HC Deb 24 March 1943 vol 387 cc1714-26

(1) No woman who is a British subject shall, by reason only of her marriage to an alien after the commencement of this Act, lose her British nationality.

(2) At any time after the commencement of this Act any woman who was a British subject and lost her British nationality before such commencement by reason only of her marriage to an alien shall be at liberty to apply to the Secretary of State for a certificate of resumption of British nationality.

(3) The marriage after the commencement of this Act of a woman who is not a British subject at the date of such marriage to a man who is then a British subject, shall not confer on such woman British nationality.

(4) A woman, notwithstanding marriage, shall be competent to apply for and receive the grant of a certificate of naturalisation under the same conditions as a man.—[Colonel Cazalet.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Colonel Cazalet (Chippenham)

I beg to move, "That the Clause be read a Second time."

I do not intend to repeat the speech I made on the Second Reading of this Bill, advocating in some detail the various points in this new Clause. All I would like to say is that I think it gives the Government an opportunity of implementing their acknowledged policy in regard to the question of married women. Subsection (1), if I may briefly explain, gives a woman the same rights as a man in this country as regards nationality. If it was accepted, a woman's nationality would not in the future be regarded as a by-product of marriage; it would be something that belongs to her by right. That is in accord with modern-day sentiment towards the equal treatment of the sexes in matters of this kind. Sub-section (2) concerns British women who are married to aliens and gives to them the same rights already accorded to British women married to enemy aliens. Hon. Members who were not present during the Second Reading Debate may not realise the anomaly that exists to-day. British women who are enemy aliens have the right to go to the Home Secretary and ask for a return of their British nationality. The anomaly is that what is accorded to the wives of enemy aliens is not granted to the wives of friendly aliens, and this Clause would set that matter right.

In this particular matter Australia and New Zealand have already passed legislation which accords their own women who have married aliens full rights of citizenship within the Dominions, and I hope the Government will not use that old and specious argument that they cannot do anything about this matter because they do not want to move more quickly than the Dominions. Sub-sections (3) and (4) of this Clause make it necessary for any woman who marries a British subject to qualify before she receives the full benefits and advantages of citizenship. This matter has been before the House on various occasions. I think it was an abuse of the rights of British citizenship, and here is an opportunity to set it right. I have no great hopes of being able to convince the Government that they should accept all the provisions of this Clause, and although I do not intend to press it to a Division, I trust they will remember the way we co-operated on the Second Reading, that they will recognise the general feeling in all parts of the Committee and that they will hold out some future hope that at an early date they will take an opportunity of remedying a real grievance.

Mrs. Tate (Frome)

I beg to second the Motion.

I would like to endorse all that my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Chippenham (Colonel Cazalet) has said, except, of course, that I cannot agree with him when he says that the giving of equality to women is the modern trend. I have not noticed that trend myself, and I merely ask for this Clause on the ground of ordinary justice to women, as justice is one of the things for which we are supposed to be fighting in this war. I do not wish to take up the time of the Committee by arguing the case, which has been argued very fully and of which the Government are well aware. I hope we shall have a full explanation from the Government, who I fear do not intend to accept the Clause, as to why this extremely anomalous position should be continued. I had a letter from a woman only to-day, a woman married to a friendly alien serving in our Forces, who explained to me that her husband, although a foreigner, can move about this country without let or hindrance, while she, a British subject before her marriage, born and bred in this country, has to register whenever she moves from one place to another. That is an undignified and undesirable position for an Englishwoman to find herself in, and I think it is quite as undesirable that a foreign woman should be able, as has been done in the past, to claim British citizenship merely on the payment of a small sum to a man when she is married to him and whom she probably never sees again.

Commander Agnew (Camborne)

I hope the Government will not accept this new Clause. So far as the moral issue is concerned and the arrangements relatively between this country and the Dominions, the Government are reinforced by the presence on the Treasury Bench of one of the Law officers of the Crown, who, no doubt, will deal most satisfactorily with the juridical aspect of this question. I want to oppose it on other grounds. I feel that when a man or woman marries a foreigner the desirable thing is that the two of them should hold the same nationality after marriage, not a different nationality and certainly not a dual nationality. If people hold a dual nationality, that is virtually an anomaly on the whole principle of nationality itself, and to my mind it cannot in any way assist towards better relations either between the two individuals who make the marriage or between the Governments to whom they owe allegiance. Therefore, I hope the principle will be maintained that when a woman marries an alien she does so prepared to enter into the way of life of the foreign country of which she is to become a national.

