HC Deb 18 December 1961 vol 651 cc1091-102

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

10.43 p.m.

Mr. R. W. Sorensen (Leyton)

On 16th November I asked the Secretary of State for Commonwealth Relations what consultations he has had with Commonwealth Governments in order to promote a full understanding by them of the problems facing Her Majesty's Government with regard to the provision of adequate accommodation for immigrants."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 16th November, 1961; Vol. 649, c. 646–7.] The subsequent Answer to my Question and other replies to supplementary questions which I was able to put leave me a little puzzled. There are some technical oddities about them. For instance, in c. 77 of Written Answers for the same day the same Question is repeated for purposes of Written Answer. I do not know why there should be duality of reply in this case. I would also point out that in my supplementary question, in c. 647, there is the rather strange adjective "assistant" to describe level, which, I assume, should be "subordinate".

Apart from these technical deficiencies and that slight touch of mystery, my impression when I received the replies, in the House and when I read them later, was that there was a certain amount of evasion—not conscious evasion, but evasion all the same, because I was directing my question to find out, if possible, whether there had been adequate and thorough consultation. "Consultation" and "intimation" are not the same words and must not be taken as synonymous.

There had certainly been intimation. Indeed, that was made clear, for the right hon. Gentleman, in reply to my Question, said: The housing problem created by uncontrolled immigration has been explained to Commonwealth Governments…"—[OFFICIAL REPORT. 16th November, 1961; Vol. 649, c. 647.] Later he reasserted that statement in so many words.

I do not doubt that there had been a certain amount of intimation and ex planation to the Commonwealth Governments, but that was not my point. That is why I failed to understand why the right hon. Gentleman, in reply to my questions, started discussing the question of special accommodation mainly provided for students. Obviously, my Question was not directed at that either. It was directed, as the Question makes it clear, to whether or not there had been consultations, as distinct from intimations or explanations, with representatives of the Commonwealth on the very serious matter of accommodation both for our own people and for immigrants into this country.

My suspicion that there had been no consultation was borne out by statements made elsewhere. For instance, Mr. Nehru, speaking in the Lok Sabha on 5th December, said, in reply to questions, that to the best of his recollection, when he passed through London last time, he did not discuss the matter"— that is, the question of immigration and the difficult housing situation— with the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. Earlier, Mr. Nehru said that the first 'intimation' about legislation was received by India in October. I know, too, that Mrs. Lakshmi Menon, the Deputy Minister for External Affairs in the Indian House, said: The intention of the British Government to impose these restrictions was first conveyed to us in an Aide Memoire handed over to us on October 14, 1961. Yet again, the same lady said: We stressed the absence of previous consultation before taking a decision to impose very drastic curbs which would affect the considerable traffic of persons between India and the United Kingdom… I quote from the speeches of those two eminent Indian personalities in support of the point I am making. Others in the Commonwealth—like Sir Grantley Adams—have complained that there has been no proper consultation. Had there been consultation, the Minister would have said definitely that there had been consultation instead of just intimation.

It is my assumption, and, I hope, the assumption of all right hon. and hon. Members, that we evaluate the Commonwealth so highly that there ought to be frequent consultation on all matters of common interest and concern between the members of the Commonwealth particularly, of course, when they affect this country.

Immigration has been debated in the House and I do not intend to discuss that broad issue now. What I was concerned with was whether what I think is the only valid aspect of the problem had been discussed at a high level by representatives of the Government and the Commonwealth Governments concerned, and apparently that had not taken place. Had it taken place, I believe that a different sequence of events might have followed.

If there had been proper consultation, thorough and persistent, in which the explanation of our situation had been driven home to our partners in the Commonwealth, I do not say that it would have led to a totally different conclusion, or that they would have refrained from criticising the Bill, but it is probable that they would not feel bitterness and resentment which they now feel, because they believe that this matter has been brought into this House without any proper consultation with them.

If, for instance, we could have been assured that the representatives of the West Indies, Pakistan and India had been told one or two facts about the incidence of immigration in areas like London and Birmingham, I am certain—knowing them personally, as I do—that they would have been much more appreciative of our real problem than they apparently are now. I noticed that Mr. Manley made a passing reference to the fact that we have our housing problems, but if there had been proper consultations we would have been able to convey to him the real problem that confronts us, and would have been able to assure him that we are interested in the problem both from the standpoint of our own people and of the immigrants coming from elsewhere.

