HC Deb 29 July 1960 vol 627 cc2110-20

3.59 p.m.

Mr. Robert Mathew (Honiton)

I am grateful for the opportunity to raise the problem of the reduction and simplification of frontier formalities, and, in general, the delays at frontiers. I shall do so with particular reference to Western Europe and to the arrangements we have or should have with our fellow-members of the Council of Europe. A number of the matters that I wish to mention do not come within the direct purview of the Foreign Office, but rather of other Departments, in particular, the Treasury and the Board of Trade, but, nevertheless, they are matters—

It being Four o'clock, the Motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

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

Mr. Mathew

Although these matters come under other Departments they have all been raised with the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe and raised with the Foreign Office.

During the next three days many thousands of foreign visitors will be streaming into this country through the ports and airfields, and likewise, on the Continent, many more thousands of our fellow-countrymen will be travelling to and from their holidays as well as on business, and they will be crossing frontiers. Many hours will be wasted and many tempers will be lost as the result of the cumbersome and unduly prolonged and, in many cases, unnecessary formalities at frontiers.

In 1914, it was possible to travel without documents throughout most of the world, and currency restrictions were virtually unknown. Only the criminal and the subversive agent had any reason to fear frontiers then. Today, many more travel on business and pleasure than ever before, and it is possible to go, as we know, from Peking to London between dawn and dusk of one day, but whereas the scientists have mightily reduced time and space in travel the administrators and functionaries have placed a hundred and one unnecessary formalities and hindrances to add to the discomfort and annoyance and delay of travellers.

The chief hindrances at frontiers are passports, Customs and currency formalities. As for passports, largely as a result of the great work done in Europe by the Special Committee of the Council of Europe which sat under the chairman-ship of a distinguished former French Transport Minister, M. Pinton, a large number of countries have now dispensed with the use of these documents for the nationals of member States. I would remind the House that before 1914 no nation, except Russia and Turkey in Europe, demanded a passport or, indeed, any other travel documents.

Today, as a result of the work of that Special Committee, and the pressure put on the Governments by the Council of Europe itself, France, for instance, has an agreement with six other countries and Western Germany has an agreement with five other countries to dispense with passports—for short visits by the nationals of other member States—and to substitute identity cards or other minor documents.

The United Kingdom in this is, once again, the odd man out. It is true that we have an arrangement with the Republic of Ireland to dispense with passports. I will certainly concede to my hon. Friend that the Foreign Office has made temporary arrangements for this summer and the holiday season with respect to citizens of the Benelux countries. Therefore, I would ask him if there is any real reason why we should not adhere to the European Agreement on regulations governing the movement of persons between member States of the Council of Europe.

The passport is a singularly costly and inefficient document. I suggest that it is not really any security document. Criminals and spies have no difficulties with passports. After all, the Government who are to send a spy abroad will provide him with a passport or probably with several passports. It does not give the receiving country any opportunity at all to select whom it receives. I would suggest that the magic which officialdom attaches to passports is an illusion.

I wish to ask why the Government are not willing to come into line with other member States of the Council of Europe and recognise some other minor identity document which is very often already in the possession of a traveller and already used by citizens, such as a driving licence, or certain types of insurance certificates. Many of these documents look very impressive in themselves. I myself once, prior to 1939, managed to cross over the Bavarian-Austrian frontier with the help of my gun licence, which was printed on very fine paper and bore the Royal Arms.

My hon. Friend may know the case of John Alan Zegrus, who is at present being prosecuted in Tokio. In evidence, he describes himself as an intelligence agent for Colonel Nasser and a naturalised Ethiopian. This man, according to the evidence, has travelled all over the world with a very impressive looking passport indeed. It is written in a language unknown and it has remained un-identified although it has been studied for a long time by philologists.

The passport is stated to have been issued in Tamanrosset the capital of the independent sovereign State of Tuarid. Neither the country nor the language can be identified, although a great deal of time has been spent in the attempt. When the accused was cross-examined he said that it was a State of 2 million population somewhere south of the Sahara. This man has been round the world on this passport without hindrance, a Passport which as far as we know is written in the invented language of an invented country. I would stress, therefore, that passports are not very good security checks.

