HC Deb 09 February 1977 vol 925 cc1433-42
The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Merlyn Rees)

I will, Mr. Speaker, with permission, make a statement.

The report of the parliamentary group under Lord Franks set up by my predecessor to examine the feasibility and usefulness of a register of dependants has been laid before the House and is published today. I would like to express the thanks of the Government to Lord Franks, my right hon. Friend the Member for Dartford (Mr. Irving) and the hon. and learned Member for Runcorn (Mr. Carlisle).

On the central issue, the group says that if the reader of this report had hoped to find a positive recommendation for or against a register he will be disappointed. The group did not make recommendations. It has, however, reached a number of conclusions about a possible scheme but in doing so draws attention to the fact that it would be open to objections which would be matters for the Government and Parliament to take into account. It is inherent in the only scheme which the group thought feasible that a register would be discriminatory, would be incomplete in coverage, would involve long delay in implementation and would be very expensive; and it is clear that it could give no certainty about future numbers. Although we shall listen carefully to the views of hon. Members on the report, the Government's view is that such a register would not be desirable, practicable or likely to serve the purposes which promoters of the idea intended for it.

The Government have been considering whether other steps can be taken to relieve current anxieties. These anxieties have to be seen against the background of the society to which we are dedicated. This is a society based on racial equality and harmony in which all with a right to live here are treated fairly. This can be assisted by firm action to check abuses of the present system.

New Immigration Rules will shortly be made to deal with marriages of convenience aimed solely at achieving entry or avoiding removal. The taking of employment contrary to conditions imposed on entry—which is by no means confined to people from the New Commonwealth and Pakistan—has been of concern not only to the Government but to the TUC and is currently under discussion in the EEC. Methods of ensuring that all applicants for employment are entitled to take it will be discussed with both sides of industry. I am also investigating the extent of overstaying by people admitted for temporary purposes. Action in these areas should do a lot to put an end to abuses of the existing system. On all these matters, the Government will give further information to the House in the near future.

I am also considering the question of reform of our nationality law, which, as the Franks Report points out, has a bearing on our immigration policy. I shall make a further statement on this also in due course.

Mr. Whitelaw

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that we on this side of the House would wish to be associated with the thanks to Lord Franks, the right hon. Member for Dartford (Mr. Irving) and my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Runcorn (Mr. Carlisle) for the enormous time and trouble that they put into the compilation of what I believe will be seen to be a comprehensive report? Obviously hon. Members will wish to study the report in detail before coming to final conclusions, and I ask the Home Secretary to press his right hon. Friend the Leader of the House for a debate in Government time so that the House may give its considered view.

On the basis of the right hon. Gentleman's statement, I should like to ask three questions. First, is he aware that, even if the House eventually accepts the Government's conclusion about the impracticability of a register for dependants, a comprehensive report of this nature into the complex issue of immigration control is bound to be of considerable value in making the necessary decisions on future immigration policy?

Secondly, does the right hon. Gentleman appreciate that he will have widespread support in the House, and, I believe, in the country, when he accepts that in the interests of race relations steps must be taken to relieve current anxieties about the scale of immigration? On that basis, as a start we welcome his determination to check abuses of marriages of convenience and overstaying and hope that he will bring his detailed proposals to the House as soon as possible.

Thirdly, does the right hon. Gentleman realise that such limited measures do not go to the heart of the problem and so will not allay the basic fears about the present scale of immigration and the uncertainty over future immigration trends that will continue to pose a substantial threat to tolerance and understanding in our community?

Mr. Rees

I think that the right hon. Gentleman is right. I have had some time to study the report, and it matters that right hon. and hon. Members should have time to study it. It is an important and valuable report. I repeat what I said on that. Whether the debate is in Government time or in Opposition time is not a matter for me, but at the right moment I should welcome a debate on these matters.

The right hon. Gentleman picked up the point about abuses. I have found—some years ago I had responsibility for this as a junior Minister—that when steps are taken to stop abuses such action is welcomed in all parts of the country, not least in the immigrant community because it does great harm to them for people to think that abuses are the norm.

I have studied the figures, but it is not possible now to go into detail. I refer to the figures on page 7 of the Franks Report, where one sees details of those admitted on arrival and those removed at the expiration of the time limit. Two sets of figures are in decline. One is for United Kingdom passport holders. The problem has been with us for 10 years, and the decline is now to be seen. The other figure showing a decline is for those exempt from deportation under Section 7 of the Immigration Act 1971.

It is easy, in talking about numbers, to give the impression that all is wrong. It is not possible to have certainty on these matters. What people require is a belief that all is not wrong and that millions of people are not coming to this country. Those who give a contrary impression are doing great harm to good race relations.

Mr. Hooson

May I, on behalf of my party, associate myself with the thanks expressed by the right hon. Gentleman to the Franks Committee and the great industry of its members in preparing this report? I welcome the Government's acceptance of the view that a register is likely to prove not only ineffective and expensive but offensive because it would be discriminatory.

