HL Deb 20 November 1956 vol 200 cc391-400

3.33 p.m.

LORD ELTON rose to draw attention to problems arising from West Indian immigration into the United Kingdom: and to move for Papers. The noble Lord said: My Lords, my main object—I think perhaps I can say my sole object —in moving this Motion is to give Her Majesty's Government an opportunity of making a considered statement on a problem which, though difficult and complex, is still only a problem, and no in any sense a crisis. In these days of rapid communications, and in the distracted state of contemporary civilisation Governments seem to find time to consider practically nothing but crises, of which, it is only fair to say, they usually have two or three in their laps at the same time.

In the enviable Victorian era, with its comparatively leisurely communications and its comparatively stable civilisation Governments seemed usually able to ponder their problems before the matured into crises; but nowadays one gets the impression that any problems which is still only a problem is all toe apt to be relegated to its pigeonhole until perhaps merely for lack of timely attention, it, too, matures into a crisis, and forces the Government of some future day into belated action which Minister may have insufficiently considered and for which they have almost certainly insufficiently prepared public opinion I hope, therefore, that this debate may make some small contribution towards ensuring that the problems involved in the present wholly unplanned immigration into this country from the West Indies shall be considered while they are still entirely tractable and while their discussion can arouse no hard feelings or either side.

I hope very much that nothing that I at any rate, say this afternoon will be able to be taken amiss, either here or in the West Indies. For the only West Indian island of which I have any direct personal knowledge, Jamaica, I have s great affection. I have a number of friends there, and indeed a coloured Jamaican will be spending Christmas with my family and in my home this year. I have a great admiration for both the present Governor of Jamaica, Sir Hugh Foot, and its present chief Minister, Mr. Norman Manley—two exceptionally able men, both of whom, I hope I may say, are my personal friends.

As distinct from any personal contact which any of us may have had with this problem, printed information is not at all easy to come by. I have studied the Report by Dr. Clarence Senior and Mr. Douglas Manley on Jamaican emigration, but it is, of course, a Report to the Jamaican Government and is therefore solely, or almost solely, concerned with the problems of the immigrants, and not with those of their hosts. I have also had the advantage of examining a very large collection of cuttings from both the West Indian and the British Press which a distinguished Fellow of Nuffield College, Oxford, kindly made available to me.

While we are discussing the particular problems involved in this immigration, problems of housing and the like, about which I want to say a few words, I think we ought to keep in mind a much wider background. As I understand the position, unrestricted right of entry into, and permanent residence in, these islands is indefeasibly inherent in every citizen of the British Commonwealth, all the 539 million of them. And from this it naturally follows that the present wholly unplanned and wholly unregulated immigration from the West Indies, with all its attendant hardships, frustrations and dangers, both to the immigrants and to their hosts, must continue wholly unregulated and unplanned, for an indefinite period. In an era which is, if anything, excessively addicted to regulation and planning, and in which immigration into virtually every other country in the world, and certainly immigration from these islands into any other part of the Commonwealth, is subject to the most elaborate processes of selection, regulation and prohibition, this does certainly seem to be a paradoxical exception.

As regards the dimensions of the immigration, they are probably very much smaller than is supposed by the general public. There are no accurate statistics, for the simple reason that under the law as it stands no statistics whatever can be compiled. But the Government's estimate of the numbers of West Indians who have arrived in considerable parties during the last four years, and with the intention of remaining, is as follows: in 1952, 2,200; in 1953, 2,30; in 1954, 9,200; in 1955, 25,700, And I believe that the figure for this year will be found to be running at approximately the level of 1955—at somewhere about 25,000. No doubt the noble Lord, Lord Mancroft, will be able to tell us whether that is so. That is not a large number in proportion to a population of 50 million. It is apt to seem to the public to he larger than it is, partly because the West Indians arrive in parties of considerable size, and make for a comparatively few centres, notably London, Birmingham, Manchester, Nottingham and Derby.

There are other reasons, too, I think, why the West Indian is particularly conspicuous. The other coloured colonials who come here do so mainly to acquire qualifications, and intend to return home; moreover, they possess a distinct culture of their own, so that they have no particular need or desire to integrate themselves with our culture, from which indeed they are insulated by their own. On the other hand, the West Indian mostly comes to stay here and does not possess a distinct culture of his own. Indeed, one who knows the West Indies and the West Indians extremely well once remarked to me that the whole outlook of the West Indian curiously resembles that of Victorian England: Dr. W. G. Grace, for example, would probably have found himself entirely at home in present-day Jamaica.

My Lords, since it is mainly to the disadvantages and dangers involved in the present unplanned immigration that I wish to draw attention, it is only right that I should point out that there are a number of countervailing circumstances. In the first place, the first considerable influxes of coloured colonials came here during World War I and World War II, when they served in the Armed Forces and in the Merchant Marine; so that if there is anyone prepared to say that they are not needed now, he has to remember that they were needed then, and that they came. Then secondly, I think one must always remember that despite certain alarmist rumours in the Press, the immigrants are not applying to the assistance boards, or appearing in court on criminal charges, in numbers sufficient to cause comment, let alone concern. And finally, of course, there are all the imponderables which can be set to the credit of immigration. I, for one, recollect how the friendly and curiously uninhibited smile of a West Indian ticket collector at a London underground station suddenly transported me back to the brilliantly coloured island from which he had come to that grey place, and recalled the patience, and the beautiful manners, of its inhabitants.