I therefore ask my hon. Friend why we are being so reluctant to co-operate in this instance with continental neighbours in the abolition of passports. I suggest that one of the reasons is that when Ministers in all countries come to deal with the problem they take advice at a relatively low level and there is among the functionaries of the world a sort of vested interest in the complications of administration—a vested interest in their jobs and in inertia. Pending the introduction of the European passport which the Consultative Assembly of the Council of Europe proposed in 1949, is there any reason why a cheap and easily procured identity document cannot be accepted?

I suggest that it should be similar to the international certificate of vaccination which is accepted throughout the world. That identifies the traveller and is signed by a doctor. The new document could be signed by a vicar or a chairman of a local council, or someone of that sort of status, and it could be stamped with the stamp of the local council. If my hon. Friend says, "Ah, but what about security?" I would reply that the onus would be on the council stamping the document to send information to the Passport Office, where it could be recorded.

As for Customs, the only two countries in Western Europe which still demand the antiquated expensive and totally unnecessary tryptyque, or carnet passage en douane, are Britain and Spain. Today, one can travel on a visit of up to three months with one's motor car from the north of Norway to the southernmost tip of Sicily and the only Customs document required for the car is a green card or international certificate of insurance which any insurance company in this country is able to issue.

In July last year I asked the Chancellor of the Exchequer why we could not remove this hindrance to the British tourist trade. The reply was that it was not an unnecessary formality and that import duties and Purchase Tax must be protected. I ask my hon. Friend why France with its much higher tariffs on motor cars can afford to do this while we cannot. I suggest that more respect is paid to the tourist industry in France and that it is realised there what a hindrance this document is. This great mass of documentation in a tryptyque required of someone coming into England or someone going by motor car to Spain is seldom checked. The system is really a haven of red tape for the functionary and has no meaning at all.

My constituency, in Devon, is an important holiday area where we do not have as many foreign motorists as we should. I have asked a number of foreigners visiting resorts in my constituency why this is so. I have had the answer that it is too much trouble to bring a motor car on a short visit to England because of the demand by the Treasury that these documents must be produced. I hope that my hon. Friend will be able to tell me that the introduction of the green card for visitors to the United Kingdom will not be long delayed.

I would also ask, concerning Customs, whether there is any reason why visitors and British people returning to this country should not have an allowance of, say, £5 of goods to bring in duty-free. This concession, with a higher upper limit, limit, already applies in the United States. I suggest that if there were a £5 limit it would prevent a great deal of time being wasted at ports and airports. Most tourists bring back souvenirs. They have to be questioned about them, and the Customs officer has to exercise his discretion. Both Customs and passengers would be relieved if there were this little concession.

Also, in connection with Customs, is there any reason why there should not be a spot check system, whereby instead of examining every passenger, one passenger in, say, every two hundred is examined? If that system were introduced, as it has been at a number of the frontiers abroad, it would be just as efficient and lust as much a deterrent to the potential smuggler and would speed up the process.

In view of the general relaxation that there has been in recent years, I would ask whether currency restrictions are really necessary here any longer. If they are, surely the right course to pursue is not to question every individual but to introduce a system of spot checks. I myself had the experience, not long ago, of leaving this country at London Airport at a time when there was a great deal of publicity and correspondence in The Times about delays at London Airport I was going abroad with a number of other hon. Members. I was asked by the Customs how much money I had. I told the Customs official, and he said, "Can I see it?"

All this took time. I produced my money and he counted it very slowly. It was about £5 less than I had told him. It was handed back, but by that time my colleagues were practically in the air. I suggest that that is an unnecessary procedure. Surely some discretion must be used. I would say that in my experience and that of everyone to whom I have spoken the Customs officials, who have a very difficult task to perform, act with the greatest courtesy and are extremely reasonable and polite in all cases.

Another question in regard to airports—my hon. Friend has no direct responsibility for this—is that of the smooth movement of passengers through our air terminals. I am certain that this matter must be restudied by those responsible on a time and motion basis so that we do not have the terrible traffic jams which we had, in particular, at London Airport this summer. I know one of the reasons for the congestion is that the long-range air terminal has only just been started, or is about to be started. But the fact that aircraft very often land far away from the air terminal where the passengers have to go through these formalities causes appalling delays, and this adds very much to an already extremely difficult position. I hope, especially, that my hon. Friend will draw the attention of the Minister of Aviation to this matter and to the very perturbing letter from Lord Harvey of Tasburgh which appeared in The Times on 9th June dealing with this very point.