Mrs. Tate

Does my hon. and gallant Friend realise that a British woman married to an enemy alien can regain her British citizenship? Is he suggesting that when a British woman marries a German she should entirely take his nationality, his way of thought and his interests in the unity of their marriage? Does he believe that unity can be obtained by such a course?

Commander Agnew

I am grateful for that interruption, because I was about to say that in the Debate on the British Nationality and Status of Aliens Bill, which Parliament passed a few years ago, the very case which my hon. Friend has described to the Committee was dealt with. That is to say, that if a woman married an alien whose country should become at war with this country she should have the option of regaining at once her British nationality. I agree that in that case the law should stand, but my hon. Friend and her Friends want to go further than that. They want women to have the best of both worlds, to be able to dodge about between one country and another to see which they like best after marriage. If this new Clause were to be accepted, it would be disruptive of the whole family principle and the idea of the family unit being a unit which forms a component of nationalities and States themselves.

Mr. Pethick-Lawrence (Edinburgh, East)

Like the hon. and gallant Member for Chippenham (Colonel Cazalet) and the hon. Member for Frome (Mrs. Tate), I dealt with this matter in my speech in the Second Reading Debate, and I do not propose to repeat what I said then. The hon. and gallant Member for Camborne (Commander Agnew) does not seem to realise that the principle which it is sought to introduce into the Bill exists at the present time in the United States of America and that his suggestion that the adoption of this principle would be subversive of the whole marriage tie is not in the least borne out by what has happened in America.

Commander Agnew

May I point out to the right hon. Gentleman that America has not got the complication—and also, of course, the great privilege—of a great Imperial situation to deal with as we have, and even if she had, I do not hold out the United States of America as the model which everyone else has to follow in every way, great country as I recognise them to be.

Mr. Pethick-Lawrence

Of course, the question of our Imperial position is a very important one, but it has nothing to do with the hon. and gallant Gentleman's argument, which was that ipso facto the change in the law proposed in the new Clause would be subversive of the marriage tie. I was pointing out that that would not be the case, and that an important country like the United States has adopted that principle and there has not been that effect there. Obviously, it would not have that effect here. It is much more likely to be subversive of the marriage relationship if a woman loses her nationality on marriage and thereby is under constraint, which she is at the present time owing to the fact that her natural loyality and the obsolete law of the country are at variance, the law of the country being obsolete because it is not in accord with modern conceptions concerning the independent rights of women.

I wish to put a question to the Government. It is some 12 years since the Government of the day made their announcement of Government policy on this matter. That pronouncement was that in principle the Government favoured this change. They said then, and they have said since, that the difficulty of implementing that pledge is the one to which the hon. and gallant Member referred just now, that we are part of an Empire and obviously it is very desirable we should act as an Empire in unity in this matter, and that one part of the Empire should not go one way and another part another way. It was said in the Second Reading Debate that those parts of the Empire which resisted the change the last time the question was raised were still against it. In the Second Reading Debate, the Attorney-General was unable to give a reply when I asked what was the latest occasion when those parts of the Empire which disapproved of the change had been consulted. I hope that between then and now the Government have had time to refresh their minds with regard to these facts, and further, I hope they will be able to make a definite pronouncement of a new kind to-day.

It is clear that in the past there has been a division on this matter in different parts of the Empire. Australia and New Zealand have been pressing for this reform to be carried through; in fact they have adopted an ingenious method of getting the effects of this reform, as far as the present period is concerned, without actually carrying it into practice and without upsetting the unity of the Empire in the matter. On the other hand, Canada and South Africa, the last time they were consulted, were against the change. In the Second Reading Debate I asked the Attorney-General whether the Government had, within the last two or three years, made any fresh approach to South Africa and Canada to see whether, with the march of events, those two parts of the self-governing Empire had changed their opinion and would no longer be an obstacle to the reform. I ask again whether any recent approach has been made to those parts of the self-governing Empire, and if it has not, will the Government undertake, within the next few weeks, to make a further approach to those parts of the Empire to see whether unanimity on this question cannot now be arrived at? Of course, this will not satisfy the hon. and gallant Member for Camborne, because he is against the principle, but the Government have said that they are in favour of the change but are held up by the divergence of opinion in different parts of the Empire. If that be the case, what is there to prevent them from making a fresh approach to those Dominions? I ask the right hon. Gentleman the Under-Secretary of State and the right hon. and learned Gentleman the Attorney-General whether they will now give an undertaking, on behalf of the Government, that a fresh approach will be made to South Africa and Canada to see whether the views which the Government have professed to hold on this matter cannot be now brought into effect.

