HC Deb 27 July 1944 vol 402 cc998-1004

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Mr. Beechman.]

Miss Ward (Wallsend)

In answer to a Parliamentary Question which I addressed to him, the Home Secretary used these words: I ought to say that, according to my information, the number of such cases is extremely small."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 13th July; Vol. 40r, C. 1870.] I entirely disagree with my right hon. Friend. This institution of Parliament stands to protect the interests of the minority, as well as of the majority, and I rather regretted that my right hon. Friend, who is such a great Parliamentarian, should have used those words as an argument against the case that I was making. Let me give the background of the story which I am raising to-day on the Adjournment. As I understand, the position at present is that if a girl in the Services serving abroad has an illegitimate baby, even if it is proved that the father is a British subject, the child is not entitled to any nationality. Everyone with whom I have discussed this position feels that it really is a most regrettable situation. I realise that I should at once run up against the rules of Order if I tried to discuss the law in this connection, but I want to ask my right hon. Friend if he cannot find some way, within the present law, to meet this quite intolerable position. I am certain that no one would like the unfortunate child to be the sufferer. The procedure is that when a girl has a baby she is subsequently sent home with her child, and then discharged. My right hon. Friend seemed to think that, as the child, or the parent of the child, could apply for its naturalisation at the age of 16, no real harm would be imposed on the child as a result of the present decision. I find myself in conflict with the Home Secretary on that point.

There are really two aspects of the situation. The first is that, by the time the child reaches the age of 16, the parent may have completely lost sight of the fact that the child has no nationality. That would be very easy to understand. Therefore, it is frightfully important that we should protect the interests of the child. One can well understand the position arising when, at the age of 16, or, if no naturalisation has been applied for, when the child reaches the age of 18 or 19, it might want to emigrate, or to take out an ordinary British passport to travel abroad. It might seek a livelihood by getting attached to a firm which had export interests, and the boy or girl might wish to go abroad. Then it would certainly discover that it had no nationality. I do not think we are justified in relying upon the parents to see that, at the age of 16, application is made to the Home Secretary for naturalisation.

My right hon. Friend took the view that no great harm would come to the child before the age of 16, but am I not right in raising this particular point? I do not know that this is true in regard to the whole of the Civil Service—I think it is—but I do know that, if, for instance, you want to enter the Post Office, you have to be the child of British parents. I am sure I am right in drawing attention to the fact that, if a child has no nationality and desires to sit for a Civil Service examination and enter the Post Office, it will not be permitted to do so. There is another point. There are certain educa- tional advantages which might accrue to the child. It might sit for a scholarship, but one of the conditions often laid down is that the child must be of British parentage, and, therefore, I do not think the Minister is entitled to argue that a child will not be at any disadvantage until the age of 16.

The Home Secretary argued that I had no right—he did it very nicely and semihumourously—to enlist the War Office on my side. I am only too delighted to have the opportunity to enlist the sympathy of the War Office on my side, but let me put it this way. I happened to come across this specific fact about an illegitimate child when I was abroad, and it was raised by me with the Army authorities. Of course, when I was outside the boundaries of this island, I was not subject to the control of any Minister, whether the Secretary of State for War or the Home Secretary, but I realise that I put the Home Secretary in a difficult position when I raised the point. I am glad I was able to do so, because you have got to make use of everything and pit your wits against the Minister. It is a fact that those people who are responsible for Service girls were very perturbed about this position, and I naturally thought to myself, "Well, when I get home I shall only have to raise the matter with the Home Secretary to get his complete support." When I realised that I was not going to get his support, I very naturally, having confirmed in certain quarters that the War Office takes my view and not the Home Secretary's view, thought that here was a wonderful opportunity of bringing pressure to bear on the Home Secretary by quoting an important Government Department such as the War Office.

That is the whole story I have to tell. I am certain that no one in this country would like an innocent child to suffer, and I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will be able to find some way whereby he can assure the protection of the position of the child. With all the ability and brains in the Home Office, I cannot believe that we have to leave the regularisation of the position of a child, or its naturalisation, until the age of 16, having regard to all the unfortunate happenings that can come upon humanity unless their position is well safeguarded and protected. All I want to ask the Minister is to see if there is some way to meet this position so that a child shall not suffer before reaching the age of 16, and to ensure that, when it is 16, automatically, application will be made for naturalisation.

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

The hon. Lady has raised this matter in a modest and charming way, if I may say so, and I am glad that her journey to China enabled her to enlist the support of the military authorities in the Middle East, if not the War Office, upon her side in this matter. The case which my hon. Friend puts is that of a very small number of illegitimate children who have been born to women members of His Majesty's Forces serving overseas. It is perfectly clear that, under the law of British nationality, which is contained in the Act of 1914, children born in these circumstances outside British territory are not British subjects. The first question one asks in relation to British citizenship is, "Where was this person born?" That is the guiding factor in the great majority of cases, and children born abroad are not, in the ordinary way, British subjects by birth. They are so if they are born of British parents and if they are the first generation born overseas, but an illegitimate child, in the eyes of the law, has no father, and therefore, in the eyes of the law, as laid down in the Statute, such a child born abroad cannot be a British subject by birth.