But in spite of all of this, we cannot be blind to the fact that there are a great many risks involved in the present situation; and, first and foremost, the risk, not now but at some future time and in altered circumstances, of racial conflict arising from competition in the labour market. It is perfectly true that the Trades Union Congress has roundly and explicitly condemned any sort of racial discrimination; but it is probably easier to lay down a general principle in the somewhat rarefied atmosphere of Transport House than for those in actual contact with the problem to carry it out. And we have to remember that when there was competition in the labour market there has been serious trouble. There were serious race riots in Liverpool and Cardiff after the First World War, as well as lesser disturbances on Tyneside, in Glasgow and in London. There was a race riot in Liverpool as recently as 1949. And even with the present full employment there have been threats of industrial stoppages in Wolverhampton and West Bromwich, all of which suggest that when the period of full employment is over there may be trouble.

Perhaps even more ominous has been the report that a considerable number of works committees have stipulated that no coloured worker shall he promoted if there is a white worker available, and that in the event of redundancy or unemployment the coloured worker shall be the first to be sacked. I think it must be that aspect that the committee of the London Labour Party had in mind when they expressed their concern—I think I have their exact words: for the intensification of the present problems that will come if the volume of immigration of coloured people continues to rise each year. Surely it is now, while there is full employment, which may last a long time or may last a short time, but will certainly not last for ever, that the Government should be seriously considering whether we may not be storing up for ourselves serious trouble of the most unwelcome kind if and when full employment comes to an end. Have the Government any plan for forestalling such trouble? Have they convincing reasons for supposing that no such trouble will arise, or are they merely, under whatever sonorous camouflage, hoping for the best?

Then there is the trouble which may arise, and indeed has arisen, from competition elsewhere than in the labour market. My noble friend Lord Middleton is going to speak about the Health Services, and I shall say nothing about those. But what about housing? There has certainly been trouble there. Are the Government as confident as they would wish to be that trouble is not likely to revive in the comparatively near future? Certainly there has been evidence of exploitation by both parties. A Barbadian Minister said that he knew of a case in which a landlord evicted an English tenant paying 25s, a week and —it sounds almost incredible—let the space made available to no fewer than eight West Indians, at 25s, a week each. Cases have been reported in the Press of six West Indians living in one room at 25s, a week each. That again sounds almost incredible. but it has been reported in responsible quarters. If you look on the other side of the fence, so to speak, an Englishman in Lambeth is recorded as having said that an Englishman now has no chance in Lambeth.

But, of course, the real hardship of the housing problem falls upon the immigrant. When we remember that Birmingham recently reported that it had a housing waiting list of 60,000, and that it may take a newcomer at least five years even to make his way on to the waiting list; and when we remember too, that a recent survey reported that 85 per cent. of London landladies are unwilling to take in a dark coloured African or West Indian, one realises the extraordinary discomforts and difficulties which the immigrants must have to face. Are the Government really prepared to say that all this is a thing of the past? Does it not sound at least feasible that with a yearly intake of 25,000 immigrants, all making for a few already congested centres, housing difficulties may be far more acute in the future than they have been in the past?

Then, my Lords, there is the delicate question of miscegenation, a subject on which Senior and Manley's Report says nothing. But we must surely ask ourselves what will be the results after, say, a generation of immigration on this sort of scale. We have absorbed a great many immigrations in our long history, and profited greatly by many of them, but it is no reflection on either of the potential partners to say that history itself has shown that not every form of interbreeding is successful or desirable in every context and in every area. And in this connection, it is relevant, I think, that the Beacon, the leading Jamaican daily paper, itself remarked last year, what is certainly true, that not more than one-half of Jamaican marriages are permanent, and that the tradition is to have large families. Have Her Majesty's Government any views on this profoundly important aspect of immigration?

I say nothing as to the contrasting but characteristic ways in which the difficulties of the immigrants have been exploited, on the lunatic periphery of politics, by Fascists and Communists; for I do not think that either Fascists or Communists are of much importance nowadays. But I would ask Her Majesty's Government how they assess the consequences to the West Indies themselves of the present unplanned immigration. There is, of course, much unemployment, and much poverty there, a lot of it due to the beneficent effects of Western medical science. Our own doctors, by eradicating yellow fever and other previously endemic diseases, have greatly reduced the death rate, while the bulk of the population continues to breed without thought for the morrow. Our own Dominions have, of course, closed their doors against West Indian migration; and West Indians can no longer go to Cuba or the United States, as once they could. And though it is known that there are many openings in Nigeria and the Gold Coast, I understand that the doors there, too, are to be closed.

