HC Deb 13 May 1914 vol 62 cc1197-211

Order for Second Reading read.

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

I beg to move, "That the Bill be now read a second time."

It is a pleasing task to present to the House a Bill for the Imperial naturalisation of British nationality. It is an agreed Bill between the British Government and all the Dominions, and it is a final and welcome solution of a problem which for thirteen years has caused doubt, difficulty, and discussion, and which seemed insoluble, but it has been happily, although rather tardily, solved by good sense and good feeling on all sides. This matter was discussed by an Inter-departmental Committee in the year 1901, which made certain recommendations and suggestions that came before the Imperial Conference in 1907. In consequence of the criticisms made there, another Committee was set up in 1908, which produced a draft Bill which was sent out to and criticised by the Dominions, and reconsidered by the last Imperial Conference in 1911. At that conference certain general propositions were agreed to, and before the members of the conference had left the country a draft Bill prepared here was submitted to some of them. The whole Bill has been referred to and carefully considered by all of them. I can assure the House there has not been delay or disinclination on the subject here, but every time any amendment was suggested it meant a fresh reference of a new draft Bill to every one of the Dominions, which had to be considered by them, and the result is that the final stage was only reached late last year, and then we reached a unanimous agreement.

It has been an absurd and intolerable situation in relation to naturalisation which we have undergone for many years, and the only wonder is why anybody tolerated it so long. British naturalisation has been valid throughout the Dominions, indeed, throughout the world, but Dominion naturalisation has only been valid in that Dominion in which it happens to be granted. An alien naturalised in Australia became an alien again the moment he crossed to New Zealand. A man who had become a British subject in Cape Colony before the Union, found himself a foreigner and alien when he went to the Transvaal even after its annexation. An American who has settled and got himself naturalised in Canada was Canadian if he went back to America, but American if he came to Europe; he was a Britisher nowhere. I am happy to say that this Bill cures all that. It is important it should be noticed here, and more important that it should be noticed elsewhere, that there is in the Bill no interference with the autonomous legislative rights of the Dominions. Clause 9 makes that point perfectly clear. It is, in fact, an enabling adoptive Bill dealing with naturalisation, and it is designed to afford convenience to the Dominions without compulsion. The Bill is founded on five conclusions of the Imperial Conference of 1911, and I am quite sure the House is willing that I may read them. (1.) Imperial nationality should be world-wide and uniform, each Dominion being left free to grant local nationality on such terms as its Legislature thinks fit. (2.) The Mother Country finds it necessary to maintain five years as the qualifying period. This is a safeguard to the Dominions as well as to her, but five years anywhere in the Empire should be as good as five years in the United Kingdom. (3.) The grant of Imperial nationality is in every case discretionary, and this discretion should be exercised by those responsible in the area in which the applicant has spent the last twelve months. (4.) The Imperial Act should be so framed as to enable each sell-governing Dominion to adopt it. (5.) Nothing now proposed would affect the validity and effectiveness of local laws regulating immigration or the like, or differentiating between classes of British subjects. A good deal of misunderstanding has existed in the past, owing to the diversity of the method, time, and qualification. An attempt to co-ordinate all these difficulties failed at first. There was a mistaken idea that similarity of result could only be attained by uniformity of treatment, but as soon as that fallacy was exploded a settlement became comparatively easy. The qualifying period for naturalisation differs very much in different parts of the Empire. It is five years in the United Kingdom, it is three years in Canada, and two years in Australia and South Africa. It need not exceed twenty-four hours in New Zealand. I think it will be clear to the House that there are obvious objections to reducing the British period of naturalisation—objections owing to our contiguity to the Continent, and the easy access of people from there, the establishment of old age pensions and national insurance which offer attractions to aliens from neighbouring States. But, indeed, it is not necessary to assimilate the time. An American, or indeed any alien, may become a Canadian subject in three years, and after two years more he may become a British Imperial subject by the certificate of the Canadian Government. It is only necessary that he should reside during the last twelve months of that time in Canada. The five years qualifying period for British nationality under this Bill may be made up anywhere, within the British Empire, so long as the last twelve months are spent in the place where naturalisation is sought and granted. The old Declaration sought from a man on naturalisation, was that he intended to reside in the United Kingdom. The new Declaration will be that he intends to reside within the British Empire. This Act applies to all Crown Colonies, and residence there will be as effective as residence in the Dominions or in the United Kingdom for naturalisation. But in the Crown Colonies naturalisation will be effected by the Governor of that Colony, and subject to his discretion and the discretion of the Secretary of State as well. In the past there has been some fear on the part of the Dominions that British or Imperial naturalisation might give rights of entry to people who, under their laws, are excluded immigrants. But it was quite obvious when the matter was discussed and considered that naturalisation could not and would not give rights which are withheld by law from native-born British subjects. There is no derogation in the Bill from the autonomous legislative rights of the Dominions as to the exclusion of any class of individual whatever their nationality, and all these are saved by Clause 26 of the Bill. These legislative rights of the Dominions are rather extended, because this Bill enables a Dominion Parliament to legislate on matters operating beyond the frontier of their own territories. Part I. and Part III. of the Bill codify the existing laws of British nationality, and apply universally with the saving that I have mentioned for Dominion legislation.