I should like to give one illustration of this, from my own constituency, which is not affected so seriously as some other London constituencies, since it is in outer London. We have nearly 2,000 people on the waiting list for houses, and over 400 on the priority list in urgent need of housing. They often come to me—although I can do nothing about the matter—and I find that some of them have been evicted, directly or indirectly, as a result of the operation of the Rent Act.

If we could have brought facts like that home to the representatives of the Commonwealth by means of proper, sympathetic and fraternal consultations, I am sure that there would have been a much greater appreciation on their part of what it must mean to people in some areas of London and the Midlands when large numbers of immigrants come here with nowhere to live. Consultations would have enabled us to bring this fact home, not in any spirit of hostility, or because we think that there should be any attempt to blanket out all kinds of immigration, but simply in order that our friends and colleagues in the Commonwealth might appreciate that, just as they have a difficult problem, so have we.

There might then have been a planned arrangement by which immigrants coming to this country were diverted to the less congested areas. Some principle of dispersion might have been agreed to by the Commonwealth representatives. There has not been any such consultation. That is why it is so lamentable. It has left the Commonwealth Governments and their representatives very sore. They feel that this matter was simply rushed through, with information and explanations given afterwards, but with no proper consultation beforehand.

I therefore ask the hon. Gentleman to give me some satisfaction tonight. Does he think that this is the way to cement Commonwealth relations? Does he think that this is the way to avoid the frictions that arise even in the best-conducted families? Does he really think that the Government are adopting the right approach to this very serious matter? I do not think so, and I must accordingly register my profound regret that we have been lacking in our moral, if not legal, obligations to the Commonwealth in not entering into proper consultation beforehand, so that we might understand the problems and difficulties of our Commonwealth partners and that they might understand ours, especially in regard to housing—and so that we could take steps to help meet their needs while they helped to meet ours.

That is the spirit in which we should have approached this matter, and because that was not done, and because the Government's attitude has been one not only of indifference but of insensitivity to the Commonwealth Governments, I not only deplore the fact but trust that even now the Government will try to make amends so that they can ease in some measure the soreness felt by our partners in the Commonwealth over this wretched business.

10.54 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for the Colonies (Mr. Hugh Fraser)

I should, first, like to thank the hon. Member for Leyton (Mr. Sorensen) for the great courtesy which he showed me in letting me know some of the points which he intended to raise. Representing the Colonial Office, I cannot deal with the remarks which have been made by Mr. Nehru and others, and if the hon. Member looks at the Order Paper he will see that the debate is restricted to some extent by the reference to the West Indies.

I therefore hope that the hon. Member will forgive me if I address my remarks mainly to that problem, but, in passing, I would say that as a quick proof of the consultation with the Indian and Pakistan Governments there is the fact that those Governments imposed a partial limitation on the movement of Pakistanis and Indians to this country by control of passports. This shows that it was understood by them that there was a problem for Britain in respect of immigration from those countries.

Mr. Sorensen

But this occurred long before the introduction of the Commonwealth Immigrants Bill.

Mr. Fraser

I mention it to show that the problem was known to them.

I should like to make a few remarks about the general question of consultation and then deal with the more specific questions which the hon. Member raised concerning information on the housing problem in this country for immigrants, particularly those from the West Indies. I attach great importance, as we all do, to consulting and giving information to other members of the Commonwealth. Well before the Commonwealth Immigrants Bill was introduced there were numerous discussions with West Indies Ministers on the problem which lay before us. My hon. Friend the Member for Surbiton (Mr. Fisher), bitterly though he opposes the Bill, will agree that in private and public conversations, and in conferences, this problem was discussed.

When the Prime Minister went round the West Indies in March he pointed out that there was this growing problem which might have to be tackled. Even I, in my humble capacity as Under-Secretary, frequently discussed this with my West Indian friends who are Ministers in the various Governments. It is almost true to say—although this may possibly be an exaggeration—that in certain well-informed political quarters in the West Indies it was understood that the problem facing this country was not so much whether we might have to face the question of the control of immigration, but when we should have to face it.

