HC Deb 04 March 1947 vol 434 cc436-47

The Secretary of State may at his discretion permit the whole or part of any period of service in any of the forces specified in subsection (I) of section one of this Act to be included in the period of five years residence required by the British Nationality and Status of Aliens Act, 1919.—[Mr. Peake.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Mr. Peake

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

This new Clause is, I think, one of some importance and, although the hour is late and the House is cold, I think I must explain it quite shortly to the House. The period of residence preceding naturalisation is five years, including one year immediately previous to the grant. Had these Polish soldiers, many of whom are going to be absorbed in our social and economic life, been serving in the British forces, that service would have counted towards the period of residence qualification as a condition of naturalisation. I am not in favour of wholesale or easy naturalisation. It is an individual matter, and great care must be and, I believe, is exercised by the Home Secretary and by his officials as regards the grant of certificates. It is entirely a discretionary matter, but many of these Polish soldiers, had they been serving in British units, would have already secured the necessary residence qualification. They have, in fact, of course, been serving under British command, but they have been serving in Polish units, and for that reason they have acquired no entitlement by virtue of constructive residence to make an application for naturalisation.

Many of these men have been serving under British command, although not in British units since quite early in the war. They are going to be absorbed into our national life, and yet many of them only set foot in this country for the first time last year, and we have been told today that some of them have not yet reached this country. That means that all these men, having served under British command for five or six years past, may still have to wait another five years in this country before they can make even an application for naturalisation. All that my Clause does is to enable the Home Secretary, in cases where he thinks fit, where he is satisfied as to the bona fides of the applicant, as to his good character, as to his ability to read and write the English language, to count the whole, or part of the service of a Polish soldier under British command as if it were residence here for the purposes of naturalisation. The Claim is so just and obvious that I commend it with every confidence to the House and the right hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Michael Astor (Surrey, Eastern)

If the Home Secretary does not accept this Clause he will be penalising these Poles who fought with such gallantry and zeal against Fascism because their actions were of a general rather than a particular character. As my right hon. Friend has said, had the nature of their conduct been an exception rather than the general rule they would have served in British units, and all this period of time would have counted towards their naturalisation. If the Home Secretary does not accept this, whatever else he may say he will not be acting with justice and equity in this matter. For my part, I feel that if there is to be a discrepancy in our treatment of our Allies it should be in favour of the Poles rather than of the French, or whoever else it may be because these Poles are really stateless today.

The other point is that what my right hon. Friend is asking the Home Secretary to do is not to take any very excessively hazardous action in this matter. The strings are in his hands the whole time. Harking back to what I said on the Second Reading of this Bill, I feel that what the Home Secretary would be doing in fact would be giving the Poles some form of prospect and hope in this country. In order to get the maximum out of these people, and in order that they may work for society and for us, what is really needed is a prospect for the future as much as any material benefits which are granted under this Bill.

Mr. Pritt

The first point that occurs to me is that the Clause is, in fact, unnecessary I suggest because the Secretary of State always has power if he chooses to waive the five years provision for anybody. If it is indeed necessary, then this is being offered to one only of the many groups of nationalities who showed gallantry during the war, and I think it would be very wrong to extend this privilege to the Poles without extending it to a great many other nationalities.

Vice-Admiral Taylor rose

Mr. Pritt

No, I am not giving way. We are always told about the gallant Poles, and there is no doubt whatever that a number of them fought very gallantly indeed for us. But so much has been said about them and so little about others who fought just as gallantly, that a few of us obtained the facts from the Secretary of State for War a few months ago. Twelve thousand of these Poles joined the Army after hostilities were over. I do not, of course, know how many of those are involved here, but I should think practically every one of them because they joined at a time when they were unlikly to be killed and when there was nowhere for them to go but to come to England. Of the remainder, according to the particulars from the Secretary of State for War, approximately one half had fought against us in the German Army.

That does not mean half the number. One does not know. It may be three-quarters or only a quarter of those involved. But many of us remember the great difficulty we had when a large number of these people came into the Forces on our side. They were captured in North Africa and were presented by Polish officers there with the very simple alternative of going into a prisoner of war camp as German prisoners of war or accepting service in the then Polish Army on pretty well the same basis as any soldier, plus £10 sterling. A great many of them came into the forces in that way. Some of them fought very gallantly with us but some of them did not.

2.30 a.m.

