HC Deb 04 May 1973 vol 855 cc1745-56

4.7 p.m.

Mr. W. R. Rees-Davies (Isle of Thanet)

At the least the House will not object to the raising of this subject for consideration today. The Uganda Resettlement Board's interim report was published yesterday and comes at a very suitable time. For a long time I have thought that the House should be brought up to date with the position as it now stands about the Ugandan Asians who came for settlement in this country.

It was on 4th August last year that Amin, in a particularly scandalous way, decreed the expulsion of many of those who had really been native to his own country, and he ordered their expulsion within a period of 90 days. It was on 18th September that this country received the first flight and by 9th November there had been 419 flights bringing in altogether 27,194 Ugandan Asians.

On 6th December my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department replied in these terms to a Question: We are determined finally that the refugees should be settled with the minimum of delay in the strange surroundings into which they have been flung …".—[OFFICIAL REPORT. 6th December 1972; Vol. 847, c. 1484.] In the course of his earlier observations, he pointed out that it would be done with the maximum of dispersal and the maximum of employment, with the minimum effect on our social services, and that, if need be, the Government would ensure that there was proper compensation for the Ugandans for any kind of expropriation of their assets.

The interim report has now been laid and in some respects it is a satisfactory report. It is right in that it sets out, and is entitled to set out, an appreciation of the successful adminstrative operation that this was. The successful administration is typical of this country. It was a first-class operation carried out not only by those in the Home Office who were responsible, but also by a "co-ordinating committee for the welfare of evacuees from Uganda" which was set up following a request from the British Council of Churches, together with the United Kingdom Immigrant's Advisory Service and the Society of Friends. Among those who assisted were the Women's Royal Voluntary Service, the Red Cross, the St. John Ambulance organisation and the Society of Friends.

All those people played a great part in giving a first-class reception for these people who had been so shamefully betrayed by what was really their own country, by this appalling black and brutal dictator. The reception teams at the airport also provided citizens' advisory committees, and the Citizens' Advice Bureau ensured that there were adequate and proper interviews and documentation. The Government, the services I have mentioned and others are entitled to feel that they provided a first-class and rewarding reception for the Ugandans who were thrust upon this country.

It would be idle of me to go on without saying that, generally speaking, the majority of people in this country found it most unsatisfactory to have the Ugandans thrust upon them in this way. They did not want them to come here. They do not feel that Amin's action was justified. They still feel that many of the Ugandan Asians should re-emigrate to other countries, and that the Government should take every possible step in that regard.

I want to ask a number of specific questions. First, the Department of Education and Science sought to teach the Ugandan Asians English. There is not a word in the report about how successful it has been. Of the 28,000, over half of whom were in the centres, how many now speak English adequately? Can they undertake effective employment as tradesmen, in professions, in other skills, or in unskilled work, with an adequate knowledge of English?

Secondly, there is not a word in the report to tell us how many of them are still without a job. We should know the answer, if not today, then very soon. Have they been fitted well into employment of great diversity?

The report tells us how the board has been able to diffuse them ail over the country into many hundreds of different areas, which is excellent. But how many of the 28,000 are still in receipt of supplementary benefit? There is not a word about that, and not a word about the total of that supplementary benefit. The country is entitled to know in much greater detail what has been the overall cost of the operation. There is a general figure in the interim report indicating a cost of just over £4 million, with a further £2½ million budgeted for the next year. But we need to know much more about how the money is being spent. Is it being spent on education, on teaching the Ugandan Asians English, on supplementary benefit? Does it need to be spent in that way? Is there nothing more we can do to ensure that they are fitted into various jobs quickly?

Many of the camps had been successfully closed by the end of March, the final date of the interim report. But there are still five. When will the Department close them all? When will Hemswell close? It has a 1,000 capacity. Greenham Common, near Newbury, has a 1,500 capacity. When will that close? West Mailing in Kent has an 840 capacity. When will that close? Falding-worth has a capacity of 685. When will that close? Gaydon has a capacity of 830. When will that close?

