HL Deb 06 January 1915 vol 18 cc262-71

My Lords, I have no desire to trespass at any length upon your Lordships' time, but I wish to put two questions to His Majesty's Government. First I desire to ask whether they will undertake to take the necessary steps, by special legislation or otherwise, to revoke certificates of naturalisation granted to aliens born of a country at war with us, who, by reason of their attitude towards the enemies of this country, are unworthy of English nationality.

This point has been rather brought into prominence by the case of a man called Alders, who was German Consul for many years at Sunderland. Briefly the facts are these. This man was naturalised in 1905. The Home Secretary issued a circular to the effect that alien enemies could leave this country up to August 11—that is to say, nearly a clear week after the declaration of war. This man Ahlers, acting as German Consul at Sunderland—he was a naturalised Englishman—had been collecting German residents and sending them abroad. He was tried for high treason before the Durham Assizes, and was sentenced to death. Thereupon an appeal was lodged to the Court of Criminal Appeal. Now, Ahlers made no secret, in his cross- examination at the trial at the Assizes, as to his German sympathies. His defence at that time was that he was not technically aware on August 5 and 6, the dates upon which he committed these offences, that we were in a state of war with Germany. When the matter came before the Court of Criminal Appeal the conviction of the Durham Assizes was quashed, and it was quashed on account of what undoubtedly was an extraordinarily slipshod Proclamation of the Home Secretary. In that Proclamation, which allowed enemy aliens to return to Germany up to August 11, no distinction was made between belligerents and non-combatants. It would be very interesting to know how many regiments that Proclamation added to the cause of the German Fatherland and how many lives it lost to this country and to the Allies. Moreover, that Proclamation had another very bad side to it in that it allowed a large number of aliens to leave this country with a great deal of money. I am not, however, now disputing the finding of the Court of Criminal Appeal. I am advised that, as the law stands and in the circumstances, the decision at which the Court arrived was in law a proper decision. But I should like to call your Lordships' attention to this fact, that in arriving at that decision the Judges of the Court of Criminal Appeal were largely influenced by this Proclamation of the Home Secretary. The Solicitor-General, who was prosecuting Alders on the part of the Government, denied that this particular Order in Council gave any power to do an act which was unlawful in itself, or gave any power for an alien enemy to leave this country unlawfully. But that did not appear to the Judges to be accurate or defensible from a point of law. Mr. Justice Bankes said— It is abhorrent to my mind that, if the Secretary of State issued a circular after seeing it which would permit an armed enemy to leave the country, another man should be prosecuted for high treason for doing what the Order permitted. And the Judges in their judgment said— It was sufficient to say that the Order in Council did lend some reasonableness to the appellant's belief. It is perfectly clear that the state of affairs, from a practical as well as from a legal point of view, is extremely undesirable. It is indefensible that a British subject, enjoying all the liberties and privileges of a British subject should not also loyally carry out the obligations of a British subject. It is, therefore, very desirable that in a case like that of Ahlers, and in many other cases which I might mention to your Lordships, there should be power to revoke the certificate of naturalisation. I am credibly informed that the French Government are introducing a Bill for this purpose.

My second Question is to ask what are the powers in regard to high treason now possessed by the ordinary jurisdiction of the grand juries, the county constables, and so forth, and to what extent and in what particulars are these powers affected by any jurisdiction of the Home Secretary or of any Order in Council.

This is somewhat of a technical question. I put it because it is extremely difficult for us laymen to understand the present condition of things. There seems to be a sort of dual system. There are Orders in Council issued by the Home Secretary which a colleague of his in office, the Solicitor-General, considers have not the power to override and to justify anything that is illegal in itself, yet which at the same time the Judges of the Court of Criminal Appeal did consider gave this man Ahlers power to escape from a judgment which was in other respects perfectly just and equitable. I therefore ask His Majesty's Government whether they would be good enough to make a statement also in regard to this second question, so that those of us who are connected with county administration may be able to know on what lines we may proceed.


