HL Deb 25 July 1938 vol 110 cc1127-50

Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time. With your Lordships' permission, I should like to make one or two preliminary observations before dealing with the merits of the Bill. The first is that in what I say this afternoon I claim to be speaking on behalf of some forty women's societies in the United Kingdom and about 120 women's societies in the Dominions, all of which are composed of representative and responsible women. I may add that the Bill also had the support last week of the International Council of Women which met in Edinburgh and which represented thirty-one nations. The second observation of a preliminary character that I desire to make is this. I beg your Lordships not to regard the comparative brevity with which I hope to address the House as commensurate with the importance of this subject. If I were to attempt to deal fully with all the constitutional problems which are involved, and with the legislation and attempted legislation which has taken place with regard to the nationality of married women, or were I even to recite the various conventions and conferences, national, international, and Imperial which have been held regarding this matter, then I should make an unpardonable inroad on the time of your Lordships' House. All I can hope to do, and all I propose to do, is to give your Lordships some short account in, so to speak, tabloid form, of these matters, and then to present the argument for the Bill as shortly and succinctly and, I hope, fairly and temperately as I can. The last preliminary observation I desire to make is that I regret that the form of the Bill is somewhat obscure, in fact to a lay mind, I should think, almost unintelligible; but I have been advised that in order that this measure should fit in with what I might call the jigsaw puzzle of the series of Statutes which deal with the nationality of married women the Bill had to take this particular form.

The Bill deals, as I say, with the thorny question of the nationality of married women. To-day, as your Lordships are aware, an alien woman, on marrying a British man, ipso facto becomes herself a British subject. On the other hand a British woman who marries an alien loses her British nationality if, by reason of her marriage, she acquires the nationality of her husband. In other words, the question of whether or not a British woman who marries an alien loses her nationality depends on the law of the State of which her husband is a national. The principal purpose of this Bill is to restore to the British married woman the right to retain her nationality when she marries an alien, and to restore the corresponding right to an alien woman who marries a British subject.

There are four propositions which, with your Lordships' permission, I should like to submit and, I hope, to establish, because they appear to me to be of the first importance in connection with this subject. The first is of this character. I said a few moments ago that this Bill proposes to restore the right of a British woman who marries an alien to retain her nationality and to restore the right to an alien woman who marries a British subject to retain her nationality. "Restore" is tile right word, for it cannot be too strongly emphasized that up till comparatively recently, by the Common Law of England, the marriage of an alien woman to a British man, or of a British woman to an alien, left the question of nationality entirely unaffected—that is to say, if a British woman married an alien she remained British, and if an alien woman married a British subject she remained an alien. It was not until the year 1844, by virtue of a Statute passed in that year, that an alien woman on marrying a British subject became herself a British subject. It was not until an Act passed in 1870 that a British woman, for the first time in British history, on marrying an alien lost her British nationality and herself became an alien. It is very difficult to discover at this time of day precisely why these changes in the law were made. The debates in both Houses do not show clearly or distinctly why this thing was done. The question of the right of an alien to hold property in this country was very much in the forefront in the course of the debates in 1870, but, on the other hand, very little importance seems to have been attached at that date to the nationality of a British woman who married an alien. Incidentally, I may add that the passport system as we know it was not then in use. I desire, therefore, as my first proposition to stress that this Bill sets out not to confer a new right, but to restore an old right.

The second proposition is this. The Bill seeks to equalise the position of the sexes in the eyes of the law. To-day a natural-born British man cannot lose his nationality except by his express and deliberate choice—in other words, unless he applies for, and is admitted to, naturalisation in a foreign country. Further, a British woman, until her marriage, enjoys the same right as a British male subject. On the other hand, a British woman who marries an alien forfeits her British nationality and all the privileges attached to it, subject to the one condition which I stated a few moments ago. She is refused a British passport, and she loses her right to vote in municipal or Parliamentary elections, or to be elected to a municipal or Parliamentary body. When she is abroad she is refused the protection of the British Government, and when she comes home and seeks for a post in this country she is very often brought under the ban which prevents the employment of aliens here. Even though she has never left this country, and cannot speak a word of the language of her alien husband's country, she is nevertheless doomed to perpetual alienage. There are other disabilities which I could recount, but I do not wish to delay your Lordships' House by doing so. I can sum it up in a sentence by saying that the British woman married to art alien is classed with minors and lunatics and becomes a mere chattel in the household. I venture to think that such a doctrine to-day is repugnant to all enlightened and unprejudiced minds. I do not want to weary your Lordships by reciting the painful and harsh cases which have come to one's knowledge in this connection. Within the last few weeks I have had under my personal observation several cases of intolerable indignity, of hardship, and indeed tragedy, inflicted upon British married women who have married aliens, by reason of the operation of this law. These cases are no doubt comparatively limited in their number. I venture to think that, had they been more numerous, the British women of to-day would not have had so long to wait as they have for the remedy which they seek.

