HC Deb 13 July 1948 vol 453 cc1127-41
Mr. Eric Fletcher (Islington, East)

I beg to move, in page 4, line 29, to leave out "may," and to insert "shall."

With your permission, Mr. Beaumont, and that of the Committee, I would like to deal, at the same time, with the other Amendment in my name to this Clause—in page 4, line 36, at the end to insert: unless in the opinion of the Secretary of State special reasons exist why such woman or, as the case may be, such minor child should not be registered as a citizen of the United Kingdom and Colonies. —as they are related. I put these Amendments down as I believe the Clause as it stands is unsatisfactory and requires more attention before it passes this Committee. While I believe that everybody is in agreement with the principle of the Bill which ensures that in future British women will not automatically lose their British nationality on marriage to an alien, I do not think we are all agreed that it is a good thing to change the present law, which provides that when a British subject marries a woman of some other nationality he thereby endows her with British nationality and British citizenship. That has been the law since 1870 and, I think, since 1844. It has been the law because it is based on good sense, and pays due regard to the principles of married life.

It is desirable, wherever possible, that a husband and wife should have the same nationality; it is also desirable, in the overwhelming majority of cases, that if a British subject marries a woman of some other nationality that woman should become a British subject, and that the children of that marriage should have a British mother as well as a British father. Under Clause 6 as it stands that is no longer going to be the law, and for what reason?

The reason has been stated by the Home Secretary in introducing this Bill in similar words to those of the Lord Chancellor in another place, and the only reason, so far as we can discover, for this change in the law is that it has been found in the past that a certain number of undesirable women have come over to Dover or some other port, and have entered into a fictitious and spurious form of marriage with an obliging British subject anxious to earn a few pounds, not intending the marriage to be a real marriage, but merely a means of enabling the woman to acquire a British passport. She has proceeded to engage in a life of prostitution and disrepute, and, holding a British passport, has made herself immune from deportation, as she would not have been if she had not gone through the ceremony of marriage. That is the evil and the only evil which this Clause is designed to check. It gives the Home Secretary a power of deportation in that kind of case which the Committee would wish him to have.

The question I want the Committee to consider is whether it is necessary, in order to solve that problem, to make this sweeping change in the present law. My suggestion is that in future marriage by a British subject to an alien woman should not automatically confer on her the status of British nationality. It is right, as provided in the Bill, that there should be an obligation to apply for registration as a British subject, but I would remind the Committee that this Bill, which provides a category of British subjects distinct from British subjects by birth and by nationalisation, namely, British subjects by registration, also confers by Clause 19 very wide powers on the Home Secretary enabling him to deprive British subjects by registration of their British nationality.

If the Committee will consider Clause 19 they will see that in the case of some harlot coming over from Paris for the purpose of leading an immoral life here and obtaining the protection of British nationality by a fictitious and fraudulent marriage she may in future be liable to be deported under Clause 19 of the Bill. The Home Secretary first of all deprives her of British nationality and then deports her. I would invite the Committee to look at the grounds of deprivation in Clause 19 (2) which says: The Secretary of State may by order deprive any such citizen of his citizenship it he is satisfied that the registration or certificate of naturalisation was obtained by means of fraud, false representation or the concealment of any material fact. If those words are not wide enough no doubt it will be a simple matter to find other appropriate words to cover this particular contingency. I suggest that before we pass this Clause we ought to know how many women are in this category and the extent of the problem we are dealing with. What is the number of women of this undesirable type, whom the Home Secretary will have power to deport and for whom it is now proposed to make this sweeping change in the law of our country?

Secondly, may I draw the attention of the Committee to the consequences which will flow from this change. In future it is to be entirely at the discretion of the Home Secretary, either to grant or withhold British nationality to a foreign lady who previously would have automatically on marriage become a British subject. If British nationality is going to be withheld in any given case, it will become a matter of great reproach on the lady in question. She will be stigmatised as being either undesirable because of some blemish in her moral character, or because she is liable to engage in espionage or some other treasonable activity.

