Margaret Thatcher called for a clampdown on Asian men bringing their second wives to the UK, newly released Cabinet office files have revealed.
The former prime minister claimed immigration rules discriminated in favour of the “coloured Commonwealth” according to the papers which cover policy effecting immigrants from 1982 to 1986.
Ministers in Thatcher’s government were under pressure to prevent Pakistani and Bangladeshi women in polygamous marriages from joining their husbands in the UK, files from the National Archives show.
A policy unit briefing note from No 10 informed the prime minister: “Though the numbers are small, the problem is vexed and the Home Office are exposed to public pressure.”
And it reveals that at one stage the home secretary of the day, Douglas Hurd, even contemplated breaking the law over the issue of polygamous wives.
In March 1986 he wrote arguing for a change in the law to make it possible to refuse such women entry.
“There is no way in which the issue of entry clearance applications by polygamous wives can be made acceptable to public - or Parliamentary - opinion,” he wrote.
A note from one of Thatchers advisers says she “strongly shares the Home Secretary’s view that an early change in the law is required”.
The then attorney general Sir Michael Havers, however, warned that any attempt to exclude the women concerned would be illegal without new legislation.
“I am very conscious of the fact that this is a highly explosive subject and that there is a need for early amendment of the law,” he wrote.
“I must, however, advise in the strongest terms against taking any action against second wives until there is a change in the law. Such unlawful action by the government cannot be contemplated.”
Despite this, Thatcher was adamant that action had to be taken, scrawling in a handwritten note: “The country would be with us on this. We would be crazy to discriminate in favour of the coloured Commonwealth against the UK.”
When Hurd suggested making future polygamous marriages invalid but recognising existing ones, she wrote in the margin: “We do not recognise polygamy at all.”
The document also reveals that immigration facilities at Heathrow came close to being overwhelmed by an unexpected surge of young men from Bangladesh seeking entry to the UK in October 1985.
It discussed the merits of introducing visas for Commonwealth immigrants in order to control numbers.
A scheme to pay immigrants who wanted to return to their country of origin - used by 100 or 200 people a year - had been rebranded “assisted return” because its original name, “voluntary repatriation”, had sounded too like the kind of repatriation
called for by Enoch Powell.