To view migration from another West Indian angle, it must surely be the energetic and enterprising to whom this blindfold adventure (for it is a blindfold adventure, I am afraid, in nine cases out of ten) of seeking one's fortune in Britain, appeals. May it not be draining the Caribbean of just the type of citizen whom it will most need in the early days of federation? Have Her Majesty's Government any plans for developing industries in the Caribbean which may absorb some of the unemployed? Then, what about the often-reported exploitation of the urge to migrate by unscrupulous travel agencies with misleading posters, or by those who advance money at exorbitant rates, or on oppressive mortgages?

I must cad more or less where I began, with the background to this whole question; because in the background looms the much wider question which we may sooner or later have seriously to consider. Must this small, already over-populated and, on the whole, racially homogeneous island, because it is the metropolis of the Commonwealth he open in perpetuity to unrestricted entry by the whole of the 539 million citizens of the Commonwealth overseas? If we reflect on the historical origin of the present indefeasible right of any citizen of the Commonwealth to take up residence here, we shall remember that it derives from an age, long past, in which the infant Commonwealth was similarly wide open to unrestricted entry by English settlers whereas to-day we all know of the restrictions or regulations which would-be emigrants from England have to face, even in the West Indies. If some regulation of immigration into, as well as emigration out of. these islands were introduced, it would, in effect, he a matter of reciprocity rather than discrimination. Also, if we reflect we must realise that the indefeasible right of the 530 million to settle in this country similarly derives from an age, long past, when it meant little more than the natural right of an Englishman to return home after he had attempted to settle overseas and maybe found conditions not to his liking.

In the long view—and it is only with the long view that we are here concerned —may we not come to a time when we shall have to return to some such conception of the indefeasible right inhering only in those who will he returning to the home which they, or their forbears, once left: and for the rest of our fellow citizens of the British Commonwealth, rights roughly reciprocal and analogous with those which our own citizens enjoy with them overseas? The time has not yet come to answer, or perhaps even to ask, that question; but it may come one day. And the whole object of this Motion has been to look ahead and reflect coolly, while there is still time for cool reflection. I beg to move for Papers.

3.57 p.m.

LORD MIDDLETON had given Notice of a Motion—"To draw attention to the state of health of immigrants into the United Kingdom from the West Indies and other Colonies; and to move for Papers." The noble Lord said: My Lords, since the Motion which stands in my name is so closely related to that of the noble Lord, Lord Elton, I understand that it would be for the convenience of the House if both Motions were taken together. My noble friend has spoken about certain problems that have arisen from the great influx of West Indians into our country. I propo3e to speak on another problem in that connection, but I should like to make it abundantly clear that the last thing I have in mind is anything in the nature of a colour bar in this country for I should regard that as quite deplorable.

As the noble Lord, Lord Elton, said, it is true that, by long tradition and indeed by law, every British subject ordinarily resident in any of our Dominions or Colonies has the right of entry into the United Kingdom, for visits, on business, for education or to seek employment. Our doors are open to all such subjects, regardless of their character, their sanity or their health, and whether or not suitable employment or accommodation is available for them. So long as that practice involved no serious social problems in: his country and brought no hardships to our own people, there was no apparent reason why there should be any departure from tradition or traditional legislation.

I am informed by doctors practising in our hospitals that very many of the immigrants from the West Indies come to our country riddled with diseases, in particular tuberculosis and venereal disease. Before this influx, our hospitals were filled to overflowing. Your Lordships will be aware of the delays for many of admission into hospitals for operations or treatment, and will be equally aware that patients are frequently discharged far sooner than is desirable, to make room for others. I cannot give your Lordships figures to show how these difficulties have been accentuated since West Indians have flocked into this country, because they are kept highly confidential; but I can say, without fear of contradiction, that members of the medical profession are gravely concerned about the unsatisfactory state of health of a high proportion of immigrants and the ill results to our own people.

I know that many Members of your Lordships' House have spent long years and worked hard over problems of migration from this country to our Empire, and I need not point out to noble Lords who, with me, have worked for that object, that when any of our people desire to emigrate to any of our Dominions they must satisfy the immigration authorities of the Dominion concerned, not only of their suitability for the employment they have in mind but also as to their character, their health and, in some cases, their means to tide them over the settling-in period. I must not weary your Lordships with details. Suffice it to say that our Dominions are very selective in regard to immigrants from this country or any other country. Who can blame them? In regard to our Colonies each one has its own laws governing conditions of entry. Generally speaking, these conditions apply equally to British subjects and to aliens. In no Colony is there unrestricted right of entry for intending settlers—even if they are British subjects from the United Kingdom. Is it too much to ask the Government to consider reciprocal arrangements in respect of migration as between this country and the Dominions and this country and the Colonies, irrespective of race, colour or creed?

It is difficult to suppose that if these arrangements were reciprocal there could be any hard feeling in any quarter by any reasonable person. I am aware that, as the noble Lord has said, the population in some Colonies is increasing alarmingly, thanks to the success of the doctors in combating diseases that were endemic and kept the population down. I agree with the noble Lord that much might be done in the Colonies, if there is underemployment, to develop and encourage industries to absorb the surplus population. The principle I suggest is that no component part of the Commonwealth—and, after all, this country is one of them —should be under any obligation to receive any immigrants likely to be liabilities by reason of bad character, ill-health or any other serious defect.