Bishop of Southwark speaks in a debate on the anniversary of expulsion of Ugandan Asians

On 27th October 2022, the Bishop of Southwark spoke in a debate marking the 50th Anniversary of the expulsion of Asians from Uganda, reflecting on the government response at the time and the treatment of refugees today:

The Lord Bishop of Southwark: My Lords, I too congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Popat, on securing this debate, marking as it does a significant and tragic episode in the history of Uganda, an important event in the history of the United Kingdom and an enduring part of the lived experience of thousands of our fellow citizens, as the noble Lord so eloquently demonstrated.

Many of us are old enough to remember the news footage, the feeling of injustice, the sense of a world out of kilter. After Idi Amin made the fateful speech on 4 August 1972, the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Michael Ramsey, denounced what he called the “dreadful racialist policy” in a BBC broadcast. He was to make available a cottage in the grounds of Lambeth Palace to a displaced family. But compared with the dispossession and sometimes violence shown to those to whom Uganda was home, our discomfort was small indeed. It is a testimony to Ugandan Asians what they achieved in the years that followed. I am glad to see that my fellow bishop, the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Sentamu, the former Archbishop of York, spoke in this debate. We have all been edified by his wisdom and direct experience.

I want simply to look over some of the unintended consequences of those years and the then Government’s response. It was the Colonial Office’s intention in the late 1950s that the territories of east Africa should realise independence in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The watershed speech of Mr Harold Macmillan, known as “Winds of Change”, on 3 February 1960 signalled a major change of policy and pace. Tanganyika gained independence in 1961, and Uganda and Kenya each in the next two years.

Each had a colonial legacy of a population from the Indian subcontinent, particularly in Kenya and Uganda. As we have heard, this population was initially recruited largely to build the rail link from the interior of Uganda to Kenya. Those who stayed and those who followed them, particularly from Gujarat and the Punjab, dominated commercial life and prospered. Indeed, those who then settled in the UK have made a magnificent contribution to the economic, political, sporting and societal well-being of this country.

However, the crisis that erupted in 1972 was to some extent exacerbated by decisions in the previous decade. The first restrictions on Commonwealth citizens were imposed in 1962. The rapid shift to independence in the early 1960s in east Africa allowed white and Indian residents to opt for local passports or to remain citizens of the United Kingdom and colonies, as citizenship was then defined. Most Asians decided on the latter, fuelling further suspicion in newly independent Kenya and Uganda.

Local discrimination needed little encouragement, but fears of British passport holders arriving here en masse—there was film footage of dinner tables where meals had been abandoned by people apparently fleeing to the airport—lead to the Commonwealth Immigrants Act 1968 securing parliamentary passage in just three days. Unrestricted entry with such a British passport was now limited to those born in the United Kingdom or with a parent or grandparent born in the UK—the so-called patriality requirement. Instead, special vouchers were issued to heads of households among east African Asians to regulate the flow of migrants to the United Kingdom.

The Act was a controversial step, widely condemned as racist, but regrettably popular at that time. Patriality was then defined as right of abode in the Immigration Act 1971. The retention of such passports allowed Amin to dismiss any responsibility for those he had dispossessed and to demand that the British Government take responsibility instead. It is to the credit of the Heath Government that they acted so swiftly and with compassion and good purpose.

We should look at what was achieved. The Uganda Resettlement Board, under a former Permanent Secretary of the Home Office, set up and administered 16 temporary resettlement centres. By 31 March 1973, more than 28,000 people had passed through its hands. It undertook a good deal of liaison with local authorities and the charitable sector, not least with the Uganda Asian Relief Trust. Each family was visited by the Women’s Royal Voluntary Service. Those entering the country were given advice on benefits, including on that most valuable provision, exceptional payments.

In our own day, I can plead only that our Government now show the same compassion to those in desperate need of welcome, safety and security, and look to the past as the evidence that they will greatly bless our nation.


Extracts from the speeches that followed:

Baroness Donaghy (Lab): It brought back memories when the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Southwark—who is now not in his place—talked about the past immigration Acts. I remember as a student in Durham marching through the streets in 1967 against one of those immigration Acts.

