HL Deb 15 May 1924 vol 57 cc481-92

LORD ORANMORE AND BROWNE rose to call the attention of His Majesty's Government to the case of children of British parents born in foreign countries during the period of the war, 1914–18, and to ask whether facilities can be given for the acquisition by such children of British nationality; and to move for Papers. The noble Lord said: My Lords, this is a subject which may not excite general interest but it closely affects an important section of His Majesty's subjects who consider that they are labouring under a grievance, and if I can convince your Lordships that the grievance exists I feel confident that I shall have the unanimous support of this House in removing it if it is possible. In addition to this, as it is purely a non-Party and non-political matter I am not without hope that I shall secure not only the sympathy but also the assistance of His Majesty's Government in attempting to remove it.

In the course of your travels abroad many of your Lordships, I am sure, have found in various towns in foreign countries, but more particularly in seaport towns, communities of British merchants who have lived there for several generations. They are on excellent terms with their neighbours but they cling strongly to their British nationality and rather keep themselves to themselves. They either inter-marry or marry wives from England, and in due time their children are sent home to be educated. When they are grown up some of them enter the professions and trades in this country, while others return to the country where their parents are settled. In time they succeed to their fathers' businesses, marry English wives and in due course their children are sent to this country to be educated. And so the round goes on. In each generation the ties with the Mother-Country are renewed and strengthened.

It is not necessary for me to quote all the towns where such communities exist, but I may mention as examples Bordeaux, Oporto, Lisbon, Marsala, Smyrna, Rio de Janeiro and Buenos Aires. In all these towns these communities of merchants exist, who carry on the best traditions of British commerce and do their best to further British trade in those parts of the world. They act as agents of Lloyds, represent shipping firms, and are well known as being willing to afford any assistance they can to any Englishman who happens to be there. They certainly carry out very thoroughly the Apostolic injunction to the Episcopal Bench as to hospitality. It is quite evident that no community of this kind can continue from generation to generation as British subjects without taking some little trouble, and therefore it was the habit, when the second or third generation was reached, for any lady who was expecting an addition to the family to return to England in order that the child should be born within the King's allegiance. The same thing is carried out by Americans who go to the United States in order that their children shall be born American citizens.

This was the state of affairs up to the outbreak of the great war. Since then three Acts of Parliament have been passed which have altered the position of children born abroad. The first Act was passed in the year 1914, and I think it bears some evidence of the state of nervousness which naturally existed at that time. It was sought to limit as much as possible the right to be a British subject, because it was rightly supposed that if it were made too easy many people who were undesirable would take the opportunity of becoming so in order to act as spies and get information for our enemies. Therefore, by that Act tin-right to British citizenship was limited to the first generation of children born abroad of British parents. In 1918 this was improved as far as they are concerned, because there is a special clause in that Act which also admits as British subjects the children beyond the first generation born abroad of British subjects who were serving the Crown.

That was an improvement, but in 1922, after the war was over, another Act was passed which altogether altered the particular clause which has reference to this matter. The clause in the Act of 1914 was done away with and another substituted. It is a very complicated clause and I have had great difficulty in understanding it. But the special paragraph which refers to the subject I am now trying to bring before your Lordships is paragraph (b) of subsection (1) of Section 1,and it has been interpreted by the Home Office as giving British nationality in certain cases to children of the third generation of British subjects born abroad. It is to a certain extent retrospective in its action. As I have said I have found great difficulty in understanding the exact meaning of this paragraph, but I have a letter here on the subject referring to a communication from the Home Office to the Secretary of the British Chamber of Commerce in Lisbon, and with the permission of the House I will read it.

It is as follows:— Since I last wrote to you I have received through the local British Chamber of Commerce a copy of a letter addressed to the Association of British Chambers of Commerce by the Home Office, and signed by John Pedder. In its communication the Home Office state that children of the third generation (a) if born before August 4, 1922, can only benefit by the new Act provided they are not already too old for their birth to be registered within one year, or (b) in special circumstances two years after birth. For example, the birth of a child born October 1, 1921, must be registered before October 1, 1922, or, in special circumstances, with the consent of the Secretary of State, October 1, 1923. By that letter your Lordships will see that the Act is retrospective, and although it was passed in August, 1922, in certain circumstances a child born in 1921 might have the advantage of it. I am anxious to urge that the Act should be made still more retrospective, owing to the peculiar and in some way unique conditions caused by the war, and that children born between August, 1914, and the date of the passing of the Act should be eligible to become natural-born British subjects.