In the middle of October we asked for comments on the legislation, and these comments were received. Having said that throughout the progress of the Bill we should keep in touch with Commonwealth Governments on specific points, we went ahead, as we have to do, and introduced the Bill on 1st November. Throughout we have remained in close touch with the West Indian Governments on specific points. I am always ready to see, and I often see, Mr. Garnet Gordon, the Commissioner for the West Indies in London, to deal with specific points which he wishes to put.

Mr. G. M. Thomson (Dundee, East)

Is not the gloss which the hon. Member is putting on this process completely contradicted by the remarks of the Prime Minister of the West Indies, a man whose honesty in these matters is beyond question?

Mr. Fraser

I am saying that prior to the formal statements which we made, there were discussions about this problem. These discussions are a continuing process. They proceeded before the Bill was produced and they are proceeding now, but, clearly, the Government must make up their mind on the action which they think it right to take.

I turn now to the more specific points which were raised by the hon. Member for Leyton. If there have been discussions about the general problem of immigration and specific information and discussion about the Bill before the House, there have been even more about the particular point which the hon. Member raised—the difficulties of providing housing accommodation in this country for the immigrants. I should like to take this opportunity to reaffirm with all the power at my command that this is the case and that there is no possible doubt that the West Indian Governments have been fully aware during the past few years of our accommodation problems here.

The House will recall that Mr. Norman Manley, the Premier of Jamaica, and Dr. La Corbiniere, the Deputy Prime Minister of the Federation, visited this country in the summer of 1958 to see for themselves how West Indians were settling into the life of this country. In addition to touring, these Ministers attended a number of meetings with Ministers and officials here. At a meeting which was held at that time with my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and Viscount Boyd, then Secretary of State for the Colonies, and at which Dr. Cummins, the then Premier of Barbados, was also present, it was pointed out to the West Indian Ministers that one of the main difficulties to which West Indian immigration gave rise in this country was the limited housing accommodation available.

At the conclusion of these talks, a communication was sent to all West Indian Governments drawing attention once again to the existence of housing difficulties here. It was proposed that, in considering applications for passports from persons intending to come to the United Kingdom to seek work, the West Indian Governments should bring home to each individual the desirability not only of having reasonably confident expectation of a job but also of having suitable accommodation to come to. It was also suggested that such administrative action as was practicable should be taken to regulate the pace of the issue of passports in such cases.

Further, later that year Senator Byfield, Federal Minister without Portfolio and responsible for migration matters, visited this country to look into some of these problems. It was put to him after he had been round and looked at some of the problems that the West Indian Governments might wish to institute a system of asking intending emigrants from the West Indies to the United Kingdom whether or not they had suitable accommodation available to them over here. It was indicated that, if the West Indian Governments should wish to institute such a system, Her Majesty's Government would be willing to seek the co-operation of medical officers of health under the local authorities to vet the accommodation to see whether it was up to standard and came into line with our public health regulations.

This information would then be taken into account by the West Indian Governments in making decisions about the granting of passports. It was suggested that some such system might be of considerable help to intending emigrants and certainly would have been of help to both Governments concerned. But it was entirely for the West Indian Governments to consider whether or not they would wish to institute any such system.

For reasons which I am sure the House will readily understand, the West Indian Governments did not feel able to introduce a system of control on these lines. This was not yesterday, or this month, or last month. This was in 1958. Nevertheless, I must stress again to the House that the difficulties of accommodation over these years have been constantly stressed, constantly seen, and constantly reported to Ministers from the West Indies.

Also, I must point out that, quite apart from talks with Ministers, whether of an official or unofficial kind, there are two forms of organisation which give, and have given, the full information on this matter necessary to the West Indian Governments, First, I draw the attention of the House to the Migrant Services Division of the West Indian Commission in this country. This is a branch, and a very well run branch, to which I think the whole House would like to pay tribute for the great work it has done, which developed from the British Caribbean Welfare Service, which was set up in 1955 to cope with the problems of immigrants here. In 1958, it was taken over by the West Indian Commission, and this Migrant Service Division is especially concerned with those aspects of housing affecting West Indians here. It employs staff, not only in London but in the provinces, and it makes available very complete information about the conditions in which West Indians are living.

In addition, the Government of Barbados have their own organisation in London to deal with immigrants—the Barbadian Immigrants' Liaison Service. This, again, does excellent work and, again, is a source of information. I should also point out that since 1958 there has been a Departmental committee of officials for which the Colonial Office is responsible, which is attended by representatives from the office of the West Indies Commissioner and one of the problems most frequently discussed by this Committee has been housing matters.

