HC Deb 18 October 1972 vol 843 cc261-75
The Secretary of State for the Home Department, Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Robert Carr)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement to bring the House up to date with the developments arising from President Amin's decision to expel Asians from Uganda.

As the House will be aware, Her Majesty's Government accepted their legal and moral responsibility to allow holders of United Kingdom passports to come to this country in the special circumstances created by President Amin's unjust and inhumane action. At the same time, Her Majesty's Government made intense efforts to enlist the help of the international community in offering to the Ugandan refugees a wide choice of destinations, and, as a result of these efforts, 29 Governments expressed their willingness to help. I would like to give the House a few examples.

Canada imediately offered to receive 6,000 refugees—both United Kingdom passport holders and Stateless people. So far, about 2,000 have been granted Canadian entry permits.

The Government of India have agreed that United Kingdom passport holders may go there in the first instance. Already, 2,500 have taken advantage of that option.

Pakistan also responded generously, and 1,000 have so far chosen to go there.

The signs are that a substantial further number may go to one or the other of those countries.

Other countries that are taking substantial numbers of United Kingdom passport holders or Stateless persons, or both, include the United States, West Germany, Malawi, Australia, New Zealand, Sweden and Austria. A number of Latin American countries have made helpful offers, and the Inter-Governmental Committee for European Migration is co-ordinating arrangements for putting these into effect.

I want to emphasise that this international co-operation was possible only because the world saw Her Majesty's Government immediately and unequivocally accepting their responsibilities in this matter. The result is that it now appears that the number of Ugandan Asians holding our passports who will need or wish to settle here is likely to be well under half the figure of 50,000 to 60,000 first mentioned.

The position to date is as follows. Our High Commission in Kampala has issued entry certificates to about 23,500 people, and of these some 5,000 are likely to go direct to third countries. The High Commission is now issuing entry certificates to wives and dependants who hold United Kingdom passports in their own right. It is also reviewing the cases of a small number of families whose applications for passports were at first questioned but some of whom, we believe, may in fact be entitled to them because they failed effectively to renounce our citizenship after independence. My earlier estimate of the total number of people now likely to settle here takes account of these last two categories.

I want to say at this point that Her Majesty's Government have from the beginning made clear that they do not accept responsibility for those who have been rendered Stateless by General Amin's decree. Responsibility for the Stateless refugees rests in the first place on the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, who is actively engaged in international discussions about their reception and resettlement.

Turning to the arrangements within this country for reception and resettlement of United Kingdom passport holders, the position at the weekend was that nearly 15,000 refugees had been admitted to the United Kingdom. Of these, 8,500 were still being given shelter by the Uganda Resettlement Board in 11 resettlement centres. I am satisfied that the Board will be able to provide adequate temporary shelter in these and other centres for the increasing proportion among later arrivals who are likely to need it.

The Board's other—longer-term but equally important—task is to resettle the refugees in the community at large and help them find homes and jobs. The Board now has special resettlement teams at each centre which are actively engaged in this task. This is inevitably a slow process, but, having coped successfully with the reception of the refugees, the Board will now increasingly concentrate on the task of resettlement, and is being provided with the additional resources to do this effectively.

The Board is conscious of the need to persuade, but it cannot, of course, direct, refugees away from areas where social facilities such as housing and schools are already under strain. If has been autho- rised to make special and generous grants towards relevant expenditure by local authorities.

I am not complacent about what has been achieved; nor about the problems that still confront us. But I am sure that the House will agree that an enormous amount has been achieved in receiving and beginning to resettle these refugees. This reflects credit on the Resettlement Board and its staff and on the local authorities with which it is working so closely. It reflects credit, too, on the hundreds of voluntary workers and private individuals who also are playing a notable part. I am sure that the House would wish to thank them all.

In this work, I, and all those engaged, have been greatly heartened by the fact that, not for the first time, the British people as a whole have shown themselves ready to respond with humanity and warmth to the plight of fellow human beings who are in need.

Mrs. Shirley Williams

I wish to make clear the Opposition's view that the Government were right to accept the refugees from Uganda, and I join in the Home Secretary's remarks about the British people, who, I believe, have added greatly to their credit for tolerance and for imagination in the way they have accepted these desperate people from Uganda.