9.45 p.m.

In those circumstances, a great many people before marrying a foreign lady might well want to know in advance whether or not the Home Secretary would grant a certificate of British nationality. Is the Home Secretary going to tell us what principles he would apply? Is it right that this matter should be left entirely to the discretion of the Home Secretary? Are we to know whether there is to be any period of residence qualification? Are the same principles to apply whether the marriage takes place here or abroad? What is to be the position of minor children of a British subject who marries a lady abroad? That lady will not become a British subject. Why should the children be deprived of the benefits of British nationality because of the relatively small problem which is prompting this very wide change in our law? I am not wedded to the precise form of words of my second Amendment, but I hope the Committee will think that this is a matter of sufficient substance to justify the attention of the Committee before we pass this Clause.

Lieut.-Colonel Lipton (Brixton)

I associate myself with what has been said by my hon. Friend the Member for East Islington (Mr. E. Fletcher) to the extent that his remarks apply to the case of minor children. I am firmly of the opinion that the powers of the Home Secretary should be strengthened by the wording my hon. Friend suggested. I am unable to imagine what circumstances would arise in which the Home Secretary would find it undesirable to register as a British subject a minor child within the meaning of this Clause.

I came across an unusual case during the war when I was connected with the Army Legal Aid Scheme which indicates that this Clause can be strengthened to very considerable advantage. During the war, an A.T.S. girl of British nationality and a British soldier in the British Forces were serving in Egypt. The A.T.S. girl had an illegitimate child which was subsequently legitimated as a result of the marriage between the A.T.S. girl and the British soldier. The curious position arose that this subsequently legitimated child of these two parents was found to be not of British nationality at all, and when the investigations were pursued it was also discovered that this child was not even of Egyptian nationality. We then had the curious position of two British parents having a legitimated child which had no nationality at all—it was stateless. When we investigated the matter a little further we found that the child would, eventually, have to take out a naturalisation certificate as soon as it was old enough to appreciate the meaning of an oath of allegiance.

That is the kind of case that does arise and in respect of which the Home Secretary could be instructed by the Statute to have mandatory power to register children in those circumstances as British subjects. To the extent that my hon. Friend's Amendment strengthens the Clause so far as minor children are concerned, I am happy to associate myself with it.

Mr. J. Foster

I do not quite follow the remarks of the hon. and gallant Member for Brixton (Lieut.-Colonel Lipton) as being directed to this Amendment. I do not understand how the Amendment would cure the situation he mentioned. I believe it is cured by some other part of the Bill. It was quite a usual position under the old British Nationality Act that a legitimated child was not a British subject although born of British parents. I do not think the Amendment would affect the circumstances in the slightest.

I wish to ask the hon. Member for East Islington (Mr. Eric Fletcher) which way his Amendment works. In line 29 he wishes the word "may" altered to "shall." That is quite clear. But I imagine he is taking his two Amendments together. In other words he wishes the Amendment to line 26 to be carried, that the Home Secretary shall register them unless: in the opinion of the Secretary of State special reasons exist for not registering them. I imagine that the Home Secretary would apply that test now, and would register them unless special reasons existed. If the hon. Gentleman turns "may," into "shall" he must not put in an escape Clause allowing the Home Secretary to use his discretion.

Mr. E. Fletcher

If the Home Secretary were prepared to accept the first Amendment I should be perfectly happy and would not move the second Amendment.

Mr. Foster

Do I understand that the second Amendment is a sort of pis aller if the first is not carried?

Mr. Fletcher

No. My first preference would be for the first Amendment to be carried and the second to be regarded a, unnecessary. Failing that, I hope the Home Secretary would accept both Amendments because I believe that that would be an improvement.