My Lords, I have a Question on the Paper for tomorrow which perhaps it would be convenient for the Lord Chancellor to reply to now, as it covers the ground in the Questions put by my noble friend Lord Portsmouth. My Question is this— To ask His Majesty's Government if they will make a statement as to the powers vested in the Home Office of cancelling the certificates of such naturalised aliens as have shown themselves hostile to this country, or whom the military and police authorities consider likely to become a source of danger; if such cancellation has been suggested to the Government by any military, police, or local authority; and, if further legislation would be required to enable the Home Office to take such action.


My Lords, this question is one of importance which has engaged the attention of the Government for some time. It is attended with difficulties, however, to which I will refer in a moment; and these difficulties have led to the matter being dealt with in a somewhat different way from what the noble Earl suggests it should be. Reference has been made to the prosecution of a man named Ahlers. I know nothing of that case except from the newspapers; I had nothing whatever to do with it. I gather that the Court of Criminal Appeal thought that the jury might have been misled on the direction the learned Judge, and on that ground plashed the conviction. As to the merits of the case, that was a matter for the Court Criminal Appeal. But I do not think that case has much bearing on the question is which is before us now, except on one point.

I am asked, first, what powers the Home Secretary possesses as regards cancellation of certificates of naturalisation, and, secondly, whether it is proposed to give him further powers. I must point out the initial difficulty which attends the whole subject—that in regard to naturalisation you are dealing with a matter which affects not only war but peace, and a matter of wide importance in International Law. What nationality a man possesses is a question of status, and when once it is conferred it is expected by other countries that the country granting it will not capriciously or arbitrarily or hastily withdraw the privileges which have been conceded, because that affects other questions. In other words, you have to consider International Law in dealing with this, because it is not a matter of licensing a person, nor even a matter of a contract; it is a question of the status of a person, which can only be dealt with in a very solemn manner; and the power of rendering void the status so conferred is a power which certainly ought not to be at the disposal of a Minister or of an Executive, but ought to be in the hands of a Court of Justice of a high order. The scope of legislation is of a very limited extent, limited because of those considerations to which I have referred, in considering the question of revoking certificates of naturalisation. In the Consolidation Act recently passed dealing with the question of naturalisation there is a section which expressly enables the revocation of such certificates if there has been fraud or suppression of material facts. That, of course, will not touch the point which the noble Earl has in view. It will not touch it, first of all, because the section is very limited in scope; and, secondly, because it relates to a matter which, as I have said, has to be dealt with on the footing that nationality is not a thing to be lightly changed by one country having regard to the rights of other countries.

But power was given to deal with what is material in the cases which have been put as regards this matter in another way. It is quite true that under the Aliens Restriction Order the power of requesting an alien to withdraw and not to remain in a particular part of the country, called a prohibited area, is a power which is restricted to aliens; but because of the difficulty which has arisen from the fact of aliens becoming naturalised, and for other reasons, powers have been taken of a much wider order under the Defence of the Realm Act, under which any man, whether an alien or a naturalised British subject or a British subject by birth or descent, can be called upon to comply with very stringent regulations. The case of Ahlers would not come under it, but Section 14 of the Regulations is in substance this—that where anybody, whether he is an alien or whether he is a British subject, is suspected of acting or of having acted or of being about to act in a manner prejudicial to the public safety or the defence of the Realm and it appears to the competent naval or military authority that it; is desirable that such person should be prohibited from residing in or entering any locality, the competent naval or military authority may by Order prohibit him from residing in or entering any area or areas which may be specified in the Order, and upon the making of such an Order the person to whom the Order relates shall, if he resides in any specified area, leave that area within such time as may be specified by the Order; and then any person with regard to whom such an Order is made may be required to report himself to the Police wherever he goes. That refers to a person who is even suspected, and it puts ample power in the hands of the naval and military authorities.