So much for the position of a British man who marries a foreign woman. Now take the case of a foreigner who marries a British woman. Before a foreigner is admitted to British nationality he must take the Oath of Allegiance, and he must fulfil certain other specified conditions. That also applies to an unmarried foreign woman. But in the case of a foreign woman who marries a British subject she has British nationality thrust upon her whether she wishes it or not, and whatever her loyalties may be to the country of her origin. As we know, the present law, moreover, enables women to become British subjects who would not otherwise be allowed to remain in this country. These doctrines, and the practices which have followed upon them, humbly appear to me to be obnoxious, not only to the spirit of the age, but to the spirit of justice as well.

It is not surprising in those circumstances to find that the proposals which are contained in this measure have had the unqualified and authoritative support of His Majesty's Government in times which are quite recent. If your Lordships will bear with me just for a few moments, I want to document that proposition if I can. On April 15, 1929, the then Prime Minister, Mr. Ramsay MacDonald, on the eve of a General Election, made the following statement to a deputation which he received from women's societies of the United Kingdom. He said he agreed with the following proposal—namely: A British woman who marries an alien shall not automatically lose her nationality. A foreign woman who marries a British sub- ject shall not have British nationality imposed upon her unless she applies to be admitted as a British subject; and a married woman shall no longer be classified in the nationality laws with minors and lunatics, as a person under a disability, but shall be deemed competent to apply for and be admitted to British nationality in her own right. That was the Prime Minister's enunciation in 1929 of the policy of His Majesty's Government of the day.

Again, in 1930, on the eve of the Codification Conference which was summoned by the League of Nations, and which took place at The Hague, the Foreign Secretary in this country, in a letter addressed to the Six Point Group, stated: His Majesty's Government in the United Kingdom are in principle in favour of the policy with regard to the nationality of married women with which Mr. Ramsay MacDonald expressed his agreement on the occasion of the deputation of women's societies received by him in April, 1929, and that the delegation of the United Kingdom be instructed to endeavour to obtain the adoption of this policy by the Conference. Again, if I might trouble your Lordships with another short quotation, in 1930, during the Second Reading debate on a similar Bill to this in another place, the Home Secretary—I have already quoted the Prime Minister, and the Foreign Secretary, and we now have the Home Secretary—speaking for the Government of the day, said: I would like to express in the most emphatic terms the approval of the Government of the principle embodied in this Bill. Then he added: If a Second Reading is given to this Bill, I shall regard it as a demonstration of a principle which is acceptable to all. And yet again—and this is a most important episode in the history of the matter—the first National Government, at the Assembly of the League of Nations, held at Geneva in 1931, through the mouth of their delegate, Dame Edith Lyttleton, made the following declaration of policy. It is only a sentence, but it is a most important sentence: The British Government considers that it is right that all disabilities of married women in matters of nationality should be removed, and that, in so far as nationality is concerned, a married woman should be in the same position as a man, married or unmarried, or any single woman. And in 1933—and this is my last quotation—in the House of Commons during a debate on the Nationality and Status of Aliens Bill of that year, this declaration which I have just quoted was read and acknowledged by the Home Secretary to embody the policy of His Majesty's Government. This policy, if I may respectfully say so, is a just and right policy, but it is entirely out of accord with the present laws of our country. It is to be noted also that the policy thus enunciated so clearly and authoritatively by successive representatives of the Government of the day has never been renounced or repudiated or modified in any way by any subsequent Government. Accordingly, we have had any amount of sympathy, but very little or no action.

My last point in this connection is to indicate to your Lordships what has happened in this matter of nationality in other countries. During the last twenty years great progress has been made in nearly every other country in the extension of nationality rights to married women. In 1918 the rule in most of the European countries and in most of the North American States was that the nationality of a woman followed the nationality of her husband, but that was never the law in the Southern States of America, or at least in the greater number of them, where the rule always has been that the national status of a woman remains unaffected by her marriage. Now Russia, in 1918, gave married women the same nationality rights as men. The United States of America, in 1922, passed similar legislation. Since 1929 China has allowed her woman nationals to retain their nationality on marriage with aliens. That means that States in whose territories are comprised half the population of the world permit a married woman to retain her nationality on marriage with a foreigner. Belgium, Rumania, Yugoslavia, Turkey, Albania and Cuba have all conferred similar rights on their nationals, and, I may add, with certain and no doubt important exceptions, Sweden. Denmark, Iceland, Finland and France have conferred similar rights upon their woman nationals. Accordingly, this country, I venture to say, lags far behind all these other countries which I have named in refusing nationality rights in her own person to a married woman, and lags far behind, I would venture to add, in the pursuit of a policy of equality and justice.

