HC Deb 01 April 1955 vol 539 cc785-96

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Kaberry.]

4.7 p.m.

Mr. John Hynd (Sheffield, Attercliffe)

The subject which I wish briefly to raise is one of those matters arising from a situation in which a single elector or constituent in this country finds herself but which involves very considerable principles of both democracy and human rights, particularly the principles of sex equality and the principle of the freedom of a man and his wife to live together in their own country.

I wish to introduce the subject by recalling to the House the tremendous concern which was expressed in the House and the country when we had difficulties over British subjects in Russia marrying Russian women and wishing to bring them to live with their families in this country. At that time one of my hon. Friends who asked a series of Questions said that it was a tragedy that husbands and wives, no matter to what country they belonged, should be prevented from living together. The Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs said that he entirely agreed with that expression.

On another occasion the same hon. Member stated in the House that no single incident had done more harm to good will between the people of this country and the Russians than preventing those women from joining their husbands. To that the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs replied: I can tell the hon. Gentleman that the Soviet Government have been left in no doubt whatever that the views of Her Majesty's Government are in accord with the hon. Gentleman's supplementary question."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 17th June, 1953; Vol. 516, c. 957.] There we have views expressed by the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs and the Under-Secretary, endorsing the general views expressed in this country, in the Press and elsewhere, that it was a monstrous thing that a Government should seek to prevent a man and a woman living together in a country to which one or other of them belonged.

The case that has been brought to my attention is one which I have raised in the House by Questions and in correspondence with the Home Secretary. It is the case of a Mrs. Pietro Devoti, the daughter of Italian parents who settled in this country many years ago and established a business here. Although they had not been naturalised, they were not arrested during the last war but were left free because they were recognised to be established in this country.

This lady was born in Leigh, Lancashire, and she went to Italy in 1936 because her grandmother was ill. She was caught there by the war, and did not return to this country until 1947. In the meantime she had married an Italian and they had four children whom she brought to this country, and she is now living in Sheffield with her parents. Last month she had another child in this country, and the House will be surprised to know that we had difficulty in persuading the Home Office to allow the husband to stay here for a few days after the three months' visiting leave for the birth of that child.

When I raised this with the Home Secretary, I was astonished at the reply. A letter of 25th January from the Home Office to myself reads: Immigration to the United Kingdom is necessarily restricted"— that, we understand— and as a general rule foreigners can be allowed to settle here only on certain compassionate grounds such as age, distress or isolation abroad, or if they can show that by coming here they will be likely to make a positive contribution to the national economy … That we understand as a general rule, but this is not a case which should come under that general rule.

This is not a case of a foreigner wanting to emigrate to this country for his personal benefit because he is unemployed. The wife is living here, she is a British subject, she has five children. Surely it is the legitimate right of a wife in that situation to have her husband living with her in whatever country she may have been born.

Mr. Norman Dodds (Dartford)

Will my hon. Friend say how many children of that marriage have been born in this country?

Mr. Hynd

As far as I understand, only the last one, because this lady stayed in Italy for the period of the war. I understand that she was married in 1948, and presumably most of the children were born in Italy, but they are now living in this country.

The letter continues: When a woman of British birth and parentage who has spent all her life in this country marries a foreigner we usually let her husband stay with her That can hardly be said to be exceeding in generosity … it can hardly be regarded as a hardship for her to live in her husband's country, and … I can find no ground to justify recommending the Home Secretary to reconsider the decision. … In other words, the woman is being told, "You married an Italian, you had better go and stay in Italy with your children even if you are a British subject."

I felt that the defence of the Home Office might be that this woman was, as indicated in the letter, only born in this country and that she was not born of British parents, but I find that there have been other cases. There has been a case in the Press of a Mrs. Vera Boldrin of Godwin Road, Hastings, Sussex, 31 years old, born of British parents, who has lived all her life in this country. She also married an Italian and went to Italy to live, but a specialist told her to come to England because otherwise she might lose her next child. The husband could only join her as a tourist. The Press report states: A Home Office official said. 'We have good reason for not allowing him to live here permanently.' This woman is trying to find a home with her Italian husband in Abyssinia, although her health is not suitable for the climate and she is anxious to come back to England.

There is one very serious problem involved in all this. It becomes even more serious when we recall the case of the Russian wives, when it became fairly clear that if a British man married a foreign woman there was no difficulty at all about bringing the wife to live in this country. I understand that that is the case. There have been certain difficulties arising as a result of that, but we have stood on that principle, land such wives come freely to this country.

I think it is even more important that a British woman marrying a foreign man should be allowed to come back here, if she desires, because it is the British woman who will have the children. But it appears to me that if a British subject happens to be a woman who has married a foreigner and she wants to bring that foreigner here, she is not to be permitted to do so. That is an infamous state of affairs and one which I am quite sure will shock a good deal of opinion.

