HC Deb 11 April 1974 vol 872 cc655-67

12.38 p.m.

Mr. Peter Blaker (Blackpool, South)

You, Mr. Speaker, have rightly said that this is an abnormal situation. It was for that reason that I sought your permission to do what I am proposing now to do.

I have been faced with a difficult decision. I am aware that some of my hon. Friends, and no doubt hon. Gentlemen opposite, have come here with the intention of debating horticulture. On the other hand, I have had to take account of the fact that the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food has made an important statement in answer to a Question this morning, which, as I heard it, conceded a large part of the argument that so many of my hon. Friends have been pressing on him for the last month. We shall want to examine that statement with great care. Therefore, it is right that we should take time to do so.

It was only because of the grave statement made by the Home Secretary that I sought permission to raise this subject. I apologise to hon. Members who have come here to debate horticulture for not raising that subject.

The statement made by the Home Secretary is of vast interest to the great majority of citizens of this country. I want to make only two points. First, it is deplorable that the right hon. Gentleman should have made the statement today, whatever the motives may be, because it will inevitably reduce the attention that it would normally receive in the Press. Secondly, it seems to be setting a precedent for the legalisation of past illegal acts.

12.40 p.m.

Mr. Sydney Bidwell (Ealing, Southall)

The House is faced with a serious situation. As a former candidate in the Lea Valley area I have an interest in horticultural problems, and I am a little disappointed that the subject originally chosen for debate has been switched in this way. I also have a greenhouse, and I have a distant interest in what goes on in there.

As the House knows, I have a powerful interest in the problems of immigration as they affect the country generally and my constituency in particular. I am one of the original members of the Select Committee on Immigration and Race Relations that was set up by the previous Labour Government and carried on while the Conservative Government were in office, and only a few moments ago the House accepted that that Committee should once more be established.

I disagreed with the Conservative Government's bringing in the 1971 Immigration Act, becauses it flew in the face of the recommendations of that valuable all-party Committee. What that Committee put forward was a sane and sensible—

Mr. Hugh Dykes (Harrow, East)

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I wonder whether, through you, the hon. Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr. Bidwell) could be asked to speak more narrowly to the announcement that was made today by the Home Secretary on the ground that time is extremely limited and a number of hon. Members wish to take part in the debate?

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Oscar Murton)

The hon. Member who has the Floor must be allowed to deploy his argument. I have no control over it, because I do not know what the hon. Member will say.

Mr. Bidwell

I promise not to be discourteous to the House by taking an abnormal amount of time to explain my feelings on this matter, but I must tell the hon. Member for Harrow, East (Mr. Dykes) that interventions such as his merely have the effect of prolonging my speech because I then have to allude to the abnormal circumstances in which the debate is taking place.

The topic being debated today is not of my choosing, but I am unavoidably constrained to take part in the debate for the reasons that I have already announced. I have a feeling that Conservative Members—Members of good will and of good Christian virtue—do not have a proper understanding of the illegal immigration situation in Britain. Perhaps I may ask for the patience of the House while I say something about the problem, because it may then be appreciated that my right hon. Friend's announcement, although made in a form that has been questioned, was the right and proper thing to do.

One hears wild and fantastic stories about tens of thousands of illegal immigrants. We do not know the figures, and not even the police know them. We have a hunch that many immigrants have come here for short periods but have overstayed and are now resident. We hear stories about people being smuggled on to the beaches, and of others trafficking in illegal immigration. We all deplore what is happening, and I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary agrees with that statement, but this is the lesser part of the problem of illegal immigration as a whole.

France and Germany have dealt with this problem in a much more civilised way than we have hitherto tackled it. Some of the more moron-like noises from the Conservative benches sicken me. It is not merely a matter of putting right an injustice, because it was not the intention to make the 1971 Act retrospective. When the right hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Mr. Maudling) was Home Secretary, time and again in the Standing Committee he said that those who had already settled here would not be adversely affected by the passage of that measure and that if people were outside the jurisdiction of the magistrates' courts by virtue of being Commonwealth citizens they had won the right to legal settlement here. However, that provision was wiped out by an inadvertent and deplorable aspect of the law, as we subsequently discovered, and my right hon. Friend has now sought to put the matter right.