All this being so, I feel entitled to ask: What reasonable objections can be taken to the proposals which are embodied in this measure? The first, which I have heard urged, is that there should be only one nationality in one family. Having regard to the rights of men today, this argument hardly seems to me to be tenable. In essence it involves and postulates that the woman should be a subordinate partner in the marriage and should be the mere chattel of her husband—a doctrine which would surely not find favour to-day. The second objection taken is that it would be troublesome to accord protection abroad to the British-borne wife of an alien husband. I ask respectfully: Why should women be denied that particular privilege solely on the ground of their sex? A British man and his alien wife are given their passports and have at least that measure of protection afforded to them. Argentina gives to her women subjects abroad—I am quoting—"succour and aid from the representatives of the Republic." Is it really to be suggested that this country should lag behind the law and the practice of Argentina?

But, my Lords, I venture to think that the chief line of opposition to-day—and I shall not be surprised if I hear it in a few minutes from the Front Bench—will be based upon a plea for uniformity of nationality within tie British Empire. In other words, it is what we lawyers would term a dilatory plea and not a plea upon the merits. That was made quite plain in the debate which took place in your Lordships' House in 1933 by Viscount Sankey, the then Lord Chancellor, when he said: The reasons which prevent the Government from taking this matter up at the present time"— that is the subject of the present Bill— are not reasons connected with the intrinsic advantages or disadvantages of the proposal. They are quite different reasons, based on the Imperial character of our nationality law, and on the impracticability, at the present time, of securing agreement on other points than those dealt with in this Bill. Then the noble Viscount, Lord Sankey, added in words which are, I venture, to think, significant to-day: I certainly hope to sec the day, at no distant time, when all these grievances"— that is, the grievances which this measure seeks to remove— will be removed. We are still waiting for the arrival of that day. The object of the present Bill, as I have indicated, is to place both sexes on the same footing in the eye of the law, and also to place the married woman in the same position in this regard as the unmarried woman.

May I with your Lordships' permission, examine just for a moment a little more closely the argument which the noble Viscount, Lord Sankey, used in urging upon the House the acceptance of the Bill which was then promoted by His Majesty's Government? The argument is based on two things and two only. It is based, firstly, on the uniformity of nationality. It is based, secondly, on the importance of obtaining Imperial agreement as a condition precedent to this reform. With regard to the uniformity of nationality, that argument seems in my humble view to be no longer acceptable. If I am not misinformed, uniformity of nationality throughout the Empire no longer exists. There is nothing new in having British nationality recognised in one part of the Empire and not recognised in another part of the Empire. By the adoption of new legislation in New Zealand and Australia, rights of British nationality are being conferred on many women who are still aliens in other parts of the Empire. In short, it is eminently arguable that to-day uniformity has ceased to be a characteristic of British nationality.

Then, with regard to the consent of the Dominions, the second ground upon which Lord Sankey based his argument, I venture to say that it is anomalous and worse that this reform, approved and applauded by successive British Governments in the past time and again, should be held up until the last and most reactionary Dominion has come into line. It does seem to me unmaintainable that one Dominion of the British Empire should claim the right to veto the progress in this matter of all the other parts of the British Empire. I do not know in the least which Dominion or what Dominions is or are to-day holding up this reform. Information on that topic has hitherto been refused us. It was refused in another place during the debate on nationality which took place in 1933. What we do know is that Canada, Australia, New Zealand and India favour this reform. Surely justice to women should not be subservient to a uniformity which is based on injustice. In that connection I would respectfully ask whether there was consultation with the Dominions when the Acts of 1844 and 1870 were passed—Acts which revolutionised the whole question of nationality.

But, assuming that I am wrong in all that I have said up to now, I still think that I am entitled to ask the Government, as I most respectfully do, what action they propose to take in order to give effect to a reform which in principle they in the past have applauded and described as just and right. Will the Government not take us into their confidence and tell us which Dominion or Dominions are in the meantime holding up this reform? That information, has, up till now, been denied this country. Do the Government, I respectfully ask, propose to sit with folded hands and let events drift, or will they not once again summon an Imperial Conference, put nationality in the forefront of the agenda, announce their policy, which has always been to reform the law in the direction which I have mentioned, and endeavour by argument to persuade the dissenting Dominions if there be such—and I assume there are—into line? In other words, will the Government not give a lead in this matter? If they do, for my own part I have little doubt that we should not have long to wait for the reform which is desired. Surely in a matter which involves a conflict of vital principle such as this it is better to be in the vanguard than the rearguard! I cannot imagine, if I may respectfully say so, a more eloquent gesture on the part of His Majesty's Government than by assenting to the Second Reading of this Bill, even if it had added to it a suspensory clause, to the effect that it should not come into effective operation until the Dominions came into line. At any rate, I do beg that a lead should be taken by the Government in this matter to give effect to the policy which they have long approved and indeed applauded.

