words : …it will, I think, be the general desire of the British people that, despite these difficulties and within the limits imposed by them, the utmost should be done to maintain this country's historic tradition of affording asylum to the distressed."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 13th November, 1945 ; Vol. 415, c. 1925.] We have a long tradition in affording asylum to the distressed. Whether it was to Voltaire or Karl Marx, whether it was to the many refugees from the French Revolution—some enriched our national life, some did not—this country was, even up to the outbreak of the last war, providing asylum for political refugees, for those who were in distressed circumstances, and particularly for those who had in this country relatives who were able and willing to work in their support.

I hope that my hon. Friend tongiht will be a little more, may I say, imaginative, a little less stony-hearted when dealing with this kind of application, and that he will once again look at the possibilities of granting to Frau and Fraulein Schmidt a visa of entry to this country if, within a reasonable period of time, they may be able to secure permission from the Russian authorities to leave Siberia to which they were deported, the life which they are now enduring in distress, and to rejoin their relations in this country who would so much wish to have them back.

9.36 p.m.

The Joint Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. W. F. Deedes)

I share the satisfaction of my hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mr. Freeth) that we have a little longer than usual for debate. It is not easy to present a fair and complete picture quickly. I take no exception to what he said. This is a case which obviously attracts great sympathy, and the fact that, in the course of outlining it, he found it necessary to call me callous and stonyhearted, I accept as part of the good cause. I am sure his constituent will be very grateful for the very forceful and moving way in which he has presented the case.

It is not really possible to judge a case of this kind, the particulars of which I will go over in a moment, entirely without considering the background against which we have to operate. It may well be that when I have finished my hon. Friend will disagree with the background I present. I can only say that the particulars which he has offered of this case appear in a slightly different light when they are examined against the background on which we have to work.

Mr. Schmidt was, as my hon. Friend said, an ex-prisoner of war who was allowed to stay in the United Kingdom after the war. His wife is British. He asked earlier this year if his family, with whom he had lost touch since he saw them in Germany in 1944, could come here if he guaranteed accommodation for them. He is financially in a position to do that ; that is not in dispute. He learned just before writing to us that his family are in Siberia. Although they are described as of German nationality, I think that in fact they derive from Odessa. The mother is now 66, and his sister, who is living with the mother and who would like to leave with the mother, is 38. These are the facts which we got from Mr. Schmidt, and we have not been able to verify them, but I have no reason to think that they are not accurate.

He first realised that his relatives were in Siberia when he heard from his mother, through a contact in Germany, who wrote to him earlier this year and told him of the father's death in Siberia. His mother and two sisters in Siberia, one living with the mother and one, I think, a married sister, are understood to be the only two near relatives. I believe that the sister living with the mother works in a children's nursery and supports the mother who is unable to work herself. I should add—I think my hon. Friend did not—in fairness, that Mr. Schmidt says that his sister was wounded during the war and is not in very good health. I think that these are roughly the facts. We were asked to consider allowing the mother and the sister to enter this country, Mr. Schmidt having guaranteed to look after them.

Before I go on with this case, perhaps I might say just a general word about the background against which it has to be considered. As my hon. Friend knows, immigration into this country has to be restricted. That is a policy which, I think, is generally accepted, albeit sometimes critically when particular cases and categories are being considered. To make such restrictions fair, there have to be certain rules on which, broadly, we base decisions. Such rules ought not to be so rigid as to cause unnecessary hardship; neither ought they to be so flexible, to the point of whimsicality, as to create, as they could, injustice in that way.

What we try to do is to admit those who have the best claim. Among the categories of persons allowed to come and settle here are certain distressed relatives of foreigners who are resident here and able and willing to look after them. As it is into that category that this case comes, perhaps I might say a word about the distressed relatives scheme.

This scheme originated in 1945, and we have reviewed it from time to time since its inception. New categories have not been added, because it has proved quite impossible to put categories or circumstances outside the original scheme into definable groups, but we have certainly not become less liberal in our treatment of cases where exceptional factors make concessions possible. I should like to stress that. Rather, indeed, it is the other way round. In the eleven years since the scheme originated, we have admitted 6,500—including 250 widowed mothers. Outside the scheme we have admitted another 2,500. That makes a total of 9,000, and there is still a steady influx. I think that that indicates that we are not entirely selfish in granting asylum to those who seek relief here from distress.

I would add, and I am sure that my right hon. Friend accepts it, that this is only part of this nation's contribution; but one has to consider it as a part of our general contribution to the relief of refugees, which bears comparison with the contribution made by any other country. To the pre-war total of 60,000 victims of Nazi oppression admitted there have been added 200,000 refugees since 1945. Of those 100,000 were Poles who settled here, and 80,000 of the remainder entered under a series of schemes, usually known as the European Voluntary Workers Scheme. Now none are being brought in under that scheme.