My right hon. Friend's statement will, of course, please those families who have suffered from the anxiety of knowing that the breadwinner had the Sword of Damocles hanging over him and ran the risk of its dropping at any moment, but it will, in addition please the police. I have discussed this matter with the local police and with representatives of the Police Federation, and I know that today's announcement will ease their minds, because it will remove from them the duty of having to look for illegal immigrants and put an end to the obnoxious practice of fish net raids.

When the police look for people whom they suspect have been engaged in criminal activities, they are often constrained to ask every coloured person in sight for his passport. This obnoxious practice is carried out not only with everyone with a dark skin, but with their relatives and friends. Very often white people who have struggled to build up a multi-racial harmonious situation find themselves involved in this kind of inquiry.

People in Blackpool and in the wilds of other parts of the British Isles have no great experience of this problem of immigration. The more distant people are from immigrant communities and their white friends, the more afraid they are of the problem. The hon. Member for Blackpool, South (Mr. Blaker) has allowed himself to be inveigled into the position of giving up the time allotted to him for his original debate because it seems that he is not sufficiently interested in the problems of the horticulture industry.

12.48 p.m.

Mr. Piers Dixon (Truro)

The Home Secretary's remarks will be interpreted by ordinary people as compounding a felony, as it were. This is a sad day for Britain.

I recognise that in certain cases—I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will agree with my next statement—an amnesty has the effect of minimising the mischief. An amnesty on the illegal possession of arms, on balance, has the effect of getting people to hand in their illegal arms, but this amnesty will have precisely the opposite effect. It will increase mischief. The message will go around tonight in India, in Pakistan, in the West Indies, and throughout the Commonwealth countries, "Look boys, you don't have to obey the British law. All you have to do is get inside the country, and once you are inside the Labour Party will see you right and make sure you are allowed to stay."

12.50 p.m.

Mr. William Molloy (Ealing, North)

The only thing I would say about the reprehensible speech that we have just heard is that when the history of extreme Communist and Fascist nations is written and we see in some perspective the inhumanity of one group of people to another, the verdict will be that although Britain might have lost a great Empire, on this Maundy Thursday she showed what a truly great nation she was and how civilised were her people.

This cannot have been an easy statement for my right hon. Friend to make. Illegal immigration creates great bitterness, particularly when people who are afflicted by poverty and other disadvantages relieve their frustrations by attacking another human being who has entered this country.

The hon. Member for Truro (Mr. Dixon) talked about the people of India, Pakistan and the Caribbean countries being such a bunch of criminals that they are waiting to see how they can race to Britain to break our laws. Perhaps they will do so in the same way as they answered Winston Churchill's call in the last war and came here in their colourful uniforms to fight for the freedom which my right hon. Friend has emphasised again today.

The real criminals in illegal immigration are mostly those who are white, like me, who feast on the agonies of other people, and bring them by devious means into this country through their free enterprise, entrepreneurial lawbreaking activities. They should be condemned.

Is my right hon. Friend satisfied with the liaison between this country and the other Commonwealth nations whose nationals are allowed to come here, as some of our nationals go to their countries? Any lapses in that administration could help these peddlers in filth and those who feed on people's problems. Any loopholes should be sealed. This could contribute to erasing something which is distasteful in principle.

Because the laws of man sometimes make things unwholesome and even rotten for ordinary people, the action which my right hon. Friend has had the courage to take today will be applauded today and in years to come as a marked courageous and humanitarian move; it will be remembered for centuries.

12.54 p.m.

Mr. Norman Tebbit (Chingford)

The only point on which I would agree with the hon. Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Molloy) is in his call for the most rigorous measures against those who profit from the trade in illegal immigrants. If we can remember, on a morn- ing on which we are considering a matter on which strong views are held, that we share certain views, this can be helpful. We are all interested in good community relations, but have differing views about how they should be achieved.