I come now for a moment to refer to the Bill itself and I do not propose to detain your Lordships by going through the clauses. Those of your Lordships who have looked at the Bill will see that it is prefaced by a Memorandum, which, it seems to me, fully explains the contents of the measure, in so far as it is necessary to do so on Second Reading, and all other points can be discussed quite properly at the Committee stage.

I apologise to your Lordships for having detained the House so long in dealing with this measure. My only excuse must be the supreme importance which I conceive to be attached to it. In conclusion I venture without hesitation to submit for acceptance three propositions. The first is that to enjoy nationality in one's own person is a fundamental political right. The second is that nationality should not be imposed upon, nor taken away from, any adult citizen of either sex without the express consent of that person. The third is that to await, without effort to secure it, the concurrence of the Dominions in this matter would be a spineless, a pusillanimous and a defeatist policy, and I cannot for a moment think that His Majesty's Government would adopt it. I venture to think that these propositions are fully documented and unimpeachable. I earnestly ask the Government to reconsider their passive attitude in this vital matter and to take active steps to bring about a reform which all their Ministers who have addressed their minds to this matter in the past have approved and applauded, and which I venture to think commends itself to the good sense and the sense of fair play of every right-thinking man and woman. I beg to move.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.—(Lord Alness.)


My Lords, for a moment or two I want to say a word on this very important measure on behalf of the Opposition. We support the general principles of this measure, and we hope very much that this House will give a Second Reading to the Bill. I personally regret very much that the noble Lord who has introduced the Bill has done it so very late in the Session, because of course it makes it, apparently, impossible that it can in fact get through this Session. I hope, however, that I may be mistaken in that view, and that whoever speaks for the Government will be able to give us an indication in that regard. But in any case I think to introduce a Bill of this importance at this very late stage, two or three days before the Recess, might conceivably make it appear that the Bill was not considered of that importance which I think it really possesses. In my opinion the Bill is of so great an importance that it is regrettable that it has come in so late.

The noble Lord mentioned particularly in his speech the question of the vetoing of legislation by the Dominions. I seem to remember that when we were debating in this House the Statute of Westminster in 1931 or 1932, it appeared to be the case that the Dominions might or might not adopt legislation introduced into this Parliament, either adopting it as introduced here, or, as in the case of the Union of South Africa, embodying such legislative proposals in their own law because of their non-recognition of any laws passed by the British Parliament in this country. I think it would be interesting if we could have from the representative of the Government just a word of what is the actual position with regard to the Dominions in this matter. If, of course, the position is as the noble Lord appeared to suggest: that any one Dominion can in fact veto legislation in the British Parliament here, that position would seem to be intolerable and, I should think, entirely unexpected. It would at least be interesting to know how the position stands.

The noble Lord said that he was only going to make a tabloid speech. I think it was a very digestible tabloid, if I may venture to say so, because he did give a most interesting and valuable historical survey of the position that we can now have on record. In particular he referred to some of the older debates on this subject of many years ago in both Houses, and suggested that no importance was at that time given to the nationality of British women who married foreigners—that it did not appear to be considered. It is, of course, conceivable that it was felt that so few British women would ever take such a lamentable step as to marry some foreigner that the number of cases was very small. But at least we must remember that it is almost normal in such few Royal families as remain in the world for foreign marriages to take place, and therefore we cannot dismiss as of negligible importance the marriages taking place between foreigners. In consequence it is of vital importance that the law should be put upon a just basis in connection with this matter.

The noble Lord suggested that this was in a way a reversion to the question of the private property in women, the chattel status of women. Of course I am bound to say it does appear in some way to follow that line of thought. I think, however, that men would desire to divest themselves of this responsibility for frequently undesirable or risky property over which they have little or no control, and that position in law has already been recognised by such legislative proposals as the Married Women's Property Act and other matters which have been dealt with in the British Parliament. In the United States of America a woman, of course, is considered a human being and can retain her American citizenship. She can also assume the nationality of the foreigner she marries, and the curious case arises that a number of American women who have married foreigners have two passports—a most useful situation in case of certain activities and very valuable to American women, but, as far as I know, not existing in the case of the women of any other nationality. In Britain the one case, apparently, as far as I know, in which British women do not assume the nationality of their husband is when that husband has no nationality. The noble Earl, the Leader of the House, does laugh at that, and yet there are a considerable number of people in that position to-day.


I was only laughing at the suggestion that she should adopt a nationality which does not exist.