Part II., which deals with Imperial naturalisation, has no effect in a Dominion unless and until it has been adopted by that Dominion. We know as a fact that they are all prepared to adopt it, and a Bill for this purpose is actually before the Canadian Legislature. The Bill, as I have presented it to the House, is long is longer than it would otherwise have been, but I deliberately take the responsibility of that in order to avoid the vice of legislation by reference. I hope later that may be counted to me as a virtue, and I trust I shall not suffer for it during the Committee stage or the Report stage. This Bill will really form a Consolidation Act of nationality and naturalisation. I believe it will be a complete and a convenient code for use throughout the Empire. I hope that the House will be prepared to give a Second Heading to this Bill in the short time we have at our disposal to-night, in order that it may go to a Committee upstairs, where the details can be thoroughly discussed. Of course, it can be rediscussed afterwards in this House, both on Report and on the Third Reading, if that be necessary. I am sure that any delay which might endanger the passage of this Bill would be undesirable when it is so greatly desired by the Dominions beyond the seas. After years of futile fumbling we have been able to obtain an agreed plan. All the problems which seemed so difficult have turned out to be comparatively simple, and under this Bill they are solved. When the Bill passes to the Statute Book we shall have secured that much desired affirmation—that a British subject anywhere is a British subject everywhere.


I rise to support this Bill and to express the hope that it will pass through all its stages without difficulty. It was inevitable that in an Empire such as ours, where each component part was given independence of legislation and autonomy, that the complications which have been experienced for a great many years and for generations will arise. I think I am right in characterising this measure, not as a Bill of this Government, because it is the Bill of the Empire as a whole. It is more a Bill of the Overseas Dominions than it is a Bill of the right hon. Gentleman and the Government, although they have made it hard to co-ordinate the different opinions and views of the Overseas Dominions into this Bill, It has been a very difficult task indeed, and I congratulate the Overseas Dominions just as much as the Government on having produced a Bill which I believe will stand the test of criticism. I will give one or two illustrations of the extraordinary anomaly existing which I think will convey to those who are not familiar with the whole of the difficulties attaching to British subjects throughout the Empire the real state of things, and they will see that those difficulties are very real and very absurd. For instance, there was lately a Minister of the Dominion of Canada born in the United States. He was to be summoned to a Defence Conference in London. If he had arrived here as a member of that Conference, or a member of the Imperial Defence Committee, he would have arrived as an American and not as a British subject. I do not know that anything could have been done to prevent him from sitting on that Defence Committee, but one thing is certain. Suppose the Colonial Secretary had thought well to advise the Government to make that Gentleman a peer after he had performed his duty on the Defence Committee, he would not have been able to confer that honour because he was an alien, and a citizen of the United States.

