HL Deb 12 March 1959 vol 214 cc1197-206

7.15 p.m.

THE EARL OF ALBEMARLE rose to ask Her Majesty's Government whether the time has not arrived to reconsider the present inalienable right of any holder of a British passport from overseas to enter and reside in the United Kingdom without restrictions of any kind. The noble Earl said: My Lords, I feel that I ought to start by apologising for the fact that my Question comes at the end of a very long, tiring day. I hope that your Lordships will accept my apology. When I put the Question down on the Order Paper it was not so full. In an effort to compress a not very small subject as much as it is capable of being compressed I shall probably end up by not being able to read my compressed notes, in which case again I hope you will forgive me.

The first thing I want to say is that on November 20 I tried to get from the Government a statement reflecting their awareness of a situation which is becoming disturbing to some of us. The discomfort seems to be more evident in the East End, and no doubt similarly in the few great centres of population. Immigrants tend to collect and to move, as they must very often, to the poorer quarters and rather to stagnate there if conditions of employment are not favourable. I will start by quoting a testimony which is a good piece of evidence, I think, on the part of one who for fifty years now has elected to live among his neighbours in the East End. He is a friend to them all, since his character and most generous works are well known to all in the district. He is, moreover, an eminent man of business. He wrote to me as follows: I can think of nothing that had a more disturbing effect in the East End, except for the two wars, than the arrival of coloured people in such large numbers. Naturally the problem is not the same to a person living, shall we say, in Devonshire, as it would appear to somebody living in a great city.

That mention of colour is one that I refuse to use; I refuse to differentiate between one human and another. I discriminate solely between one who is self-supporting, from skill and habit of work and certain of a definite job, and one who will run at once to the National Assistance and remain on their rolls, being not a contributor, by his efforts, to our Welfare State but a contributor to the already too heavy burden upon the backs of other people. If he is a "slap-happy" migrant coming here on chance from a country where the standards of life are lower, it means that he is in receipt of unearned income at the expense of other people already very heavily taxed, quite obviously overcrowded and in some parts suffering from unemployment. The idea that I have strongly in my mind is that fourteen years after the war is over we have still not got sufficiently back to normal to get rid of some of the discomforts that our people are suffering, as anybody who travels daily to and from work can see, whether it is by train or Underground or anything else. Congestion is the order of the day, and I feel that we ought not to add to it by bringing in people at such a time as we seem to be unfortunately going through now.

I want to get down as soon as I can, for the sake of the noble Lord, Lord Chesham, to the various questions of which I gave his Department notice. The first is a question of the powers that the various countries possess in regard to migration. I do not know whether I have it right, but, so far as I can make out, there are no powers of the West Indian ministers to prevent anybody from leaving their island for the United Kingdom, although since these federations are not weaned completely and have not yet become Sovereign States, they are still under the Colonial Secretary. But here is the curious thing: though they have no power to prevent any of their nationals from coming here, they can, and do, dissuade them when times are bad here. This, too, is a curious thing. The Minister in Barbados can prevent the entry from Jamaica of somebody whom he does not want, and vice versa. Yet we cannot do anything here. We have no kind of control, restriction or organisation. There is, in fact, no reciprocity. On occasions, as we know, when Rhodesia has been expanding rather too fast they put it about that there are not the houses for people to come to, and that people had better ease off a bit. We have seen the same thing in regard to Australia. I think that one ought to point out that at this moment there are no powers to stop free movement.

Then we have the question of Eire. Before 1949 we had the British Nationality Act which gave everybody who was eligible Commonwealth status or citizenship. In the following year, when Eire became a Republic, an Act was passed by which, on coming into this country, people from Eire were treated as non-foreigners, and nobody had power to say whether they could come or not. The only thing that they need is a landing permit, as I think it is called, which can be purchased for 1s. They do not need a passport.

In our debate the other day, when the noble Lord, Lord Pakenham, spoke, we had a discussion in regard to people who come from Ireland. I was not at all clear whether one speaker did not say that a number of Commonwealth citizens come in from Ireland. I want to ask the noble Lord, Lord Chesham, not only the figures of Commonwealth citizens coming in through Northern Ireland, but also the figures of those coming into this country from Eire. My reason for doing so is that the migration report did not give one the figures, except at a guess of 60,000 a year; but there was no guess as to the number of those who went back to Ireland. Therefore I should like to ask the noble Lord whether we can have six months figures, in and out.

The other question concerns those who travel by air—migration by air. None of those figures have come into the Migration Report, because nobody keeps them. I should like to suggest that what is known as a landing ticket should be made use of—a perfectly simple card system—by which the officer who hands out landing cards would know exactly how many landing cards he had handed out, and would make at appropriate intervals a return to the offices. In air travel there are certain manifests. We have been answered previously by the Government that, somehow or other—I do not know how, or why—it could not be done; that it would occupy the time of too many people; that it would be too difficult, and I do not know what. I ask the noble Lord to see whether the Ministry of Transport and Civil Aviation cannot be pressed to give some little tally of landing cards or extracts from manifests; because quite obviously, if, as was said, migration out by air was as much as one-third of the whole number, it means that we are largely defrauded of valuable figures. In regard to Eire I presume that the same process of landing tickets could be inaugurated.