The noble Earl explains his amusement, and I join with him in being amused. At the same time, I am not unaware of the tragedy of women who might even desire to assume a nationality did it exist. For example, there are a number of persons, such as Russian refugees, who are living in this country who hold only Nansen passports and therefore have no nationality. They are Stateless persons, and if a British woman marries one of these persons she does in fact retain her British nationality. That has been a very great difficulty in other countries. In France, for instance, there are a considerable number of cases of Stateless persons who are living illegally. When they many, the woman dare not announce her marriage, and any children born cannot be French citizens, as they would be normally, because were the child registered the legal position of the refugee would become apparent and he would be liable to be removed from the country under the position of the law which existed before the Décret de Loi of May 2 this year, which has to some extent regularised this position. But clearly the anomaly of certain cases in which a woman may retain British nationality on marrying an alien—if a Stateless person can be considered to be an alien in this connection—is a position which I think might be, in the interests of uniformity, cleared up.

We then have the position of a British woman who marries a foreigner and takes on his nationality and then is divorced, and I understand there are differing laws in different countries as to the unhappy position in which that woman finds herself. She cannot then retain the nationality of the country in which she finds herself, and as far as I understand the matter, she has a difficulty in returning to a British nationality. I hope I am wrong in that, but that is as I understand it. This peculiar position of obtaining nationality by marriage has led to a number of very curious anomalies. Take, for instance, the position in Palestine. In Palestine, it is interesting to note, there is the highest proportion of divorces in any country in the world, because a number of persons marry entirely to obtain nationality in that country, and they marry as a sort of arrangement. There are, I think, professional husbands there and, roughly speaking, 40 per cent. of all the people married are divorced within a year. They are married merely in order to obtain citizenship. This is a most undesirable state of affairs, and one which would be dealt with under the clauses of the present Bill.

A case which is nearer home, and which will be well within the minds of many of your Lordships, is the case of the Royal Institute of International Affairs. There a British woman who may have been a prominent and valuable member of Chatham House for many years marries a foreigner, and loses her right to remain a member. She is turned out. On the other hand there may be, from a British nationality point of view, quite undesirable people who marry people of British nationality, and then can become members of Chatham House, attend all its meetings, and even have access—I do not say it is necessarily abused, but access to information, statements and so on, which are not intended to be public property, but which by this means may become immediately available to other Powers. With the growth of espionage, and of undersirable foreign activities, in this and other countries, and notably in the United States of America, we do find a factor which should not be lost sight of when considering the present state of the law—a factor which would be cured, I think, if the present Bill were to be passed.

In this connection let me remind your Lordships of the new racial theories which are spreading over the world—the theory of retaining the nationality of a man's race when living in other countries. For instance, the Sudeten Germans in Czechoslovakia. There may be a Department of State in Germany for the express purpose of looking after the interests of these Germans living in other countries, and that clearly brings about a state of some difficulty, owing to the divided loyalty in the case of a German woman who marries a British subject, and who has the pull of divided loyalty towards her previous German citizenship and towards her present British citizenship. It would be, I think, desirable to remove that danger and difficulty, which is felt very greatly in some of the mandated territories, such as, for instance, the ex-German South West Africa, in which the present state of the law renders the position difficult if not dangerous. For these reasons, as well as for the reasons adduced by the noble and learned Lord who introduced the Bill, I very much hope that it will be taken as a very serious measure, and that your Lordships will give it a Second Reading, although that may be only a preliminary to its subsequent reintroduction at an early date, and that the Bill will then pass into law.


My Lords, I hope you will pardon me if I detain you for a few moments on a subject with which I had considerable connection during the time I spent in another place. I agree that it is unfortunate that this Bill comes on so late in the Session, although that may be necessary from the point of view of the promoters. I am sorry that we shall not have the advantage of any observations from the Bench directly opposite me. The noble Viscount, Lord Samuel, had intended to speak, but owing to the alteration in date he is unable to do so to-day, having had to leave for some other public engagement. I think we are very grateful to Lord Alness for bringing forward this proposal on this occasion. I can assure your Lordships that there are thousands of women, I might say hundreds of thousands, who will be equally grateful, for although the effect of this measure will be comparatively small, it proceeds upon a principle to which women all over the world attach the greatest importance—namely, the principle that marriage shall not ipso facto deprive a woman of any of her rights as a citizen.

The most important right possessed by a British citizen is British nationality. He or she obtains it by being born in territory of the British Empire, and so long as he or she commits no offence no one can deprive him or her of that right. It is as complete as was the Roman citizenship of the Apostle Paul, and it is as valuable to us as that was to him. Yet since 1870 our law says that a woman, who commits no crime except that she marries a foreigner, thereby loses that right. Is there any sufficient reason for an act of such cruel discrimination? Personally, I can see none. I have read all the speeches made in this House and the other place on this matter. It has been discussed in Parliament on three or four occasions in recent years, and I have been able to find only one single instance in which the proposal to give a woman freedom to retain her nationality has been controverted on principle. In another place Sir Gerald Hurst, the Member for the Moss Side division of Manchester, argued at considerable length against it, but the whole of his argument was expressed in one sentence. He said: I think that when a woman marries a man it is best for them both that she should take his nationality. That was the reason why the change was made in 1870. Sir Gerald was probably right in assigning this origin to the Act of 1870; but things have moved since then.