I have been checking up on the practice of other countries, and I should like to draw the attention of the House to this simple fact. We have heard of the infamous McCarran Act which was passed in America a few years ago. It was denounced in the Press of this country, and I have heard sarcastic, denunciatory comments from all sides; and generally that Act was regarded as retrograde, vicious and discriminatory. There are few epithets which have not been used in connection with it.

But if it does nothing else the McCarran Act abolishes any sex discrimination which existed in America before it was introduced. As I understand it, the position was somewhat similar to what it is in this country. An American marrying a foreign woman could bring his wife back with him to America, but a woman marrying a foreigner had not the automatic right of re-entry into America. The husband had to get a visa, but it was not from the quota but a first or second-class visa.

The McCarran Act has put America far in front of us now, because it abolishes any sex discrimination, and it is automatic for an American subject who marries a foreign husband or wife to go and live in America, if he or she desires, with his or her spouse. That is a very sad commentary on the position in which we find ourselves, because we seem to be so far behind what is provided in the McCarran Act.

This is not a matter which is subject to an Act of Parliament. It is a matter of Home Office Regulations. It is for that reason that I want to make an urgent appeal to the Home Secretary to examine this situation very closely and very sympathetically. If an Act of Parliament was involved we could not discuss it on the Adjournment. In any case, it would be beyond the power of the Minister to act quickly in that event.

Here is not one case but a number of cases which put this country, particularly in view of the protest made about the Russian wives, in a very bad light in the eyes of the world. I ask the Home Secretary to give the matter his urgent consideration, and I hope he will be able to announce to the House very soon that he has removed the discrimination between the sexes, and that he is now at least able to bring this country into line with the McCarran Act in this matter.

4.18 p.m.

Mr. Frederick Mulley (Sheffield, Park)

I do not wish to stand between the House and the reply of the Joint Under-Secretary for more than a moment, but I should like to add that this particular case has aroused a great deal of interest in Sheffield and elsewhere. While it does transcend the actual problem of an individual woman, I feel from my own personal knowledge that a great hardship has been done, and we look forward to getting a satisfactory response from the Minister today.

4.19 p.m.

Mr. Norman Dodds (Dartford)

As the Member who took a big part in this House on the question of Russian wives, and because of the impression it created among ordinary men and women, I should like, in a matter of seconds, to say how much I support my hon. Friend the Member for Attercliffe (Mr. J. Hynd) in making his plea in this case, and in asking that this particular matter should be given more thought by the Home Office with a view to bringing our position up to modern standards.

It is to me a matter of some concern to find that although a British man might leave these shores and marry and could bring his wife back, an entirely different approach is made on the grounds of sex when it comes to a British woman or a woman who has lived here many years marrying abroad, or marrying a foreigner in this country. The specific case was the one of the lady who married an Italian, but it is because of cases that have appeared in the Press, cases in which British-born women have married foreigners, that we believe that they should be given the same opportunity of living with their partners as is given to British men who marry foreign women.

Whatever the Joint Under-Secretary says this afternoon, the Government and any Government that might follow, and particularly the civil servants in the Home Office, should appreciate the growing feeling that this position should be not only considered, but altered. I hope, for the sake of the good name of this country, and the fact that this country should be looked to for the moral leadership of the world in matters of this sort. that we shall bring our attitude up to date and be in no way second to any other country in dealing with the sacred rights of human beings.

4.21 p.m.

Mr. G. R. Mitchison (Kettering)

This is a question of the exercise of compassion. These are compassionate cases, and there is no doubt that the Home Office has power to keep people out of the country. In the exercise of compassion, as I understand it. if a British husband is in this country, the Home Office officials so exercise their compassion as to allow his wife to come from abroad to live with him. At any rate, that is the usual practice. In this case, the lady is a British subject. It does not seem to me to matter in the least that her parents were Italian. We are concerned only with her.

I should have thought that this case raised the broad question of whether a different rule is to be applied when the British national is a wife from the rule that is in practice applied when the British subject is a husband. I am bound to say that here I suspect that we are getting back to ancient questions of the domicile of the family and the like that still apply for many legal purposes, including divorce, but which would be, I should have thought, an obsolete and uncertain guide in matters of this kind.

The Home Office ought to recognise nowadays that the same rules and the same considerations ought to apply to both husband and wife. Therefore, unless there is some other reason, it ought to allow married couples to choose their domicile, and so exercise its compassion as to allow the spouse overseas to come to this country, if that is the common wish of the two people. Otherwise it seems to me that it is standing for a form of sex discrimination that, in matters of pay, at any rate, has only recently been removed. The Home Office ought not to be the last Government office to stand for sex discrimination.