There is another question in regard to what powers are possessed. We have dealt with the Home Office, who are concerned with the United Kingdom, and foreigners and Eire; we have also dealt with the Colonial Office, who are in some way concerned with the confederations that are not yet fully weaned. On the question of figures, I should like to get something detailed from the noble Lord. My last question is: Can we demand at the port of entry details that will enable us to keep people out? I have an idea that we cannot. In this regard, I understand that information obtained by the Government from countries such as Pakistan, has been most helpful. The Pakistan Government have insisted on money being deposited against the return of those who cannot find employment here. They have been most zealous in "doing down" the gangs of forgers of passports. The net result, in regard to Pakistan, is, I am told, that instead of 19,000 coming in, the figure has sunk down to 5,000. One must be grateful for the co-operation which Pakistan has shown.

The congestion mentioned by my East End contemporary is, of course, a dreadful thing, because it has two-way hardships. It must be most depressing, disappointing and uncomfortable for those who come from a warm climate to our rather doubtful climate and cannot find employment or housing. When, some four or five years ago, we had trouble with housing the students from parts of Africa and other Dominions, much was done by making the British Council agents in regard to providing hostels. It seems to me that one of the reasons why people in the East End are unhappy about the existing conditions is that it is nobody's business to provide what might be called "temporary" homes—hostelisation—for those who find themselves stuck in London without the employment that they had expected.

The last time I raised this question I was told that there are many voluntary bodies which are doing wonderful work of this kind. That is true, of course; but I maintain that this is a matter in which Her Majesty's Government should be able to initiate plans for hostelisation, through an agency; for they cannot expect that of local authorities—like boroughs and urban councils—who cannot see the wood of Commonwealth-wide immigration for their own little parish trees. We cannot expect them to do that and they do not feel that their ratepayers would wish them to spend the money. In this particular instance, therefore, I maintain that we shall not have done enough until Her Majesty's Government do something, either by agency, or otherwise, to arrange temporary accommodation of that kind.

Perhaps I may go on to the basic stock phrase which has caused me to bother your Lordships with this Question, and which was mentioned on the Motion of the noble Lord, Lord Pakenham, on November 19—that the holder of a British passport has "an inalienable right" to come to this country. I believe that that is a stock phrase and it is one which I cannot take. It was coined by someone for times long ago, from the beginning of the eighteenth century and right through the nineteenth century, when we were building up what we called the Empire. That is something quite different from a phrase like "a historic home for refugees", which this country has been many times in our history. If this inalienable right exists now I cannot see that there is any reason why it should continue, for I do not think it is in line with the modern world. It leaves our people unarmed against conditions of stringency and unheard of troubles which may come upon us.

I wish to see the end of the term "inalienable right" because I do not think it tallies or is in accordance with the position and the good of our own people. We should have a modern and sane method of restriction by quota, such as is used by other sovereign States, when we are up against some particular adversity. Each member of the Commonwealth must take stock of the size of its population and its acreage, and neither the sovereign Commonwealth States nor the components of those not fully weaned from federation should refrain from imposing quotas. With that, I beg leave to thank your Lordships for your patience. I have tried to make my speech as short as I could.

7.35 p.m.


The noble Earl, Lord Albemarle, will not mind my pointing out that, as he said, he raised this issue, or something very like it, as recently as November 20; although at that time it was in special reference to water, farmland and housing. On that occasion my noble friend, Lord Waldegrave, in reply, summed up the position when he said [OFFICIAL REPORT, Vol. 212 (No. 12), col. 762]: Her Majesty's Government have no evidence to suggest that the pressure of the population on the available resources of these Islands has now reached a dangerous degree. In his reply on that occasion my noble friend dealt very fully, I thought, with all the points that were then put to him about the net loss in our manpower resources through migration, the extent of our resources of water, farmland and housing, the loss of agricultural land for building and so on; and it is not really necessary for me to go over that ground again. The noble Lord has mentioned certain problems in the East End of London and possibly elsewhere. I would only say that we must remember that immigration to this country must, for accuracy, be regarded as a net, not a gross, figure; and for the five years to 1957 there has been in every year a small outward, and not an inward, balance. I know that that does not cure local trouble spots, but it is not felt that the factors which exist, such as the problem in certain ports, would be sufficient justification for any reversal of opinion on the part of Her Majesty's Government.

I feel I need only say—and I wish to say very clearly—that in the opinion of Her Majesty's Government, having regard to these and all other circumstances, the present situation does not justify ending the long tradition by which British subjects from overseas are free to enter and reside in the United Kingdom without restrictions of any kind. We know that this freedom of entry is greatly valued and respected throughout the Commonwealth, and Her Majesty's Government attach great importance to its maintenance because it is one of the ties that bind together the British Commonwealth of Nations.