There is the case of a most distinguished public servant who has performed very large duties indeed for the Empire, and who, I believe, would be made a peer tomorrow were it not for the fact that, in spite of all the years he has spent in helping to build up the industries and transport of one of our oldest Dominions, he could not be made a peer, because, although he is a British subject in the Dominion, he is not a British subject in this country. The thing is absurd and anomalous. The right hon. Gentleman has this satisfaction, and so has this House, of knowing that this result has been achieved without this country departing in the least from its own position regarding naturalisation. That, I believe, to be a triumph of diplomacy. I do not want to assign credit in this matter, but it is certain that for this country to have retained its own naturalisation laws unimpaired, and at the same time to have secured complete British naturalisation to any citizen of the Overseas Dominions who qualifies is a great achievement. I am not speaking of this thing as a triumph of government, but I am speaking of it as one of the most living products of the larger affection that is growing year by year between the Overseas Dominions and this country. It is a product of naturalisation that did not exist twenty years ago, nor ten years ago in the same sense, and that it has been achieved must be a satisfaction to the whole country and to this House. Not one of the Overseas Dominions will find it necessary to alter its own naturalisation laws under this Bill. Its own laws will remain, but they are given extra territorial legislative powers, and they are going to be able to legislate for those who have already acquired naturalisation n their own Dominion to become by further residence of one last year in that Dominion, a subject of the British Crown throughout the Empire and throughout the whole world. That strikes me as being a very desirable thing if the Empire is going to have any inherent power and is to give any definite rights to its citizens. For the first time these definite rights are given as an act of the Imperial legislature to every subject in the Empire. There is the difference that this Bill does not give the rights of citizenship in any portion of the Empire It would be a mistake to suppose that if this Bill had been law before it would have altered the position of those Labour leaders who were deported from South Africa. Their position would be exactly the same so far as South Africa is concerned.


And the Indians?


Yes, so far as the Indians or anybody else are concerned. Citizenship must be acquired in each individual country within the Empire, according to the laws of that individual country, and that is not changed. We have in this Bill achieved a position for the British subject which the Colonial Secretary described so well when he said that a man who is a British subject anywhere will be a British subject everywhere throughout the world. Hitherto a localised British subject, if he were in difficulties in a foreign country, had no right to appeal to the British Minister or the British Consul for protection. That is a very serious thing. It is, of course, the fact that that protection was invariably given to the British subject, but it was given to the Colonial or the Dominion subject or citizen, though it was given as a courtesy and not as a right. There are hon. Members in this House who know the full significance of the protection of which I have spoken. For instance, in Canada there are hundreds of thousands of Americans who come in every year. Up to this moment they have been citizens of Canada. I have heard at public meetings in this country and at meetings in Canada the most bitter complaint of the fact that to be a citizen under the British flag, the Dominion of Canada gives them no rights to speak of themselves as British citizens. It is high time that we came to some agreement, and this agreement reflects considerable credit on all concerned. I trust that no obstruction of any kind will be offered to this Bill, because every Clause in it has been the product of negotiation, consideration, and accommodation between this country and the Overseas Dominions, and I appeal to this House the more especially because this House and this Government give away nothing whatever. It is the Overseas Dominions which in their great difficulty have expressed their willingness to adapt themselves to this truly Imperial law, the only one which exists in the truest Imperial sense, because the Copyright Act, which is an example of Imperial legislation, is still not Imperial in the sense that this Bill is. It is an unfeigned pleasure to me to have been for many years assisting to fight this cause to find this Bill brought forward with every hope of becoming law, and being a real contribution to Imperial legislation.


