Orders of the Day — Immigration Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 5:40 pm on 16th November 1987.

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Photo of Mr Peter Shore Mr Peter Shore , Bethnal Green and Stepney 5:40 pm, 16th November 1987

The report drew attention to the problems of housing, homelessness and separated families in the Bangladeshi community. I wish that some of those problems had been reflected in the speeches of Conservative Members.

I listened carefully to the Home Secretary's speech. I particularly wanted to learn why he considered it necessary to introduce this technical measure. Unfortunately, I did not receive a proper answer. The Home Secretary rightly said that the problem of mass primary immigration had passed and that it had been dealt with by the Immigration Act 1971. He gave figures to demonstrate that the number of people who have been coming to Britain in the past 10 years has fallen steeply. It is now down to about two-thirds of the level of about 10 years ago.

With regard to the control of immigration, why is the Bill necessary? The right hon. Gentleman said that amendments needed to be made to keep the control firm and fair. He did not specify why we need these further controls to keep it firm and fair. He mentioned the overload or strain and stress on the officials who administer the entry clearance system. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley) rightly said, that excuse is not acceptable. The alternative way of dealing with that problem is to increase the resources of manpower at Heathrow, at other places of entry and in our missions abroad so that we can deal with the problem more expeditiously without overloading officials in the way that they have been overloaded from time to time in recent years.

We were told that this legislation was necessary to enable the Home Office to react to new developments. I hardly consider the main provisions of the Bill to be new developments. They seem to be the old problems that have been with us from the beginning. As I said, my basic question about why this measure is being introduced was unanswered.

The two central features of the Bill are deeply objectionable. The first concerns the powers that will make it even more difficult for men who have been lawfully resident in the United Kingdom for at least the past 15 years—many of whom are now British citizens—to be joined by their families. The second feature concerns the provisions that severely limit the right of appeal for those who are already in Britain and who have, in the words of the Bill, failed to observe the conditions or limitations on their leave to enter.

In theory, some provisions of the Bill will affect all immigrants, but in practice—little has been said about the practical effects of this proposed legislation — as clause 1 makes plain, the main weight of the Bill will fall on Commonwealth citizens, particularly the Bangladeshi community—the most recent of the communities that have arrived in large numbers in Britain—where the problem of divided families is most serious and acute.

The right to family reunion is enshrined in section 1(5) of the Immigration Act 1971. It promised that nothing done under the Act would make the wives or families of Commonwealth citizens who were settled in Britain before 1973 less free to come to and stay in Britain than they were when the Act was passed. Those promises, which were made by a previous Conservative Government, will now be withdrawn by clause 1 without serious or proper explanation or consideration of the effect that that will have.

Commonwealth citizens who have been in Britain for at least 15 years, including those who came in the 1950s and 1960s, and who have often had to endure long and cruel separations from their families, will now be required to show that they are able to support their families without resort to public funds and that they possess accommodation sufficient to house them before entry certificates are granted. It may be said that after 15 years the great majority should be able to support themselves and their families and that they should have been able to find a home, but when we consider the conditions of housing and unemployment as they affect the areas of immigrant settlement in the United Kingdom, the formidable obstacles that these requirements will present become obvious.

This is not the Britain of full employment as it was when the last Immigration Act was passed. Even according to Government figures, unemployment is over 2·8 million. It is in the inner-city areas, where the immigrant communities have most heavily settled, that unemployment rates are at their highest. The Bangladeshi community in Tower Hamlets and elsewhere is notoriously industrious and hard working. The scourge of unemployment has visited them in the past eight years with exceptional severity. Many, through no fault of their own, are now dependent on unemployment pay and supplementary benefit. Many more have not been able to acquire housing for themselves or their families.

In Tower Hamlets, where the largest number of Bangladeshis are concentrated in Britain, no fewer than 1,200 families are homeless and living in bed-and-breakfast accommodation. Many thousands more live in grossly overcrowded conditions. In a borough where 84 per cent. of housing is controlled by the council, homes can be found only if the council makes sufficient housing provision.

Before this Government came to power, in the 1974–79 period, about 900 new homes a year were provided, either by the Tower Hamlets council or the GLC. Two years ago the GLC was abolished and, to my certain knowledge, for the past three years not one new council home has been built in Tower Hamlets. There has been a massive reduction in the provision of rented housing, accompanied by a growing number of families from Bangladesh joining their husbands and fathers, who are already settled in Tower Hamlets. The result is a housing crisis more serious than any to be found elsewhere in England and in any period since the 1940s. The local council sought to diminish the problem by the wretched expedient of declaring Bangladeshi families to be intentionally homeless. They are accused of being intentionally homeless because, by definition, they left homes in Bangladesh to join their husbands and fathers here.