I should like to give the House a concrete case of hardship. It is only one out of a great many, but an ounce of fact, where a wrong has to be remedied, is worth a ton of theoretical pleading. May I add ex uno disce omnes? I am allowed to give the full names and particulars of the people concerned in this case. Mr. Herbert Rawes is a member of a British firm which has been established in Portugal for three generations. His firm carry on business as shipping agents, they are agents of Lloyds and representatives of the Royal Mail Steamship Company, and are also an information bureau for bankers. Both Mr. and Mrs. Rawes are British subjects, as were their parents and grandparents. In fact, there is not one single drop of Portuguese blood in their veins. Mrs. Rawes has two children, born before the war, and in both cases the birth took place in England, as the parents were anxious that the children should be born within the King's allegiance.

When the war broke out, Mr. Rawes wished to join the Array, though he was beyond military ago, but his offer was refused, and he was told that he would be doing far better work by remaining where he was. His office was taken over as our Intelligence Department by the British Government, and remained so during the whole of the war. Let me point out that if his offer had been accepted, under the Act of 1918 any child of his born during the war would have been a British subject, and this would have been the case if, instead of being a natural-born Englishman himself, he had been a naturalised Englishman. It is a curious paradox that if a German who had become a naturalised Englishman had a child born at any time, that child would be a British subject, although the child of this natural-born Englishman was not. I may mention that three of Mr. Rawes's brothers 6erved in the war and one of them was killed.

Mr. Rawes continued in his office, and at the end of 1916 Mrs. Rawes applied to be allowed to return to England by steamer for the birth of a child which was shortly expected. The Consul refused to visé her passport on the ground that women were not allowed to travel to England by sea, on account of the danger from submarines. I am not complaining that the Government took that course. It was a natural thing to do, but I wish to point out that it was not the fault of Mr. Rawes that he was not in the service of the Crown, nor was it the fault of Mrs. Rawes that her child was not born in England. It is true that she might have attempted to travel to England by land, but a journey under war conditions across Portugal, Spain and France in winter was not desirable for a lady in a delicate state of health. Curiously enough, in another case which occurred at Lisbon about the same time, a lady who had applied to a member of His Majesty's Government whom she knew personally was recommended by him under the circumstances to go to Gibraltar. She did go to Gibraltar. She motored there, but as the result of the state of the Portuguese and Spanish roads it was a narrow escape that the child was not born a subject of His Most Catholic Majesty the King of Spain, instead of being a subject of our Gracious Sovereign.

As the result of Mrs. Rawes not being able to go to England, a boy was born at Lisbon on January 27, 1917. As the British Consul refused to register him as a British subject, he has had to be registered as a Portuguese citizen, and as such he will be liable to conscription when he grows up. With the greatest regard for our oldest Ally, I do not think that there is any Englishman who would not rather continue an Englishman than be a Portuguese. It may be said that this difficulty can be surmounted by naturalisation, but I do not think that this is at all the same thing. I know that the Secretary of State has special powers, under subsection (2) of Section (5) of the principal Act, I think, to dispense with the elaborate conditions which in ordinary cases govern the grant of a certificate of naturalisation, and Clause 3 states that a naturalised subject shall have to all intents and purposes the status of a natural-born British subject. But is this the case?

I hope the noble Earl who replies will be able to answer these questions. In the first place, is it a fact that in the case of a naturalised British subject, if a passport is granted to him, there is a rubber stamp on that passport stating that he is not a natural-born British subject but a naturalised subject? The second question that I should like to ask is one about which there seems to be some difference of opinion. I have had counsel's opinion upon the subject in one way, and I have heard unofficially that the Government has information of an opposite nature. If the child to whom I have referred were to grow up, and were to be a director or a partner in a company formed since the Companies Act was passed, providing that the names of the directors are to appear on every sheet of paper belonging to that company, I am informed—I do not know if my information is correct—that in the case of this naturalised child it would have to be stated that he was originally of Portuguese nationality. If such is the case—and I believe I am rightly informed when I say that it is—can anyone argue that a naturalised person is in the same position as a natural-born subject, and that any Englishman would be satisfied with that position for his child if he could obtain that of a natural-born subject.

