Orders of the Day — Immigration

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 24th July 1968.

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Photo of Mr David Ennals Mr David Ennals , Dover 12:00 am, 24th July 1968

It was conducted only over a fortnight. We recognise that that was a brief time from which precise conclusions should not be drawn, but it included enough people to draw some conclusions which I thought that it would be helpful for the House to have.

In 1967, of a total of 61,000 people admitted, 53,000 were dependants. That inescapable conclusion is that any measures to reduce substantially the numbers coming for settlement would have to restrict the rate of arrivals of dependants. A number of the proposals put forward by the Opposition would deal with such matters as permanent entry certificates or registration of dependants. All these are matters of interest. If, however, we wished to slow down the rate of entry, we would have to take measures to restrict the rate of arrival by removing existing rights of entry.

I was asked about boys of working age. It will be recalled that it was our concern about boys in particular joining single parents and coming in at about the age of 15 and going on to the labour market which led us in this year's Act to include measures to deal with this problem and to take away the right of a child to join a single parent. This action has had substantial effects. It is too early to say what will be the long-term effect of the change, but the initial consequences have been most marked. In the figures for April, May and June, there were only 19 boys aged 14 to 15 who were admitted to join a single parent, and only 70 to join both parents. These figures show a great reduction.

Another matter which caused us concern in the debate on last year's Expiring Laws Continuance Bill was the question of elderly fathers. The raising of the qualifying age for admission from 60 to 65 has had a dramatic effect on the number of aged fathers who have been admitted. In the three months from April to June, only two dependants over the age of 65 were admitted. It is an extraordinary reduction.

Among the remedies proposed by hon. Members opposite is one, which the right hon. Member did not make on this occasion but he certainly did in an earlier article, to reduce the age of admission of children. He is, as he said, worried about the numbers coming at the age of 14 or 15. The published statistics do not reveal the breakdown of ages of child dependants, but the survey to which I referred provided evidence that the 14–15 age group does not account for a disproportionately high percentage of dependants. I am speaking of the situation now, following the Commonwealth Immigrants Act. In fact, well over half of the dependants admitted were under 10, and the remainder are spread fairly evenly through the age group 10–15. In any case, it would be difficult to justify reducing the age below 16, and the numerical consequences of so doing would, I think, be slight. Apart from that, if we were to say that dependants could come in only at 13 or 14, that might mean that the children simply came in earlier rather than at a slightly older age. It might speed up the arrival, but would not affect the total numbers.

Now, the question of compulsory entry certificates. The Opposition appear to be committed to this approach. While it may have considerable advantages in reducing some of the difficulty which now arises when people appear at our ports with doubtful entitlement to admission—this is a real problem—the one thing it cannot do by itself is reduce or affect numbers of dependants coming here so long as those dependants have a right of admission. It would be interesting to know whether the Opposition would contemplate some limit to the issue of entry certificates and whether the statutory right of entry would be honoured under the obligatory certificate system, or whether they would take power to have a quota of certificates.

Hon. Members will recognise that it is really an administrative question whether the decision is taken entirely in the country before departure or whether an opportunity is given for the decision to be taken at ports of entry. There is no question but that there is every advantage in the decision being taken overseas rather than cause the hardship which arises when people arrive at ports without entry certificates and are refused admission, but the transference of responsibility from the port to the overseas entry certificate office is simply a matter of administration and unlikely to affect actual numbers. It must be recognised that it would not affect numbers, though it may be more tidy administratively. There are advantages and disadvantages.

Now, the registration of dependants and the concept of compulsory registration. The Home Secretary has made clear that he is re-examining this possibility, although the idea has been tried once and found of little practical value. It is necessary to be clear what its value might be. So long as dependants continue to enjoy unrestricted statutory right of admission, no system of registration can have any effect in limiting numbers. It can provide information but it cannot limit numbers. It would not alter the rate at which the registered dependants would be admitted unless the Government were prepared to regulate the flow by a quota system.

So long as the dependants' statutory entitlement to come here is honoured, there is no way of regulating the flow which does not entail some interference with their freedom to come as they choose, and the possibility of prolonging their separation from parents, which would not accord with the spirit of the legislation. I recognise that information is important. If we had the information arising from registration, we should know a little more about what the tail of dependants is, but it would not deal with those who have already come here and would not, therefore, provide a complete answer. But, as I say, my right hon. Friend is examining the proposal again in view of the points which have been made by right hon. and hon. Gentlemen opposite.

The question of repatriation was also raised. I agree with the right hon. and learned Gentleman the Member for Huntingdonshire (Sir D. Renton) that unless there were very substantial inducements, this would not mean that any large number of people would return home. The majority of those we are talking about are, whether some people like it or not, our citizens. They came here to settle, and they are here. There is no point in imagining that with just a little extra money in their pockets they will go back home. The House and the country must understand that for most of these people now this country is their home. We must treat them as our responsibility and our citizens. It is true that the Ministry of Social Security can provide assistance, and it may be that the additional publicity that the debates have given to this may mean that a rather larger number of people will take the opportunity of doing this. But I do not believe that there is any solution to be found in voluntary repatriation on a large scale.

This brings me to my last point, the question of the evasion of control. The Government are very anxious to ensure that the immigration control is maintained and is effective. That was why as recently as February, in the Commonwealth Immigrants Act, we took a number of measures to tighten control and to remove some of the possibilities of evasion. I have already referred to some of them. We were concerned whether some youngsters were the age they said, and we were also aware of some evasion among old people. We made a legal obligation on would-be immigrants to come properly through the immigration control rather than in little boats and by other clandestine means, and these measures have been effective.

But there have been cases where one suspects that there may have been evasion, and we are trying to find a way to deal with them. The hon. Member for Leicester, South-West spoke of the question of fiancees. We are looking at this very carefully. There is reason to believe that some immigrants seek to use this as a means of gaining entry. We are anxious to ensure that if a marriage does not take place those who have been admitted under those circumstances are required to leave the country.

I agree with the right hon. and learned Gentleman that it is too early to make sharp conclusions about the numerical results of the passing of the Commonwealth Immigrants Act, but it is worthy of note that in the three months following its passing the number of dependants admitted is substantially below the number for the same period last year, and the upward trend that we had seen is at present downwards. That is only over a brief period, and we shall know more in November, when we shall have had a six-month period instead of only a three-month period.