In the meanwhile, what is the financial cost of keeping the camps open? The people remaining in them are in the main those who cannot easily find employment. Some are unemployable, some are very old, and some are not in good health. Some are members of a family that it has not been easy to place. We should analyse the situation with a view to their undertaking self-help and running the camps themselves, if they are to remain there. We should not continue to staff the camps with kitchen staff and cooks and run them in that way. They should be run rather more like military camps, where the personnel are expected to maintain the camp themselves, to see to its upkeep and cleanliness, provided that adequate allowance is made for this. The sooner the people in the camps are put on their own feet and allowed to do the work entirely for themselves, the better it will be for them and for the country.

I ask for a clear undertaking that at least by next October the camps will all be closed. That will mean that they have been closed within a period of 12 months of opening. Secondly, I ask for a clear undertaking that there will be no re-admissions to the camps of those who have left them. Thirdly, I ask the Government to see whether those who may not be making the effort that they should be making to get out into the world and stand on their own feet—I appreciate the difficulty they may find in doing so— should have to look after themselves in cooking, cleaning and housekeeping.

Fourthly, I make a plea on behalf of the Ugandan Asians. If they have suffered confiscation of their estates or expropriation of their assets in Uganda, I hope that Her Majesty's Government will hold Amin responsible and make him pay one way or the other. This is undoubtedly the voice of the British people.

I hope it will be borne in mind that this matter is just as much the responsibility of other countries, such as India and Pakistan, to mention two examples of countries which should be prepared to play their part in securing the re-emigration of some of these Ugandan Asians to other countries to undertake their resettlement there.

It would be churlish of me not to conclude by saying that there are many Ugandan Asians who are spendid citizens, who will participate effectively in this country and who will be warmly welcome. Some of them will put our small traders in difficulty because many Ugandan Asian traders have a great understanding of business. I wish all those Ugandan Asians who have come to this country well in the future and I hope that they will be able to enjoy a good home and undoubted success in their new country.

4.16 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. David Lane)

I am glad that my hon. Friend the Member for the Isle of Thanet (Mr. Rees-Davies) chose this subject for debate today, and I appreciate the many generous things he said about refugees and those who have been involved in receiving them and helping to resettle them. It is a happy coincidence that this debate is being held on the morrow of the publication of the interim report of the Uganda Resettlement Board.

I shall try to deal with as many points as I can in the time available. My hon. Friend has made a number of fair criticisms as well as making commendations and giving compliments. If I am unable to cover all his points, I shall write to him and take the matter further in that way.

I shall first answer the point about compensation for assets left behind in Uganda. This has been one of the most unsatisfactory aspects of this sad episode. I dealt with this matter at some length in a debate on 6th December, and I have not much to add. I then said, and I repeat, that we have been making the utmost efforts with the Ugandan Government to get the assets acknowledged in that country and to find some way of moving them to this country in accordance with the registration of assets which the board and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office have been conducting with the refugees who are here. I have not much of a progress report to make, but, as I said in December, if the action of the Ugandan Government last August leads in the end to expropriation we shall demand adequate and effective compensation.

My hon. Friend then raised the question of the teaching of English. From what I have seen in the centres, efforts have been made to overcome the language handicap, and the teaching I saw was well done. I cannot quote figures showing how successful the teaching has been, but if I can find some precise measurement of progress I shall send it to my hon. Friend. I wish to emphasise that a great deal has been done.

I was asked to say how many Ugandan Asians are without jobs. As my hon. Friend will see from page 16 of the board's interim report, the board's best estimate was that about 70 per cent. of the total number of refugees looking for jobs had found employment of some kind. Putting it the other way, speaking from memory—here I am subject to correction—I believe that between 2,000 and 3,000 are still registered with the Department of the Employment labour exchanges as still looking for jobs. I will write to my hon. Friend to confirm that figure.

