by Norman St. John-Stevas
THE RECENT debate in -athe House of Commons on the renewal of the Commonwealth Immigration Act for another. 12 months showed that the whole race issue in Britain has entered a new phase. Some of the more extremist Members on this issue renewed their calls for a "drastic" cutting down of the number of immigrants entering Britain from new Commonwealth countries, but the figures given by Mr. Maurice Foley, the Under Secretary at the Home Office, showed that they were tilting at windmills. A drastic reduction has already occurred.
Only 4,285 work vouchers for immigrants were issued in the first nine months of this year and all of these went either to skilled people, such as doctors or to workers coming to specified jobs. The control issue is in fact now dead, and while one may not be happy about the events which have come about to kill it, a beneficial side effect is that it enables attention to be concentrated on the formidable task of creating a racially just society in Britain for the future. The time to take action about this is now. I have long supported the granting of special help from the Central Government to areas with large immigrant populations to enable normal standards of housing and other amenities to be achieved or maintained. Yet I believe that the problem of ensuring coloured immigrants equality of opportunity in employment is even more The most vital issue which should now be tackled is to ensure that coloured immigrants of the second generation, those who are born here, the "black British", are given equality of opportunity in practice as well as in theory.
In the United States the denial to Negroes of employment opportunities over a long period has been a major contributory factor to the present explosive situation there. Exactly the same pattern could occur here, but if we take action now it can be averted. At present only a small percentage of school leavers are coloured: on average about two per cent. But this is a figure that is increasing all the time.
A peak will be reached in the late 1970s, when a flood of "black British" will be corning from our schools: in
some areas of Birmingham, for example, it is likely to be in the region of 17 per cent. If we wait until then to take action it will be too late: the time to form attitudes is now when the problem is much more manageable became it is on a smaller scale.
In manufacturing industry the picture is not too bleak, but it is essential that heavy unpleasant work should not be done exclusively by coloured immigrants. This gives them a feeling of inferiority and creates undesirable associations in the mind of the non-coloured majority. This is especially important since colour prejudice is not so much a question of pigmentation of skin but of association. Much of the prejudice which undoubtedly exists in Britain today against coloured people is because colour is associated with poverty, bad homing, lack of education and underprivilege. The same is true in the United States. When one turns from manufacturing to the service industries the position is much less encouraging. Very few coloured immigrants are, for example, employed in the occupations which take people into the home, and that goes fur everything from painters to plumbers. Again few coloured immigrants find employment in the sphere of retail distribution. The reason given for this is that the customers would not like it. Yet no proof is ever given of this. It is in fact vital to bring immigrants and the host population into personal contact since nothing does more to create goodwill and dispel personal misunderstanding than this. In this respect the work of the coloured nurses in our hospitals has been invaluable. I have an aunt who had no time for fo coloured Immigrants until she went into hospital and was nursed by them. Her views have been entirely changed.
The example must be set by the big employers, and some such as John Lewis and Sainsburys are doing their bit. Others are not. In the House of Commons last week I asked the Home Secretary to call a public conference of employers to discuss the whole problem, so as to create a commercial and industrial public opinion informed about the issues. I hope this plea will be heeded. I hope also that the Race Relations Act will be extended to cover discrimination in employment, not so much to deal with the discriminating employer but to strengthen the hands of those employers who are seeking to be fair. By 1980 we shall have a coloured population in Britain of well over 1,500,000. If we are to avoid civic discord and strife we must start laying the foundation for the future now. To close our eyes to the problem would be the height of folly. I hope that Mr. Maurice Foley, the humane and far sighted Minister who has done so much hi this sphere, will redouble his efforts and seek to arouse the country to the urgent need for constructive action now.