At that time a woman's property, on marriage, passed to her husband. In the absence of a settlement she lost control altogether over her own affairs. Moreover, in 1870, women had no political power, and so far as I have been able to learn no woman was consulted when a committee of lawyers proposed this immense alteration in the position of women. It was regarded by them as merely another step in the normal process of subjection to man, to which all women were expected to submit themselves. During the next forty years, however, these notions were rapidly dissipated, and in 1914, when Mr. Harcourt brought forward his British Nationality Bill, in which it was proposed to re-enact the provisions of 1870, women's associations on all sides protested, and those of us who represented the interests of women in the other place were able to obtain certain modifications in the Bill, which have proved to be of considerable importance. The Government agreed that if the British husband of a British-born wife ceases to be a British subject his wife may retain her British nationality. Also, if a British woman has married an alien and war breaks out between their respective States the wife may resume her British nationality. Furthermore, provision was made whereby in the case of death or dissolution of marriage a woman who was originally British can regain her former nationality.

These alterations, although not all that we desired, made an important breach in the wall of prejudice round the citadel, for if it be once admitted that a woman, on her husband becoming a foreigner, may remain British, there can surely be no objection to a woman on marrying a foreigner exercising a like option. And since then further breaches have been made in this indefensible structure, although we have not yet obtained full recognition of the simple proposition for which we contend. The leaders in this crusade have attacked, one after the other, the League of Nations, the Conference at The Hague and the Imperial Conference. They have also approached the various Governments and Parliaments of civilised countries and have obtained a very considerable measure of success. In the first place, the Hague Conference was induced to make certain important recommendations which have now been accepted and are embodied in the British Nationality Act of 1933. The most important of these is that which enacts that if a British woman on marrying a foreigner does not by the law of his country attain the nationality of her husband, she can retain her British nationality. This concession has affected many marriages between Canadian women and American men. The one partner is still British; the other still American. No evil results have accrued. The arrangement works well, and, if it does not work, it can easily be remedied by mutual consent of husband and wife. At any rate, it is another nail in the coffin of that antiquated corpse, the Act of 1870. What I may term a home circle with dual nationality has proved to be practicable and unobjectionable from any public point of view, and there is, I submit, no justification for depriving a British woman any longer of her rights, simply because she has committed the crime of falling in love with an American or a Frenchman. In these troublesome days I should have thought that such an Act might be regarded as one of real patriotism.

Secondly, although British Governments have shown themselves very lethargic in relation to this question, public opinion in the rest of the world is alive to its importance. Since it was first raised in connection with the legislation of 1914 the women's organisations in many States have pursued it with intense activity. My noble friend has told the House of a number of countries in which changes of law have been brought about through this agitation. It has even gone so far as to bring about a total change of opinion among Turkish men and women. I believe that we shall find that the Turkish women enjoy this right long before the British women have been given it by Parliament.

Then there is the Imperial Conference. This has already been twice trotted out as the bogey man in the way of any progress. The Government have said, and I am afraid will repeat to-day, that they have tried their best at two Conferences and found it impossible to obtain universal assent to the proposition we have advanced. The Government contend that as the law of naturalisation affects the whole Empire no change should be made unless it is accepted by every member. If this is to be an accepted principle, I fear that the Imperial Conference will prove to be an obstacle in the way of Imperial solidarity rather than a means of common progress: but I submit that this is all the more reason why His Majesty's Government should try by persuasion to alter the views of any dissentient member. I believe that if a serious attempt were made to urge the acceptance of the principle that a woman on marriage should be free to retain her own nationality, the Dominions would not hold out against it.

We have certain opinions already expressed on behalf of the principal Dominions. In 1932, in a letter from the Department of the Interior of the Australian Commonwealth, addressed to Mr. Nairn, he was informed that: in regard to the principle that a woman on marriage shall not lose her nationality or acquire another without her consent the Commonwealth Government is prepared to adopt that principle and to amend its laws accordingly, provided that His Majesty's Government in the United Kingdom and in other self-governing Dominions agree to do likewise. In New Zealand the Prime Minister said that if Britain made this alteration he would be willing to fall into line with her. As to Canada, the Honourable Hugh Guthrie, at the League of Nations Assembly of 1931, said: He believed that his own country would go as far as granting equal rights if the other countries of the world decided to do likewise. The sooner the equality of the sexes was realised, not only in nationality but in regard to all matters of law, the better it would be for the world. With that approval of those three most important Dominions, surely it is not hopeless for our Government, if our Government chose, to throw their weight alongside those opinions which I have just quoted.

