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Travel Permits (Northern Ireland)

Volume 446: debated on Wednesday 28 January 1948

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Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[ Mr. Simmons.]

11.32 p.m.

I wish to raise tonight a matter which has caused acute and growing resentment in Northern Ireland among people of various classes, of all views and creeds, and all shades of political opinion. It is the question of the existing system of travel permits for people travelling between Northern Ireland and Great Britain. It was instituted during the war, and at that time, no one passing out of Ulster into England, or vice versa, could do so without being required to have either a travel permit or a passport. The people of Ulster recognised that as one of the trying concomitants of warfare, and they bore it with fortitude, although it caused a very considerable measure of annoyance. We are now in the third year of peace, and yet we still have this system which is increasingly obnoxious to us in Ulster.

As everyone knows, Ulster is as much a part of the United Kingdom as Devon or Cornwall; yet any person wanting to visit a sick child, or wanting 10 go on urgent business from Belfast to Liverpool, has to obtain a travel permit. It is not for me to emphasise the nuisance and delay caused in getting either a travel permit or a passport. It is not, I agree, the fault of the Passport Office, but the fact remains that there is always delay, and it is a most difficult and troublesome experience for any person. Nor does this end the difficulty for travellers, because when they are making the journey they have all the annoyance and worry of queueing in draughty sheds on quaysides in order that immigration officials may stamp their passports before they can get to their destination.

The conditions of travel between any port in Ulster and Great Britain are precisely the same as for Continental travel. I do not want to dwell on The inconvenience that is caused, because it is inescapable in conditions such as this. The officials do their best, particularly with old people and mothers travelling with young children, to make it as easy as they can; but the real remedy is to sweep the system away altogether. It would be unthinkable if someone travel- ling from London to Glasgow had to show a permit, and in my submission it is just as wrong that people travelling from London to Belfast should have to show it. There is no difference in the journey, except that the travellers to Belfast have the dismal task of crossing an unpleasant sheet of water, and it is very trying to have to have a permit to do so.

The reason that is given for the retention of this obnoxious system is that there is a possibility of undesirable aliens passing from Eire and Northern Ireland into Britain, but there have always been aliens who were undesirable as regards this country—and there always will be. There would appear to be no reason why they should have increased either in numbers or in menace to this country since before the war, when we had no such system. It is very difficult to understand why the system should be kept on for that purpose alone.

There is another matter with regard to this. The control is imposed at the ports of Northern Ireland, and so it is really for the undesirable alien that it is desired to exclude from Great Britain. It does seem rather hard, if they are so undesirable, they we should have to have them in Belfast, because the check gives no protection at all there. It seems absurd that the protection which this check is supposed to afford to Liverpool should be denied to Belfast or any port in Ulster.

There is really no ground for retaining this order. I think the people of Ulster can be forgiven if they think that the only reason it is retained is that, having been found administratively convenient by the officials of the Home Office during the war, there is no desire now to do away with it. If the real reason is that there are people whom it is desirable to exclude, surely the check should not be at the ports, but on the Border.

I suggest to the Under-Secretary of State that if there is to be a system of passports—and I do not see why there should be a system—then it is the traveller from Dublin to Belfast who should have to show a passport, and not the traveller from Belfast to Liverpool. I do not desire to detain the House any longer. I would only point out that the system of a check on the Border is possible. I know it has been difficult to check all contraband on the land frontier as compared with the ports, but if it can be done in the case of smugglers, then it can be done in the case of other people. I ask the Under-Secretary of State whether it is the intention of the Government to retain this system permanently. If it is, then I ask him whether he will consider removing the control or check over these passports from the ports to the Border. If it is the intention to do away with these—I hope it may be—then I ask him when he proposes that that happy state of affairs shall be brought about.

11.40 p.m.

