The Immigration Act 1971: A Guide

The Immigration Act of 1971 acts as a cornerstone of the United Kingdom’s legislative framework governing the entry and stay of individuals in the country.

This pivotal piece of legislation introduced the legal foundations for controlling migration to the UK, establishing who has the right to enter and remain, and under what conditions.

Its introduction marked a significant shift in the UK’s approach to immigration, moving away from the relatively ‘open door’ policy that had prevailed since the end of the Second World War, particularly towards citizens of Commonwealth countries.

The 1971 Act has been instrumental in shaping the modern landscape of UK immigration law, setting the stage for the control mechanisms and policies that would follow. Its impacts and the debates it has sparked continue to influence the UK’s approach to immigration, highlighting the complexities and challenges of managing migration in a way that balances control with fairness and inclusivity.


Section A: Background of the Immigration Act 1971


1. Pre-1971 Immigration Laws in the UK


Before the enactment of the Immigration Act 1971, the United Kingdom’s approach to immigration was significantly more open, especially towards citizens of the Commonwealth.

The British Nationality Act 1948 is a landmark in this context, as it granted Commonwealth citizens free entry to the UK, reflecting the post-war consensus on the need for labour and the political ethos of Commonwealth solidarity.

This period saw substantial immigration, notably from the Caribbean, India, and Pakistan, responding to the UK’s labour shortages in public transport, health services, and other sectors.

However, the lack of restrictions led to growing public and political debate over immigration control.


2. The Socio-political Climate Leading to the Act


The 1960s witnessed mounting pressure for immigration control amidst concerns over housing, employment, and social integration. These concerns were not just economic but also deeply entwined with racial and social tensions, exacerbated by inflammatory speeches like Enoch Powell’s “Rivers of Blood” and the rise of nationalist groups.

The socio-political climate was marked by a growing consensus across the political spectrum that immigration, particularly from the Commonwealth, needed to be regulated more strictly.

This period saw the introduction of several legislative measures aimed at limiting immigration, including the Commonwealth Immigrants Act 1962 and its 1968 amendment, which began to restrict entry, particularly from non-white Commonwealth countries.


3. Key Figures and Movements Influencing the Legislation


Several key figures and movements influenced the development and eventual passing of the Immigration Act 1971. Enoch Powell, a Conservative MP, was a prominent voice advocating for stringent immigration control, capturing significant public attention and stirring controversy with his views on race and immigration.

On the political front, both Conservative and Labour parties played roles in shaping the discourse and legislation around immigration.

The Labour government’s introduction of the Race Relations Act 1968, aimed at prohibiting discrimination on the grounds of race, highlighted the complexities of addressing both immigration control and racial equality.

The Conservative government, elected in 1970 under Prime Minister Edward Heath, ultimately introduced the Immigration Act 1971.

The Act reflected a compromise between the need to control immigration and the desire to avoid overt racial discrimination, within a legal framework that sought to respect Britain’s international obligations and historical ties to the Commonwealth.

The Immigration Act 1971 was therefore the culmination of a complex interplay of social, political, and economic factors, influenced by key figures who advocated for varying degrees of control over immigration.

It represented a significant shift in the UK’s immigration policy, setting a precedent for the controlled immigration system that characterises the country’s approach to this day.


Section B: Key Provisions of the Immigration Act 1971


1. Main Components of the Immigration Act 1971


a. Control of Entry
The Act established the principle that entry to the UK should be controlled, specifying that people not holding a right of abode could be subject to immigration control. This meant they required permission to enter and stay in the country. The Act provided for immigration officers to carry out this control, with the power to refuse entry and set conditions for stay.


b. Right of Abode
One of the Act’s central features was the definition of a “right of abode” in the UK, meaning the unconditional right to enter, live in, and leave the UK without being subject to immigration control. This right was primarily reserved for British citizens and certain Commonwealth citizens with close personal or familial connections to the UK.


c. Patriality 
The Immigration Act of 1971 introduced the concept of “patrial” status to distinguish between individuals with a closer connection to the UK and those without, for immigration purposes.

The Act established a set of criteria to determine whether someone was considered “patrial” through:


1. Birth in the UK: Individuals born in the UK automatically gained patrial status.

2. Descent: A person born outside the UK could be patrial if they had a parent or grandparent born in the UK.

3. Residence: Those who had resided legally in the UK for a continuous period of five years or more (with some exceptions) could achieve patrial status.


d. Work and Settlement

The Act allowed for two main categories of immigrants: those with a work permit and those granted “indefinite leave to remain.”