I take, first, the right hon. Gentleman's reference to the Stateless Ugandan Asians. I think it right to say that there are three categories of these, and I wish to put some brief questions about them. First, there are those who do not hold British passports but who were not able to renounce their British citizenship and who are, therefore, not regarded by the Ugandan Government as citizens. Are they presently being accepted for the purpose of coming to this country?

Second, can the right hon. Gentleman say something about what many of us regard as a disturbing situation? Is it true that where the wife and children hold British citizenship but the husband does not the wife is being put in the position of having to choose between staying with her husband or coming to safety?

Third, where children are automatically Ugandan citizens but the parents are not, and the children are still dependent on their parents, will the Home Secretary consider treating the family as a unit albeit that they hold passports of a different type?

Further, will it be possible, in consultation with the 27 Governments who have agreed to accept some of the refugees, to enable these people to be got out to safety even though their final destination might not be settled for some time?

Next, has the Home Secretary considered the possibility of extending loans to refugees against sequestered property in Uganda to enable them to obtain mortgages for house purchase in areas which are not congested? We accept that it is important to get the refugees to settle in uncongested areas, and we believe that a loan of that kind, given against property which has been confiscated, would be accepted by the British people as a very fair way of going about it.

Can the Home Secretary give an assurance that offers of accommodation, help and jobs are being taken up quickly by the Resettlement Board? We accept that the Board is doing an excellent job, but the right hon. Gentleman will be aware that there have been some complaints that offers of this kind have not been acknowledged, let alone taken up.

Finally, in relation to the troubled question of the refugees' position in respect of housing in the public sector, I must say—this will be my only political point—that if the Government had maintained the level of council housing the situation would be nothing like as serious as it is, but, granted that that has not been done, will the Government consider putting Ugandan refugees into temporary accommodation of various kinds and enabling them to acquire points for permanent housing on the same basis as if they had been residents in this country from the date of their arrival?

Mr. Carr

First, may I apologise to you, Mr. Speaker, and to the hon. Lady in that I understand that the normal machinery failed to deliver a copy of my statement. I hope that it will not happen again.

I appreciate the hon. Lady's general support for what we have been trying to do in our basic policy.

On the hon. Lady's question about those who may be Stateless, I sought to make it clear in my statement that we are now reviewing the cases of those who failed to renounce United Kingdom citizenship after independence. Those who we genuinely believe did not renounce and who therefore retained our citizenship will be given entry papers. That was one of the two extra categories that I said that the High Commission in Kampala is now looking at.

The second category was that dealt with in the hon. Lady's second question, namely, women and their dependants who are themselves United Kingdom passport holders but who are married to men who are not—they may be either Stateless or Ugandan citizens. We say that they can come here, so they are not being faced with the prospect of having to remain in danger. We cannot, however, accept the responsibility for the husbands and in the end, with the help of the United Nations and all the other nations, families where the head of household is not a United Kingdom citizen will normally be expected to reunite in third countries, but we are getting them here to safety at this stage.

Third, it is very difficult to treat all families as units. We make it quite clear that dependants of people who have a right to come here also have a right to come. It is always difficult to define precisely who is dependent. As the hon. Lady knows, the normal dividing age is 18. Anybody 18 or under is automatically dependent. We will consider the cases of children of somewhat older age on their merits individually and compassionately. Clearly, when children have established themselves in their own lives and are not our citizens and are not dependants we cannot extend this right to them, but we will consider cases compassionately and try to distinguish people who are genuinely dependent and not work on some rule of thumb.

The hon. Lady then asked how we were to get all the Stateless out to safety. It is noteworthy that a number of the countries I mentioned—Canada, the United States, Germany and Sweden—are offering to take Stateless persons as well as our passport holders. Also, the United Nations High Commissioner is active and is arranging temporary camps, some in Europe, to take those who cannot go to the countries I have mentioned. Therefore, I believe that is in hand, too, but this is essentially a United Nations responsibility.

The question of extending loans to refugees to enable them to take up mortgages is very important. I hope that we can arrange something. Whether it ought to be against sequestered property is an important matter but is not important compared with the fact that loans should be available. I assure the hon. Lady that I will pursue this point.