Mr. Foster

I do not know whether the hon. Member can explain how if both Amendments were carried it would alter the situation in the slightest As I see it the Home Secretary will not register them if he has a special reason. I expect the Home Secretary can deal with that, and if he can find any difference I shall be interested. It seems to me that there is an argument to say that alien women should be registered compulsorily. I do not agree with that. I think the whole object of changing the law is to stop marriages which are solely designed to give people citizenship or British subject-hood in circumstances where they ought not to have it.

One does know that there is traffic in prostitution; one does know there are what are called "£5 marriages." I do not imagine that even the Home Secretary knows the number of people to whom that applies and it is very difficult to find that out. The source of information would be the five Maltese brothers in London. They could tell the Home Secretary with great precision, how many of these marriages have been arranged, because they have had a hand in arranging many of them. But it is a very difficult statistic of the underworld to bring up. It is wrong, I think, that a good number of undesirable enemy women have taken advantage of either the mistaken chivalry or temporary drunkenness of British soldiers in order to acquire British nationality. Once we admit the principle that it is undesirable that alien women should acquire British nationality like that, then I think that this Amendment should be rejected. But I do see that there are arguments both ways.

Mr. Ede

This is a very difficult matter with which to deal. I am quite sure that the whole Committee realises that there are, and have been, a number of marriages in this country with alien women which have been designed to protect them from the power of the Home Secretary to send them abroad because they are undesirable citizens and are carrying on undesirable practices in this country. The subject became very acute a short time ago when, owing to an alteration in the French law with regard to the control of maisons tolérées, there was a considerable invasion of this country by women who had been carrying on their business in these premises.

I admit that this subject bristles with difficulties, especially those pointed out by my hon. Friend the Member for East Islington (Mr. E. Fletcher) that, if the Secretary of State in fact refuses to register one of these women, undoubtedly it will be regarded as a very considerable slur on her—either on her moral character or on the motives which persuaded her to come to this country. She may be suspected of being in some espionage system. I should like to find some way of dealing with this subject which will still leave the Secretary of State with sufficient powers to remove a woman who, having acquired British nationality by registration, then proves to be unworthy.

I do not think the words in Clause 19 (2) are strong enough. I do not think the kind of marriage I have described has been obtained by means of fraud, false representation or the concealment of any material fact. The woman registers her name, and as far as I know, at no registry office would the registrar be empowered under the existing law to ask her any questions as to the purpose of her marriage. If she is a person with no just cause or impediment against her being married to a British subject, as far as I know the ceremony can proceed without any hindrance or without any fraud, false representation or concealment of any material fact.

It might be advisable for me to see whether, by the strengthening of the Subsection to deal with this matter I could put the Secretary of State in a position where, if a marriage is proved to be one of convenience merely designed to defeat the law of the country and to take a person outside the ordinary rigours of the law applying to aliens who misconduct themselves in this country, he would then be empowered under the appropriate Clause to deprive the woman of the nationality she had so acquired. I hope that if I could find some words that would enable me to do that, I should have the support of both sides of the Committee.

With regard to the point raised by my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Brixton (Lieut.-Colonel Lipton), the position of the child which he mentions would be safeguarded by Clause 22 (1) which specifically provides for the case of a person born out of wedlock and legitimated by the subsequent marriage of his parents.

10.0 p.m.

Lieut.-Colonel Lipton

May I put this question to my right hon. Friend? Clause 22 (1) refers merely to legitimated children. What is the position of the illegitimate child born to a British woman overseas or outside the jurisdiction of the Secretary of State?

Mr. Ede

That was not the case which the hon. Member put. The disadvantage of any layman dealing with a Bill of this kind when a barrister intervenes in the discussion, is that, if he answers one point, a fresh conundrum is then put up to him. Having been in Committee on the Criminal Justice Bill for a long time, I have had a very considerable experience of that kind of arrangement. I think that the case which the hon. Member put up is dealt with by the Bill. There can be no doubt about that.