This short debate could have been conducted in a much more gentlemanly manner had the Home Secretary not concealed to the extent he did the fact that a statement was to be made today, and its nature. After it had emerged late last night that a statement was to be made and there were suspicions about its nature, journalists who rang the Home Office were told blankly only that there was to be a statement. Had it been more clear yesterday—when the right hon. Gentleman must have known that he was to make this statement—what it would be about, there would have been much less bitterness and heat this morning.

The Home Secretary said that he had to balance in his mind the effect on the illegal immigrant against the improvement in community relations which would result from this step. He must accept that many of us sincerely believe him to be wrong on this matter, who sincerely believe that it will not be believed in the trade that there will not at some time be another amnesty, and who believe that, by taking these measures, the right hon. Gentleman has given a great boost to the trade.

The right hon. Gentleman must also accept that many Opposition Members are not unused to the problems of inner cities and have lived in inner areas of cities ourselves.

Mr. Bidwell

Like Truro.

Mr. Tebbit

The right hon. Gentleman must accept that we feel that the fears of the host communities must be taken into account.

The right hon. Gentleman must come clean and tell us more—particularly what he will do about those people who were found out and deported, who were perhaps a little more honest and got heaved out in the last year. They will feel that they are much worse off than those who managed to continue buying their way through to stay in this country until this statement. How many does the Home Secretary think are involved? He cannot just say "a number" and leave it at that.

What about the dependants of the illegal immigrants, dependants who are not already in this country? Presumably the illegal immigrant has been happy to live here without his dependants for some time, and presumably he could be reunited with them at no cost to himself by going back to where they are today.

What depresses me most about the manner of the making of this statement is that the word will go out again in the world, from Ulster to Clay Cross, from Pakistan and India to the West Indies, that this Government are a pushover for those who want to achieve their objectives outside the law, as opposed to those who are willing to comply.

12.58 p.m.

Mr. E. S. Bishop (Newark)

I am grateful for the opportunity to take part in this debate because a Question that I tabled was partly responsible for this statement. Hon. Members opposite talk about my right hon. Friend hiding behind this procedure, but they forget that he could have given a Written Answer to my Question and not appeared before the House at all. He took the opportunity to turn my Question into an Oral Question and he has now announced his policy to the House and submitted himself to questioning. We should commend him for that action.

In my supplementary question I mentioned the problems which create the trend towards illegal entry. I have in mind the fact that, on 19th December last, in reply to a Question about the length of time between application and interview at the British Embassy in Islamabad, the then Minister of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Relations said that there was an interview delay of more than six months for all applications received during 1973. The then Minister of State said that 3,343 applicants had been allotted interviews with a delay exceeding six months.

With regard to the administrative arrangements at the British Embassy at Islamabad, the Select Committee on Race Relations and Immigration stated in its report that the immigration work at Islamabad was very heavy and that the staff of 46 were under intense pressure. In spite of a 5 per cent. increase in staff, outstanding applications for certificates rose to 2,000 in 1972.

Another aspect to which I referred earlier was the matter of appeals. The procedure here should he speeded up, because appeals take a great deal of time. There has been an increase of about 80 per cent. between 1971 and 1972, yet the proportion upheld declined from 31 per cent. to 18 per cent. I have noticed Press reports about delays of two years being not infrequent. I have had information about an application which was submitted on 25th August 1972 to the British Embassy in Islamabad, the person concerned being offered an interview on 17th September 1974—about two years later. I understand that in 1974 the entry certificate offices are fully booked.

I have seen this kind of situation in action. When I was a member of an IPU delegation to India, I spent a day at the immigration office of the High Commissioner in New Delhi. One sees there the teeming numbers of people who want entry, and one hears the allegations about families and husbands being in various parts of Britain. This is a human problem which must be seen in that kind of context.