As to the question of offers of jobs and homes being taken up quickly, I hope that this will now speed up. It was natural that the people who came here first were those who already had families and relatives here. They either did not come to the centres at all or passed through them pretty quickly. We are now left with a pretty large number, a growing number—8,500 at the weekend—in the centres. These are the people the teams are working on. It will not be easy, but it is important that we have centres which I think are not now overcrowded, and therefore it will not be a great hardship if a little time is taken for resettlement, but not months and months.

The hon. Lady asked, finally, about housing within the public sector. I will refrain from having an argument about housing policy with the hon. Lady. However, many councils throughout the country are coming forward with help. Although there are areas, of which the South-East is a prime example—there are also others—where there is great pressure on housing of all kinds, there are other areas where there is not such pressure. If we can get those areas to offer to take even half a dozen or a dozen families each, over a period this problem can be solved.

Sir D. Walker-Smith

As to those Governments who have made a welcome offer to take some of the Uganda Asians, are the offers in all cases unconditional, or are any of them subject to limitation by reference to qualifications or background of the Uganda Asians? Second, since the civilised world seems to have been unable to stop this barbarous act of expulsion, what steps are being taken to ensure that as much as possible of the cost which will be incurred in this country or other receiving countries is met by Uganda or out of funds that would otherwise have gone to Uganda?

Mr. Carr

I cannot say that I fully understood all the implications of my right hon. and learned Friend's first question. I can say generally that the countries which are offering opportunities to these refugees to go to them if they wish to are not making conditions. It is true that some of them, naturally, are looking for people with particular skills, and to that extent perhaps one can say that there are conditions, but generally speaking these countries are not laying down conditions.

I cannot speak about what other countries are doing about the cost, but we have already made clear to the present Ugandan Government not only that we suspended the loan that we were about to make to them but that we were not making any new offers of aid. As I have said publicly from the beginning, money which we might much have preferred to have spent in Uganda on developing the Ugandan economy cannot be spent in both places. Therefore, from the point of view of the British taxpayer I do not believe that what we are doing in this country will add to that burden.

Mr. David Steel

Can the Home Secretary tell us as Leader of the House whether we will have the chance to debate this complex question at greater length in the near future?

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that I was in Kampala last Friday and that I was very impressed by the efficiency and the scale of the operation which our High Commission there has had to carry out and that the processing of some 25,000 individuals has been conducted with remarkable skill and with a great humanitarian approach which has been widely appreciated? The High Commission, from Mr. Slater downwards, has been under considerable strain in recent weeks and those concerned have acquitted themselves, particularly those who volunteered to go out from the Home Office to carry out this task, with great distinction.

May I ask the right hon. Gentleman a question further to his answer to the hon. Lady the Member for Hitchin (Mrs. Shirley Williams) about the Stateless persons? Can he say, first, whether the International Commissioner for Refugees or the Inter-Governmental Committee for European Migration is yet in a position to screen and document all the Stateless persons and, second, whether, when that has been done, he will be prepared to look sympathetically at what I call the hard cases, particularly those of young people who may, as a result of being defined as Stateless, be split from their families?

Lastly, will the right hon. Gentleman give us an assurance that in Britain other Government Departments will not leave the Uganda Resettlement Board to bear the burden of this task but that the Scottish Office, the Home Office and the Department of Health and Social Security are fully engaged in helping in the task of resettlement? It is my view that in my constituency, for example, the local authorities could do with far more specific information from the Scottish Office about the ways in which they could be helped.

Mr. Carr

On the question of a debate, we are very near the end of this Session, but I feel sure that the Leader of the House will consider this matter among many other requests that he receives.

I was delighted to hear what the hon. Gentleman said about what is being done by our High Commission in Uganda. I am sure that it is true and I am sure that the hon. Gentleman's tribute was well deserved. I will draw Mr. Slater's attention to it particularly and all of his staff out in Kampala. They have done a massive job in very difficult circumstances.

As to the Stateless people, the International Commission for Refugees and ICEM are having some difficulty. This has been one of the troubles in dealing with, shall I say, a somewhat unpredictable Government in Uganda. We are perfectly prepared to let any of our own citizens who want to come here and those who would like to go on elsewhere to be processed by either ICEM or anybody else after they have come here and then leave here again. However, we cannot as a matter of principle start to issue entry papers to Stateless persons. This would be putting on this country a burden which it is not ours to bear. I think we are already bearing a pretty onerous one as it is.

