HC Deb 29 July 1914 vol 65 cc1462-530

Order read for Consideration of Bill, not amended (in the Standing Committee).

[Mr. SPEAKER in the Chair.]


I beg to move "That the Bill be re-committed."

I want to give the Colonial Secretary a chance of explaining this matter. "When this Bill was before the House on the Second Reading only a very few minutes were available, and a very important point was raised by the hon. Member for St. Pancras with regard to the position of a woman who married an alien. That was the principal point made by those who criticised this Bill on the Second Reading. The proceedings were curtailed very much indeed, and many hon. Members who wished to speak withheld their remarks because the right hon. Gentleman said he would take an opportunity of interviewing hon. Members before the Committee stage, and he stated that he hoped to be able to make a satisfactory concession. I regret to say that I see no evidence of any concession on this point. The Bill has come back from the Committee without a single word being altered, and no doubt there is some explanation of it. I think we are entitled to a word of explanation. I have received very strong complaints from hon. Friends of mine who were on this Committee, and who wish me to press this point, because they say that the matter was hurried through and they did not get the opportunity they expected. It may be that they are mistaken, and that my right hon. Friend is going to meet those points now.

I do not intend to state the case myself, but my hon. Friend the Member for West Leeds (Mr. Edmund Harvey) will probably put the matter in a more direct manner. I do not wish to dwell upon the merits of the case, but I hope there will be some satisfactory explanation given of the matter of which we complain. My own view is that this Bill has never really had a Committee stage, and it practically comes before us now to have a Committee stage although it is called a Report stage. I hope we shall not be thought unreasonable in insisting that these matters should be gone into very fully. If the Colonial Secretary can give us some satisfactory explanation I shall withdraw my Motion, and we can then go on with the Amendments on the Paper. I do not propose this as a dilatory Motion, and an explanation will probably facilitate the business more especially if the right hon. Gentleman can indicate what substantial concession he can make. I notice the right hon. Gentleman has an Amendment on the Paper, but that does not meet the point. The point made on the Second Reading is that a woman who marries an alien, whether she is to have the choice on marriage of retaining her British citizenship or not, or whether the woman who has married an alien can resume her British nationality at once if she is left a widow. Those are two very different points from the point as to the husband changing his nationality during the period of marriage. I will not go into them now, because probably some statement will be made which will facilitate the proceedings.


I beg to second the Motion. I do so from a slightly different point of view from that of my hon. Friend. It would be very valuable if we could have a statement from the Colonial Secretary as to the general question of the status of women under this Bill, but apart from that we should be fully justified in referring this Bill back again for detailed consideration in Committee, because this question is of such vast importance, and it is obvious that the Committee has not been able to deal with the various points raised. I believe the Colonial Secretary was of the view when the Bill was read a second time that no change was expedient in it, even although it might be a good change in itself, because the measure had been agreed to by representatives of the Dominions, but I see that he himself has now put down a number of Amendments. They are all very welcome Amendments, and I am very glad that he has been able to see his way to make them, but the very fact that he has made them shows that the Bill could not have been properly considered and amended in detail in Committee.

It is unsuitable that at such an hour and so late in the Session we should deal with a question of such enormous importance to one half of His Majesty's subjects, which has aroused a very great deal of feeling among women in this country, and I think we can be sure in the Dominions also. It is a matter of the very greatest interest to women subjects of the Crown. Surely it would be well that the Bill should be reconsidered from this point of view and that an opportunity should be given to women in the Commonwealth and women generally to express their opinions on this important point of safeguarding their nationality. Even if it meant a delay of some months or possibly even of a year in carrying what is in its main features a most desirable measure, it would be worth while. We must feel that there is something ironical in a Parliament of men, elected by men, settling once and for all the citizenship and the civic rights of women who have no voice in the matter directly at all, something which in the nature of things seems hardly just and right. I for one feel that we are not justified, men elected by men, in barring out from their rights in the citizenship of the Empire a large number of our fellow subjects. It is for this reason I second the Motion, and I hope very much that we may have a satisfactory assurance from the Colonial Secretary.