But foreigners can come here to work provided they hold permits issued by the Ministry of Labour and National Service, and during the past five years 35,000 permits have been issued annually to persons in that category. It does happen quite often that someone who has settled here under one of these schemes desires that a member or members of his family should join him. That is a very natural consequence of settlement by an individual in this country, but it is not an instinct or a wish to which we could possibly give free rein. With the best will, we cannot grant such requests freely. Indeed, they can be granted only within the conditions specified in the distressed relatives scheme which, in the light of the experience of the last eleven years has, on the whole, proved fair not only to those who wish to enter but fair to the interests of this country as well.

One such category in the distressed relatives scheme relates to the mother or grandmother of a person in the United Kingdom, if she is widowed and in need of filial care. My hon. Friend may well feel that the lady in this case falls exactly in that category. A widow, though, I must add, living with another member of the family who can, as in this case, provide, does not normally—does not in other than very exceptional circumstances—qualify for entry. I do not think that is harsh, and I would stress to my hon. Friend that a very small alteration in the conditions can make a very large difference in the numbers who will be affected.

Mr. Freeth

I did not myself plead that Frau Schmidt came under category 4, but my hon. Friend himself said that Fraulein Schmidt was not in good health and was working in a children's nursery. Would my hon. Friend be willing to say that should Fraulein Schmidt's health become worse and should she be unable to support Frau Schmidt, he would be willing to look again at this problem and consider favourably the application of Frau Schmidt under category 4?

Mr. Deedes

Most certainly. I can immediately give that assurance. I am not trying to make a narrow difference based on the condition of the health of the daughter. I am trying to give the categories under which we work. I say at once that if my hon. Friend should produce new evidence this case would be reviewed.

There are two questions asked in all these compassionate cases, and it is very often the answers to them which decide the case. First, has the relative been left alone without other members of the family to whom he or she can look? Second, is he or she suffering hardship and in need of care which a relative in this country can offer? I think those are fair questions, and in this case they have not been unfairly answered.

Mrs. Schmidt is living with her daughter. She has another married daughter in the same part of the world. She is not, in one word, isolated—which is a primary consideration when we consider, as we have to do, such applications under the distressed relatives scheme. In weighing hardship we consider not relative conditions in the United Kingdom but general standards in the country abroad. My hon. Friend referred to costs and prices in Siberia, and I have no reason to dispute what he said, but clearly the comparison must not be with relative conditions in the United Kingdom, which to many people in the world appear very enviable indeed and which they are only too ready to share.

As I have indicated, there may be other factors. We are not rigid about this. If our inquiries reveal exceptional hardship a visa is sometimes granted outside the scheme. Here I must add that Siberia presents rather special difficulties. The normal procedure in these cases is for us to ask the visa officer in the country concerned to make the necessary inquiries after the relative has approached him. Of course, no inquiry has been possible in this case because the visa officer in Moscow would have obvious difficulties in getting particulars from Siberia. Moreover we have been asked, as I think my hon. Friend knows, not to pursue inquiries too far in that direction.

Therefore, we have to depend upon the information given by the relative in this country whose knowledge, so far as we know, is derived from two letters received in April this year after a gap of more than ten years. We have only the evidence of that relative, and on that I am bound to say the case falls short of the standard which has to be applied if we are not to open the door too wide.

In conclusion, I want to refer to two points which my hon. Friends made in respect of other considerations which he said ought to weigh with us in considering this case. He mentioned the fact that we might grant a visa, and if we did so these people still might not come because the Russians might not allow the necessary permit. I would set my face against any such act; I think it would be rather dishonest.

If we wanted to take an easy course, we could grant visas freely in the expectation that few people, particularly in Iron Curtain countries, would be able to use them. We should have the credit for the generosity and we should probably not have the immigrants. But that would be to hand over immigration control to the authorities of another country. It would be unfair because it would mean applying one policy to the relatives of people in one country and quite a different policy to relatives in another country. I think it would be rather dishonest.

My hon. Friend considers that we ought to be more forthcoming to refugees from the Iron Curtain countries. There are 100,000 here now from Poland who settled in this country after the war. With the relaxation in Poland during the last six months, the applications for visas have thrown a heavy burden on the visa machinery and on the Home Office. If we abandoned the limits of our present policy, there would be, not hundreds, but thousands of potential immigrants to the United Kingdom from Iron Curtain countries, particularly at this moment, when none of us knows quite what portends in the Iron curtain countries. In effect, our immigration policy would then become almost at the mercy of the Iron Curtain countries. I do not think that we should abandon the limits which we have set ourselves, bearing in mind the long-term interests of this country. Of course, visits and cultural exchanges are an entirely different matter and dealt with on an entirely different footing.

I am sorry that save for the assurance which I gave my hon. Friend, I do not feel that we can change our mind on this case, but I hope that some of the things I have said about the background against which we have had to consider it will cause him to think less hardly of us.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at eight minutes to Ten o'clock.