I beg to move, "That the Bill be now read a Second time."
This is a very simple Bill, brought in to meet a very widespread demand. The object of the Bill is to restore and even to extend the conditions under which British nationality can be retained by members of our race living in foreign countries. Up to the year 1730 British nationality was controlled by the common law, and no one who was born outside His Majesty's Dominions could, up to that time, be a British subject. Then a law was passed enabling the son of a man who was a British subject, and was born abroad, to retain British nationality. That was extended in the year 1772 to the grandson of the original British subject when he went abroad. That state of affairs continued until the year 1914. For reasons which it is not necessary to state now, that principle was altered in the year 1914. The continuation of British nationality was restricted to the son of the original British subject, and grandsons of an Englishman or Scotchman who migrated could not by any possibility retain British nationality. That principle was agreed to by the representatives of the Dominions, and it was also the result of the recommendations of a powerful Departmental Committee which reported in 1901. But since the War there have been many complaints—with which every one will sympathise—of the injustice of this state of affairs. A man, for instance, whose father migrated to the Argentine, and who grew up in the Argentine as a British subject, went to the front and fought for us during the War. His son cannot, under the existing law, be a British subject. That is felt to be a great hardship. I mention the Argentine as an example. As hon. Members recollect, men came from all over the world and fought for us, and they are in the same condition. In the simplest possible way this Bill alters and remedies that state of affairs, and not only makes the conditions what they were before the Act of 1914 was passed, but greatly improves those conditions. If hon. Members will refer to the Bill, they will sec that it effects the object in view by the amendment of two Sections of the British Nationality and Status of Aliens Act, 1914, and it provides that every child born abroad of a British father shall be a British subject, if two main conditions, calculated to show continued connection and sympathy with the British Empire, are fulfilled. The difference between what this Bill provides and the condition which existed before the 1914 Act, is that whereas before 1914 a man could only extend British nationality to his grandchildren, any Englishman, Scotsman, or other British subject living abroad can extend British nationality indefinitely, so long as two conditions are fulfilled, calculated to show that they are interested in maintaining a connection with the Empire. These conditions are as follows: That the birth of the child is at the time registered at a British consulate and that the child, on obtaining majority, asserts his British nationality by a declaration duly registered That is a perfectly fair and straightforward method of ascertaining, in the first place, whether or not a man is anxious that his child should be a British subject, and, in the second place, whether the child, when he reaches the age of 21, is himself anxious to be a British subject. If both the father and the child are anxious that the child should be a British subject, the faculties are given him. That covers the gap which has existed between 1915 and now, and therefore deals with the case of the children of the men who went out and fought for us, and, obviously, all the children who were born after the Act of 1914 was passed. There are really no Committee points at all. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh, yes!"] As far as I can see, there is hardly any possibility of amending the Bill in Committee, in the direction of making it clearer. At any rate, on Second Reading there is very little to be said, and I hope the House will give the Second Reading without unduly prolonged discussion.
This is a Bill to which, as far as I am concerned, there is no objection at all, especially as there are two conditions to toe complied with. I think it would have been improper if only the first condition were required— namely, that the child should be registered at a British Consulate. That would be compulsorily imposing British nationality on a person resident abroad, but under the Bill he must clothe himself with British citizenship, and exercise an option of his own, when he attains the age of 21. In these circumstances, while there may be points in Committee, I am not aware of any objection to Second Reading.
I congratulate the Government on having brought in this Measure, though I cannot congratulate them on the speed with which it has been done, because this grievance has existed and has been felt in every British community abroad for the last seven years. The British communities abroad will welcome the Measure with gratitude, and it will remove a grievance keenly felt by those men who came over and fought for this country. They felt it bitterly that their children should be excluded from the right to call themselves Britishers. It is not only a question of justice, but it is a question of the interests of this country. There is just one point which might be considered, and that is, whether some power ought not to be put into the Bill under which some authority could excuse those cases where, by reason of long distance from British Consulates, or illness, or any other force majeure, it is impossible to register the birth of a child within 12 months. If that were put in, I think it would meet the views.
I should like to support the suggestion of the hon. Member for South East St. Pancras (Mr. Hopkins). We have had experience during the last few years of representations made by British chambers of commerce abroad with regard to British subjects. The want of recognition of those wholly British subjects abroad who, under the British law, could not be registered as such, has been keenly felt. I am sure if this Measure be passed it will give a very great deal of satisfaction to loyal British subjects of the British Empire who reside abroad.