All this might be avoided if the Act of 1922 were made a little more retrospective than it actually is. I know that there is always an objection to retrospective legislation, but this Act, as I have already pointed out, is already retrospective so far as two years are concerned. Although it was passed in 1922, it applies to children born as aliens in 1920, and allows them to become natural-born British subjects. I think I have shown that a real grievance exists, and the fact, which I think I have made clear, that naturalisation, even if granted under subsection (2) of Clause 4 (which does away with the necessity of five years residence, and the other particulars which are required in ordinary cases), would not remedy the position, leads me to appeal to His Majesty's Government to say whether they cannot introduce an amending Act to remedy this difficulty and to make the Act retrospective up to the date of the commencement of the war; or, if they cannot do that, whether they would give facilities for a Bill of that nature to be passed if it were unopposed.

I believe that it is impossible for Mr. Rawes to adopt the alternative of having a Private Bill passed. I am told that a Private Bill dealing with a matter of blood can be initiated only after the consent of the Sovereign has been signified, and, unless the present Home Secretary is of a different opinion from that which was held by the Home Secretary in the late Government, it is more than likely that such permission would not be granted. In these circumstances I really think that I have made out a case of very grievous hardship, and I am not without hopes that I may receive a favourable reply as to the action which will be taken or supported by His Majesty's Government. I beg to ask the Question and to move for Papers.


My Lords, I should like to support the Motion made by my noble friend. He has already, I think, covered the ground, and therefore I will say what I wish to say in the fewest possible words, but warmly do I desire to support the Motion, because I happen to know how very strongly this disability is felt in many countries all over the world, by British residents affected by it. My noble friend referred to the particular instance of the Rawes family in Lisbon. There are many other cases of the same character, but this is a typical case of a family which for generations has traded abroad and maintained at the highest point the integrity of England in that foreign country—a family respected by the people among which it has lived, and preserving a passionate devotion for the old country, and during the war, like many other families, suffering casualties and losses.

There are many families like them and I know from personal experience of many cases in South America, from whence I have had formal representations made to me on the subject. There are many families affected by this disability, and I believe that from time to time their petitions on the subject have been before the British Government. I know that at any rate the British Chambers of Commerce in all parts of South America have from time to time petitioned the Foreign Office "That the children of a British father and of a mother of British nationality prior to marriage, wherever born, shall not be excluded from British nationality under the British Nationality and Status of Aliens Act, 1914." I do not wish to weary your Lordships, for the case has already been so amply covered, but I should like to say that I do believe that the disability which these people feel, and feel very keenly, is worthy of the attention of Parliament. They are not in a position, like people here, to make their voices heard in another place by getting Questions asked, or by heckling candidates for Parliament. Therefore I think they are all the more deserving of consideration, as fellow-countrymen who are upholding the honour of the country, and who desire to maintain their connection with this country in the fullest possible way, and which they believe they are not able to do. In the circumstances, I hope that the Government will be able to deal with the matter by legislation, if legislation is required.


My Lords, there is a saying that hard cases make bad law, but I think all of you here this evening will be agreed that the case cited is indeed a very hard case. Before touching upon the points particularly mentioned in the Question, I should like, if your Lordships will permit me, to go very briefly over the history of our naturalisation laws. From 1792 to 1914 the law remained unchanged. Under it the right of British nationality was given to the grandchildren, i.e. the second generation, of parents living abroad, the children having been horn abroad. At the beginning of the war, as the noble Lord has already said, in 1914, a change was made. This change was not made without consideration. It followed the recommendations of the Royal Commission of 1869, and the Departmental Committee of 1901. It did away with the rights which were allowed to the second generation, and this on two main grounds.

The first ground was that as generation after generation lived out of the country gradually the emotional bond which bound them to the Mother-Country was weakened. The second reason was that the second generation brought in a question of dual nationality—a question which frequently caused very great trouble. However, there was very much greater opposition to this Act than was anticipated, and in 1922, as the noble Lord has already said, the right of the grandchildren of British parents to British nationality was restored, and, further, they were given a retrospective right of registering their children that had been born between the passing of the Act of 1914 and the Act of 1922. It went further, as the noble Lord has already said, and gave an entirely new right—a right to the third generation of children to be registered as British subjects. But let me point out that this was an entirely new right, and that it is completely contrary to the traditions of British law to make these new rights retrospective.