Of course, when it comes down to the last few hard cases this could be a difficult matter, but we must maintain firmly that the responsibility for the Stateless person must rest on the international community as a whole and not on Britain.

As to the hon. Gentleman's point about the Uganda Resettlement Board, I will speak with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland. In my experience, having virtually daily meetings about this, the co-operation which the Board is getting from the Department of the Environment, the Department of Employment, and, I trust, the Home Office and other Departments, is excellent, but I will inquire again about the Scottish Office.

Mr. Powell

Can my right hon. Friend refer to any legal authority independent of government which has publicly expressed agreement with the Government's interpretation in this context either of domestic law or of international law?

Mr. Carr

As a member of the Government, I accept the advice of the Government's Law Officers, which I believe it is the normal constitutional position for any Minister to do. I believe that there is a legal responsibility. I feel sure that when we gave the opportunity to these people who had been either citizens of the United Kingdom and Colonies before independence of British protected persons to apply for our passports, we must have intended—speaking for myself, I did intend—that one of the rights that they acquired, but not the only right, would be the right to come to this country if they were expelled and had nowhere else to go.

Mr. Alexander W. Lyon

Is not the answer to the question asked by the right hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Mr. Powell) that the European Court is likely to rule that there is a legal obligation on us, anyway?

To come to my own question, will the right hon. Gentleman say something about the safety of British citizens, both Asian and European in Uganda? There does not appear to be any other opportunity to ask this question. As even the Chief Justice was murdered when he released a British subject on a writ of habeas corpus, it is clearly a very dangerous situation where any kind of act, however apparently reasonable or justifi- able, may be taken as provocation. In this situation was it wise to remove Mr. Slater? I entreat the Government that in no sense should there be a break in diplomatic relations with Uganda certainly in the near future.

Mr. Carr

Mr. Slater has been recalled for consultation by my right hon. Friend. The High Commission staff is still there, working fully. We must see how it develops from that. We have had in our minds from the very beginning in dealing with an unpredictable Government such as we have in Uganda the safety of both United Kingdom passport holders and also the 6,000 to 7,000 nationals who are working in British companies, teaching, nursing, doctoring and so on in Uganda. That is something which we ought to keep and have kept very much in the front of our mind the whole time. This has in many ways conditioned what we have said and done in relation to the Uganda Government in the last few weeks.

Mr. Blaker

Is my right hon. Friend aware that there will be widespread recognition that in the circumstances which they faced the Government were right to act as they did? Correspondingly, is he aware that there will be widespread relief that, owing to the Government's successful diplomatic efforts, the numbers coming here are likely to be considerably less than was at one time thought? Is it not clear that the refugees would place a much smaller burden on our resources if they were able to transfer here some of their assets? Can my right hon. Friend tell the House what the position is about that in international law and in practice?

Mr. Carr

There is little doubt about the position in law and that is that they are entitled to them. If the Uganda Government denies them those assets the Uganda Government would be in breach of their legal commitments. It has to be noted, and I will say no more than this, that President Amin has in the last week or two assured the United Nations Secretary General that he has no intention of seizing their assets. Whether in practice they will be able to gain possession of them is, I fear, another matter. It would be foolish of any of us to imagine that their chances of gaining possession of them in any foreseeable future is anything but pretty remote.

Mr. Guy Barnett

May I ask the Home Secretary to make some kind of statement on the question of the Uganda Asian students? Presumably some will have been studying at Makerere and will be coming to this country. It is vitally important that their studies should not be interrupted. What is the position of those Uganda Asian students who are at British universities? In both cases what is the situation over grants to continue studies?

Mr. Carr

As for the Asian students from Uganda who are already here, we have them specially in mind and are asking local education authorities to waive the normal residence requirements which apply to British passport holders to qualify for grants. So the normal residential qualifications will be waived. The Board will compensate the authorities concerned for the funds for the first year. Let us deal with one year at a time. As for those students from Uganda, those of them who are either dependants or citizens of the United Kingdom in their own right will be entitled to come here. I cannot make a blanket offer to all students regardless of their nationality.

Miss Holt

Will my right hon. Friend bear in mind the very great disquiet there is in constituencies such as mine where there is a rather high rate of unemployment, a large waiting list for houses and a large colony of immigrants? Will he expand upon the measures which the Uganda Resettlement Board has taken to persuade refugees to go to those many constituencies where there are no immigrants, a very low rate of unemployment and no waiting list for houses?