My right hon. Friend, obviously, cannot alter the law, nor would it be appropriate to discuss an alteration of the law on the Motion for the Adjournment; so we are bound to abandon that aspect of the case in this discussion. My hon. Friend asks, "Is there nothing which the Home Secretary can do in the administrative sphere?" I have looked into this matter with the greatest care, because these are cases which excite natural sympathy. In addition to defining who are British subjects by birth, the Act deals with the subject of naturalisation. The law as to naturalisation is contained in Part II of the Act, and the important Sections for the purpose we are discussing to-day are Sections 2 and 5. When Parliament passed the principal Act in 1914, they showed great faith in the Home Secretary, because they gave to the Secretary of State a very wide discretion, in these terms. Section 5, Sub-section (2) says: The Secretary of State may, in his absolute discretion in any special case in which he thinks fit, grant a certificate of naturalisaton to any minor, whether or not the conditions required by this Act have been complied with. That is a very wide discretion which rests in the Home Secretary, but if hon. Members will consider the terms of Section 2, they will see the snag in Section 5. Section 2, Sub-section (4) says: A certificate of naturalisation shall not take effect until the applicant has taken the oath of allegiance. That is to say, you obtain your certificate from the Home Secretary, but it is of no legal effect until you have taken the Oath of Allegiance. Hon. Members will at once see that it is very difficult for a child of tender years to take the Oath of Allegiance, because, in the eyes of the law, a child of tender years is not capable of understanding the nature of an oath or of having an oath administered to it.

Mr. Edmund Harvey (Combined English Universities)

What is the earliest age at which it would be possible?

Mr. Peake

I am coming to that point. My right hon. Friend has, therefore, considered whether there is anything which he could possibly do in the administrative sphere to assist these children. I ought to say at this point that Regulations under the Act provide for the Oath of Allegiance being taken within a certain time of the issue of the certificate. Section 19 of the Act lays down that the Home Secretary may make Regulations with respect to the time within which the Oath of Allegiance has to be taken after the granting of a certificate of naturalisation, and the Regulations themselves prescribe that the Oath shall normally be taken within one month of the issue of the certificate, or, in special cases, during such longer period as the Home Secretary may direct.

It is clear that there is nothing which my right hon. Friend can do by any action upon his part which would have the effect of immediately conferring British nationality upon these children. But what my right hon. Friend can do, and what he is prepared to do in these wholly exceptional cases, is this. He is prepared, where the mother of the child is a British subject and is serving over- seas in His Majesty's Forces at the time when the child is born, to issue a certificate of naturalisation, under Section 5, Sub-section (2). That certificate, it is true, will not be legally effective to confer British nationality upon the child until the child can itself take the Oath of Allegiance, but the child will be able to take the Oath of Allegiance before an age at which any disability would result through the absence of British citizenship.

The hon. Lady mentioned a number of points as regards which these children might be under a disability. It is clear that, if 16 was the age, then 16 is the age at which aliens have to be registered under the Aliens Act, and these children will, if they so desire, having obtained their certificates, be able to take the Oath of Allegiance before they reach the age of 16. Moreover, they will be able to take the Oath of Allegiance before they attain the age of 14, and the question of scholarships, which the hon. Lady raised, will be met in that way. I should not like at this stage, because this decision was only taken this afternoon, to say precisely at what age we shall be prepared to accept the swearing of the Oath by these children. It will be somewhere round about the ages of 12 to 14 years. That, I think, will meet any of the practical drawbacks from which these children would suffer as a result of their not having British nationality conferred upon them automatically at birth; and it will be an earnest of the intentions of the Home Office that we shall have given these children an absolute right, if they so desire, on attaining the years of discretion, when they understand the nature of an oath, of opting for, and obtaining, full British citizenship.

Miss Ward

I am very grateful for what my right hon. Friend has said, but there is this difficulty. When the certificate of naturalisation is immediately issued, will there be a sort of automatic register, so that when a child reaches the age at which it can take the Oath of Allegiance, the responsibility will be imposed upon the Home Office to try and find out the whereabouts of the child and its parent so that the attention of the parent can be drawn to the case?

Mr. Guy (Poplar, South)

After the issue of a certificate, will a child be regarded as a British subject from the point of view, say, of competing for an educational scholarship?

Mr. Peake

It is clear that these children Will not be British subjects by virtue of holding the certificate until they have taken the Oath of Allegiance. In response to the hon. Lady's question, the alternative to what I have suggested—and I think I have gone a very long way towards satisfying her—would have been to say that we would not entertain an application for naturalisation until the age of 12 or 14 years. That might have had the great drawback that many of these children possibly will not, in 12 or 14 years' time, know the circumstances of their birth. They may not even realise that they do not possess British citizenship, but by this means—the method I have suggested—they will hold a document which will serve to remind them that they have a right to become British subjects, but that there is the further step, that of taking the Oath of Allegiance, upon which they will automatically become British citizens. We shall have their names registered at the Home Office, but we do not undertake to find the children in 14 years' time and send them a reminder. The issue of the document to them at this stage will be their earnest that they can obtain British citizenship on their own behalf.

Mr. Linstead (Putney)

Would my right hon. Friend consider, in conjunction with the Service Departments, the possibility of the mother either being brought home to this country or being brought to some British territory before the birth of the child so that when the child is born difficulty might not arise at all?

Mr. Peake

I cannot answer for Service Departments. I believe that every precaution is taken to see that girls in a state of pregnancy do not go overseas, but, of course, accidents in this respect will happen. One or two of the solutions suggested to us in regard to this problem, I must say, seem to involve practical difficulties. One, was that the girls should be taken on to a British ship at the time of the birth of the child, and the other was that they should be conveyed to the British Embassy, but both of these seem to involve all sorts of practical considerations which would make it very difficult.

Question, "That this House do now adjourn," put, and agreed to.