Then we had the trouble from their ferocious anti-Semitism, which resulted in large numbers of Jews in the Polish Army being withdrawn to save their lives by Sir James Grigg and put into the British Army. They did not get the advantage of the five years rule, which was an example of rough justice. As I said, some of these Poles fought gallantly but some of them were undesirable characters. Many of them were anti-Semitic, others were anti-British and practically every one of them was anti-Soviet. Notwithstanding all that, the proposal is that Poles should be selected out of thousands of nationals who fought with us, including those who fought for Facism before they accepted the £10 and then fought against Fascism, for naturalisation as British citizens. It is a suggestion that should not be entertained, and I hope the Home Secretary will oppose this Amendment.

Mr. Ede

The law of naturalisation works with regard to individuals and not with regard to classes. Each individual application is examined on its personal merits. I have to consider whether I will admit a foreigner to what I regard as a great privilege, namely British citizenship, and, therefore, it would have to be understood that if this Amendment were accepted it would mean that each individual Pole would still have to justify his application for British nationality by his character. The right hon. Member for North Leeds (Mr. Peake), who was at the Home Office for some time, knows that these personal cases are most carefully investigated every time an application is made. I do not think that five years of life, during which a person can be living in British atmosphere, and in circumstances that would enable one to judge of his capacity to be a responsible British citizen, is too short a period of time for me to act in this matter.

Mr. Paget

Take the case of a Polish young man married to a Northampton girl. He served in the British Army and transferred at his own request to the Polish Air Force as a member of an air crew. He has a home in Northampton and yet he cannot get a priority. Has the Home Secretary not any discretion ire a case like that?

Mr. Ede

No. Good taste as that young man showed in marrying one of the hon. Gentleman's constituents, I do not want do anything that will open the door, because I can assure the hon. Gentleman that I get from Members of Parliament and others an endless stream of letters suggesting all sorts of reasons, not very dissimilar in many cases from that submitted by the hon. Member for Northampton (Mr. Paget), why I should exercise a discretion which the law very wisely kept from me. I want to make it clear to the hon. and learned Member for North Hammersmith (Mr. Pritt) that I have no discretion in this matter at all. There must be a residence of five years.

I am faced with another great physical difficulty at the moment. There are now awaiting consideration 22,000 applications for naturalisation, 7,500 of whom have been granted priority under schemes which I announced to the House. That does not mean that they get less than the five years' testimony which I have described and which I require, but that certain people who were of assistance to us during the war effort, or who had made their application before the outbreak of war, shall be given a priority. Last year I granted 4,431 certificates, the great bulk of them in the last six months of the year. In January of this year I granted 1,235 certificates, and although February is notoriously a month with fewer working days than January, actually more certificates were granted in February than in January. By the time that I can work through the existing lists, these people will become eligible with their five years of residence in this country. I cannot hope to work off my existing lists in less than that time.

I am quite certain that if I were to admit this for the Polish Forces, I should then be pressed to make a similar concession with regard to the other Allied Forces who have members who have married British women or who for other reasons desire to take up their life among us and become naturalised. I have endeavoured in framing this Bill to be as generous with the Poles who fought for us and with us as I can possibly be, and it is not without regret that for the reasons I have given, I find myself unable to accept the new Clause.

Mr. Harold Macmillan (Bromley)

I hope the House will forgive me for making one or two observations even at this late hour. The right hon. Gentleman, in the tone in which he has spoken, has shown his deep sympathy, as indeed he has throughout the whole of this Bill, for the Polish Forces, but I am disappointed that he could not accept a Clause which is purely discretionary and which would merely give him the opportunity, if he thought fit, not to select a whole class but to select individuals within this particular class for some special advantage. The Home Secretary has said that if he were to take it in respect of the Poles, he would have to take it in respect of other Allied Forces, but there is really no comparison with, say, the French Forces. The French Forces have a home, a democratic home, a country for which they have fought and to which they are proud to return. The Polish story—I only feel impelled to say something tonight out of a deep sense of loyalty and gratitude to them, having seen the Polish Army in action for nearly two and a half years—is the most romantic story in the whole history of war. They are a people whose Odyssey, whose great trek through the world, is absolutely unrivalled in history, who fought with greater gallantry under our command than any force I have known, whom I have seen in action and who are in a special position because, whatever may be one's view or the view of the House as to the decision they have thought right to make, they are left the most unhappy people in the whole of this world. They have no home. Three-quarters of this Force was raised from a part of Poland which is no longer Poland.