Mr. Edmund Harvey (Combined English Universities)

I very much hope the Government will respond to the appeal made by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for East Edinburgh (Mr. Pethick-Lawrence). It seems to me that the only argument against the principle of this new Clause is that it would not be appropriate in this Bill. Behind that argument, of course, there is the consideration that we must wait until we get complete agreement among the Dominions. But we have been waiting for so long, and there is no sign that any strong effort has been made to get a united decision by the Dominions and this country on this really important issue. Its importance is that it affects the status of womanhood. I think there will be general agreement on all sides of the Committee that we want to remove any vestiges that remain in our laws of treating women as inherently inferior to men and preventing them from sharing to the full the civic rights than men enjoy. Therefore, I very much hope the Government will make clear their approval of the principle of the new Clause, whatever may be their decision as to the appropriate place for it. I hope also they will make it clear that they will consult the Dominions once more and urge that there should be a united decision on this point. I am sorry my hon. Friend the Member for Bilston (Mr. Hannah) is not here, because he would have spoken about an Amendment to Sub-section (3) of this Clause in his name and mine which I think is an improvement in one respect, in that it makes it clearer that there would not be dual nationality in the case of a woman who is not a British subject at the time of her marriage and decides to have the nationality of her husband. In that case, in opting for British nationality upon her marriage she would have to renounce her previous nationality, and I think that would in some measure meet the objection of the hon. and gallant Gentleman opposite.

Mr. Pickthorn (Cambridge University)

I resemble the right hon. Gentleman opposite in two respects. In the first place, I prefer the word "Empire" to "Commonwealth," and, secondly, I should not have intervened in the Debate had it not been for the speeches to which we have just listened. They seem to me to be examples of the typical modern heresy of taking something for granted, with a great appearance of moral and intellectual superiority, and then supposing that that is the end of the argument. The right hon. Gentleman told us that this or that was more consonant with modern conceptions. But which of us knows what are modern conceptions and what are not? We are continually told what everyone wants or what everyone thinks. The right hon. Gentleman's views of what are modern conceptions and mine differ, it may be, very considerably, and no argument is to be founded upon that assumption, nor is it really anything but a piece of chronological provincialism to assume that the conceptions of your own generation are necessarily better than those of an earlier one; indeed, when the conceptions of one generation run counter to all others, there is a certain presumption in favour of the older conception. I find it a little difficult also to follow the argument that, if the Government accepted this principle 12 years ago, that is conclusive. That is a strange doctrine to be heard in the House of Commons, particularly from a Front Bench, and I hope the House will pay no attention to it. The right hon. Gentleman endeavoured to contravene my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Camborne (Commander Agnew) by saying there really was not such an important issue, as he put it, going to the root of family life and so on. He was immediately confuted by his ally below the Gangway, who said this was a most important matter because it went to the whole root of the question of the status of women and who raised the whole question-begging stuff of those people who think women distinguishable from men being necessarily disposed to impute inferiority to one or other of the parties. That kind of assumption has been current long enough, and it is high time we ceased to pay attention to it.