It is not unlikely that they would be able to convince the other Dominions who are hesitating upon this question up to the present moment. As a matter of fact, these Dominions are not waiting for any such consent, for we have in Canada, Australia and New Zealand already legislation which has been passed whereby British-born wives of aliens may retain their rights within those Dominions. They have not waited for unanimity, and I suggest that we need not wait either. If we would pass our own laws in that direction within our own territory I believe the time would very shortly come when all the Empire would rally to the same opinion. In any case, even though the Government should decline to do anything to-day, I hope they will not continue to bury their heads in the sand. May I just quote the words of the Report of the last Imperial Conference, to which I presume they put their signature? After referring to the discussion that had taken place on the enactment of legislation to provide that the nationality of married women should not necessarily be dependent on that of their husbands, the Report stated: It was not found possible to arrive at an agreement in favour of any change in the existing law. While, therefore, the Committee was unable to put forward any recommendations, it was assumed that the matter would be the subject of further consideration by, and consultation between, the respective Governments. I think I am entitled to ask the Government most respectfully whether they have already given further consideration to this question, and whether any further consultation is going on.

I would join my request to that which has already been made by my noble friend, that there should be some opportunity given by the Government to those who are interested in this question to lay their views before them in sufficient time to prepare the ground for the next Imperial Conference. If Britain gives a definite lead, I am firmly convinced that this measure can be passed into law. I do not believe that any harm will be done even if we go a step or two in advance of one or two of our Colonies; and, as regards other countries, it is useless to wait for them inasmuch as in most of them the laws which regulate nationality are so radically different from those which prevail with us that they could not in any case be assimilated.

May I add one further observation so as to clear away an objection which is often raised in relation to Bills on this subject? People are wont to ask what provision is being made with regard to the nationality of the children. The answer is "None," because this is not the place for such a provision. The nationality of a child is regulated by laws that differ greatly in the different countries. In some places he takes the nationality of his father, in some that of his mother; in others, notably throughout the British Empire, he does not necessarily follow on that of either his father or his mother, but takes his British nationality from the soil on which he first sees the light. The mere fact that the law we are asking for would enable a British woman to retain her rights as a British subject can have very slight effect upon the ordinary nationality laws of children, and where it does affect them, they could easily be adjusted so as to meet the difficulty. Accordingly I hope I may once more quote the words used by the British Government in 1931, to the effect that the Government consider that in so far as nationality is concerned a married woman shall be in the same position as a man, married or unmarried, or any single woman. That was the announcement made on behalf of the Government which has been quoted by my noble friend, and we beg that they will act on that principle.


My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Alness, who has moved the measure that stands in his name has explained quite fully to your Lordships the purport and intention of the Bill to which he invites the House to accord a Second Reading. Noble Lords will have read the Explanatory Memorandum attached to the Bill, which is a generally accurate statement of the course that British legislation has taken on this question over a period of many years. The Bill, as the noble Lord himself has said, is designed to effect a very considerable alteration in the existing law. I should, in replying on behalf of the Government, like to confine my remarks to a general summary of the course of this subject during the last few years.

Firstly, it is generally admitted that the question of the nationality of married women has been a subject of controversy for a very long time between those people, on the one hand, who consider that a woman's nationality should not be affected by her marriage and those people, on the other hand, who consider that the possession of different nationalities by a husband and a wife is bound to impair the unity of the family. It is, as was stated by noble Lords in the course of this debate, a question which has come before successive Imperial Conferences, and so far we have not been able, nor has it been possible, to secure agreement on proposals for amending the law so as to give women a position more closely approximating to that of men. Your Lordships will know very well that the general principle laid down in the British Nationality and Status of Aliens Act is, as I think was said by the noble Lord, Lord Marley, that the wife of a British subject shall be deemed to be British and the wife of an alien shall be deemed to be an alien; but for many years past there have been various exemptions from the principle. Your Lordships will recall that in 1933 an Act was passed providing that a woman should retain her British nationality on marriage to an alien if she did not, by reason of her marriage, acquire her husband's nationality.

The Imperial Conference of 1930, which discussed this question, placed on record these words which, with the permission of the House, I shall read: The Conference are satisfied that any proposals for the further modification of the principle of the existing law"— that was the law of British nationality— would fail to secure unanimous agreement. It is perfectly true to say that consultations took place during 1931 and 1932 in connection with the proceedings at Geneva, and that the United Kingdom delegate did make a statement on behalf of His Majesty's Government in September, 1931. The purport of that statement has been mentioned to your Lordships, and I need not repeat it; but it was not made clear, as it should be, that it was stated by the Government that we in this country—that is, the Government—were not prepared to take any action in this matter in the absence of agreement between other members of the Empire.

