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Immigration Act 1971

Why was it introduced (political/sociological context)?

In the years leading up to the Immigration Act 1971, there was negativity and resentment growing towards those immigrating into the UK. Immigration in the 1950s and 1960s had increased dramatically, due to job vacancies and a supposed better life in Britain. In particular, citizens from the Commonwealth were initially being welcomed into the country; but this caused an influx of migrants into Britain which began to change people’s positive opinions. 

Enoch Powell, who was a Conservative Minister during the late 1960s, played an important part in influencing bad feeling towards immigration from the Commonwealth into Britain. This was especially prevalent in his speech known as ‘Rivers of Blood’, where he voiced that many immigrants did not want to integrate into society and it was British people who would suffer as a result. While he was dismissed from the Cabinet, his speech influenced a lot of anti-immigration and nationalist movements at the time and this was a topic brought into election campaigns in 1970.

With changing opinions on immigration in the UK, the Prime Minister at the time Edward Heath and his Conservative Government, faced pressure to respond to this social problem when they were elected. In the general election in 1970, they had made a pledge to tackle immigration. Their manifesto detailed how they wished to introduce a single system that would control the influx of people coming from all other countries, which included a work permit system for Commonwealth citizens. They had to follow through on this promise when they won. This lead to the enactment of the Immigration Act 1971.

What was the aim of the Act (legal context)?

The aim of the Immigration Act 1971 was to control and restrict this perceived large-scale immigration into the UK. In particular, the Act was enacted to prevent citizens from Commonwealth countries settling permanently in the UK. It took away any special rights Commonwealth citizens had once enjoyed, and the Act classed all alien immigrants as one.

The Government’s aims would be achieved through amending the Commonwealth Immigrants Act 1968, making it harder for Commonwealth citizens to enter and reside in Britain and having stricter immigration laws in place for the future. Only those with direct ties to the country would be free from immigration control under the new Act.

What main changes did it make to the law?

The Immigration Act 1971 was enacted and came into effect on 1st January 1971. This introduced key changes that built on the restrictions that began under the Commonwealth Immigrants Act 1968. The main changes all pointed towards restricting primary immigration.

The right of abode was introduced by the Immigration Act 1971. This status represented an ‘unrestricted right’ to live and stay in the UK undisturbed. This right would be enjoyed by people classed as ‘patrials’. This means that you would not be affected by immigration laws; restrictions would not apply to you and you could live freely without being deported from the UK.

The Act meant that you could now only enjoy the right of abode if you had some kind of link to the UK. This would include those who were British citizens by being born in the country or immigrating citizens who had an ancestral connection to the country, such as having a British parent or grandparent. The right of abode would also be enjoyed by citizens who had resided in the country for the last five years. There was no longer any distinction between immigrants from other countries and those from Commonwealth countries; the commonwealth citizens had no special ‘rights’ or automatic right to remain in the UK.

This change meant that those who were classed as ‘non-patrials’ under the Act, would need permission to enter and reside in the UK. Previous Acts had used a work voucher scheme to control and restrict immigration. But, the Immigration Act 1971 took this once step further and now introduced a work permit system. Once an immigrant was awarded a work permit, it would be subject to annual renewal. It would only be after four years of working in the UK that an immigrant would be allowed to settle in Britain without these strict rules. Thus, they would only have temporary residence in the UK until this point.

The Act also introduced powers for the Secretary of State to order payments for the expenses of non-patrials that would be returning to their home country. This meant that payments could be made for travel expenses for an immigrant and their families when they were being deported from Britain. It acted almost as an incentive to encourage those who were not entitled to reside in the UK to return back to the country that they had come from.


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