I have in my Constituency perhaps as many, if not more, naturalised British subjects than any other Member of the House, and they have a very keen interest in the Bill, not only because of the very valuable change enabling those who have been naturalised in the Colonies to become British subjects here on coming to this country, but also because it consolidates the whole of the laws in regard to naturalisation in this country. Speaking for myself I welcome anything which facilitates desirable people becoming citizens of this country. In my view once a person has determined to cast in his lot with this country, to settle down here, it is in the interests of the country, if he is a man of good character, that no artificial barrier should be placed between him and his becoming a full British subject. It is for that reason that I welcome the increased facilities which this would give to those who have been naturalised in the Colonies, many of whom I have seen in my Constituency, and who up to now have felt it a great grievance that in order to become British subjects here, they have to undergo the very trying ordeal, for it is a trying ordeal, of going through all the process which is required to become a naturalised British subject. I want to mention two or three points in the Bill which I would ask my right hon. Friend to bear in mind with a view to seeing whether they cannot be dealt with upon Report. I refer particularly for the moment to Clause 2, which sets out what a person who desires naturalisation has to do, and paragraph (b) says: that he must be of good character and have an adequate knowledge of the English language. That seems an unfortunate phrase to put into an Act of Parliament. What is an adequate knowledge of the English language? When I went to read Clause 8 and to try to understand what the last two lines of it meant, I found that my knowledge of the English language was anything but adequate. This is quite a sample of a number of cases I have met with. A man of excellent character who had lived in my own Constituency for many years applied for naturalisation, and somehow was given to understand that he was rejected on the ground of the education test as it is called. He spoke English quite well. I gave him a piece of newspaper, and he read it. Then I dictated a very simple sentence to him. I could not make head nor tail of it, but on looking at it closely I got the clue. It was perfect phonetically. It was not good English, but any Englishman who took a little trouble could have deciphered it quite well. It is not necessary to have a severe test, as it is in many cases to-day. When the Under-Secretary for the Colonies was introducing this Bill in another place, he said the applicant must be a man of good character, and must speak the English language. That I agree with. But that is not quite the same thing as saying that he must have an adequate knowledge of the English language.

There is perhaps an even more material point on Clause 10. This, I know, embodied the existing law:—

"The wife of a British subject shall be deemed to be a British subject, and the wife of an alien shall be deemed to be an alien." Speaking for myself, I think that is a very unsatisfactory position, but when I come to Clause 11 I think if something can be done to alter it, it ought to be done. Clause 11 says:—

"A woman who, having been a British subject, has by or in consequence of her marriage become an alien, shall not, by reason only of the death of her husband, or the dissolution of her marriage, cease to be an alien." That means that if a woman born in this country, say, twenty-five years ago, marries an alien she becomes an alien. A year afterwards she becomes a widow and she is still an alien. The fact that she was married to an alien for one year constitutes that woman an alien for the rest of her life. Take the other case of a foreigner here at thirty years of age who marries an Englishman, She becomes an Englishwoman. She becomes a widow in a year, and remains an Englishwoman for life. I do not think that position can be established. I believe there is some suggestion that it has to do with the passing of property abroad, but my concern is for the very many poor women in Stepney who are not affected by property abroad, but are much more affected by the Insurance Act, and my suggestion is that it should be possible in Committee, in the ease of a woman who has simply become an alien because of her marriage to an alien, on her becoming a widow, to do what the Bill allows a child to do—

"Any child who has so ceased to be a British subject may, within one year after attaining his majority, make a declaration that he wishes to resume British nationality, and shall thereupon again become a British subject." Surely you can give a woman who becomes a widow, without going through all this process of naturalisation, the right to make a declaration that she wants to resume her nationality! She will not do it if she is going to suffer by it in consequence of property abroad, but she will want to do it in view of the disadvantages which the poorer women suffer in this country through not being British subjects.


I understand that this Bill is the result of the Imperial Conference, and the minor difficulties which then existed have since been adjusted, and the present Bill is the conclusion which was arrived at from the point of view of the Mother Country and of the Imperial Dominions beyond the seas. It seems to mo that it is a fairly good Bill all round, and one which should pass. Of course, there may be some points which require modification, or perhaps further thought. In the main the Bill provides for some modification in the law which formerly existed in the United Kingdom, but it practically leaves the laws of the Dominions Overseas as they were before. The really important thing in this Bill is contained in Clauses 4 and 8, which provide means in cases of doubt and of exceptional character—in the case where the Mother Country is concerned—by which the Secretary of State may in his absolute discretion, as he thinks fit, grant a special certificate of naturalisation to any person. That gives a large power to the Secretary of State in this country, and it gives him the opportunity of correcting any disability or removing any doubt which might exist by the issue of a special certificate. Some provision is made in respect of the Dominions Overseas, because in Clause 8 it is expressly provided that the Government of any British Possession shall have the same power to grant a certificate of naturalisation as the Secretary of State has under this Act, so that in the case of our Dominions Overseas, wherever there is a special case in which the Government think a certificate of naturalisation should be issued, it will be issued; and the special merit of this Bill will be that, no matter whether these special certificates are issued in the United Kingdom or in the Dominions Overseas, they will remove a disability which previously unfortunately prevailed, and will prevail no longer.