I appreciate the comments made by Opposition Members, but the fundamental point on this matter is that when the right hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Mr. Maudling) put through the legislation, there were allegations on both sides of the House that the regulations were not at all clear. By making the announcement which he has made today, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has done a service and a justice to those concerned, and certainly not an injustice to those here. The announcement will get rid of some of the harassment, blackmail and undesirable features which attend those who come here in certain circumstances. It will also help to clear the air. But, in the long run, we can resolve the problem of illegal entry only if my right hon. Friend looks at some of the points made about the position of dependants and the time taken and the delays in the consideration of entry certificates and appeals.

1.2 p.m.

Mr. Toni Boardman (Leicester, South)

In my constituency there is probably a greater proportion of immigrants than there is in the constituencies of most hon. Members. My concern is that we get the best community relations possible and reduce the pressures which have inevitably built up over the years where there has been a large concentration of immigrants. It is for that reason that I deplore the decision which has been announced today by the Home Secretary and reached without consultation with the authorities of those cities which have to bear the brunt of the consequences of such action. It is to those cities that the dependants will go. It is in those cities that the overcrowded schools will continue to be overcrowded, and the people there who have legally come into this country will feel that they have been deprived for some time of the opportunity of bringing in their dependants because those who have come in illegally have been allowed to remain here in preference to the dependants of those waiting to bring them in.

It is because of the lack of consultation with local authorities and responsible bodies and associations in such communities, which have to face the problem and the fact that the immigrant community will feel no less strongly on this matter than the indigenous population, that I deplore the decision and the way in which it has been made.

1.4 p.m.

Mr. James Prior (Lowestoft)

We have to judge the Home Secretary's decision on the question whether it will improve community relations or make them worse. In these matters it is always a difficult decision to reach. But what some of my hon. Friends and myself are worried about is that community relations depend not just on the happiness of the immigrant population but on the acceptability to the rest of the population of those who come in. Now, more and more, among the immigrants themselves there is a desire for strict control over immigration, because they recognise the social and other problems which have resulted from too many coming in. That is the background against which I have tried to judge what the Home Secretary has said.

I recognise that there have been cases of harassment and perhaps, blackmail although I think that many of the worst fears which were expressed in the House in debates last year have not been realised.

I should like the Home Secretary to tell us a little more about the present fears of the immigrant community. It is my impression that they are now considerably less than they were a few months ago. It is quite remarkable how, in recent months, there has been a settling down of the whole immigrant problem. I should have much preferred to see the administrative and compassionately made arrangements continue, rather than the step that has been taken today.

What is also worrying many of us is that the illegal immigrants who will now be granted an amnesty will be allowed to bring their dependants here. It would be grossly unfair to legal immigrants if their dependants did not get preference over those of illegal immigrants. I hope that the Home Secretary will give an assurance, particularly to the immigrant community, that no dependants from the category that he has announced today will be allowed to jump ahead of those who are already in the queue waiting to come here. That is very important.

My right hon. and hon. Friends will wish to return to this subject. The point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Chingford (Mr. Tebbit) was perfectly right. There will be considerable worry now on the question whether there is to be a further amnesty in the future for other illegal immigrants, which could encourage illegal immigration. That would be deplorable.

We have tried to adopt a policy of making it absolutely plain that permanent immigration must now be cut to the absolutely inescapable minimum, that only close dependent relatives of those already settled here lawfully should come in, and that those who have to come as a result of our imperial past possess citizenship of this country and of no other. That is our firm policy. We should deplore anything that the Home Secretary does to move away from the policy which we think has been working satisfactorily for the last few years.

1.8 p.m.

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Roy Jenkins)

I am glad that the right hon. Member for Lowestoft (Mr. Prior) introduced a rather more temperate note into our brief debate than that of some of his hon. Friends. I share the right hon. Gentleman's view that one's approach to these matters must be based on what will encourage good community relations. My view here is that it does not so encourage good community relations to make use of a retrospective provision which takes away from people rights which they thought they possessed, even though they had entered illegally at a time in the past—but that has been condoned by successive administrations—and to do it in a way which was not made remotely clear to the House when the provision was going through it.