It seems to me that there are really only two questions before us, one the question of the interest of States in women who marry foreigners, particularly the interest of this State as involved in British women marrying foreigners, and the second part of the question, to which I attach as much importance as the hon. Lady, what could be done to increase the chances of happiness and diminish the chances of unhappiness of the women concerned; and, if the two things run counter to each other, clearly it is our business to give more weight to the first consideration than to the second. In my judgment, the two things do not run counter to each other. I do not believe the assumption that by reducing the stakes of a game you necessarily make the game easier to play. Some games have to be like cricket, where the whole thing depends upon the first ball, and if you do wrong you are out. In my judgment—and that does not matter, but it is the judgment of the immense majority of mankind since the world began—matrimony is one of those adventures. It is one of the most perilous adventures upon which a man can enter, and I am credibly informed, and I rationally believe, that it is even more perilous for women. It does not follow that you make it less perilous by making it easier to enter upon it. On the balance of the two considerations about the interests of the women involved, I should have no hesitation in betting, although I never count myself certain of winning, that on the Day of Judgment when we ask St. Peter about it he will say that this is an extremely perilous adventure. Relations with foreigners are also extremely perilous adventures. When you do the two things simultaneously, you get a sort of geometrical progression of peril. I feel little doubt that if we could cast up the accounts at the end, it would be said that there is less risk of human unhappiness, on the whole, in the law as now proposed by the Government, that is to say, that the woman has to face the fact and say, "I want this man and I am prepared to face the perils, inconveniences and disadvantages of losing my British nationality." On the whole there will be less unhappiness from a compulsion to face that fact than there will be by trying to make that fact appear smaller. You really reduce the effect very little and deceive more than you mitigate. I had another argument of great force and power, but I think perhaps I have said enough to make clear my general view in this matter.

Mr. Woods (Finsbury)

After the Committee has listened to the hon. Member's dissertation on things ancient and modern, and on the question whether St. Peter and not this Committee would have to decide, we can come back to the problem before us. I appeal to the Government to take into consideration the human aspect of this problem and to adopt the proposal that has been made, as a wartime measure at any rate. There are women who have married friendly aliens, now living in this country. Their position is difficult, and if the Government can do nothing else, they might make some special arrangements whereby these women can be treated, for the time being, as British subjects. I hope that they will make provision of that kind, if they cannot go any further.

Mr. Lipson (Cheltenham)

My hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge University (Mr. Pickthorn) quite properly suggested that we should apply the test of where the advantage to the State lay in coming to a decision on this matter. I want to ask the Attorney-General what is the opinion of the Government in this matter. Is it in the interest of the State that when a British woman marries a foreigner, she should lose her British nationality, whereas when a foreign woman marries an Englishman, she should acquire British nationality? Will he also tell us clearly whether the Government approve the principle of which, we are told, the Government of 12 years ago approved? It would help some of us to come to a decision if we knew that the Government still accepts the principle of the Amendment.

The Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Peake)

We have had an interesting discussion on a question that always arouses great interest among hon. Members, and the Government, as my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General indicated on the Second Reading of the Bill, are by no means unsympathetic to the object which my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Chippenham (Colonel Cazalet) has in mind. We are, however, very much more conscious of an issue which is even more important, and that is the maintenance of the common status of British subjects throughout the British Empire. It was Lord Palmerston, I think, unless my history is very much at fault, who at the end of a Cabinet discussion said, "Well, gentlemen, it does not matter much what we say so long as we all say the same thing." I would not say that it does not matter whether our law should stand as it is at present or whether our law should be as the hon. and gallant Member for Chippenham desires it to be; it is a matter of great importance; but it is not anything like comparable in importance to the maintenance of a common British status throughout the British Empire. It would indeed be a disaster if those who represent His Majesty's Government or one of the Dominion Governments in foreign countries had, before they intervened on behalf of some British subject in distress, to inquire what sort of a British subject he was.

Colonel Cazalet

South Africa has never accepted the Convention, and I think Southern Ireland also takes an entirely independent view.

Mr. Peake

That, I think, is rather beside the point, which is that the maintenance of the common status is a matter of supreme importance. If hon. Members look at the Amendment, they will see that it falls into two parts. I do not want to be critical of the Amendment in detail, but the first two Sub-sections are intended to prevent the loss of British nationality by the marriage of a British woman to an alien and to provide for a woman who has married an alien to regain her British nationality. The third and fourth Sub-sections deal with the obverse of the picture, the alien woman who acquires British nationality by marriage to a British subject, and as regards such women, my hon. and gallant Friend's proposal is that if they have already so acquired British nationality they shall not lose it, but that they shall not acquire it by marriage in the future. To that extent the Amendment does not deal with the point which so much worries my hon. Friend the Member for Frome (Mrs. Tate), that in the past alien women have acquired British nationality by virtue of marriage to British subjects.