The noble Lord referred to a letter of Sir John Pedder which he says makes out that this clause was already retrospective, but that is not so. Under this clause parents were given a year in which to register their children, and in some oases two years, and, of course, if a child had been born nine months before the passing of the Act, then the parent had three months in which to register, and that was under the Act and under no retrospective power at all. Thus it is that a person born before 1922 cannot avail himself of the Act passed in 1922. He can, as the noble Lord said, come to England to be educated, and is not debarred by any of the normal restrictions in obtaining a naturalisation certificate.

Now I come to the two questions put to me by the noble Lord. First with regard to passports. A naturalised British subject will always have to have that fact noted on his passport. But I think the second point is probably the more important, and that is with regard to his position under the Companies Act. I am asked whether it is necessary, if he becomes a director of a company, that the fact of his not being British-born is always to be put against him. That is not so. If he is a director of a company, according to the information at my disposal, under the Companies Act his name is put down as a director of the company and no condition has to be made. It is possible that the company itself may have some regulation, but under the Companies Act that is perfectly clear.


There is only one other point, and I do not know whether the noble Earl can answer it. It is whether he thinks it is possible that under the altered conditions—and he himself acknowledges there are cases of great hardship—it would be likely that permission would be given for a Private Bill to be passed. The consent of the Sovereign is necessary for that. Of course, the noble Earl cannot say that positively.


I omitted a point, and I can answer that definitely. His Majesty's Government can hold out no hope that facilities will be given for the passage of such a Bill, as this form of naturalisation has long fallen into disuse.


My Lords, the real sting is to have it stamped on the passport that a person is not of British nationality. The children born abroad of British parents seem to have a taint put upon them which they must feel as they grow up. I do not suppose they would feel it if they were of the age of the noble Earl, but as they grow up and wish to take part in business and travel about, it is a disagreeable thing which they have to face all their lives. Surely that might be altered. Is there any object in subjecting those who are really British subjects to this stigma, and is there no means possible by which the Government can meet this objection? These people are loyal, they support the Empire in far distant lands, and they are proud to be British subjects, and therefore I think the Government might consider it, and try to get over the difficulties as they have done in many cases lately.


My Lords, the noble Earl no doubt knows that this question of nationality is both a technical and a difficult one. It is founded partly on what is called jus soli and partly on jus sanguinis, in the one case nationality being dependent on the place where a person is born and in the other the principle being introduced of nationality through the father and mother. So far as the Act of 1922 is concerned I think the only people who could possibly suffer are a small number of the third generation. No doubt there are a certain number who might suffer under the particular conditions of the Act of 1922. I agree that under the Act of 1914, instead of nationals, they become naturalised, and there are certain difficulties attached to that position, but I think the cases involved must be very few indeed. I do not think it will be expected that there will be any special legislation, and, as the noble Earl has said, special naturalisation Acts have really gone out of operation altogether.


My Lords, I thank the noble Earl for the reply he has given, and I am very glad that he agrees with me that the case I have brought forward is an extremely hard one. He pointed out that the Act of 1922 was passed because there was such strong-opposition to the Act of 1014 that it was found necessary to amend it in the interests of the very people for whom I speak. Therefore, I am not without hope that further agitation on the subject may secure even greater benefits to those people who have not lessened their national ties as the years go on, but, on the contrary, have been most anxious to do their best to retain them by sending their children home to be educated, with the feelings and perhaps even the prejudices of which we, as islanders, are rather proud. The Lord President of the Council did not say very much on the subject suggested by the noble Earl, Lord Mayo—namely the possibility of omitting the stamp from the passports. If it is a question of its being necessary by law that the stamp should be put on the passport, I understand his difficulty, but if it is merely a matter arranged by the Foreign Office for their own convenience, I think the matter should he reconsidered. Perhaps I might have an assurance from the Government that the matter will be looked into.


I can certainly give an assurance that the matter will be looked into, having regard to what the noble Lord has said; but, as to the effect of that looking into. I am afraid I can give no assurance.

House adjourned at twenty-five minutes past seven o'clock.