I think the Bill is one which really deserves more consideration on Second Reading than we are able to give it at present. It passed the House of Lords with very slight consideration, and, I understand, even in Committee it was passed more or less pro forma, and it commits us far more than the House appreciates at present. We are in this difficulty. It has been promoted in order to meet the wishes of all our Colonies, and if when we get into Committee we ask to amend it in any details, I feel certain that the right hon. Gentleman will tell us, as we have had experience before, that it is a very dangerous thing to attempt in Committee to alter any details in a Bill which has obtained the assent of the representative bodies of our Dominions. For that very reason, if the Bill passes, we shall have passed an Act which it will be very difficult for us to amend. This is an Act of naturalisation, and it has been agreed to by all the Dominion Parliaments. We shall have considerable difficulty in this Parliament in altering our laws of naturalisation. I believe that consideration applies particularly to Part III. Part III. lays down the law affecting married women. I cannot believe that the law affecting the nationality of a married woman can continue to exist for many more years as it stands, and, in view of the general growth of opinion as regards the legal condition of women, it will be a very disastrous thing if we find the door shut, as I believe it will be if the Bill passes, to amendments on this particular branch of the question. I have never seen any reason why a woman should be forced against her will to become a foreigner because she marries a foreigner. I do not see in the least why she should not be entitled to choose which nation she belongs to, whether she is married or not. A man does not become a foreigner because he marries a foreigner, and why should a woman? This particular branch of the question has raised such serious matters for consideration that, in respect to the Old Ago Pension Act, we have had to practically abandon the principle that a woman loses her nationality because she marries a foreigner.


I think the right hon. Gentleman has misapprehended the Bill. It is in two parts. The first deals with the Oversea Dominions, and the second part deals with this country. Our powers of legislation in this country are not in the least altered.

8.0 P.M.


I am very glad to have that explanation. L did not appreciate that. I was labouring under the idea that these particular proposals were to make our law in accord with the laws of the Colonies, and that we should find ourselves tied with regard to them. I hope we shall have some assurance from the Colonial Secretary with regard to this question, because, if the Bill goes into Committee, this is a point which will undoubtedly be raised. I hope it will be raised, and that, if possible, we will omit this portion of the Bill altogether, so as to leave the law as it stands without having to re-enact it. I do not wish to obstruct the Bill in any way, although I think it would have been better for the Bill, and the public generally, if we had been able to have had a thoroughly good Second Beading Debate upon it. I rose to draw attention to an important aspect of the Bill, namely, the provisions with respect to married women, and to express the hope that when this matter is dealt with in Committee, the right hon. Gentleman will be open to receive Amendments on that question.


I do not wish to obstruct the Bill, but I agree with the hon. Gentleman opposite (Mr. Dickinson) that it would have been better to have had a full day's discussion upon it in view of the important questions which are raised. I only rise to call attention to the proviso of Clause 8, Sub-section (1), which says:—

"Provided that, in any British Possession other than British India and a Dominion specified in the First Schedule to this Act, the powers of the Government, of the Possession under this Section shall be exercised by the Governor or a person acting under his authority, but shall be subject in each case to the approval of the Secretary of State, and any certificate proposed to be granted shall be submitted to him for his approval." That Sub-section gives the Secretary of State in the last resort the right to administer the Act in British Possessions. I think it should also apply to British Protectorates. As the Sub-section now stands the British East Africa Protectorate, and Northern and Southern Rhodesia, would not be affected at all by the Act. I would ask the right hon. Gentleman to take into consideration whether the words "and Protectorates" could be inserted after the words "British Possession."