This is the first occasion on which I have had the privilege of taking part in a Debate with the present Under-Secretary of State, so I would like to wish him well in his office. I hope that we in this part of the House will not be troublesome to him and that we may rely on him in advance to be helpful to us. The points have been put so clearly by my hon. Friend the Member for South Belfast (Mr. Gage) that I am not going to state them again. I will endeavour to make one point: that whatever the answer of the Under-Secretary may be in substantiating these regulations, I want him to understand that there are thousands upon thousands of people wishing to travel from Great Britain to Ireland—possibly for the first time, because owing to other considerations they cannot go to the Continent—who are utterly unaware of these regulations. Day after day I find people in business who say they are going over to Belfast or Dublin, and some people do not understand why it is necessary for them to have a permit to travel between London and Belfast any more than it is necessary between London and Edinburgh.

I am well aware that the Home Office has its reasons for these permits, but the public as a whole do not know those reasons. If the answer of the Under-Secretary is that there are reasons why these travel permits shall be retained, then I say the corollary must be that the Home Secretary must make those reasons abundantly clear. People do not want to be lawbreakers. They want to assist in every way. They are good citizens and if they know there is a reason why this or that should be done, or why they should subscribe to this or that, they will agree, but at the present time there is a com- plete lack of information about the mystery of these travel permits. I hope this Debate will give some publicity to the reasons these things are imposed.

The hon. and gallant Member for Antrim (Major Haughton) has given an undertaking that he will not be a trouble to the Minister. I will not give any such undertaking. For me this is rather a unique occasion because, for the second time in eight days, I find myself in complete agreement with the hon. Member for South Belfast (Mr. Gage). I fail to see the logic of these Home Office regulations. The Home Office insists that Northern Ireland is a part of the United Kingdom. This is a point of view with which, as this House well knows, I do not agree; but if the Home Office insists that it is, I ask why there should be these special regulations. I do not need a special permit to go to Scotland; I do not need any special permit to go to Wales, but whenever I wish to visit my relatives in Northern Ireland—and I have many there—or if I wish to spread political propaganda in Northern Ireland, I find that I need a special permit. In fact, the Home Office does its very best to keep me out of Northern Ireland.

The hon. Member for South Belfast said that possibly the Home Office keeps these regulations in practice because there is a danger of undesirables going to Northern Ireland. I do not think that is the case. I know there are a lot of undesirables in Northern Ireland, particularly in the Government of Northern Ireland; but that is not a reason which will satisfy anybody; and since the Foreign Secretary has said, on more than one occasion, that it is his ambition to abolish passports between this country and all other foreign countries, I think that the Home Office might give him a sort of good precedent by abolishing this particularly silly and nonsensical system of travel permits between this country and Northern Ireland.

11.45 p.m.

I only rise to remark that the hon. Member for South Belfast (Mr. Gage) at this rather late hour is straining at a very small gnat indeed. It is true that all of us who have our homes in Northern Ireland are somewhat embarrassed at having to pro- duce our passports. What really is the difficulty in Northern Ireland is not the system imposed by the Home Office, but the system imposed by the Northern Ireland Government. If one looks at the Official Debates of the Northern Ireland Parliament, which are somewhat less voluminous than ours, one finds that practically the whole of their proceedings recently have been devoted to discussing a measure called the Safeguarding of Employment Act, which is designed to exclude people from Northern Ireland. Before coming to this House at this late hour to urge a small matter of this sort. I feel that the hon. Member might perhaps be better occupied in Belfast in urging the Government there to make certain changes.

It is out of Order to refer to what the Northern Ireland Parliament is doing. We here are only discussing what our Ministries are doing.

With great respect, I was merely using it as an example of how far the hon. Gentleman's activities might be better directed, and having said that, I will leave the point as it is.

I am not going to venture into the dangerous waters into which my hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch (Mr. Bing) seems to have plunged with some relish. I am not in disagreement with much of what was said by the hon. Member for South Belfast (Mr. Gage), who raised this question. I certainly would not complain about this question being raised from time to time. I do not think there is anybody who thinks that this system should be kept in being for the fun of it. We all look forward to the time when it will not be necessary to have even such minor restrictions as are involved in this particular matter.

I should like to start by emphasising that the restrictions are not really very great. The objection to them is, I think, partly on sentimental or loyalist grounds—that is, an objection to being treated any differently from other persons residing in the United Kingdom. The material objections are not very considerable. It is not, as the House knows, a permit system, but a system of identification. It is necessary for us in this country to have control on the entry of aliens, and for that purpose it is necessary to know which of the people coming in are aliens and which are not.