What kind of country were we when the Ugandan Asians arrived? We had 1 million unemployed, two national states of emergencies during the miners’ and dockers’ strikes, extreme violence in Northern Ireland and the suspension of the Northern Ireland Parliament, with William Whitelaw becoming the first Northern Ireland Secretary. The first episodes of “Mastermind”, “Emmerdale Farm” and “I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue” were broadcast. Leeds United was the FA Cup winner; Derby County won the league’s first division and Tottenham Hotspur won the first UEFA Cup, on aggregate over Wolverhampton Wanderers. On the pop scene, number 1 hits included “Amazing Grace”, “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing”, “Without You”, “Vincent” and Donny Osmond’s “Puppy Love”.

In November, two months after most of the Ugandan Asians arrived, the Government, following Anthony Barber’s massive tax and Budget cuts, introduced freezes on pay, prices, dividends and rents to counter inflation, which was around 8.6%. Although the Ugandan Asian community was only a small minority of its population, estimates made at the time indicated that it paid up to 90% of Ugandan tax revenues.

The cruelty of the policy of expulsion can only be imagined. The worst tragedy affected those Ugandan Asian citizens holding Ugandan passports. First, Idi Amin exempted them from expulsion, but later many were expelled anyway; by then, they had been rendered stateless. Blind ideology impoverishes society and the economy of a country. That happened in Uganda. Perhaps Mr Putin should reflect on that in his assault on Ukraine; he should also read the book of the noble Lord, Lord Popat.

Baroness Bottomley of Nettlestone (Con): All that is needed for evil to prevail is for good men to do nothing, as Edmund Burke said. This is an extraordinary example of so many people going beyond the call of duty to take action. They could have turned away or not followed through. They did not need to have the motion at the Tory party conference, where my noble friend Lord Hunt and his friends in the Federation of Conservative Students and others won the day with an overwhelming majority. These were the incidents and episodes, frankly, which made me a Conservative. They confirmed my view that I wanted to be a Conservative and a Member of Parliament.

My knowledge of these matters goes back earlier. I am grateful to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Southwark for talking about the earlier 10 years and the prelude to what happened with Idi Amin. In 1965, my uncle, Roland Hunt, was the high commissioner in Kampala. He was known to my kinsman, the noble Lord, Lord Jay of Ewelme, who stayed with him in Kampala. Only last week I saw my cousin Lord Hunt of Chesterton, who has now withdrawn from this place. He reminded me of the episodes in Uganda of violence, the lawless police, the bullying and what was really developing.

Lord Murray of Blidworth (Con, Minister of State – Home Office): Ten years ago, my noble friend Baroness Warsi spoke about the Government’s approach to integration following the successful arrival of British Ugandan Asians. In the 10 years since, a number of significant events have led to people seeking refuge in the United Kingdom, including from the conflicts in Syria, Afghanistan and Ukraine. Indeed, I know that the cottage in Lambeth Palace, spoken of by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Southwark, has been used in more recent years to house Syrian refugees.

The UK has a proud history of providing protection to those who need it. The noble Lord, Lord Desai, is right to refer to that history as a success. Similar to our approach 50 years ago, we are committed to ensuring that anyone arriving through humanitarian routes can take positive steps towards integration as they rebuild their lives in the UK and, in so doing—we hope—emulate the experience of my noble friend Lord Popat and other Ugandan Asians.

Fifty years ago, when Ugandan Asians arrived in the UK, they were given support and advice on housing and employment, as well as access to healthcare, social security and education systems. In the present day, those resettled in the UK via safe and legal routes have access to mainstream benefits and services to enable their integration. We are working across government to ensure that these services meet the needs of refugees. Those arriving under one of the UK’s resettlement schemes have immediate access to the labour market and to benefits. The noble Lord, Lord Purvis, is right to reflect on the parallels in relation to providing accommodation. We continue to seek assistance from local authorities across the UK to provide housing for those we resettle here.

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