This issue was also raised in the debate of November 19 on the Motion of the noble Lord, Lord Pakenham, and in the course of that debate several noble Lords all round the House deprecated the possibility of legislation at the present time to control immigration from the Commonwealth. Perhaps I may quote the words of my noble friend Lord Perth who him-self quoted the words used by the Home Secretary [ibid. col. 680]: We should maintain the long and respected tradition of allowing citizens of the Commonwealth to come here. My noble friend went on to say: I need not elaborate further on the value of this tradition with the United Kingdom as the heart of the Commonwealth. It would be a sad day if the tradition were broken. I believe that his words on the subject of the heart of the Commonwealth are the answer to the feelings of the noble Earl, Lord Albemarle, on the question of reciprocity. May I take the risk of wearying your Lordships by quoting a few words that I myself said on that occasion? [col. 716]: We feel that any departure from the time-honoured tradition of hospitality extended by the United Kingdom to members of all Commonwealth countries would require very strong justification. For our part, we should be very reluctant to see the ending of these important ties which help to bind the Commonwealth together. I have said that in about four different ways, and I have done so because I wish to have been heard to say it extremely clearly and extremely firmly; because that is the opinion of Her Majesty's Government to-day.

The noble Earl asked me various questions and touched on the point of immigrants from various countries having jobs available to them before they came. He pointed out, quite correctly, that Pakistan is the only Commonwealth country, so far as I know, at any rate, that requires their nationals coming to the United Kingdom to work to produce evidence of having a job to come to. In both India and Pakistan restrictions are imposed on the issue of passports to persons who wish to come here. In Pakistan, a cash deposit of 2,500 rupees is normally required of an immigrant against the possibility of possible repatriation, and a knowledge of English is also required. In India applicants for passports to come here have, for some years, been required to produce evidence of sufficient means to ensure against destitution overseas. Also, they scrutinise offers of employment. As the result of the new measure in Pakistan, there has been a sharp decline in the number of immigrants from that country.

With regard to other colonial territories, the Government of the West Indies, who have, I agree, no powers in the matter, are in fact doing everthing they can to bring, to the notice of the intending immigrants the employment, accommodation and other difficulties that they will be faced with if they come; and to emphasise the desirability of having reasonable prospects of a job and accommodation to come to. In Cyprus prospective immigrants to this country are required to produce affidavits by persons in this country guaranteeing their support and accommodation. Other colonial territories, too, require certain applicants for passports to produce guarantees or to make cash deposits in case they become destitute here. All these various requirements in the various countries, although not primarily aimed at reducing immigration to this country, do really have that effect.

The noble Earl then asked about Commonwealth citizens entering the country through Eire; and there, of course, I have to say to him straight away that there are no figures available. He rather pointed that out and complained about it, but I cannot think that there is any reason to suppose that there are any substantial number of persons coming in that way: first, for the simple reason that it is a very uncomfortable journey, an unnecessarily difficult one, as there are virtually no direct air services or passenger liner services between Eire and the Commonwealth countries. It would be very inconvenient to come that way. Secondly, I believe that if large numbers were coming through that route we should know something about it. I feel that, although no figures are available, that fact is not contributing in any serious degree at all to any inaccuracy in the migration figures. The noble Earl also asked about the Irish immigrants themselves; and of course there are no figures for them—except the figure he mentioned of 60,000 people who annually enter National Insurance for the first time. It is the only check we have. There is no check as they go to and fro, any more than there is any check on our going to and fro ourselves.

The noble Earl then asked me about the rather large number of people who leave this country, of migrants who leave by air without trace. The estimate of one-third comes from the Report of the Overseas Migration Board. There is no reason to doubt that that estimate is somewhere about right. I have no estimate, or means of giving one, of the number of immigrants who come to this country by air, but there can be no doubt that the number is quite substantial. I must admit, and I do admit, that these air passages make a serious gap in the statistics; and I must say, too, that for some time the Government have been giving detailed consideration to how best to fill that gap. Various methods are being examined, and whilst I am afraid that I cannot make any statement about it at present, the Government do hope before long that they will introduce improvements in the arrangements for obtaining the statistics and making them more accurate. The noble Earl asked me whether we could demand the details of people at the ports, and the answer is, of course, No. In the case of holders of British passports, the immigration officer asks them to produce evidence of identity and of nationality. If they can be properly produced, the holder of the passport comes in and that is all there is to it.

The only other point I should like to take up, of which the noble Earl rather made much at the end, is the question of this word "inalienable". He complained about that, but in fact there is not an "inalienable right". It can be alienated at any moment by action of Parliament; Parliament could alienate that right at once if it saw fit to do so. All I am saying is that, so far as the Government are concerned—if I may sum up and say it once more—we do not consider the present to be the proper time to depart from that long-standing and most valuable tradition of freedom of entry for Commonwealth citizens.


My Lords, I beg to thank the noble Lord for his reply.


My Lords, I want to say, as a final word, it seems, this evening, a word of warm commendation to the Minister for the firm reply which he has given to the noble Earl. Let me say how sorry I was to hear the noble Earl drawing a distinction between our people and those coming from different parts of the Commonwealth. They are our people as much as any inhabitants of these islands. We are one great Commonwealth, and all the people of the Commonwealth are our people.