There are other powers in the Defence of the Realm Act which go very far and constitute new offences. When a naturalised person is suspected in sued a way that you would desire to deal with his certificate if you had the legal power, it is almost invariably for reasons that would be covered by the Defence of the Realm Act and the Regulations for the new class of trial made under it; and the view which has been consistently taken by the Government is that, having regard to the difficulties and restrictions which International Law imposes, the proper way of dealing with such persons is not by altering their nationality—which is the best way of putting it—but by dealing with them under the very stringent powers which now exist. The view which I have stated to your Lordships now is that which was put forward in the other House when the matter was raised some little time ago, and to that the Government have consistently adhered.

Then there is the further question put by the noble Earl who spoke first. Lord Portsmouth asks what are the powers in regard to high treason now possessed by the ordinary jurisdiction of the grand juries, the county constables, and so forth, and to what extent and in what particulars are these powers affected by any jurisdiction of the Home Secretary or of any Order in Council. The answer is that they are not affected at all. The Defence of the Realm Act and the Regulations under it preserve all other rights and powers which exist in tile law of the land; and as regards chief constables and magistrates, their capacity remains. If some one is acting in a way and under circumstances of which they are suspicious, all they have to do is to report the matter to the proper authorities. The proper persons to report it to would be the Public Prosecutor and the Attorney-General. The powers of the magistrates and the chief constables are unfettered. Further, no powers which grand juries had before these Acts were passed have been altered, and they are free to act as in the past.

Another suggestion has been made in the newspapers upon which the noble Earl did not touch. It has been said in certain quarters that the Home Office has to some extent interfered with the responsibility of chief constables, and it has been said, "Why should chief constables be asked to make reports when they are not appointed by the Home Office? If you are not responsible for their appointment how can you ask them to make reports? If you ask them to make reports are you not asking them to take responsibility which they are not liable to undertake?" The answer is that it is quite true that chief constables are not appointed by the Home Office, but they are and always have been ready to give valuable information to the Home Office. The chief constable directs the police and always gives any information that is required. The Home Office does not put any responsibility upon a chief constable by asking him for a report; it merely applies to him as the natural person to give such information as to suspicious circumstances coming under his notice, and then the proper prosecuting authority takes action. I simply mention that in order to clear up some obscurity which has arisen on the point.

The noble Earl, Lord Crawford, asks whether His Majesty's Government will make a statement as to the powers vested in the Home Office of cancelling the certificates of such naturalised aliens as have shown themselves hostile to this country or whom the military and police authorities consider likely to become a source of danger. That, I think, has been covered.




And then in his Question the noble Earl further asks whether such cancellation has been suggested to the Government by any military, police, or local authority, and whether further legislation would be required to enable the Home Office to take such action. Yes, such cancellation has been suggested. As the noble Earl, Lord Portsmouth, has said, the French Government are at the present moment considering a like point, but so far have got no further. But the matter, as far as the Government is concerned in this country, is being carefully watched.


My Lords, I gathered from the noble and learned Viscount on the Woolsack that the chief objection he took to the power of cancelling naturalisation certificates lay in International Law. The French Government, though they may not have passed a Bill to denaturalise hostile Frenchmen, have at any rate gone so far as to show that in principle they are confirmed in the belief that cancellation is possible. I say it with humility, but I hope that His Majesty's Government are not being too fastidious about International Law in dealing with a country which shows no regard whatever for any branch of International Law or its obligations. As this whole question of aliens is one which in my opinion carries with it the seeds of life and death for this country, I would take certain risks in connection with International Law if by so doing our hands in dealing with enemy aliens could be strengthened. I want to illustrate the case of Mr. Ahlers. I do not go into the legal point, as I do not understand it. But Mr. Ahlers, like every one else who has become naturalised, has obtained the privilege by putting three or four guineas on the counter of the Home Office. He became a British subject and was thereby entitled to all the privileges and rights of a British subject. But in becoming naturalised here he has not ceased to be a German subject, for no German subject who becomes a subject of a foreign Power ceases to be a subject of Germany unless he goes through a solemn and elaborate form of denaturalisation in Germany. Not one in ten thousand of those who naturalise themselves here care to go to the trouble and expense, and to some extent the disagreeable publicity, involved by that process. Although Mr. Ahlers had been naturalised in this country he still had German sympathies—he was perfectly frank about it.

