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21 June 2022

From the NS archive: A new deal for immigrants

1 July 1967: How might Britain best accept immigrants?

By Mervyn Jones

In this piece from 1967 the novelist and former New Statesman assistant editor Mervyn Jones discusses a new report from the Committee on Immigration Appeals by its chairman, Roy Wilson. Jones argues that the media’s sensationalist headlines and obligatory “investigations” reflect an over-inflated concern about illegal immigration. While Jones uses language that is insensitive by today’s standards, this article demonstrates that little has changed in the British public’s attitudes towards migration. Despite Jones concluding with pleasant surprise that the report is “so carefully thought out, as well as so liberal, that one feels reluctant to cavil”, the government would disagree. Ultimately, the findings of the report would be ignored and the Commonwealth Immigrants Act 1968 introduced. The act sought to further reduce the rights of citizens of the Commonwealth to migrate to the UK by barring the future right of entry, which they had previously enjoyed, to those born in the Commonwealth or who had at least one parent or grandparent born there.


Those among us who have some slight grasp of the Fleet Street concept of “news” noted without surprise the ample coverage lately given to disclosures about illegal immigration into Britain. These pathetic little groups of Pakistanis, huddled in squalid Ostend hotels and decanted on to Kentish beaches, were the natural material for sensational headlines and obligatory “investigations”. No one — except the NS on 10 March 1967 — has investigated the ordeal to which this risky journey is the preferred alternative, nor chronicled the dreary routine which for many months has filled the detention block at London Airport with suspects. No one even now has remarked that deception and evasion are the invariable riposte to an official attitude generally regarded as unjust, nor that racketeers prepared to organise and profit from this traffic are simply meeting a felt need. Nor has anyone asked whether we are prepared indefinitely to shoulder the practical and moral cost of patrolling the Channel to intercept the victims of our own lack of charity, in a style recalling the watch on Jewish illegal immigrants to Palestine 20 years ago.

Amid all the excitement, there naturally wasn’t much room for Sir Roy Wilson and his committee. For 18 months, at the behest of the Home Secretary, they have been earnestly fulfilling their brief: “to consider whether, and if so what, rights of appeal or other remedies should be available to aliens and Commonwealth citizens who are refused entry.” Their report has now been published, and if it is accepted and implemented — which, in view of current Home Office attitudes, may well be expected — it will go a considerable distance toward making the stranger at our gates feel that he is being dealt with in the tradition of English fair play. The committee accepts the argument that “it is fundamentally wrong and inconsistent with the rule of law that power to take decisions affecting a man’s whole future should be vested in officers of the executive from whose findings there is no appeal.” Accordingly it recommends the institution of an independent appeal body, firstly for people denied entry at our air and seaports; secondly for those who are refused visas (in the case of aliens) or entry certificates (in the case of Commonwealth citizens); thirdly — and this was expected by few observers — for persons ordered to be deported.

The plan in brief is this: if refused admission, the immigrant will have the right to appeal to an adjudicator stationed at the port concerned. To inform him of this right will be the clear duty of the immigration officer. Immigrants may be legally represented and time should be allowed for the presence of relatives, prospective employers, welfare workers, High Commission representatives or anyone else likely to be helpful. Should the adjudicator uphold the exclusion, there may be a further appeal to a three-man tribunal sitting in London. A particularly welcome provision is that the immigrant may be set at liberty on bail while the case is pending — this should “normally” be done if it goes to the tribunal. We ought, therefore, to see an end to the disgraceful business of immigrants being hustled on to return flights while relatives or solicitors are making frantic phone calls.

The report is so carefully thought out, as well as so liberal, that one feels reluctant to cavil. However, three points deserve Mr Jenkins’ [Roy Jenkins, the Home Secretary] further consideration. The position of the adjudicator is crucial, first, because he is a one-man court; secondly, because he has it in his power to grant or refuse leave to appeal to the tribunal. (Only the initial appeal from immigration officer to adjudicator would be an absolute right.) Since the immigrant is only too likely to view the adjudicator as one more official, it is surely vital that adjudicators should always be drawn from outside the public service. Sir Roy does recommend this with regard to the first appointments, but sees no objection at a later stage to the positions being filled by members of the Immigration Service. To my mind, that would always be a bad idea.

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Next, one would welcome a provision whereby the applicant, if he fails to get into Britain as an immigrant, can be admitted as a visitor. At present he can only be either a successful or an unsuccessful immigrant. If his claim to entry is rejected — usually because he is held to be 16 instead of 15 years old, or to be a nephew instead of a son — he is sent home. It would be humane to allow him to spend a month or so with relatives whom he has been longing to see. The police would have the task of ensuring his departure, but this duty already falls on their shoulders when aliens exceed their permitted stay.

The committee’s attitude to entry certificates, finally, is debatable. The entry certificate system was invented as an aid to immigrants. The certificate — actually not a document but a stamp in the passport, like a visa — is granted by a British representative in a centre such as Lahore or Delhi, when satisfied that the applicant has a right to enter Britain. Its value is shown by the fact that in a recent 12-month period, while 4,343 would-be travellers were refused certificates, only 36 certificate-holders were turned back on arrival. Clearly the system saves much trouble and expense for those whose right of entry is in doubt. The Wilson committee remarks that interviews take place “in conditions of privacy and in a relaxed atmosphere, with someone always at hand who speaks the applicant’s language or dialect; an atmosphere of this kind contrasts favourably with the feeling of tension at London Airport.” The official can consult local people who know the applicant; and if he needs time to make up his mind, the applicant is waiting in his own country, often at home.

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Rightly, the committee was disturbed to find that 80 per cent of immigrants — chiefly those from India and Pakistan — don’t try to get certificates, and urges that the system should be made known more effectively. There is indeed a case for making the certificate compulsory, as it is in effect for West Indian immigrants because the carrying companies insist on it. The committee thinks that this would be invidious because most aliens don’t need visas — even citizens of the US, which doesn’t reciprocate this courtesy. Possibly, an argument based on high-minded justice has been allowed to outweigh a reform that would help the immigrant in practice.

In any case it’s logical that the immigrant holding a certificate should, on reaching Britain, be relieved from the cross-examination imposed on the immigrant who hasn’t got one. It’s regrettable, therefore, that the committee should maintain that immigration officers are justified in questioning the former to find out whether the certificate was obtained by fraudulent statements or concealment of relevant facts, and whether circumstances have changed since it was granted. Surely this is to cast doubt on the acumen of our man in Lahore, who must have been in a better position than anyone at Heathrow to detect any fraudulent statement or concealment. It’s admittedly common sense that the immigration officer should be on the watch for absolutely forged certificates, as for forged passports. But he ought in general to regard the Commonwealth citizen’s certificate as a title to entry, like the alien’s passport or (when required) visa. Such a rule, together with the general use of entry certificates and with the appeal procedure for disputed cases, would virtually put an end to the hardships and injustices which have made such a wretched story.

Read more from the NS archive here, and sign up to the weekly “From the archive” newsletter here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as “Statesmanship” (Weidenfeld & Nicolson).