The SECRETARY of STATE for the COLONIES (Mr. Harcourt)

On the Second Reading of this Bill I promised my hon. Friends on this side of the House that I would Carefully consider the point, which is dealt with in Clauses 10 and 11, with the view, if possible, of meeting the objections. I cannot say positively now that I will be able to meet the point raised by my hon. Friends. I can make no promise at present, for I must consider the matter carefully. We must not interfere with the existing legislation of the Dominions. I cannot do better at present than say that I will carefully consider the point."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 13th May, 1914. col. 1210, Vol. LXII.] I had considered those points carefully: every Amendment which was put down was considered and there was no point which appeared on the Paper which was not discussed as fully as hon. Members desired. I was not able to meet their suggestion at that time, but on further consideration I have been able I hope to meet their wishes in large part. We have not thought it possible to alter the law of naturalisation which has been in operation in this country by statute for forty-four years. This Bill makes no change in our law of naturalisation except to enable certain fellow - citizens of ours in the Dominions to obtain British nationality. That is the sole object of this Bill, and although there are many provisions in it which are mere repetitions of the existing law, it is in fact a codifying Bill.

I have endeavoured in the Amendments I have put down to meet two points which were raised and discussed. It was said there was a hardship in an Englishwoman who had married an alien, but who wanted after his death to resume her British nationality, being called upon to go through the process of naturalisation—i.e., five years' residence subsequent to widowhood, and the payment of a fee of £3. In Committee upstairs my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and I promised that by Regulation the widow should be enabled to resume her nationality, or rather claim a new naturalisation, counting her residence here before marriage in the five years, and we also promised by Regulation that the fee charged, instead of being three guineas should in no case exceed 5s. It was admitted by my hon. Friends that met their point, but they were dissatisfied that it was to be done by Regulation, and they suspected that our successors might alter this valuable Amendment, if made by Regulation. I do not really suspect my successors as my hon. Friends seem to, but we have now decided to put this into the text of the Bill. Therefore I hope my Amendment meets that particular point.

There was another point, not raised in Committee upstairs but submitted privately to me since, which I think is also a matter of hardship, and that is the case of an Englishwoman marrying an Englishman who subsequently to the marriage, and it being no part of the marriage contract, undertakes to become a citizen of some foreign country by naturalisation. Under our law and the law of other countries she has to follow the nationality of her husband although she was not a consenting party to the change of nationality, and it was no part of the contract she made on her marriage. We have determined to deal with that, and that is the other Amendment I have put down. In the event of an Englishwoman marrying and finding that her husband subsequently naturalises himself in some other country she will be enabled by declaration to retain the nationality which she accepted on her marriage. I really think we have here met two most reasonable points. As to allowing any woman to retain her own nationality when she deliberately marries an alien, if we did that we should be departing from the practice of the whole civilised world. Every nation in the world has not adopted but happens to pursue the same policy and the same law which is ours in Great Britain, with the exception of Venezuela and Spain. Very grave questions arise as to domicile, taxation and other matters, and especially as to children if you have a dual nationality of husband and wife. I would not recommend the House to make so grave a change as that in our naturalisation laws.

The question was carefully considered by a Royal Commission which sat in the year 1869 upon which the Act of 1870 was founded, and the whole matter was carefully argued by four of the greatest lawyers we have ever had in this country—Coleridge, Jessel, Selborne, and another whose name I have forgotten. They all took the view that it was essential that the nationality of the wife should follow that of the husband. That has always been the practice of international law accepted by the civilised world. By the reasonable Amendments which my right hon. Friend and I have made, we have done our best to meet the two hard cases which might arise. I hope, therefore, that the House will not for a moment think it necessary to recommit this Bill, and as to the particular details we shall be prepared to deal with them on the Amendments which appear on the Paper.


I did not propose to deal with the question of the position of married women at this juncture, but I feel bound to do so and perhaps it would be more convenient if I did so at this moment. In the first place, I should like to join issue very respectfully with the right hon. Gentleman upon his assertion that this matter was thoroughly threshed out in Committee. If it had been I should be the last to ask the House at this moment to reconsider this important question. This matter was debated on the Second Reading very shortly and the right hon. Gentleman promised, in order that we should allow it to go through that stage, to carefully consider various points between then and the Committee. When the Committee stage arrived he did not propose anything except this one minor suggestion for altering the Regulations under which the Home Office acts in this matter. The Committee stage was considerably hurried.

The Bill was referred to Committee "C." We were summoned to meet on a day of the week on which that Committee never sits; the last day before we adjourned for the Recess. The circumstances at the moment rendered it desirable that we should get rid of the business on that day, and it was in pursuance of that feeling on the part of the Committee, expressed and unexpressed, that I personally did not make any effort to hold over the discussion till another day. I feel certain that if we had held it over and had had three or four weeks to consider it, in which time public opinion and the opinion of women's societies could have made itself apparent to members of the Committee, we should have had a far better discussion and a far better result from our deliberations. As a matter of fact the deliberations of the Committee extended over only about three hours on a Bill which undoubtedly is of very great importance, and which, quite apart from the question of the nationality of women, raises questions which fully deserve consideration. It was passed without Amendment, very largely on the plea that it was an agreed Bill and that it was not fair to the Dominions for us to interefere with it.