I wish to pay tribute to the help we have received from many employers. Most of the refugees have obtained work of some kind, though perhaps it is not all ideal work for them. All those I have talked to in and out of the centres have been anxious to get down to work as quickly as possible and to get off the backs of the British taxpayer.

My hon. and learned Friend asked next about supplementary benefit and how many are still receiving it. I cannot give him a precise figure and I doubt whether he would get one from the Department of Health and Social Security, because its records are not kept in precisely this way. But I will draw what he has said to the attention of Ministers in that Department and let my hon. Friend know what they can tell him.

As for a breakdown of costs, my hon. Friend will have seen, in the final chapter of the board's interim report, what had been spent up to the end of the last financial year. That figure, £4.35 million, related only to expenditure falling directly on the board. That is, in the main, the expenditure on running the camps. I cannot give precise figures of cost per camp. It is difficult to generalise here, because we had to bring some of the camps up to standard to take the refugees —standards not of luxury but at least of habitability. Some had not been habitable for some years. Then there were the running costs, with a fluctuating population. We shall be giving more information later, when the board can make a final report. The total will be more than the £4.35 million to which I have referred.

My hon. Friend asked when we would close the resettlement centres. We are anxious to get them all finally closed. I am not prepared to give a final guaranteed date on which the last will be closed, but we hope to carry on into the summer and early autumn, if necessary, a progressive closure of some of the remaining five centres. Of course it is our objective to get all the refugees well resettled in the community as early as possible.

On my hon. Friend's last point, about self-help, I have mentioned already the intense efforts that most of the bread-winning refugees have made to get down to work as quickly as possible. Within the centres we have involved them already in a number of jobs—helping to clean and cook and running their own affairs— and we shall continue to do so in those centres that are still open.

Perhaps I could now give a more general progress report. Looking back over the whole operation of these eight months, one sees the justification for the comments in today's Daily Mirror, which, talking about the 28,000-odd Asians who came here last September, said: They have been absorbed very quietly and peacefully and usefully. All credit to them. To the Government. And to everyone who helped. Any fair-minded reader of the board's report would agree with that general judgment.

When I last reported to the House about this, it was on 6th December, soon after President Amin's deadline had expired, and it was a time when the board was facing its severest problem in terms of the sheer numbers who needed immediate help. I can best illustrate the progress since then by mentioning one or two key figures and comparing them with the position that I reported in December.

At that time the board was running no fewer than 15 temporary resettlement centres. These have been closed down with all possible speed as the number of residents has fallen. Today the board is continuing only the centres at Hemswell and Faldingworth in Lincolnshire, Green-ham Common in Berkshire, West Mailing in Kent and Gaydon in Warwickshire— the last of which I am hoping to see for myself next week.

Faldingworth will be closed on 15th May; that will leave only four of the original 16 which had been running at the peak of the operation in November.

Early in December there were 10,300 refugees still in the centres. Today the figure stands at less than 3,000. These figures show that at least one part of the task we were set last year has been substantially finished. There is the big and continuing problem of the life and settlement of the Ugandan Asians after they have moved into the community from the centres. I will deal with that in a moment.

We could not have reached the present housing position if the board had not had such excellent support from local authorities and private individuals. The figures at the end of last week were that approximately 6,350 refugees had been housed by local authorities and about 2,180 were in accommodation which had been made available by private individuals. That is a total of about 8,530.

My hon. Friend mentioned dispersal, which has been one of our main aims from the beginning. The Government asked the board to try to persuade the refugees not to settle in the parts of the country where social services were already under strain. This was right and in the interests of those areas and the refugees. The board has had some measure of success here. We can see the details in the report. It has placed refugees in more than 340 local authority areas throughout Great Britain.

The refugees who have been resettled by the board have as far as possible been diverted from these areas of stress. The figures I have given show that these areas have been relieved of a considerable burden.

I come now to the efforts we have made to arrange the re-emigration to third countries of refugees who came here. The board says in its report that very approximately close to 1,000 refugees who came here are likely to leave in order to settle in other countries and that about half have already left. It is true that large numbers of refugees have, on their own initiative, gone to live in the areas already under strain. In a free democracy in which we could not tolerate the power to direct people where they should live this is not a matter under the Government's direct control.

