Work permits for 'drunken and undesirable' Irish

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The Independent Online
THE Government considered imposing a work-permit system on Irish nationals who came to Britain, papers released under the 30-year-rule show today.

The documents also reveal fears over rising immigration and a Cabinet complaint about the growth of "so-called Chinese restaurants", while Poles, "whose cooking is excellent", were kept out of the country.

Papers from 1961, available for the first time, canvassed the possibility of workers from Ireland being made subject to the work-voucher system or making it a criminal offence for them to take a job without Ministry of Labour permission. Both options were rejected as unworkable, and better statistical monitoring of immigration from Ireland was seen as more feasible.

In a remarkably worded memorandum, Sir Norman Brook, then Cabinet Secretary, noted that "some people feel that too many Irishmen come over here, that they are a drunken and undesirable lot, and that we should do better to keep them out".

This notion was rejected because it "does not make any sense, in practical terms, to try to control movement from this to other parts of the British Isles". Thus the Irish were exempted from the 1962 Commonwealth Immigrants Act which imposed the work-voucher system.

But the fear of rising immigration surfaced around the Cabinet table two years later as the Conservatives threatened to make race an issue in the 1964 general election campaign.

In 1962 the Government had legislated, but in April 1964 the Cabinet asked the Home Secretary to look again at the work"voucher" (or permit) system and, in particular, at changes which would require immigrants to spend longer in the UK before achieving exemption from deportation.

With the Commonwealth heads of government due to meet, Sir Burke Trend, the Cabinet Secretary, observed that action"would be unfortunate and that it would be wiser to leave both problems until after the General Election". That was not good enough for Frederick Erroll, Minister for Power, who wrote to the Prime Minister: "I am not a racialist, but having travelled round the world a good deal and seen the problems which mixed races can cause, I can see no justification for importing a race problem."

He added: "On a lighter note, we are very tough about Polish immigrants, whose cooking is excellent, but so-called Chinese restaurants are springing up everywhere - in Gateshead, and even in true-blue Altrincham! I believe we should control rigidly all immigration, from whatever source, on a non-discriminatory basis. I believe, further, that our own natives would welcome such a declaration." The note was annotated by the PM: "I would like this on the Cabinet agenda reasonably soon".

On 31 July the Home Secretary, Henry Brooke, circulated a paper arguing that "the immigrants tend to concentrate in particular areas, and this gives rise to serious social problems. We must have our eyes open to the certainty that continued immigration at the present rate [50,000-60,000 a year], together with a high birthrate, is bound to build up much graver social problems in the future".

Mr Brooke proposed a halving of annual immigration via stricter rules which would not necessarily need legislation, ultimately reducing work vouchers from 40,000 a year to 13,000.

His draft statement, toned down at the suggestion of Sir Burke, argued that the Government had decided three years earlier "that Britain could no longer continue to absorb immigrants at the high rate at which they were arriving"; with voluntary efforts in place the numbers "showed no sign of diminishing".

Legislation, the draft argued, "must be tightened up", and while there was no question of racial discrimination, "this is a small and already densely populated country, and social tensions will heighten if immigrants are allowed to come in faster than they can be absorbed".

The Government did not survive to implement its crackdown but "social tensions" were reflected in the general election campaign in Smethwick.