Mr. Heller

Where is that?

Mr. Carr

Of course there is grave disquiet in many parts of the country and it would be foolish to pretend that there is not. Many people who believed that this was a responsibility and obligation which we were right to accept would have wished that we did not have it and there is nothing dishonourable about that. Those of us who believe most strongly in the reality of this responsibility and in the fact that we were right, indeed compelled, to pick it up, ought to be careful by anything we say or do not to appear to minimise the general concern, particularly in some areas. This is very genuine and perfectly natural. All we can do, via the Board, is to persuade in as effective a way as we can people to keep away from those areas. It was inevitable that the first numbers coming would be those who had friends and relatives here and naturally they went to them. We have no power to direct people and that is what has happened. Increasingly the later entries are accummulating in the centres, in suitable and reasonably humane conditions where time can be taken to inform them about housing and other facilities in parts of the country other than the areas my hon. Friend has in mind.

Mr. Bidwell

As one who has readily condemned the right hon. Gentleman in other respects, may I just as readily congratulate him and the Government on their humane and practical approach to this problem? May I also congratulate him on firmly resisting part of his party which is now in an open alliance with the National Front—[Interruption.]—and is seeking to make a meal of the question? May I ask him to consider the point that, in areas of heavy immigrant Asian concentration such as mine, the principle anxiety is on social rather than racial grounds? Is he aware that so long as the Uganda Asians are able to come and live decently in such areas, to pay their way and be responsible citizens, it makes no difference whatever to the genuine feelings of the indigenous people?

Mr. Carr

I deny absolutely what I regard as the evil totally unwarranted and unjustified allegation against the honour of a number of my hon. Friends—

Mr. Skinner

What about the party conference?

Mr. Carr

I was at my party conference and the hon. Gentleman, thank goodness, was not. If the hon. Gentleman's party had so honest a conference and if its leadership would accept its responsibilities in the same way as we do the country would be a lot better for it.

Mr. Deedes

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the cost of these camps which may shortly be running at £1 million a month and which may be with us longer than we at first hoped is a factor to weigh? What is the view of Ministers about businesslike, financial arrangements which could assist these Uganda Asians to become independent of these camps as soon as possible?

Mr. Carr

The figure I give must be nothing better than an informed guess at this juncture, but my guess is that the camps are costing us about £1 million a month to run, all in. I think it is probably of that order. It is therefore important, for financial, and above all for social reasons, that people do not stay in these camps for longer than is necessary. We are launching, and I am afraid that this has taken longer than I originally hoped, an appeal which I trust will be backed, among others by members of the Asian community in this country, to help many of these refugees. I hope that we shall soon see that operating.

There is also the whole question of loans through banks which I am pursuing because we should remember that many of our banks have been active in East Africa and have dealt with many of these people as their clients in Uganda. I hope that in that way these people will find themselves credit-worthy to the normal banking system of this country, or if not credit-worthy at least with a record which will encourage some of those banks to take a slightly greater risk than they sometimes do.

Mr. Torney

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the disquiet in some constituencies which has already been mentioned is being fanned by the activity of small but very dangerous racialist groups who are using the unfortunate situation of the Uganda Asians to make a general attack on our society and on democratic society generally? Will he take steps to watch the activities of these very nasty groups and will he also arm Members of Parliament with all the facts at his disposal? In particular, will he give us some indication of the areas in which the Uganda Asians have settled so that we will be in a position, when these nasty little groups are making all kinds of wrongful accusations, to point out that there are only 50 such people in that town, or 100 in this, or whatever?

Mr. Carr

Of course the disquiet has been fanned by nasty groups, but that is so in any activity. It is so with industrial relations, race relations, any form of human relations. It is, alas, typical of our human state. There are always some small numbers of nasty people ready to make mischief out of any situation.

What is far more true is the overall response of the British people to which I referred in my opening statement and to which the hon. Member for Hitchin (Mrs. Shirley Williams) referred. That response has been extremely balanced in spite of the disquiet. The disquiet is genuine. There are tiny numbers of people trying to make mischief out of it. The great majority of people, in spite of their disquiet, have behaved responsibly and I think it is remarkable how few demonstrations there have been—in other words, how unsuccessful have been the sort of people to whom the hon. Member refers.