Is not the key to this matter a reform of the nationality laws? Surely the Government have had ample time in which to consider this matter. When does the right hon. Gentleman intend to make a further statement on this important subject?

Mr. Rees

I am grateful to the hon. and learned Gentleman for what he said at the beginning of his question.

It is generally known that when I took office I inherited a report in the Department on the question of nationality, and I have studied that carefully. Even if there were available all the parliamentary time that would be needed, which there is not, it would not be an easy matter to tackle. I do not know whether the hon. and learned Gentleman thinks it is a simple matter to transfer citizenship in different parts of the world. What I propose to do is to publish a discussion paper at the appropriate time. On nearly every page of the report that I inherited I have found what I might describe as a minefield that would cause the gravest problems, and any legislation on the matter would make the devolution Bill look like a one-clause measure.

Mr. Prentice

The discussion on this matter centres on the need to avoid abuses. Does my right hon. Friend agree that one of the most unsatisfactory aspects of the present situation is the long time that genuine dependants have to undergo before they can get a substantive interview at a high commission or embassy based in the sub-continent? Will the Home Secretary discuss this matter with the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs to see whether practical steps can be taken to reduce the delays?

Mr. Rees

As a result of the activities of Ministers in the Department prior to my arrival the procedures have been speeded up. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary has recently been to the Asian sub-continent on my behalf. The problem of dealing with documentation in an area where registration is not the norm is extremely difficult. The men and women who work at the entry stations in the Asian sub-continent and in all other parts of the world have a difficult job. However, we do our utmost to be humane and helpful to people who are often worried and concerned about their future.

Mr. Powell

Has the right hon. Gentleman noted that the proportion of the population in the year 2000 which this report estimates will be of New Commonwealth origin exceeds the "little over 6½ per cent." which I forecast in 1968? Does he realise that an overall percentage in the United Kingdom of 7 per cent. means that there will be 20, 30 and 40 per cent. in the cities and areas primarily affected?

Hon. Members

So what?

Mr. Rees

On the question of estimates of the population, in which the right hon. Gentleman has taken a great interest—

Mr. Fell

He is right.

Mr. Rees

It is one thing to be right in logic in the classics but on the future of the population one can be wrong. I would ask the right hon. Gentleman to look at all the research on the future of the population of this country which was published just after the war, and which was inflicted on me as a university student when the war was over. Its one main feature was the thing that I now know—it was wrong. What happens is that net reproduction rates change, that people's attitudes change in a new environment. I beg the right hon. Gentleman to realise that long after our time it will be found that people will be looking at a situation completely different from the one that he envisages. I therefore reject his attitude to this matter.

Whenever the right hon. Gentleman makes a speech in this way, I receive in my postbag abusive letters which link not only black and brown people in this country but the Irish as well. The right hon. Gentleman's attitude is all-pervading and pleases only those who are unsure of themselves. I do not believe that the right hon. Gentleman is unsure of himself. I think that he is trying to make sure of what might happen politically, but he will be proved wrong.

Mr. Joseph Dean

Since my right hon. Friend's statement relates to the right of certain people to enter this country, and since it has appeared on the tape that the over-publicised film director, Mr Thorsen, arrived in this country this morning, has my right hon. Friend any information to give concerning whether any action is being taken about Mr. Thorsen's entry?

Mr. Rees

Mr. Thorsen arrived at Heathrow this morning and informed the immigration officer that he intended to pay a short visit to the United Kingdom and then go to Paris. He said that he was here to promote the showing of a film called "The Dreams of Thirteen". He had with him a copy of the script of his proposed film about the life of Christ but denied that he was coming here in connection with that project. After questioning, the immigration officer exercised his powers to refuse Mr. Thorsen leave to enter, on the ground that his exclusion was conducive to the public good. Mr. Thorsen was informed of his right of appeal, which is exercisable from abroad.

Mr. Stanbrook

Getting back to the subject of the Home Secretary's statement, is not the conclusion of the report that a register would not be feasible ample confirmation of the belief of many people, which is also expressed in some official quarters, that the pool of dependants is infinite? In this situation, is it not the right hon. Gentleman's duty on behalf of all the people now resident in this country to suspend immigration of this category and to impose strict quotas?

Mr. Rees

The hon. Gentleman talks about immigration from the West Indies and from the Asian sub-continent to this country. A change has been taking place not only because people have been coming here quite freely from the EEC but also because people are coming here who are taking the place of the prime movers, who come here on work permits. Something is happening. If the hon. Gentleman is saying that all those who come here to work and to settle from the EEC or from Southern Europe and other parts of the world should be stopped, he is quite wrong. If he is saying that one should pick out only those from Asia and the West Indies, he is being discriminatory and I am not prepared to do what he says.

Mr. Stanbrook

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Is it in order for the Home Secretary to reply to a question that he has not even heard?