Work permits were issued for specific jobs for a set period, while indefinite leave to remain was granted to those who had already been living in the UK for a certain period, allowing them to stay in the UK permanently without restrictions.


2. Differentiation Between Commonwealth and Non-Commonwealth Citizens


The Act introduced significant changes in how Commonwealth and non-Commonwealth citizens were treated.


a. Commonwealth Citizens
Prior to the Act, Commonwealth citizens enjoyed relatively free entry into the UK. However, the Act removed this automatic right and subjected Commonwealth citizens to immigration control, except for those with a parent or grandparent born in the UK, who were given the right of abode.

b. Non-Commonwealth Citizens
Non-Commonwealth citizens, typically referred to as “aliens” in legislation before the 1971 Act, were already subject to immigration control. The Act continued this but under a unified system that applied to both Commonwealth and non-Commonwealth citizens, streamlining immigration control procedures.


Section C: Impact and Response to the Act


The Immigration Act 1971 was a landmark piece of legislation with far-reaching implications for UK immigration policy, public attitudes, and the lives of countless individuals. Its enactment brought about immediate effects, elicited varied reactions from the public and political spheres, and left a lasting legacy on the UK’s approach to immigration.


1. Immediate Effects on Immigration Patterns


The immediate consequence of the Act was a significant tightening of controls over who could enter and stay in the UK.

By introducing the concept of “patriality,” the Act effectively ended the primary immigration route for Commonwealth citizens who did not have a close connection to the UK, leading to a sharp decrease in immigration from the Commonwealth countries.

This shift marked a move towards a more regulated and restrictive immigration system, which prioritised ties to the UK through birth or ancestry over the previous system that was more open to Commonwealth citizens.


2. Public and Political Reaction to the Act


At the time it came into force, the Immigration Act 1971 received a mixed reception from the public and politicians alike.

It was seen by some as a necessary step to control immigration levels and address public concerns about integration and resource allocation.

On the other hand, it was criticised by others for undermining the spirit of the Commonwealth and for discriminating against non-white Commonwealth citizens and reflecting a shift towards a more insular and restrictive immigration policy.

Critics argued that the Act’s emphasis on ‘patriality’ discriminated on the basis of ethnicity and birthplace, as it favoured those with British ancestry. This led to accusations of racism and xenophobia, contributing to tensions within communities and between the UK and some Commonwealth countries.

The Act 1971 has since continued to be the subject of ongoing criticism and controversy. Contemporary issues such as the Windrush scandal, when long-term residents were wrongly detained, denied legal rights, and threatened with deportation. This highlighted problems with the Act’s implementation and its impact on individuals who had lived in the UK for decades but were caught up in an increasingly hostile immigration environment.


3. Long-term Implications for UK Immigration Policy


The Immigration Act 1971 has had a profound and lasting impact on UK immigration policy. It laid the groundwork for the UK’s modern immigration system, which continues to prioritise control and regulation of immigration.

Subsequent immigration laws have built on the framework established by the 1971 Act, further tightening controls and introducing new criteria for entry and residence.

The Act’s emphasis on the right of abode and indefinite leave to remain has remained central to UK immigration law, influencing debates and policies on citizenship, integration, and multiculturalism. It also set a precedent for the UK’s approach to immigration from the European Union, particularly in the context of Brexit and the end of free movement.


Section D: The Immigration Act in Today’s Context


The Immigration Act 1971 laid the foundation for the UK’s approach to immigration, setting the stage for a complex and evolving legal framework.

Over the decades, this framework has undergone significant changes and amendments to address new challenges and reflect shifting political and social priorities.

Understanding these developments, the Act’s role in current immigration issues, and how the UK’s policies compare with those of other countries offers insight into the broader context of immigration legislation globally.