This is, of course, a very excellent: Bill, but I want to clear up one point in connection with it. Sub-section (I, a) of Clause I refers to a birth being registered at a British Consulate within 12 months. I take it that that registration can be in writing, because, if not, a very serious inconvenience will be caused. For instance, there are British subjects all over the United States to whom this Bill would apply. In many cases they are far removed from a British Consulate, and unless it be competent for a British subject in some far away place to register with the nearest British Consulate in writing, it will necessitate a long journey and great expense, and, probably in many cases, nullify the object of the Bill. There is only one other point, and that is in reference to Sub-section (2, i) What limit is there to be to Regulations made under this Bill, and for what reasons are the Regulations to be made? It does seem to me that we should not pass a Clause which allows unlimited Regulations of any sort or kind to be made by the Department, and I hope in Committee the hon. Gentleman will explain exactly what he has in mind in reference to these Regulations.
As one who has lived a good many years of his life abroad, I should like to thank the Government for bringing in this Bill, which will remove a great hardship, and be a great boon to many people who live in exile in distant lands, and have not been able to acquire enough money to retire to spend their last years in their own country. I think it is a wise Measure, because it adds to our outposts and friends in every quarter of the globe, and gives all our brother-countrymen in distant lands a great consolation and pride in remaining Englishmen, especially our subjects in Japan. They do not wish to become Japanese, and this Bill will relieve them. It will also meet a great difficulty in regard to the sons of our citizens in South America, where a man is liable to military service unless he can prove that he is a British citizen. I have worried the Foreign Office on this point a good deal, and I would like to say how much I appreciate the Government bringing in the Bill.
I wish to join in the congratulations to the Government in removing at any rate one of the anomalies of our existing law of nationality. May I express the hope that the Government will before long bring in the long-promised and long-overdue Bill of a larger character which will deal with many other existing anomalies in our nationality law? There is only one question that I want to ask. I presume that the assent of the Dominions has been received to this Bill, and that it will be followed by legislation in the Dominions, because nothing is more important than that British citizenship should, so far as possible, rest on the same basis, confer the same privileges, and be granted under the same conditions throughout the whole of our Empire.
Perhaps the hon. Gentleman in charge of the Bill will explain to the House why it is not possible to omit the second condition on which British nationality can be acquired by a child. This particular point is felt very strongly by British subjects resident abroad As the Bill stands, the position of a child born abroad of British parents will be a somewhat anomalous one until the child attains the age of 21 and can make his or her own declaration. I agree with what has been said by the hon. and learned Member for York (Sir J. Butcher). Is it not possible to arrive at some basis by which a very simple process will immediately confer upon the children of British subjects born abroad the status of the whole British nationality? That presses very keenly on many British subjects resident abroad, and I hope that we shall have some indication as to whether it is not possible to do something towards giving children, even in their childhood, the full birthright which British subjects who are resident abroad would like to secure for their children abroad.
I think we can take congratulations as the mind of the House on this Bill, but I wish to ask a question. This is a Bill to make it more easy for the children of British citizens who are born abroad to retain their status as British citizens, but there is nothing in the Bill which gives any indication that the Government have in their mind a process whereby large numbers of British citizens who have gone abroad to take up posts under foreign Governments, and who have had to become naturalised under those Governments and may now be desirous of resuming British nationality, can do so. I have in mind a case of an individual— and this is only typical of a large number —who in the old Russian Government was in a very influential position in one of the harbours. He had to become a naturalised Russian subject in order to hold the position. During the War he rendered a great deal of assistance, not only to the British Army who were there, but also to the naval ships which put into that harbour. He came back to this country at the Russian Revolution, having assisted a great many of the British soldiers, and when he came homo he desired to resume his British nationality. There was a considerable trouble with the British Government returning his papers, declining to recognise him, or in any way look upon him as one who was entitled to become a British subject again. It was after many months of trouble, interviews with the Home Secretary, and almost daily correspondence that he was allowed to resume his British nationality. In a Bill of this character, I consider it should be possible to bring into it a short Clause whereby those who have been abroad because of their occupation in foreign countries and are now coming back into the British Dominions may easily resume their British nationality.