I ask, therefore, that the Foreign Office should study the whole question of unnecessary delays at our ports and airfields with a view to simplifying the whole process of passing travellers in and out. I suggest that the ultimate aims must be: first, the complete abolition of passports for travel between member States of the Council of Europe, but, pending that, the substitution of some cheaper, ordinary document which would be just as acceptable as the expensive and elaborate passport; secondly, the introduction of spot checks instead of examining all travellers, whatever the type of examination; thirdly, the aboli- tion of the ponderous and expensive system of Customs documents for motor cars—it is high time that Britain came into line with the rest of Europe on this matter; to my knowledge no case has ever been made out why this country should maintain this archaic and elaborate system—and, fourthly, a complete streamlining of the present administrative arrangements at airports for dealing with all kinds of examinations and the passing of passengers in and out.

Europe has been making attempts to do something about this matter for a long time. For about ten years the Council of Europe has been working on it. But Europe, in 1960, has a very long way to go to get back to the freedom of movement which it knew before 1914. I know that some progress has been made since 1945, but I suggest that this is as a result of pressure of public opinion and pressure by Members of Parliament who belong to European organisations. Pressure by the members of the Council of Europe on the Committee of Ministers has had less result than that achieved by individual members like Mr. Kiesinger and Mr. Pinton, the French ex-Minister, pressing in their own Parliaments and on their own Governments. It is public opinion which has made the progress, and not officialdom, because officialdom has consistently resisted every move forward. As I say, officialdom has a vested interest in inertia. I urge my hon. Friend himself to take the initiative now and make a real effort to cut away the jungle of documentation and formalities.

In conclusion, may I say that that great Foreign Secretary, Ernest Bevin, was once asked by a foreign diplomat what he regarded as the most important object of his foreign policy. He replied, "Just to be able to go down to Victoria Station and take a ticket to where the hell I like without a passport." I trust that that will also be the object of the new Foreign Secretary.

4.19 p.m.

Mr. Marcus Lipton (Brixton)

No more topical subject could have been chosen for discussion in the House on the verge of our departure for some three months during the Summer Recess. I merely wish on behalf of the Opposition to support what the hon. Member for Honiton (Mr. Mathew) has said.

I should like to say how much I agree with the hon. Member about passports and their being a burdensome nuisance in the tourist trade. The Joint Under-Secretary knows as well as I do, though he will not agree with me, that the British passport system is really a lot of mumbo-jumbo. I think he will confirm that it is quite unnecessary for a British subject to have a passport for the purpose of leaving the country and returning to it. That being so, why is it necessary to subject British citizens—unless, of course, they intend to stay abroad for years or to settle down permanently somewhere else—to all the tiresome formalities required in obtaining passports, plus the expensive fees charged?

I shall not dilate on that, however, for the Joint Under-Secretary of State has been in trouble before in connection with these excessively high fees for passports. Hon. Members know of frequent cases in which constituents come to them at the last moment because their doctor is away or their parson is ill. They ask their local Member of Parliament to sign the forms of application for them. If the family is a large one, and separate passports for each member is obtained, then the cost is excessive.

I hope that it will be possible for the hon. Gentleman to be more forthcoming than he has been on former occasions, and to say that there is no reason why British tourists leaving this country should not be able to do so, and to come back, with a simple identity document Foreign countries do not care two pins what kind of document a British subject will present, because most of them realise that most British subjects travelling abroad do not want to stay but to get back home. A simple document would suffice. I hope that the hon. Gentleman is so imbued with the holiday spirit that he will be able at this late hour to announce some beneficial concession.

4.21 p.m.

The Joint Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs (Mr. Robert Allan)

I must, first, apologise to you, Mr. Speaker, to my hon. Friend the Member for Honiton (Mr. Mathew) and the hon. Member for Brixton (Mr. Lipton) for coming in a moment late. As the hon. Member for Brixton said, this is indeed a topical occasion. He indicated, or inferred, that we were going away for three months' holiday. I do not believe that he is really going on holiday for three months, and I shall be lucky if I get three weeks.

My hon. Friend began his remarks by recalling the ideal expressed by Mr. Ernest Bevin. Every Foreign Secretary from all parties has subscribed to that policy, and I have no doubt that my noble Friend will also do so.