1. Changes and Amendments Since 1971


Since its enactment, the Immigration Act 1971 has been amended and supplemented by numerous pieces of legislation, reflecting the changing landscape of UK immigration policy:


a. The Nationality, Immigration, and Asylum Acts (1981, 2002, 2006, and beyond)

These Acts introduced changes to citizenship and asylum processes, further detailing the rights and processes for entering and staying in the UK. Notably, the British Nationality Act 1981 redefined British citizenship, making it distinct from Commonwealth citizenship.


b. The Immigration Acts of 2014 and 2016

Aimed at creating a ‘hostile environment’ for illegal immigration, these Acts introduced measures to prevent those without legal status from accessing work, housing, health care, and banking services. They significantly tightened the conditions under which individuals could live in the UK, reflecting an increasingly strict stance on immigration.


c. Brexit and the EU Settlement Scheme

Following the UK’s departure from the EU, the government introduced the EU Settlement Scheme, allowing EU, EEA, and Swiss citizens living in the UK before the end of 2020 to apply for settled or pre-settled status. This marked a significant shift from the free movement previously enjoyed between the UK and EU countries, necessitating a new framework for managing EU migration.


d. Illegal Migration Act 2023

The Illegal Migration Act 2023, which became law on 20 July 2023, introduced significant and controversial changes to UK immigration laws with stricter measures for those entering the UK illegally.

While the 1971 Act established a single system for immigration control, the 2023 Act sought to strengthen the distinction between legal and illegal entry and to create a new legal framework for dealing with individuals who enter the UK “irregularly” and without proper authorisation.

While the 1971 Act already allowed for removal, the 2023 Act potentially streamlines the process and to make it more difficult for those entering illegally to remain in the UK. The 2023 Act expands the Home Secretary’s powers to remove individuals who have entered illegally, including those who arrive by unauthorised means like small boats across the English Channel.

The 2023 Act, with its focus on illegal entry, has raised concerns that it might inadvertently create difficulties for some individuals with a legal right of abode who arrive through “irregular routes.”

Also, the 1971 Act did not explicitly address asylum seekers arriving via “irregular routes”. The 2023 Act creates a two-tier system for asylum claims, meaning those arriving through “safe and legal routes” might have a smoother process, while those deemed to have entered illegally could face stricter assessments and potentially longer processing times for their asylum claims.


2. The Role of the Act in Current Immigration Issues


The Immigration Act 1971, despite numerous amendments, continues to underpin the UK’s approach to immigration control and regulation.

Current issues such as the status of EU citizens post-Brexit, the handling of asylum seekers and refugees, and the challenges of undocumented migrants are addressed within the legal framework that the Act helped to establish.

The principles of control and the right to abode, introduced by the Act, remain central to debates over citizenship, integration, and multiculturalism in the UK.


3. Comparisons with Immigration Policies in Other Countries


When compared with immigration policies in other countries, the UK’s system is notably strict, especially in its approach to illegal immigration and the criteria for granting permanent residence and citizenship. For instance:


a. United States

The US has a complex immigration system that includes various visas for work, family reunification, and diversity. Its approach to undocumented immigration has been contentious, with debates over border security and amnesty programs.


b. Canada

Canada’s immigration policy is often cited for its points-based system, which assesses applicants on factors like language proficiency, work experience, and education. Canada also has a more open stance towards refugees and asylum seekers compared to the UK.


c. Australia

Similar to Canada, Australia uses a points-based system for many of its immigrants, focusing on skills and employment potential. Its policies regarding asylum seekers, particularly offshore detention, have been widely criticised.


Section E: Case Studies on the Application of the Immigration Act 1971


The Immigration Act 1971 has had profound implications not only on the overarching policy and legal framework of the UK but also on the individual lives and communities within the country.

The following case studies, while generalised, reflect the types of situations and outcomes that have emerged as a consequence of the Act’s application, highlighting the complexities of immigration policy and the need for sensitive, fair, and flexible approaches to its implementation.


Case Study 1: Commonwealth Citizens’ Settlement Rights



In the years following the implementation of the Immigration Act 1971, a family from a Commonwealth country, having arrived in the UK in the late 1960s, found themselves navigating the complexities of the new immigration controls. Despite their contributions to the UK’s economy and society, they faced uncertainty about their right to remain in the country.


Application of the Act

Under the Act, many Commonwealth citizens who were already resident in the UK were granted indefinite leave to remain. However, the lack of comprehensive records and the necessity for documentation to prove one’s status led to difficulties for some individuals and families, particularly those who did not apply for or were unaware of the need for documentation.



The family, like many others, experienced a period of legal and emotional uncertainty. While they ultimately secured their right to remain in the UK, the process underscored the challenges faced by Commonwealth citizens in adapting to the new legal landscape, affecting their sense of belonging and security.