There is no doubt that this has been the view which many eminent authorities have taken. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Salmon, in his judgment, said: I feel bound to express concern that the draftsmen of this Act should have chosen to achieve its retrospective effect through a labyrinth of verbiage which may well have been as perplexing to many of those who had to consider it in Parliament as it was to many of those it has deprived of their constitutional rights. I therefore start with an exceptionally retrospective position. I also have no doubt about the effect upon community relations from the point of view of the coloured community and of those closely concerned, and from the point of view of many tolerant indigenous British citizens whose view certainly has to be considered, I agree.

There is no doubt about the attitude of those most closely concerned. For instance, the Chairman of the Community Relations Commission, recently reappointed by the previous Government, said: I said that the Bill's effect —he was referring to the Immigration Act 1971must be to increase acutely the sense of insecurity already felt by minority groups living here and that it would do incalculable harm to community relations; and so it has. Neither is there the slightest evidence to support the right hon. Gentleman's point that what I have done will cause resentment amongst those of the immigrant community who have legally settled here. On the contrary, every representation that I have received from people of the utmost legality and responsibility who have settled here has been one of strong objection to this retrospective provision and the dangers of harassment for many who are here wholly legally to which this leads, of which the raid in October was the most significant but not perhaps the only example, and for the need for them to be asked for passports constantly for various reasons. So far as I am aware, there is not a single body of immigrant opinion which has expressed a view other than in favour of the repeal of this retrospective provision.

There is no question of queue jumping. There is no question of pushing them ahead of anybody else. There is a delay at posts abroad. The delay, which I think most of us will regret, because it is very considerable, will apply just as much to those who now apply in this category. So there is no question of pushing them ahead.

Nor is there a new principle in saying that those who entered illegally could after a time, when they acquired immunity, be allowed to bring in dependants. My predecessor when he exercised his discretion, which he assured the House that he would, and which he was doing in many cases, granted that right for dependants to enter. There is not a change of principle. What I have thought it right to do is to say that where there was this degree of retrospection which was exceptional and wrong, and which was causing resentment and doing much harm, I should make it clear that I intended to exercise my discretion more widely than my predecessor did, but not erect any new principle of condoning illegality, merely a principle that the retrospective provisions should be removed.

There is nothing clandestine about this. There could have been no doubt about the attitude of the Labour Party, of the Liberal Party and of a great deal of cross-bench opinion in the other place where this matter was debated in January. Distinguished speaker after distinguished speaker from the cross-benches spoke strongly on this issue. So before the election there could have been no doubt about what was the attitude of the Labour Party, of the Liberal Party, and of a broad range of opinion on this matter.

It would be utterly wrong for people to try to take the point which I thought was most unreasonably taken by the hon. Member for Truro (Mr. Dixon) that people should interpret this as meaning that we do not believe in enforcing the law. We do not believe in retrospective legislation, and I thought that that was the attitude of the Conservative Party.

I am getting rid of that objectionable provision, but I can assure the hon. Member for Truro and the House that there is no question of our not enforcing the law. There is no question of our not dealing in the most stringent way possible with those who indulge in the trade of smuggling. There will be no question of this, and it is very damaging to suggest otherwise. I am dealing with a specific proposal which is retrospective and whose effects were not made clear to the House.

I do not propose to introduce any retrospective legislation. I hope that a future Conservative Government, if and when one comes to office, will do no such thing in the future. If that does not arise, then there will be no question of proceeding in a similar way in the future, because the issue will not present itself.

I have been convinced that one was dealing with an unacceptable degree of retrospection and that its practical effects were such as to produce worry throughout the whole immigrant community, including the most law-abiding parts of it, and that unless I took notice of that there was, on the criterion put forward by the right hon. Member for Lowestoft, a danger of impediment of relations between that community and the host community far out of proportion to any numbers here involved.

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