Mr. Speaker

That has been done many times in this place.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. May I explain to the House the difficulty in which I find myself? This is a Supply Day, on which there are two Adjournment debates in which many hon. Members are interested. In addition, there is to be another major statement. In addition to that, I am to hear an application under Standing Order No. 9, and an hon. Member seeks leave to introduce a Bill under the Ten Minute Rule. In view of that, important though this subject is, but realising from what the Home Secretary has said that it is bound to come up again, I propose to allow just two more questions from either side.

Mr. Alexander W. Lyon

While I welcome my right hon. Friend's decision about the register and any sensible proposals to cut down evasion of control, may I ask whether he will confirm that, in the present influx of New Common wealth immigrants and those from Pakistan there are three elements—first, the United Kingdom passport holders from East Africa, where the commitment is nearly finished; second, the wives and children under the age of 18, for whom the commitment will be finished within the next few years, and where there are already signs that it is tailing off in India and Pakistan; third, the fiancées, on which subject the country simply has to make up its mind that any civilised State allows its children to marry outside the country and to bring their spouses back home?

Mr. Rees

On my hon. Friend's earlier remark about the major aspect, I am grateful for his support. I have been checking the figures and there is no doubt, as my hon. Friend says, that the pool of dependants—wives and children—of those who were here on 1st January 1973 has declined, in terms of the argument that he has consistently put forward. However, we need also to consider what will be the pattern for the future. In terms of what my hon. Friend has already told me in discussions that we have had on this matter, there is no doubt that in the India part of the Indian subcontinent, the applications for dependants are declining. That is not true in Bangladesh. As for fiancées, a change is taking place, although in my view it will be long-term, in the attitudes of Indian girls here towards being treated in a way which is appropriate in the light of the social environment on the sub-continent but is foreign to the environment of this country.

Mr. Eyre

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that more than 60,000 immigrants a year now enter this country, settling in 14 main reception areas in the rundown inner areas of cities such as Birmingham, Leicester, Bradford and Bolton, and that there are serious problems there relating to health, education and housing—all made much worse by the recent cuts in resources as well as by the drastic rise in unemployment? In these circumstances, does the right hon. Gentleman realise that it is completely unfair to all the families now living in those crowded areas to continue this process of deterioration? Will he therefore undertake drastically to review his immigration policy, because the measures that he has announced today are not enough to meet this situation?

Mr. Rees

The hon. Gentleman is concerned about the inner city areas—and so am I, because I represent part of an inner city. However, our problems do not arise merely because people move in from the new Commonwealth. When I first began to represent an inner city area a long time ago, we had problems then. I ask the hon. Gentleman to examine the figures on page 7 of the document. In terms of totals, as I tried to point out earlier, the number of United Kingdom passport holders, who tend not to go to inner city areas, is in decline, as are the 7,000 exempt from deportation. When the hon. Gentleman mentions those who arrive in this country, I would inform him that a third of that figure relates to those who come to this country in relation to whom the time limit originally imposed has been removed.

The way in which the hon. Gentleman expressed his remarks betrays a misunderstanding of the figures. That is not surprising, because he cannot have had long to examine them.

Mr. Bidwell

Does my right hon. Friend not agree that throughout the years of debate on these matters hon. Members in all Darts of the House have been committed to the principles of family unity, although not in a vacuum, because that is how the British people would like our society to be arranged? However, is not the picture incomplete unless my right hon. Friend draws attention to the fact that, under the present Act passed by a Conservative Government and its attendant rules, there are untold millions of patrials throughout the world? Do not those patrials have an absolute right to come to this country should they so decide, and are they not mostly white? Should we not address our minds more vigorously to what is taking place in Rhodesia with a view to possible resettlement of refugees? If the right hon. Wolverhampton wanderer, the Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell), would address his mind to providing a solution to these problems and get away from fantasies of the prospect of a civil war in this country, he would make a much greater contribution to human thought.

Mr. Rees

On the subject of family unity, I have already told the House that we must deal with marriages of convenience. There is no doubt that what goes on in that regard casts a doubt on what is perfectly proper, and that is the arranged marriages that are normal in Asian communities.

Mr. Dudley Smith

To return to the original statement in which the right hon. Gentleman referred to his anxieties, does he not accept that there are very real anxieties in high immigration areas? Does he not also accept that this is not just a matter of racial discrimination, because the situation is being improved slowly but surely? The problem relates to the subject of numbers. The feeling among the vast majority of people is that the numbers are still much too high. Will he not accept what was said by my right hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Whitelaw), that the position needs to be given much more robust attention from the Government, and will the Government provide time for a debate because we must get these numbers clear?

Mr. Rees

If the hon. Gentleman will examine the statement, he will see that when I spoke of abuses I also mentioned an investigation that is taking place into cases involving overstaying in this country. I wish to quantify those cases of overstaying by visitors because I believe that that and those who come here for other reasons may prove to be a major factor which is worrying people. I want to remove those anxieties because they are causing a great deal of trouble.