On that point I should like also to make this observation, because I think it is one of importance. Here is a Bill of very great importance, and raising matters affecting the whole Empire, and affecting very closely the women of the Empire. This measure has been brought forward on the plea that it is an agreed measure without a single representative body in the whole Empire having ever considered the principles on which it is based. It is quite true that it was the result of the Imperial Conference, but no public body has had any opportunity of deciding for or against these proposals until they were brought up in the various Parliaments of the Empire. Canada has dealt with it. They passed the Bill, but with a protest on this very point. I do not quite know the position in Australia, but I know the Australian women protested very strongly against it. Therefore this very important matter has been dealt with without the representatives of the people having an opportunity of saying anything in the matter. In regard to the main question the right hon. Gentleman has put a forcible case. He says this is not only a law that has existed in this country for forty-five years, but it is the law of the whole civilised world. It is quite true that since 1907 it is the law of most of the civilised world, although they still contest it in Australia, because in 1907 the United States for the first time made it law that an American woman marrying an alien should by force of law become an alien.

Up to 1907 the American woman retained her American rights because the American law was based upon the law of England—the law of all English-speaking nations. The British common law had always been, until 1870, that a British woman did not lose her nationality on her marriage. It is quite true that the rest of the civilised world had the opposite view, that a woman was bound to merge her individuality and her nationality in her husband's, but up to 1870 we had resisted that and if in 1870 the women's voice had been heard, if a single opportunity had been given to women to consider the question, I doubt very much whether the Parliament of 1870 would have carried it. My right hon. Friend now says this was the result of very long consideration by Lord Selborne and others. I have looked through that Commission's report and I fail to see that this question of the married women's position was discussed in any way whatever. When the change was made the point was raised in Debate and the answer was simply that the rest of the countries had this law and it was better that we should follow then-example. It did not very much matter, and it was more convenient they said, and had no effect upon propertied women because by the Act of 1870 they gave to the alien for the first time the right of holding property in this country. I hope to show that it is not propertied women who are concerned at all. It is the poor women, and it is for them that I am anxious to make that change.

I will ask the House to revert to the law of England that held good prior to 1870. I submit that the time has now come when we must recognise that the ideas of society with regard to the position of married women have changed very much indeed. It is not long ago since it was held to be an absurd proposal that a married woman should hold her property apart from that of her husband. Her property became her husband's up to a very few years ago. Since then a change has been made, and the woman holds her separate property and her separate earnings just in the same way as the man can do. She has her individuality with regard to all questions of holding property. But now we may go a step further, and we may urge, as I urge, that unless you can show strong reasons from the point of view of the public interest that a married woman should be bound by law to accept the nationality of her husband, you are not justified in putting her in that position by law. A man can go to another country, and if he is a respectable person he can become naturalised in that country.

Why should not a woman have the same right as a man to choose her nationality? If you can give any substantial reason why it is inexpedient for a woman to remain a Britisher after she marries a foreigner, it should be stated. I have seen the correspondence in the newspapers, and I have looked through the Debates in this House and in the other House, and I have never found a reason which I could see was a valid objection to a woman having the right to say, "I prefer to remain a Britisher, even although my husband is a Frenchman or a German." There is no reason why a person should not have two nationalities. There are many cases where they do. There is no real objection to it. Prior to 1907 an American woman could not lose her American citizenship by marrying a Frenchman, although if she went to live in France she would have to submit to the laws of France and become a French citizen. That was changed in 1907 for the same reason that we changed it. It was done as a matter of convenience.

I wish to point out that there are two branches of the subject. There is the question of the British woman who marries a foreigner and then goes to live abroad. I do not think that, in very many cases a woman who does so would want to remain a British citizen. There would be some cases. Curiously enough I know of them. Since I have raised the question in this House I have received letters from a lady living in Germany thanking me for bringing it forward. I had a letter from a lady living in Constantinople who married a Moslem and never realised when she did so that she was handing herself over to a system of law totally inconsistent with the system of law here. If she had had the right to remain a British citizen, she would have been protected to a certain extent. It is, however, on the second branch of this question that the grievance exists mostly, and that is in the case of the wife of an alien who lives in this country. I have knowledge of a case which I should like to bring before the House because I think it shows very plainly the position at the present moment.