I do not think that that is a subject on which I could possibly embark at the present time, and I do not think it really has very much bearing on the matter. As those Members interested in this question are well aware, there is a fairly wide range of identity documents. The identity documents are now issued without fee, though they were not at one time. I understand that there is very little delay in getting them, and when one is got it is of indefinite validity. Therefore, anybody travelling regularly can get a document once and he or she does not need to apply on any other occasion.

I know it is a common belief that because of this system people have to wait in queues to board ships and so on. My right hon. Friend has been into this very carefully, and I can assure the House that delays which certainly do occur at the ports are not due to any appreciable extent to these particular restrictions. They are due partly to the large crowds travelling and partly to the need for restricting the times at which people may embark before the ship sails. These restrictions are due to the need to give time off to the crew, to get the ship clean, and so on. It was said in the Northern Ireland Parliament that about a thousand people could be got through on to the ship in an hour by the shipping company. It was also said in the Northern Ireland Parliament, and I see no reason why I should not confirm it here, that if it were necessary to make any special arrangements, the immigration service would be prepared to make arrangements so that their officers could pass an equal number, and would not in any way be an obstruction to the system operated by the shipping company. It is our belief that the inspection of these documents causes a negligible amount of delay.

For those of us who travel every week, and, speaking personally, I travel by many different ways, I must really say that that submission is not correct because the trouble and the delay and the weariness of this custom is very considerable.

Well, Sir, I am not saying that there is no delay, but certainly it is not due to the embarkation system that people have a lengthy wait. In any case my information is that it is simply due to the fact that there is a fixed time before the sailing of the ship before which no one is allowed on board. However that may be, I think it is fair to say that it is an irritation that we should all like to get rid of. But it is not a serious hardship. There is no difficulty caused to anyone who wishes to get these documents and a relatively limited delay is caused by the embarkation system.

Let me pass on shortly to the reasons why we feel we cannot at present offer any prospect of the system being abolished. It has nothing whatever to do with any questions of status or anything of that kind. It is true that we did not have it before the war. Before the war there was a complete tie-up—if I may use that word—between the aliens policies in Eire and in the United Kingdom. Moreover, the Eire traffic from the Continent was very much smaller than it is today. I believe that there were no regular airlines working direct to the Continent and there was less shipping than there is today. As the House knows, Eire is a very important point for air traffic and there are lines going from Shannon to the Continent and the U.S., so that the aliens traffic into and out of Eire is very much greater than it was before. There is also a very different situation since before the war for reasons which I do not think I need expand.

The difference in the positions of the two countries during the war has led to a different attitude on the part of the two governments to certain nationalities, and it is no longer possible to have the same tie-up as there was before the war between the alien policies of the two countries. I would not like to suggest that this is entirely due to the situation in Eire, for we here are in a very special position with regard to aliens. We have a scheme of effecting the admission of Poles and European volunteer workers with which one could not be sure that the Eire Government would wish to be associated, and until there is a community of interest on these questions of aliens, it is difficult to see that there can be as close an identity of aliens policy as before the war.

It is suggested that a check could be made on the land frontier. It is perfectly true that Customs control is carried out, but it is a different thing from the sort of control that would be required to prevent the admission of undesirable aliens. I believe the frontier is about 180 miles long, and the check points are relatively few. I happen to know, from my own personal experience, that this was an acute security problem during the war, and an intensive study of the possibility of control was made. At one time, although I do not know if this was confirmed, the commander in Northern Ireland thought he could not have an effective control except with four divisions. That gives some idea of the difficulty. It is perfectly true that many continental countries with long frontiers have to put up with inefficient control, but there is no reason why we should do that when we have a port of embarkation where control can be effected.

It follows from what I have said that I can give no hope of relaxing the control in the near future. Of course, we would be glad to get together on a joint policy so that we should be able to abolish restrictions. We shall not miss any opportunities, but it does depend on the interests of the two countries coming together before the regulations can revert to peace-time practices.

Question put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Four Minutes to Twelve o'Clock.