With regard to the case of the illegitimate child of a British woman born abroad which is not subsequently legitimised by the marriage of the parents, I have had a number of such cases since I have been in office, and, so far as I know, in every case where a claim is made and substantiated, a certificate of naturalisation is granted. I will consider whether it would be possible in this Bill to deal further with that point, but I think that, if my hon. Friend looks at Clause 6 (2), he will see that the Secretary of State is there given a discretion to cause any minor to be registered as a British subject in the United Kingdom and Colonies. There were cases where British women serving abroad during the war had illegitimate children, some of British fathers and some of fathers other than British. This Subsection would have enabled the Secretary of State, within his discretion, to deal with the matter.

My hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Brixton also suggested that the registration of minor children should be as automatic as the hon. Member for East Islington asked that the registration of alien wives should be, but there really is a considerable difference on this point. A woman who is a British subject may have a husband who is an alien, their whole married life may be abroad, and they may have as the family language the language of a foreign country, and their children may be to all intents and purposes completely aliens, notwithstanding the fact that they have a British mother. I think the Secretary of State must be left with some discretion, with regard to minor children in such cases, to say that these children have no real claim to be recognised as British subjects.

I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for East Islington will feel that I am seized of the real point behind the Amendment. I do not desire unnecessarily to inflict on any woman the stigma of being regarded as possibly immoral or disloyal, and I will, between now and the Report stage of the Bill, try to find some way of dealing with the point so that the Secretary of State shall not inflict such a stigma on a woman. There are sufficient powers, when one is faced with the kind of difficulty with which I have been faced on several occasions, to enable one to get out of this country, a woman who, merely by contracting a marriage that had no reality at all, was able to claim that she must be kept in this country, to which she was rendering no good service at all.

Mr. Boyd-Carpenter (Kingston-upon-Thames)

Like the Home Secretary, though for rather different reasons, I find myself in rather a difficulty in this matter. I agree entirely with the first Amendment in the name of the hon. Member for East Islington (Mr. E. Fletcher), and indeed if he were to push this matter to a Division I should certainly support him in the Lobby. On the other hand, I do not agree with the second Amendment standing in his name, which seems to me unduly to reduce and minimise the effect of his first Amendment. His first Amendment, it seems to me, raises a very great issue of principle.

The Bill, as it stands, seeks to alter what has been the law of this country for some 60 years, to the effect that if a British subject marries a foreign woman, that foreign woman acquires automatically British citizenship by reason of her marriage. That is an important and valuable privilege belonging to the status and quality of a British citizen, and the fact that the Home Office have found, as they undoubtedly have found, a certain difficulty in a minority of cases where women have used this aspect of the law to obtain British citizenship does not seem to me to be a conclusive reason for altering that principle.

I concede at once that the Home Office have certain difficulties. There are certain women who have used this method to obtain our citizenship and, as a result, the Home Secretary has not been able to deport them, though he would like to do so, and though in principle he would be right in doing so. I concede all that, but it does not seem to me that that is a conclusive argument for this very important alteration in the whole process of our nationality law.

Let us see where this change is leading us. The whole object of this is to give to the Home Secretary the right to say whether a woman whom a British subject marries acquires British citizenship or not. It is for the Home Secretary to say whether an Englishman can confer on his wife British nationality, and the Home Secretary himself has conceded that in cases where he declines so to do he is inevitably imposing a very serious stigma on all women. Once it is known that a woman has been considered unfit for British nationality, then quite obviously every sort of rumour and conjecture will arise about her, and the Home Secretary recognises that fact. He suggests some steps to minimise that, but the fact remains that in any case where he exercises that power he is damning that woman in the eyes of people who know her.

That is a very serious matter, but what is still more serious is that he is seeking to reserve unto himself the right to deport from this country a woman who is married to a British citizen; that is to say, that he is seeking the power to take from a British citizen his wife and send her abroad. That is a tremendous power to seek to use. It would inevitably inflict a very grievous wrong upon the man, and in many cases upon the woman concerned, and I do not think that we have heard anything like enough to justify conferring upon the Home Secretary so tremendous a power. After all, the number of cases in which some harm has been done to law and order and decency by women acquiring British citizenship in this way is, I suggest, comparatively small. I do not know whether the Home Secretary is in a position to give the figures—I do not suppose he is—but I hazard the suggestion that it is comparatively small.