I do not wish to say many words on the Bill. It deals, no doubt, with many matters of detail which will be proper for consideration in the Standing Committee. I am not afraid, like the hon. Member opposite (Mr. Dickinson), that the criticism of these details will run counter to any of the objects which the Dominions have in view in regard to the main provisions of the Bill, which I take to be included in Part II. These matters were discussed at a conference attended by representatives of the Colonies, and I think the details which have been referred to can be discussed freely and satisfactorily without injuring the feelings of the Dominions. The really essential principle of the Bill is that it provides uniform nationality all over the Dominions of the Crown, and that it does not make the acquisition of that nationality possible to be obtained on easier terms. I understand that it will be possible to acquire British nationality all over the Dominions of the Crown under the same conditions as it can be acquired here. That strikes me as a great and valuable feature of the Bill. It is not right that a man should be incapable of acquiring British citizenship in the Dominions beyond the sea, and I hope that will be rectified, and that the details of the Bill will receive full consideration upstairs.


I have no desire to opposite the Second Reading of the Bill. I desire to associate myself with what was said by my right hon. Friend (Mr. Dickinson) with respect to the Clauses dealing with the status of women. I think those who know the conditions of East London—and I think the same applies to some ex- tent in seaport towns—know that women often marry aliens without being aware that they are aliens at all. It sometimes happens that aliens are on the register as electors, and the wife of an alien has no idea when marrying that she is losing her British nationality. That is a very great injustice, not deliberately inflicted, I am sure, but arising out of the existing law. I think we should not allow the existing law to be re-enacted without modification. I hope that the Colonial Secretary will be able to redress that very great grievance which at present attaches to those cases, and that women will be allowed in future to exercise some option on marriage when they marry an alien, so that they shall not be treated as though they were semi-servile beings passing into the power of their husbands. I think a woman should have the right of having her personality recognised by law, and that she should have an equal right with a man of retaining her status. While that applies strongly in the case of married women, it applies far more strongly in the case of the widows of aliens. I hope that in this respect the Bill may be amended.


Perhaps I may be allowed to say that between now and the Committee stage, and during the Committee stage, I will carefully consider this 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.


I think after that declaration by the Colonial Secretary some of us will be reluctant to see the Bill going through the Second Reading stage in so short a time. I would make one further appeal to my right hon. Friend, and that is, that as far as possible the Committee should be allowed a free hand to follow its own convictions upon this matter. I cannot see for myself that there can be any party point in the Bill. I therefore hope that unless my right hon. Friend is able to hit upon some solution to meet all views, he will allow the Committee to express its views fairly and freely upon this question. I would press further that this should apply to the Report stage of the Bill as well. I think it would be very unfortunate if a small vote in Committee were to decide some of the questions which will be raised. In Committee only twenty Members are required for a quorum, but there have been cases recently of Committee after Committee breaking up because there was not a quorum. As the Session goes on there will be greater difficulty in getting a quorum. If only twenty-one or twenty-two Members came in to make up the necessary number, it would be unfortunate if the decisions of such-and-such small Committee were to bind this House. I feel exceedingly strongly upon the sex question. I am in favour of downright equality. I regard Clauses 10 and 11 as a piece of utter hypocrisy. Suppose the case of two people in the City of London who are of independent means and one is a British woman who marries an alien. She is treated as of no account whatever, and immediately she becomes an alien, although she may be on the register and able to vote for local purposes. She loses her vote, and if her husband dies, she cannot get back on to the register, although she is a ratepayer. Those who can conceive and defend an idea of that kind are hopelessly behind the times, and they are voicing the conditions of an Eastern harem. I am amazed that anyone should have the cool audacity to put such Clauses in the Bill. It is perpetuating the idea that woman is the slave and the chattel of a man as soon as she is married to him. I cannot think that, with the great ability and well-known tact of my right hon. Friend, it will be beyond his power to make a vast improvement in the Bill. Accepting his statement in good faith, I withdraw my opposition at the present time.