HC Deb 27 June 1933 vol 279 cc1333-8

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to allow British women marrying foreigners freedom to retain their nationality. Until 1870 British women had this right, but unfortunately by the Naturalisation Act passed in that year they were deprived of it, and were thrown upon the nationality of their husbands, even in cases where they might be stateless and without any protection. In this matter this country is very much behind a great many other countries, and it is high time that something was done to deal with this very serious matter, which affects a certain number of people in this country and touches our national pride and dignity to a very considerable extent. There is nothing new in the Bill, because it has been brought before this House in similar terms six times before, in 1922, 1928, 1929, 1930, 1931 and 1932, and on several occasions it has been ably sponsored by my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Chippenham (Captain Cazalet) and by other hon. Members who have taken the matter up. It is a matter which has already been accepted in principle by this House. In 1925, the following Resolution was adopted without opposition: That, in the opinion of this House a British woman should not lose or be deemed to lose her nationality by the mere act of marriage with an alien, but that it shall be open to her to make a declaration of alienage. In 1930, 241 Members of this House petitioned the Prime Minister to give the matter facilities at once. There can be no shadow of doubt that, in the view of this House and, I have no hesitation in saying, in the view of the country this matter is an urgent one. The next point to consider is the position of His Majesty's Government. I find that at the League of Nations in September, 1931, and at a meeting at which 48 States were represented, the following declaration was made by the British Government's delegate: The British Government considers that it is right that all disabilities of married women in matters of nationality should be removed, and that so far as nationality is concerned, a married woman should be in the same position as a man, married or unmarried, or any single woman. After such a declaration, one naturally expected that the Government would at once bring forward a Bill to deal with the matter. I understand that the law with regard to nationality of married women is the same throughout the British Empire, and that since 1914 it has been the settled constitutional practice to make no change in the law relating to British nationality except after previous consultation and by unanimous agreement. Very few of us would hesitate to accept that as reasonable. It follows that we must inquire how the Empire stands in this matter, and what the governments have done to advance it. Clearly, nothing was done at the Ottawa Conference, which was naturally confined to economic questions. I gather that at the previous Imperial Conference the question was discussed, but it was impossible to obtain unanimity. That, however, is no reason for ceasing to press for what the country demands, and what the Government have declared to the world at large to be desirable.

It seems to me that the proper course is to bring in a Bill to establish the matter, and it would be necessary that the Bill should include a Clause suspending its operation until there is unanimity in the Dominions, under the agreement at which we have arrived with them. I think that, if we did that, we should show to this country, to the Empire and to the world that we really mean what we said, and that this country takes the matter seriously. I would suggest that even the present Bill might be taken advantage of by the Government and used for that purpose. It covers the substance of the Government's declaration, and fully meets the earnest desires of those who are taking the matter up in this country. I submit it with every confidence. This is the seventh time that it has come before the House. Seven is the perfect number, and I submit that I have a perfect case for the acceptance of the Bill by the House. It provides, in the first instance, for the restoration to British women of the right which they lost in 1870, and it also provides that, where women have lost their British nationality by marriage, they shall be able to regain it.

There are many hardships in connection with this matter. A British woman who has married an alien is deprived of the protection of the British Government, is refused a passport, and has to register as an alien. If she is abroad and wishes to return to this country, she may be prevented from doing so, and at any rate she will not be allowed to work here. If her husband dies while she is abroad, she can by an elaborate process recover her British nationality, but if she is separated from her husband, as frequently happens for pretty sound reasons, she has to remain an alien. Again, when a woman automatically loses her British nationality by marriage with an alien, under the law of her husband's country she does not get his nationality, and is therefore left stateless and unprotected. That is an intolerable condition to allow any British woman to endure. The Bill also provides, while protecting the existing position of those already married, that henceforth alien women married to British citizens shall not, as heretofore, acquire British nationality solely by reason of such marriage. That is very important, in order to protect the country from the inroads of undesirable women who have managed to get in by a formal marriage, and so become British citizens and enjoy the rights and liberties of this country. I may not be in accord in this with some of those who support me, but it seems to me to be desirable in such a case to insert a Clause entitling an alien woman to take her husband's nationality by declaration, subject to approval of the Home Office in each case after investigation.

I hope I have said enough to convince the House of the necessity of accepting the principle of this Bill once more, but I must refer for a moment to the Measure which is being submitted in another place. That Bill only deals with the fringe of the question, and I merely refer to it because some question may arise in people's minds as to whether what I propose in this Bill is being dealt with elsewhere. The idea of the Government is to deal with the Stateless women and those who do not acquire automatically their husbands' nationality. These points are of great importance, and, while I am not convinced that opposition even to this small "sop to Cerberus" is desirable, because it is as well, when you cannot get the whole, to proceed in parts where you can, it is feared in the country that there might be a quite unintentional tendency on the part of this or any other Government to meet people's wants to a slight extent and ignore the major matter to which they, Parliament and the country, are committed. Other countries have set the example, and surely we, the apostles of liberty and the great protectors of the weak, are not going to be left behind, especially as regards our own women in this country. Therefore, I ask with confidence the leave of the House to introduce this Bill, and, incidentally, I would ask the House to ignore any slight foolish activities that may have been shown by certain unbalanced women, who mean well, because the great women's organisations in this country stand firmly for the proposal, and rightly so, while the citizens throughout the country are fully agreed that this is a right which should, at the earliest possible moment, be granted to British women.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Sir John Sandeman Allen, Captain Cazalet, Mr. Rhys Davies, Mr. Mander, Miss Rathbone, Sir Gervais Rentoul, Miss Pickford, Miss Cazalet, Mr. Boothby, and Mr. Llewellyn-Jones.