Dr. Haden Guest (Islington, North)

Would the hon. Member say what evidence he has for thinking it is very small? I think it is quite large.

Mr. Boyd-Carpenter

I am fortified by the fact that when I suggested it is comparatively small, the Home Secretary nodded to himself, and the Home Secretary is perhaps in a better position to know on this point than either the hon. Member or myself.

Dr. Guest

Jove nodded, too.

Mr. Boyd-Carpenter

I would not confuse the Home Secretary with Jove, although hon. Members opposite, who always follow the Government Whip, may be more likely to fall into that particular form of confusion. I am suggesting that the Home Secretary and I are right on this point and that the hon. Member is wrong. What the hon. Member must realise is that what is to be done here in order to arm the Home Secretary with this power is to take away from every British citizen—every unmarried British citizen, at any rate—the very considerable right of giving British citizenship with a marriage to him. I think that is an unjustifiable thing, and I do not think it can be allowed to pass without protest from this House of Commons.

If the hon. Member for East Islington were prepared to press his first Amendment to a Division I, for one, would be with him in the Lobby. No case has been made for depriving British citizens of this right. The Home Secretary is seeking to arm himself with a power which is largely unnecessary and wholly embarrassing to him, and I think, on consideration, he will realise that it is better to allow a small number of women of improper character to acquire British citizenship than to make this fundamental alteration in our law.

Mrs. Ayrton Gould (Hendon, North)

I hope the Home Secretary will stick to this Clause. I appreciate the difficulties that exist and how very difficult it may be for my right hon. Friend if, as he himself said, he has to cast stigma upon a foreign woman where in some cases he might have been misinformed and might be in error. I think, however, that we have to look at another side of the question.

All of us, on both sides of this House, and almost everybody in this country, are extremely jealous of the good reputation of British citizenship. We do not want people in this country who can do a great deal of harm by being British citizens, and who have no loyalty at all to Britain or to the things in which we believe. I have no idea what the number of these women is, but I do know a number of cases where serious harm has been done because these women have been married to British men for quite improper purposes. I think it is most important that my right hon. Friend should safeguard the position and I want to ask him to go a stage further to ensure this.

I want to ask that in all cases where the oath of allegiance is taken by men becoming British, it should also be taken by women becoming British; that, in fact, all adults who are registered as British citizens, whether men or women, whether it is done through marriage or not, in all circumstances, should have to take the oath of allegiance or whatever form of ceremony my right hon. Friend decides is right for the men. I think this extra safeguard should be given in the case of women as well as men.

Mr. W. J. Brown

I do not think this Debate should go on any longer—[Interruption]—and I propose to stay on my feet only long enough to explain why I do not think it should go on any longer. The hon. Member for East Islington (Mr. E. Fletcher) drew attention to what I think was a very material consideration. I think he had the sympathy of the whole Committee when he drew attention to the very invidious position which could be created in respect of any woman from whom registration was withheld. On that point I think everybody on both sides of the Committee was with the hon. Gentleman. Equally, I think we were all with the Home Secretary when he insisted that he must have some power to deal with the kind of case that can and does arise. He put that case extremely clearly before the Committee, and, in substance, he added this—and this ought to have ended the Debate—"I will look at the difficulties of the hon. Gentleman; I will look at the difficulty of the strengthening of Clause 19, and I will see if I cannot, between the one and the other, provide the solution to this problem on the Report stage." Nothing could be clearer; nothing more comprehensive; nothing more magnanimous. And the Debate should now end.

10.15 p.m.