I know these men, I have seen the battalions, I have seen their records, seen the printed and written pages, heard their songs and attended their conferences. They have nothing. And when they knew that their home was lost when the agreement was made which deprived them of any home, they fought the same. They never wavered. They brought no recriminations against us; their commanders never raised with us the slightest indication they would waver for a moment. It is a story so pathetic and so terrible, that if we could, we should make just this one gesture to give the right hon. Gentleman not the duty, of course, to make a wholesale naturalisation, but the right to waive for these men what he has for many others. There are many admirable and splendid men, I have no doubt, among the figures he has given us to whom he has granted naturalisation because they have complied with the five years residence rule. But why did they comply with that five years rule? They were refugees who reached our shores and who somehow managed to get the residence. But were not they residents who served under General Alexander?

What does residence mean? To serve under a British commander in the greatest battles in history of our Empire? Residence is purely a technical term, and what better residence could you have than to serve in a British Army with a Polish division, to serve under a British commander and be subject to greater pressure than any man has ever been subjected to in the whole history of war, and never to waver for one moment in their loyalty? I am not judging whether it is right or wrong. The hon and learned Gentleman the Member for North Hammersmith (Mr. Pritt) took, I thought, too limited a view of this matter. Men are entitled to their views, their hopes, their dreams.

Though at times there was very great pressure on General Anders himself, he never raised with us the slightest doubt that, however great the pressure upon him and upon everything in which he believed, he would swerve. I do not know of any case in history like it. We ought to realise that it is not wholesale naturalisation we are seeking, but that the right hon. Gentleman should give the same right to these men who served corporately as if they had come into our Forces one by one as refugees across the sea. Many of them did, and, at the request of the right hon. Gentleman's predecessor, transferred to the Polish Army. Had they not followed that request they could have stayed in our Forces, but because they did that which we wished them to do, because they followed what we advised them to do, they lost this five years.

I do not think it is asking very much, and I do think it would make a tremendous difference. The purpose of this Bill is to bring them into our life and to get them to help us, and to give them some future and something to look forward to, to give them something so that they can say, "Well, if we come and join your community we shall work for you a long time as a grateful servant." But five years after seven years of hopelessness, and after a march through the whole of the world, after two years in prison, as many of them were in Russia! It is not very much to say they have not to do five years before they become eligible. I would ask the right hon. Gentleman to think about this. I know how sympathetic he is, I know how he feels, as we all do. We do not wish to carry this to a Division, but could he think of this again and perhaps at a later stage in the Bill, or in another place, he might find himself able to make a concession which, I think, would be deeply valued by those men, and which I believe every British soldier who has fought side by side with them would be proud to think that the British Parliament had done for them.

2.45 a.m.

Major Legge-Bourke (Isle of Ely)

May I add my brief word to the very moving appeal made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley (Mr. H. Macmillan)? I have rather deep feelings over this matter, because my own regiment fought under General Anders in Italy, though I was not serving with it myself at that time; and my own brother was a prisoner of war with General Bor Komarovsky. So I feel that I have some particular attachment to the Poles in this matter. I would ask the Home Secretary to reconsider the matter in the light of this one point—to realise that there are, as I have said on two previous occasions in this country a great many Poles who are uncertain at the moment what they want to do. If he could see his way to accept this Clause, I think it would encourage a great many to make up their minds once and for all, and I think he would find that a great many would make up their minds to stay in this country. I am not one of those who would encourage them to go back to Poland. I believe that we ought to welcome them here. But whatever the cause, I think the most tragic group of these people are those who feel that perhaps one day they may be able to go back, and therefore are not prepared to accept the Polish Resettlement Corps at the moment, because they are not quite sure how they stand. I do ask the right hon. Gentleman to bear in mind that particular group, and if he can possibly see his way to accept this Clause, I believe he will pay them a debt of gratitude which we most certainly owe them.

Mr. Ede

I can only speak again with the permission of the House. No one could be other than deeply moved by the speech of the right hon. Member for Bromley (Mr. H. Macmillan). He spoke not merely with great eloquence, but with a knowledge, through his association with these men, which I am quite sure deeply impressed everyone who listened to him. One of the difficulties is that I am advised that the Clause in its present form might be difficult to work. The right hon. Gentleman has been in this House long enough to know that that is the stock answer of Government spokesmen whenever an Amendment is moved from the other side of the House. He has been long enough on this side of the House to know that it is sure to be his first line of defence. But I am willing to consider getting some discretionary powers in another place in words which would sufficiently circumscribe that discretion so as to protect myself from the inevitable pressures that come once a breach is made in the very strong ramparts with which Parliament has surrounded the Secretary of State in dealing with these matters. I will endeavour to see if I can find a form of words which will enable me to get quite accurate and sufficient information about even the bravest soldier to determine whether he is on every ground suitable for admission to British civilian life. If I can find that form of words, I will endeavour to meet the views which have been put forward.