As to my own views, I feel that if you have a large Empire containing many hundreds of millions of people, each owing common allegiance to the Crown, it is absolutely essential and vital that any legislation on a subject like this should be of a general character, agreed by all the members of the Empire, rather than be of a unilateral nature. If I may for one moment refer to the Act passed by your Lordships' House in 1933, the noble Viscount, Lord Sankey, in introducing that measure used these words: However important such legislation might seem to those who are impressed, as many of us are, by the grievance which the existing law is liable to cause, the Imperial considerations are more important still, and legislation changing the principle can only be contemplated when such a change becomes acceptable to the Governments and Legislatures of the other members of the British Commonwealth. This matter was again considered at the Imperial Conference of last year, and it was not found possible to arrive at an agreement in favour of any change in the existing law.

I should impress upon your Lordships that His Majesty's Government attach the very highest importance to the fact that there must be uniform legislation as regards the conditions governing the acquisition and the loss of the common status of British subject. I have not the slightest doubt in my own mind that every sympathy will be felt by noble Lords with those women who desire to retain their British nationality and who are unable to do so under the existing law, but in the circumstances, and due to the circumstances, which I have indicated, we regret that we could not possibly see our way to support this Bill or to offer to my noble friend Lord Alness facilities for the passage of it. As I think was indicated in the Report of the Imperial Conference of 1937, this subject is one for still further consultation between members of the Empire. I hope that my noble friend will observe that, while His Majesty's Government have every sympathy, we cannot depart from the course which I have indicated to your Lordships this evening, and I hope my noble friend will withdraw the Bill which stands in his name.


My Lords, before my noble friend Lord Alness replies, may I in a few sentences express my profound disappointment with the reply which has just fallen from the noble Earl who answered for the Government? He said that it was the conviction of His Majesty's Government that legislation in this matter must be universal and not unilateral. That would be all right if there was common agreement among all the Dominions that that principle should be adhered to, but some Dominions are going ahead and making a change. Why should His Majesty's Government lag behind? After all, this is a simple matter of justice, and it does seem to me very unfortunate indeed that His Majesty's Government should be so slow to accord that justice to people who are in very great need of it. I did not venture to address your Lordships before the noble Earl replied, because the case had been so admirably put from other quarters of the House and there was really nothing more to say. I rise now only in order to express, as I have said, my very profound disappointment with the Government's reply. I would like to add one word of congratulation to my noble friend Lord Alness for his very admirable speech. As the noble Lord opposite said, it seems now that that will be the only good thing we shall get out of this debate. At all events we shall have his statement on record, and it will provide a good reference for anybody who is interested in this subject. I very much regret that the noble Earl has not given a more sympathetic reply.


My Lords, I wish only to say that there is really nothing to be found out by making a further investigation. If the noble Lord who has just spoken really wants to investigate the subject he will find in the Report of the Select Committee which dealt with the matter, and which was ordered to be printed in 1923, not only a most interesting Report but also a good deal of evidence from people who have gone thoroughly into this matter. It will, I think, satisfy him that this is not a simple matter but one of very great difficulty which requires the greatest consideration. It is quite a mistake to think that it is a subject of a simple and easy character, or that the arguments in favour of the measure introduced by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Alness, are really incapable of an answer.


My Lords, perhaps you will permit me a few minutes in which to make one or two observations arising out of the debate that has taken place. In the first place, I want to thank the noble Earl for his very courteous reply, but I associate myself with my noble friend Lord Balfour of Burleigh in expressing my extreme disappointment with the terms of the reply made on behalf of the Government. I was disappointed but not surprised, because the reply followed precisely the lines which I ventured to adumbrate and the arguments contained in it I attempted to meet in advance in the course of my speech. I quite realise, if I may say so, what the noble and learned Lord Chancellor has just said, that this is not a simple subject. I ventured to make that the starting point in my argument and to impress upon your Lordships, not its simplicity, but its complexity. I have endeavoured to familiarise myself with the various historical steps taken in connection with this matter. I have read the Report which the noble and learned Lord, the Lord Chancellor, has referred to, a very interesting and informative document, in which all the members of your Lordships' House voted one way and all the members of another place voted in the contrary sense. I do not want to weary your Lordships by reiterating the arguments which, I am afraid at too great a length, I have already presented to your Lordships' House. I will only say that at this stage of the Session and in the circumstances in which I find myself, I will not venture to put your Lordships to the trouble of a Division. With the leave of the House I will withdraw my Motion for Second Reading.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.

Bill, by leave, withdrawn.