If it had not been for the dispersal policy the numbers going to the stress areas would have been significantly greater. I do not under-estimate the difficulties that have been created for some already hard-pressed local authorities. I have seen several of these. I hope they will acknowledge that if we had not tried this dispersal policy their position would have been much worse.

I remind the House that all the local authorities that have had to make special arrangements to receive and resettle the refugees are eligible for various special grants made by the Uganda Resettlement Board under the authorisation of the Home Secretary. We have taken careful note of the varying problems of the local authorities most concerned, and these special measures show that during the coming months they can continue to look to the central Government for help in what we have regarded as essentially a national problem.

As well as local authority efforts, I would like to mention what has been done by the Uganda Asian Relief Trust which was set up near the end of last year under the chairmanship of Lord Sainsbury. The Government contributed £50,000, and the trust has collected £63,000 from other sources. The money is being distributed via the local authorities for items such as blankets, kitchen utensils, soft furnishings, beds, warm clothing and so on. On the present trend of help that is being directed to the refugees through local authorities from the trust we reckon that in the end the trust will be able to help about 10,000 of the refugees in this practical way.

We must look to the future. We all realise that the board has still to move out of the centres the fewer than 3,000 refugees who still remain. A number of them present special difficulties for the board's resettlement teams. The speed of resettling is bound to slacken off as the difficult cases are tackled, such as the large families, the elderly people and the infirm, who form a large proportion of the remaining population.

Recently the board made a special survey of the residents who remained. The board will continue to tackle this remaining problem with the same energy as it has shown all through the operation. I am hopeful that the problem can be overcome satisfactorily. I am looking forward to discussing it further with the chairman of the board next week.

We still have on offer from local authorities about the right amount of accommodation for the families still in the centres. However, there are some families with special needs which will need special attention both by the board and by others. We must try to keep the momentum going because we are all aware of the dangers of instirutionalisa-tion if the refugees stay on in the centres for a great deal longer.

Employment is in many ways the key to the success of the resettlement operation. That work is still going on, as I indicated, through the Department of Employment. At the end of March— this is the latest figure that I have— the Department had placed no fewer than 4,000 of the refugees in employment in a wide variety of jobs. Of course, the Ugandan Asians who are out in the community and have jobs, or those who have still to find jobs, still need a great deal of help. Some of the accommodation is inadequate. Some have jobs that may be only temporary. Many of them need support whilst they get used to a life in unfamiliar surroundings. The board has these remaining problems much in mind, but we believe that the main support should come from the existing authorities and organisations which meet similar needs amongst the rest of the population.

The board has contact with the WRVS and local community relations councils. Such organisations do everything they can on a local level to help the new arrivals to become established by giving advice and guidance. The chairman and other members of the board are now making a series of visits to areas that have received a large number of refugees in order to discuss with the local authorities the problems that remain, and to ensure that the best and fullest use is made of the special grants to local authorities.

Early in December I paid tribute to the work of the board, the trust, all the voluntary workers and the Government Departments and to the great help which had been given by the local authorities. I hope that the House will agree that I should end now by repeating the Government's appreciation and admiration of the efforts of all the people concerned. It is fair to say that the momentum built up in the early months has been sustained. The number in the centres has been steadily reduced, and a fair measure of dispersal has been achieved. All the members of the board deserve our thanks.

I am not saying that not one mistake has been made throughout, but certainly some of the criticisms which I have read this week have been exaggerated. A human problem has been tackled in a human way.

I have tried to give the House an account of what has been a success story. I do not wish to make light of the problems that remain, particularly in human terms. Against the background of the achievements which we have seen I am confident that the full operation of resettlement is going along towards an end of which all of us can be proud, and by means of which, as my hon. Friend indicated, the refugees will be able to make a new and satisfying life in this country.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-six minutes to Five o'clock.