I was interested last year in trying to get old age pensions for an old man and an old woman. The old man had been in this country for sixty-seven years. He had been brought over to this country from Germany by his father, and when he applied for the pension he was told that his father had not taken out naturalisation papers, and the result was that he was disappointed about his pension. But what about the wife? His wife was an English woman who had never left this country, and she was refused an old age pension because she was no longer a British subject. She had no idea at the time she married that she was marrying a German. Everybody thought that he was an Englishman. For years he served in the Post Office, and he has got a little pension from it. But as far as the woman is concerned she lost her pension simply because she married this man, innocently, and because the law of this country laid it down in 1870 that by marrying a person of foreign nationality a woman was to lose her citizenship. I mention that case as a very striking one, but it is not unique. It holds good in many places, especially in the East End of London. My hon. Friend who represents the Division of Stepney has found this a pressing question, and one which inflicts very considerable hardship upon the wife. Think of the position of the wife who has married an alien living in England. Her children are all British subjects because' they are born in England and she is the only one of the family, with the exception' of the husband, who is prevented from enjoying the advantages of British citizenship, and this is not only during the lifetime of the husband, but afterwards when she becomes a widow.

The difficulties which arise in connection with this matter are so apparent that the right hon. Gentleman has now agreed to meet us on certain points. He is going to allow that a widow who was a British subject is to regain her rights. He is also going to allow that if a British subject becomes an alien then his wife shall not be compelled to follow him. That is a concession and we are very much obliged to him for it. But at the same time if you go so far I cannot see why you cannot accept the principle which I believe is the right principle, that is that the woman should have an equal right with the man to say whether or not she renounces or does not renounce her British nationality. There is one grievance which under the present law has already had to be remedied, because the Old Age Pensions Act did not apply to the wife of an alien. The Old Age Pension Amending Act in 1911 has allowed the old age pension to be given, not to the wife of an alien it is quite true, but to the widow of an alien. Then the National insurance Act was found also to work a hardship in cases like that, and so in 1913 we had to alter that. I submit that the real remedy is the remedy which I ask for, the remedy which I quite admit the rest of the world has not yet adopted, but which if we adopt it the rest of the world will soon adopt; because all over the world the idea is growing that a married woman should have precisely equal rights with her husband. Unless some strong public reason is urged against it I fail to see any objection. The question of children does not arise. Children would follow the nationality of the father. At present the child follows the nationality of the father if the father is alive or of the mother if there is only a mother.

I am very much obliged to the right hon. Gentleman for the two concessions which he has made. I think that he has done something to meet two very glaring injustices from which women suffer, but I do not see why he should not complete it and make a good job of it. This is not only my suggestion. Almost every society that is connected with women's work in this country has passed resolutions in favour of it. It is an almost unanimous feeling on the art of women that they should revert to the old common law of England, and that is the Amendment I shall move later on.

Question, "That the Bill be recommitted," put, and negatived.

Bill, not amended (in the Standing Committee), considered.

  1. CLAUSE 1.—(Definition of Natural-born British Subject.) 134 words
  2. PART II.
      1. cc1472-82
      2. CLAUSE 2.—(Certificate of Naturalisation.) 4,001 words
      3. cc1482-3
      4. CLAUSE 5.—(Persons under Disability.) 539 words
      5. cc1484-5
      6. CLAUSE 6.—(Persons Previously Naturalised. [33 Vict. c. 14. s. 7.]) 539 words
      7. cc1485-6
      8. CLAUSE 7.—(Revocation of Certificate of Naturalisation.) 387 words
      9. cc1486-9
      10. CLAUSE 8.—(Power of Governments of British Possessions to Grant Certificates of Imperial Naturalisation.) 1,348 words
      11. cc1490-1
      12. CLAUSE 9.—(Application of Part II. to Self-Governing Dominions.) 566 words
      13. cc1491-504
      14. CLAUSE 10.—(National Status of Married Women. [33 Vict. c. 14. s. 10 (1).]) 5,804 words, 1 division
    1. cc1505-6
    2. CLAUSE 19.—(Regulations by Secretary of State.) 567 words
    3. cc1506-7
    4. CLAUSE 28.—(Repeal, Short Title, and Commencement.) 313 words
    5. cc1507-11
  4. COAL MINES BILL. 173 words
  5. cc1511-29
  6. INEBRIATES BILL. 7,397 words, 2 divisions
  7. cc1529-30
  8. NAVY AND ARMY EXPENDITURE, 1912–13. 102 words