I therefore say that there has been a constant flow of information and discussion in relation to this matter of accommodation, certainly since 1958. I have already mentioned the talks that have taken place between United Kingdom Ministers and those of West Indian Governments. I should also mention the great number of visits to West Indian immigrants made by Ministers from the West Indies when they come to this country. In 1961, Sir Grantley Adams made a tour of Sheffield, and Mr. Norman Manley went to Birmingham. Mr. Jonathan Grant, Minister of Labour in Jamaica, visited both London and the provinces in July this year.

Senator Byfield, of whom I have already spoken, visited London and the provinces in 1961, and the Federal Minister for Labour and Social Affairs, Mrs. Allfrey, whose portfolio includes migration matters, usually makes a point of visiting centres of West Indian immigration when she is in this country, and did so as recently as June, 1961.

The hon. Member seemed to suggest that had West Indian Ministers been aware of the difficulties of housing accommodation they would have been more prepared to co-operate with us in some planned control of immigration, but I think that it is clear from what I have said that the West Indian Govern- ments have throughout been made fully aware of these accommodation problems. I suggest that it is a little naive to argue that this knowledge would have cause them to agree to impose local controls on the issue of passports to their own people.

I am sure that all hon. Members will recognise the difficulties which would have faired the West Indian Governments themselves if they had restricted the issue of passports to people who wished to travel to the United Kingdom at a time when those people were aware that the United Kingdom itself did not impose any restrictions on entry into the United Kingdom—

Mr. Sorensen

I think that the hon. Gentleman will agree that I did not mention that.

Mr. Fraser

I said that at one moment that seemed to be the tendency of the hon. Member's argument.

In spite of the information available, and in spite of our requests and suggestions that the West Indian Governments should look at the problem, I think that with all its difficulties the voluntary control of immigration was bound inevitably to fail, and we were, therefore, forced into the action which the House is now taking.

In answer to the hon. Gentleman's specific question on information and consultation, I have no hesitation in assuring the House that the West Indian Governments have been fully aware in recent years of the problems of providing accommodation here for their migrants, and that we in the Government have done our best to assist them.

11.10 p.m.

Mr. G. M. Thomson (Dundee, East)

The House should not adjourn without the Under-Secretary's account of these exchanges between Her Majesty's Government and the Governments of the West Indies being seriously challenged. The Under-Secretary will recall that the Prime Minister of the West Indies, Sir Grantley Adams, came here recently and saw representatives of the British Government. He made it plain in his representations to the Government—and publicly on television and elsewhere—that there had been no real consultation, in the normal definition of that word, between Governments.

The Under-Secretary will remember that Sir Grantley and, indeed, all the leading representatives of the West Indies, were in London for a considerable period last summer holding a Constitutional Conference about the future of the West Indies. Both the Under-Secretary and I took some part in meeting them. Although there was plenty of discussion about the problems created by immigration into this country, I do not think there was any suggestion from Her Majesty's Government at that time that legislation of the kind we now have was seriously being contemplated.

Certainly, no opportunity was taken by Her Majesty's Government to have the kind of proper consultations there should have been before the Commonwealth Immigrants Bill was introduced. It is one thing for politicians to meet informally and to state that certain problems exist. It is quite another for Her Majesty's Government formally to inform tie Governments of the West Indies that they are contemplating legislation. Before this fateful Measure was introduced—breaking, as it does, all the Commonwealth precedents and doing damage we cannot foretell to the whole idea of the Commonwealth—Her Majesty's Government should have got round a table with the leaders of the Commonwealth Governments, including the West Indies Governments, and should have tried to have an adequate discussion on the real nature of the problem and to come to some common agreement between the Commonwealth Governments and ourselves as to how this could have been met. This was not done not only in the case of the West Indies, but regarding the other Commonwealth Governments.

I have just returned from West Africa. The people there were complaining as much as those in the West Indies about this historic step taken by Her Majesty's Government without the sort of consultation we normally mean when we speak about Commonwealth consultation. The answer the Under-Secretary gave tonight on this main point of consultation has been utterly inadequate.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at thirteen minutes past Eleven o'clock.