My hon. and gallant Friend raised this matter in a Bill, I think, 15 years ago, but the scope of the grievance which then existed has been very much narrowed. In the first place, we have the provision, to which he has himself referred, that if you are married to an alien of enemy nationality you have the right under the Act of 1914 to apply to regain your British nationality. Since the outbreak of war something like 2,000 certificates have been granted to women who were formerly British under that provision. In the second place, there is the Act of 1933, which provided that it was only where, by marriage, the British woman acquired a foreign nationality, that she lost her British nationality. As hon. Members know, in the case of marriage, for example, to an American citizen, there is no acquisition of American nationality and therefore no corresponding loss of British nationality. The same thing applies to marriages to French citizens since the year 1938. Moreover, the Act of 1933 limited the extent of this grievance in one other case, and that is where the husband acquires foreign nationality by naturalisation.

Mr. Pethick-Lawrence

Subsequent to the marriage.

Mr. Peake

Yes. The hon. Member for West Fulham (Dr. Edith Summerskill) spoke, I think, too emphatically during the Second Reading Debate when she talked about a British woman being punished and penalised by loss of nationality on marriage. At the present time, if her marriage is to an alien of enemy nationality, a British woman can immediately re-acquire British nationality; on the other hand, if she marries into some other nationality, it is more than probable that she will be married to a person of Allied nationality. Perhaps it is rather hard, therefore, to describe as punishment and penalisation the acquisition, say, of Polish or Czech nationality at the present time.

I know that by narrowing the scope of a grievance you very often make those who suffer from it feel it more acutely. I have been asked whether the Government still stand by that oft-quoted declaration made in 1931 at Geneva, on behalf of His Majesty's Government when Lord Samuel was Home Secretary. That declaration is subject, of course, to the alterations which were made in nationality law in 1933, but I would remind hon. Members that that declaration is always quoted by supporters of my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Chippenham, without the addendum then attached to it, to the effect that His Majesty's Government could take no action in this matter without the agreement of the other members of the British Commonwealth of Nations. The British Government attach supreme importance to the concurrence of the self-governing Dominions in any changes which may be made.

Reference has been made to the legislation in the direction, though not to the full extent here proposed by my hon. Friend, which has been undertaken in Australia and New Zealand. It has been made clear in the Debate that although a woman in Australia, by marriage to an alien, becomes herself an alien, Australian domestic legislation provides for her retaining the rights and obligations, so long as she remains in Australia, of a British subject. That legislation does not go the whole way which my hon. and gallant Friend wants to go, but part of the way, and it is often quoted as an indication that Australia and New Zealand, who have adopted similar legislation, are prepared to go further down this road than are His Majesty's Government. I would just like to draw attention to this rather important fact which occurred in Australia only last month; that is, that the Australian Government, faced with the possible peril of invasion, have had to modify the Act to which my hon. Friend referred, by some emergency regulations. They now have a regulation which provides that a declaration made by a woman, that is, a declaration that she desires to retain the rights and obligations of a British subject in Australia under Section 18a of the Nationality Act, shall be of no effect unless registered, and that registration of the declaration may be refused or cancelled at the direction of the Minister for the Interior. [Interruption.] That was in January, 1943. Hon. Members will see that in the midst of this great struggle, faced with the perils with which Australia is faced at the present time, it has been thought fit to adopt some modification of the Nationality Act which they passed a few years ago.

As regard the main question, put by my right hon. Friend the Member for East Edinburgh (Mr. Pethick-Lawrence), whether His Majesty's Government had made, or would make, further approaches to the Dominion Governments upon this question at this stage, this matter was very fully discussed at the Imperial Conference in 1937. We are precluded, of course, from going behind the publication of the findings of the Conference, and I can give no indication to the House of the respective attitudes adopted by the various Dominions. But this matter having been discussed in 1937, and there having been a failure to arrive at any agreement upon further measures, I hardly think His Majesty's Government could have been expected, in the period that intervened between that Conference and the outbreak of war, to make further written approaches to His Majesty's Dominions. Since the war the action recently taken by the Australian Government to which I have referred does not seem to indicate that there would be any possibility of an advance at the present time in the direction which my hon. Friend desires. But I am authorised by my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary to make this statement to the House. My right hon. Friend, being by no means unsympathetic to the proposal contained in my hon. Friend's Amendment, in consultation with the Dominions Secretary, will be anxious to take any opportunity that may occur for further consultation with the Dominions, and he will be on the look-out for any suitable occasion of seeking a way round the difficulties which prevent further action on the lines which my hon. Friend desires.

Question, "That the Clause be read a Second time," put, and negatived.

Schedule agreed to.

Bill reported, without Amendment, read the Third time, and passed, without Amendment.