Dr. Haden Guest

I feel that if the Clause is left in its present form, so that the Home Secretary "may" register, he will be in a position to prevent these marriages which we know about. I shall not go into the argument about the arithmetic. I believe the number is great. The hon. Member for Kingston-upon-Thames (Mr. Boyd-Carpenter) thinks it small. It would be of great value if the Home Secretary could tell the Committee, if not now, then on some other occasion, what the number of these marriages is estimated to be.

Mr. Boyd-Carpenter

I think the hon. Gentleman by inadvertence slipped up. He said the power is given to the Home Secretary to prevent the marriages. No such power is given. The power is given to prevent the marriages conferring citizenship.

Dr. Guest

The hon. Gentleman is quite right. That is the important point. It is a very important point, indeed. I know the Home Secretary so well that I am sure he will exercise the power with the greatest possible consideration. I think hon. Gentlemen opposite will agree with me that a number of very blatant cases indeed have occurred in which prostitutes have come in from Europe, and have married men here simply in order to be able to carry on their professional prostitution—and in order, too, that the men who have married them may live on the earnings of those prostitutes—a very despicable and beastly trade.

The question also arises whether we could not have these cases taking place in connection with the drug traffic. I am speaking purely as a layman, not as a lawyer; but as a layman who is a doctor; and a doctor very often has channels of information which may be denied to hon. Members of the Committee. I can assure the Committee that I have been appalled at the possibilities of this traffic, through the bringing of such women over here, and of their being married here, and then, as it were, let loose on society here.

I do think that power to get these women out, should be left in the hands of the Home Secretary. I am sure he will use this power only in the cases that are quite blatant. I also think that Clause 19 should be strengthened, so that if by inadvertence and his kindness of heart, he does allow undesirable characters to slip through, he yet retains power to take further proceedings, and to get rid of people whom we do not desire to have as our co-citizens, and of whom it would be a very good thing to rid this country.

Mr. E. Fletcher

My object in moving the Amendment has been achieved, and I certainly do not intend to press it. I am more than satisfied with the observations that have fallen from the Home Secretary. He has conceded the principle I asked him to concede, and has said that in the ordinary case, the law ought to stand as it is at present, and that on application a foreign lady married to a British citizen should be admitted to registration. He has recognised in principle that the right way to deal with the particular evil with which he wishes to deal is to extend his powers under Clause 19, by taking power first to deprive the undesirable women who have for that evil purpose acquired British citizenship, and then to deport them. For these reasons, and in gratitude to the Home Secretary for having accepted the principle of the Amendment, and for his undertaking to deal with the matter on Report, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Amendment made: In page 4, line 30, leave out "British subject," and insert "citizen."—[Mr. Ede.]

Consequential Amendments made.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Clause, as amended, stand part of the Bill."

Mr. Symonds (Cambridge)

May I put one question to the Home Secretary? Reference was made to the stigma which attaches to an alien woman should the Home Secretary refuse to register her. What will be her national status should the Home Secretary refuse to register her? If, for instance, she comes from a country according to the laws of which a woman loses her nationality on marrying a foreigner, as is the case in this country until this Bill becomes an Act, is she then stateless, and, if so, to what country could the Home Secretary deport such a woman should he refuse to register her because she is an undesirable character?

Mr. Ede

Here again, we are being asked these legal conundrums. I am told that the practice of States is less and less to deprive a woman of her nationality in the State of her origin when she marries, if she does not acquire the nationality of her husband. If there were such a case as the hon. Member for Cambridge (Mr. Symonds) presupposes, the woman would in fact be stateless. My difficulty in deporting her if she became stateless would, I am afraid, be very great indeed. I believe that registration is sufficient in these cases, I do not myself subscribe to the doctrine that everything that happens to a man must of necessity happen to a woman. We are getting dangerously near the position when we shall be told that if a married couple have twins, the man must be expected to suckle one of them. I think that registration is sufficient in these cases, and I hope that the Committee will agree to accept the Clause as it is drafted.

Clause, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 7 ordered to stand part of the Bill.