I will give another example. The daughter of a German officer who is actually fighting against us in the field went the other day in the ordinary way to a police station to register herself as an alien. They asked her where she was born, and finding that she was born in London they wrote "British" across her papers, and she is free. She is equally free in her opinions and in her statements about this country. I should like that lady to be denaturalised—I am sure she would not mind—for we should then have a larger hold upon her than if she remains a British subject. It is no good saying that Section 14 of the Regulations of the Defence of the Realm Act gives all the powers that are required. That section deals with residence and residence alone; no other restriction is conferred by that section. It is not a matter of where a man resides that is at issue, but whether a man who has shown himself to be hostile to this country ought to continue, not merely now but for the rest of his life, to enjoy the privileges and the amenities which are enjoyed by a British subject.

One further point. In my Question I make a suggestion which no doubt the Lord Chancellor will consider extreme. I suggest not merely that the certificate should be cancelled of those who have done hostile acts, like Mr. Ahlers, but that the police should be able to recommend persons whom they consider likely to commit acts of hostility to Great Britain to be denaturalised. I should like that power to be given. The sensitiveness of the Home Office and the readiness with which they concede to pressure are so obvious that I am sure no hardship or injustice would be committed. The Home Office is a very softhearted Department, and no aliens need fear from it any injustice; they are perfectly safe with this very sentimental Department. The Government have shown tremendous activity with the waiters and the small fry, but the really dangerous people in this country are the paymasters, not only of the aliens who are now largely interned, but also of British subjects here upon whom our enemies are going to rely at the psychological moment to create and foster an opinion in this country in favour of an inconclusive peace. The whole organisation I believe to be prepared. Money, we know, is poured out like water to produce temperamental or psychological objects; and there are people here, one knows from one's own knowledge, who desire, at what they consider to be the right moment—through literature, possibly through the Press, through the elaborate system of publicity as now organised in the United States of America, and indeed in half-a-dozen other ways which noble Lords will suggest to themselves—to exercise pressure upon public opinion. I do not think the Home Office would be in any way weakened by having the power I suggest. Legislation may be required, but I do not think there will be serious opposition by either House of Parliament to the conferring of this power on the Home Office.

Those of us who have dealt with this alien question from the very start, in spite of strenuous and consistent opposition from the Government, have noticed that gradually, sometimes weeks and sometimes months after our pleas, the Government which at first was stubborn at length gave way, so that there are now not many things for which we asked at the outset that have not been conceded. I put this point of mine forward to-day in the hope that careful consideration will be given to it, and that this additional power may be vested in the Home Office.


My Lords, something has just come under my notice which shows that the Government have in one matter given attention to this subject of revoking certificates of naturalisation, or at least of removing privileges from persons who have been naturalised here but not denationalised in their own country; and I hope this may be considered with reference to other matters. As your Lordships are aware, some very stringent restrictions have recently been issued by the Treasury with reference to the reopening of the Stock Exchange. It was considered that one of the principal dangers attending that reopening might be the transaction of business injurious to this country and in the interests of the enemy by persons who had been enemy subjects and were not denationalised. The rule has been laid down that no one shall be allowed at present to act as a member of or as a clerk in the Stock Exchange who is a subject of any country with which this country is at war and who has not been denationalised. That shows that His Majesty's Government, or at any rate one Department of it, has had this question under very serious consideration and has acted in the direction which my noble friend desires. I hope that the consideration of the Lord Chancellor may be carried a little further, and that it may be possible, without any interference with International Law, at least to provide that any person who has been naturalised in England and is convicted of high treason should have his certificate of naturalisation revoked and be deprived of the privileges of a British subject.

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