Mr. H. Macmillan

So far as my right hon. Friend and I are concerned, I can only thank the right hon. Gentleman very much for the spirit in which he has met our view. I do not think it would be reasonable for us to ask for more. I quite appreciate his position, and I know that when he makes a pledge of this kind he does his best to carry it out in the spirit, as well as the letter. In the light of that, I would like, on behalf of my right hon. Friend, to ask the permission of the House to withdraw the Clause.

Mr. Deputy-Speaker (Mr. Hubert Beaumont)

Formal permission to withdraw must be asked by the right hon. Member who moved the Clause.

Mr. Peake

In view of what has been said, may I ask permission to withdraw the Clause?

Mr. Francis Noel-Baker (Brentford and Chiswick)

I think that the statement which has just been made by the Home Secretary has caused some dismay to myself and to some of my hon. Friends on this side of the House. As the Home Secretary is well aware, I have often taken up the case of members of Allied Forces in an exactly parallel situation to that of these Polish troops. I had personal experience during my service in the war, of Greek, French, Dutch, Belgian, and other foreign armies. Some of these men were under British command, and then transferred, and they are in an exactly parallel position. The right hon. Gentleman shakes his head, but I assure him that this is the situation. I agree that there may not be so many of them, but they wish to settle in this country for exactly the same reason as do these Poles, but when I have asked the Home Secretary to use discretionary powers, the right hon. Gentleman has said that these powers do not exist. There are members of the forces of other Allies, some of whom transferred at our request, and did dangerous work for various British departments during the war. I suggest that if the Home Secretary is going to give an assurance that he will get round these limitations by his discretionary powers so far as the Poles are affected, he ought to do the same for these other people. I do not want to make comments about these Poles, but some of us consider these members of other Allied armies to be better examples for democracy. We also remember that they were wrongly made victims of persecution.

Major Legge-Bourke

May I put to the hon. Gentleman one point? None of these other countries is in the same position. [HON. MEMBERS: "What about Greece?"] None of these countries is suffering limitation of its boundaries, or the government of a totalitarian régime.

Mr. F. Noel-Baker

It would not be right on this occasion to go into the circumstances concerning Governments of various countries. But I am concerned with individuals. There may be individual Frenchmen, Dutchmen, or Belgians, who do not wish to return to their own country. They are, as individuals, in exactly the same position as individual Poles. These people, who fought with us, wish to become British citizens, too.

Major Bramall

I would not have intervened at this late hour, but for the speech of the hon. and gallant Member for the Isle of Ely (Major Legge-Bourke), which I think went contrary to the direction which he intended. He made the point that a number of these people, if assured that they could obtain British naturalisation, would make the final decision not to go back to Poland. That is what hon. Members opposite desire, to stop these people going back to Poland; but I think it is the Government's intention, and the wish of the majority of hon. Members on this side, that as many of these people as possible should go back to Poland, and it seems to me that the Government will be doing one added thing to detract from the likelihood of these Poles returning to Poland, which the Government themselves regard as the right thing for them to do, by giving them preferential treatment over all other Allied forces in the matter of naturalisation. I hope that the Home Secretary will bear that point in mind when considering this matter.

Mr. Driberg

I hope the Home Secretary will be able to say that the enlargement of the discretionary powers which he is seeking will extend, so far as he can make it, not only to Poles, but also to other nationalities. I share his expression of admiration for the extreme and impeccable and, indeed, moving eloquence of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Bromley (Mr. H. Macmillan) but it would be quite wrong to limit this privilege only to the Poles; and with all respect to the hon. and gallant Member for the Isle of Ely (Major Legge-Bourke), although I agree with him that the cases of France and Belgium are quite different, the case of Greece seems to me to be the exact converse to that of Poland.

Mr. Ede

I intervene again with the leave of the House. The right hon. Gentleman opposite will see the difficulty into which I have got myself by trying to be reasonable towards him, and of course, I must have regard to all the views that are expressed in the House with regard to this matter. It is quite clear that I could not in this Bill give myself power to deal with Greeks. In fact, some of my hon. Friends have been reluctant to allow me, in a Bill dealing with Poles, to deal with Poles. The wider general discretion, which was just what I feared I should be driven into if I made the slightest concession, would, of course, involve me in another Bill. While I still stand by what I said to the right hon. Gentleman, hon. Members will realise that the subsequent trend of the discussion is something which I must bear in mind when I have to make my final decision.

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