Case Study 2: Skilled Workers from Non-Commonwealth Countries


A skilled IT professional from a non-Commonwealth country applied for a work visa in the early 2000s under the points-based system introduced in the amendments following the 1971 Act. This system aimed to attract individuals with skills beneficial to the UK’s economy.


Application of the Act

The professional’s application process involved stringent checks and the accumulation of enough points to qualify under the skills and qualifications criteria. This system was a direct evolution of the control measures introduced by the Immigration Act 1971, which aimed to regulate entry based on the country’s economic needs and the individual’s ties to the UK.



Successfully obtaining a visa allowed the professional to contribute significantly to the UK’s tech sector. This case illustrates the Act’s long-term influence on shaping a controlled, skills-oriented immigration policy that impacts individual career paths and the UK’s economic sectors.


Case Study 3: The Windrush Scandal



The Windrush scandal, emerging into public consciousness in 2018, involved individuals from the Windrush generation (named after the ship MV Empire Windrush) who arrived in the UK from Caribbean countries before 1971. Despite their legal right to remain in the UK, many were wrongfully detained, denied legal rights, and threatened with deportation due to inadequate documentation.


Application of the Act

This situation highlighted the shortcomings and rigid application of immigration controls stemming from the Immigration Act 1971 and subsequent legislation, which demanded extensive documentation to prove one’s right to reside in the UK.



The scandal had a profound impact on individuals and communities, causing distress, uncertainty, and a sense of injustice. It led to a public outcry, governmental apologies, and the establishment of a compensation scheme. This case study underscores the human impact of immigration policies and the importance of ensuring they are applied with fairness and consideration for historical contexts.


Section F: Summary


The Immigration Act 1971 has played a pivotal role in defining and shaping the landscape of immigration in the United Kingdom, serving as a foundational piece of legislation that has influenced subsequent policies and public attitudes towards immigration.

The Act introduced significant changes, including the concepts of patriality, control of entry, and the framework for who is allowed to enter and remain in the UK.

Over the years, amendments and additional legislation have further evolved the UK’s approach to immigration, reflecting changing economic needs, political climates, and social attitudes.

A thorough understanding of the Immigration Act 1971 and its amendments is crucial for informed discussion and debate on current immigration issues.

The Act’s legacy, marked by both achievements and controversies, highlights the complex interplay between immigration policy and broader societal values, including issues of race, identity, and economic strategy.

The historical context of these policies are critical when considering the current debates surrounding immigration, offering lessons on the importance of inclusivity, fairness, and the need to balance control with compassion.

Looking ahead, the future of UK immigration policy appears poised for further changes, influenced by factors such as global migration trends and domestic priorities. Policies may continue to evolve in response to global dynamics, including the need for skilled labour, humanitarian considerations, and international relations.

The challenges of managing immigration in a way that supports the UK’s economic interests while upholding human rights and fostering social cohesion are likely to remain central themes.

The emphasis on creating a ‘points-based’ system, akin to models used in Canada and Australia, emphasises the focus on attracting talent and skills necessary for the UK’s economic development. However, the experiences of individuals and communities, as highlighted in case studies such as the Windrush scandal, underscore the importance of ensuring that policies are implemented with fairness and respect for the rights of those who have made the UK their home.

As the UK navigates the post-Brexit landscape and addresses new challenges, the lessons learned from the past half-century of immigration policy will be invaluable. A balanced approach, informed by historical context, responsive to current needs, and guided by a commitment to fairness and inclusivity, will be crucial for shaping the future of immigration policy in the United Kingdom.


Section G: Immigration Act 1971 FAQs


What is the Immigration Act 1971?

The Immigration Act 1971 is a key piece of legislation that established the legal framework for controlling immigration to the United Kingdom. It introduced concepts such as the right of abode, immigration control for Commonwealth citizens, and the basis for granting indefinite leave to remain in the UK.


Who has the right of abode under the Act?

The right of abode allows an individual to live and work in the UK without any immigration restrictions. Under the Act, this right is primarily granted to British citizens and certain Commonwealth citizens with close familial connections to the UK, such as having a parent or grandparent born in the UK.


How did the Act change immigration from Commonwealth countries?

Before the Act, Commonwealth citizens generally had the right to enter and settle in the UK. The Act introduced immigration control for Commonwealth citizens, requiring them to obtain permission to enter and stay, except for those with a right of abode or special permission.