The question of frontier formalities has been considered and reviewed by interested Government Departments time and time again, but we must, I fear, admit that this ideal has not yet been realised: it is not possible to jump on a train for any part of Europe without a passport at the present time.

By no means all of the difficulties are within our control. In the present state of the world, many people feel that they would rather travel in certain areas with, rather than without, the protection afforded by that much maligned document, the British passport. On the other hand, I doubt if there is any State in the world today which would agree to the entry into its territory of aliens without some form of document showing their identity and national status.

The British passport is accepted everywhere as such evidence, and in its present durable, if slightly more expensive, form it is ideal for general international travel. My hon. Friend suggested various alternative methods of identification. But owing to the variation in the form of the documents produced in and required by different countries, a traveller might well have to carry a sheaf of documents unless he was going to only one country, whereas the passport is a single document which is universally accepted.

My hon. Friend mentioned cost, and as the hon. Member for Brixton said, I have been in trouble about this subject before. I cannot believe that the 5s. a year which we pay for a 10-year passport can be considered a financial burden to the Continental traveller.

My hon. Friend pointed out that travel nearer home is rather different from international travel. As he knows, being interested in and serving so conscientiously on so many organisations, Her Majesty's Government have worked on several bodies with the object of removing all unnecessary formalities. We have taken part from the beginning in the work of the Tourism Committee of O.E.E.C. and in the Group of Customs Experts in the E.C.E. and we are also a member of the Council of Europe's Special Committee on Frontier Formalities.

I admit, as my hon. Friend said, that we have not yet signed the European Agreement on the movement of persons, but the main obstacle to our doing that is that, unlike almost all other Continental countries, we have no national identity card which could be substituted for a passport. I very much doubt whether there would be much support for the idea of reintroducing an identity card in this country, particularly when a photograph would have to be added to it. I can say, however, that at the moment we are considering whether or not it is practicable to introduce some form of tourist card for British nationals making short holiday, or what are called "social", visits to O.E.E.C. countries.

In the meantime, we are in the process of negotiating bilateral agreements with members of O.E.E.C. under which their nationals may use national identity cards when on short visits to this country. Discussions have already began with a number of countries and we have concluded agreements with the three Benelux countries and with the Federal Republic of Germany. We have approached three of our E.F.T.A. partners and will shortly approach the other three.

My hon. Friend came down very heavily against carnets and tryptiques. He said that the Chancellor of the Exchequer has pointed out that the revenue must be protected and that, of course, is a matter for the Chancellor of the Exchequer. Protection is given by the system set out in the New York and Geneva Customs Conventions which provide for the use of those documents and to which we and a number of other countries subscribe.

I know that many countries in Continental Europe have discarded this system, but that is because conditions are very different. There, the flood of vehicles wishing to cross land frontiers has made the carnet system virtually unworkable. Furthermore, the risk of some loss of revenue can be offset by increases in receipts from tourism resulting from what is called, in the jargon of the business, "impulse travel" at week-ends and on fête days and so on.

In the United Kingdom, however, incoming traffic is much smaller, owing to the sea crossing involved. My right hon. Friend the Minister of Transport is making certain alterations about circulation tax and vehicle registration which have reduced still further the time taken over formalities. My hon. Friend mentioned the so-called green card system. That involves certain problems, but we will consider it. However, there is a proposal before E.C.E. which, if accepted, would modify the international insurance scheme in such a way that the green card would not be carried.

My hon. Friend also referred to currency restrictions. These, including checking procedures, are watched all the time and relaxations are made whenever practicable. In February, the limit in sterling notes for out-going United Kingdom residents was increased to £50. The procedure of counting money is not adopted in the case of every traveller, so that my hon. Friend was somewhat unlucky, and in practice what he suggests is already being done.

I want finally to refer to general delays at airports. I remind my hon. Friend of the long and detailed investigation carried out two or three years ago by the Air Transport Advisory Council. Its Report, which has special reference to London Airport, was that the chief delaying factor was not Customs and immigration facilities, but the physical arrangements for handling passengers and, above all, baggage. This is a matter for the attention of my right hon. Friend the Minister of Aviation.

The Question having been proposed at Four o'clock and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. SPEAKER, adjourned the House, without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order, till Tuesday, 25th October, pursuant to the Resolution of the House of 26th July.

Adjourned at half-past Four o'clock.