What does ‘indefinite leave to remain’ mean?

Indefinite leave to remain (ILR) is permission for a person to stay in the UK without any time limit. It allows them to live, work, and study in the UK freely and is a critical step towards applying for British citizenship.


How has the Act been amended over the years?

The Act has been amended by various pieces of legislation, reflecting changes in immigration policy and the socio-political landscape. These amendments have addressed issues such as asylum, the rights of EU citizens, and measures to combat illegal immigration.


What was the impact of the Act on immigration patterns?

The Act significantly reduced immigration from Commonwealth countries by removing the automatic right to enter and settle in the UK. It marked the beginning of a more controlled and selective immigration policy, focusing on skills, family ties, and asylum considerations.


How does the Act affect EU citizens post-Brexit?

Following Brexit, EU citizens no longer have the automatic right to live and work in the UK under free movement rights. The EU Settlement Scheme, introduced as part of the UK’s departure from the EU, allowed EU citizens living in the UK before the end of 2020 to apply for settled or pre-settled status, granting them rights similar to indefinite leave to remain.


What criticisms have been levelled against the Act?

Critics argue that the Act institutionalised a system that could discriminate based on nationality and birthplace, impacting Commonwealth citizens disproportionately. It has also been criticised for contributing to challenges faced by long-term residents and their descendants, as highlighted by the Windrush scandal.


How does the Act relate to current immigration issues?

The principles established by the Act, including control of entry and the balance between welcoming needed skills and ensuring security, continue to influence current immigration debates. Issues such as integration, the treatment of asylum seekers, and the criteria for granting visas and residency are informed by the legislative framework that the Act contributed to establishing.


Glossary H: Key Terms Related to the Immigration Act 1971


Immigration Act 1971: Legislation that established the legal framework for controlling immigration in the United Kingdom, marking a significant shift towards regulating entry and stay in the country.


Right of Abode: The right to enter, live in, and leave the United Kingdom without any immigration restrictions. It is granted to British citizens and certain Commonwealth citizens under specific conditions.


Commonwealth Citizens: Individuals who are nationals of countries that are members of the Commonwealth of Nations, a political association of 54 member states, most of them former territories of the British Empire.


Indefinite Leave to Remain (ILR): Permission for a person to reside in the UK without any time limit on their stay. It is a crucial step towards qualifying for British citizenship.


Control of Entry: This term refers to the mechanisms and legal powers used by immigration officers at the UK’s borders to permit or deny entry to individuals. It involves assessing whether individuals meet the criteria for entry under the rules in force at the time.


Patriality: A concept introduced by the Immigration Act 1971, referring to a person’s right to reside in the UK based on their (or their parent’s or grandparent’s) birth in the UK, effectively prioritising those with close ties to the UK for immigration purposes.


Control of Entry: The mechanisms and procedures used by the UK government to regulate who can enter the country, including the powers of immigration officers to conduct checks and enforce immigration laws.


Work Permit: Authorisation for a non-UK resident to work in the UK, typically tied to a specific job and employer for a set period.


Settled Status: A designation under the EU Settlement Scheme granting EU, EEA, or Swiss citizens the right to remain in the UK indefinitely after Brexit, similar to indefinite leave to remain.


Pre-Settled Status: Under the EU Settlement Scheme, a temporary grant for EU, EEA, or Swiss citizens who have not lived in the UK long enough to obtain settled status, allowing them to stay for 5 years and apply for settled status later.


Windrush Generation: Refers to the people who arrived in the UK from Caribbean countries between 1948 and 1971, named after the ship MV Empire Windrush. This group has been significantly affected by immigration laws and policies, including those stemming from the Immigration Act 1971.


Points-Based Immigration System: A system used to manage immigration based on the assessment of an individual’s skills, qualifications, and other attributes, awarding points to determine eligibility for work visas and residency.


Section I: Additional Resources


Immigration Act 1971
The full text of the Act on the UK government’s legislation website.


Changes to British Nationality Act with Immigration Act 1971
A resource from The National Archives explaining how the 1971 Act impacted British Nationality.


Right of abode (ROA)
Explains the concept of right of abode introduced by the 1971 Act.


Citizens Advice Bureau
Citizens Advice offers free legal advice on various immigration issues in the UK.


The Law Society
Search for immigration solicitors who can provide legal guidance on UK immigration matters.

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