4.23 p.m.

The Joint Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Sir Hugh Lucas-Tooth)

It might be convenient if I gave the House the full facts, as the hon. Member for Attercliffe (Mr. J. Hynd) did not give them quite correctly—although I am making no point about that. Pietro Devoti is an Italian aged 40. He married a woman who was born in the United Kingdom, but of Italian parentage, as the hon. Member for Attercliffe correctly stated. Mrs. Devoti is now aged 30 and she went to Italy in 1936. She was, therefore, then aged 12, and she remained in Italy until 1947. It is true that the war came in between, but she was there for more than three years before the war and more than two years after the war.

Even though she came back to this country on what appears to have been a visit in 1947, she returned to Italy in 1948 and, while in Italy, married an Italian. who, so far as I know, had not been to this country before. She then remained in Italy until 1953 during which time she had four Italian-born children. So until just over a year ago it would be something of an under-statement to say that the complexion of this family was predominantly Italian. There was an Italian husband who had not been here at all, a wife born of Italian parents who had spent the greater part of her life and virtually all her adult life in Italy, and four Italian children none of whom had ever been here.

Mr. J. Hynd

Will the hon. Gentleman tell me how that differs from the statement I made, because the dates are exactly the same?

Sir H. Lucas-Tooth

I am giving the facts a little more fully because I think that they put the matter in a rather different light. Mrs. Devoti has in fact had two more children since she came here in 1953. She is entitled to come and go freely to and from this country because she is a British subject by birth. Since she came here in 1953 her husband has come here twice as a visitor.

I thought that the hon. Member might argue that there should be no restrictions to immigration into this country, but he conceded that there must be restrictions, and certainly that would be the overwhelming view of hon. Members in this House and indeed of people outside.

If we are to impose restrictions, I think that he will agree that we must have certain rules and that we must try to keep them, I do not say rigidly but fairly, as between those affected by them. This is certainly not an occasion for me to review the rules generally, but I can assure the House that there is very great pressure indeed to immigrate into this country at present. The rules are therefore necessarily very stringent. I make no apology for saying that. They are more stringent than most of us would like to have them, even those of us who fully acknowledge the need for rules.

They are designed to let in—I am speaking now of permanent residents and not of visitors—first. those who have a special claim to come here and who would suffer serious hardship if they were not allowed in. I am giving classes in general terms. Secondly, they are designed to deal with those who will make a valuable contribution to our economy or our culture.

This afternoon we are concerned with the first class of immigrants, those who may be let in on the ground of hardship, and one special category, namely where there is what may be conveniently called a mixed marriage between a British subject and a foreigner. There is no sex discrimination here at all. The position is that where a foreign woman marries a British man she is entitled as a right to be registered as a British subject and she can then come here in any event. She has a legal right to do so.

Mr. R. T. Paget (Northampton)

That is sex discrimination.

Sir H. Lucas-Tooth

Not on the part of the Home Office. I think that the last statute dealing with the matter was passed in 1948 when the hon. and learned Member and his friends were rather more responsible for it than the present Government. I do not make any point of that. The basis of the distinction is traditional: and the distinction here, is that the woman has a right to acquire her husband's nationality, whereas the husband does not so acquire his wife's nationality.

Mr. Dodds

Sex discrimination.

Sir H. Lucas-Tooth

It is a discrimination which has existed for some time. It was there during the period of the last Government and nobody has ever seriously suggested changing the position. The broad assumption is that if a British woman marries a foreigner the couple will be expected to make their home in the husband's country.

Mr. Hynd


Sir H. Lucas-Tooth

I do not put it higher than an assumption. On the whole, I think that that is what most people would expect to happen. On the other hand, it is freely recognised—I recognise it here today—that if this were enforced as a rule there would be many cases in which it would be exceedingly harsh. To compel a woman who had lived all or most of her life here, to go to live in a country which perhaps she had never seen, and where the conditions might be utterly different from those to which she was accustomed, would certainly be so harsh as not to be tolerated by public opinion or by hon. Members in this House. Indeed, that fact is recognised.

To prevent that sort of hardship occurring, if an alien marries a woman of British birth and parentage, we allow him to take up residence in this country in the absence of any special considerations. I need not discuss the type of special considerations, but the House will understand that there may be circumstances which make a certain individual objectionable. This rule does not mean that every alien whose wife is a British subject should be given a right of entry into this country. There are many British subjects who have never lived in or even visited the United Kingdom. I do not think that anyone would suggest that an alien who married a British subject who had never been here at all should thereby acquire a right to come into this country. I am putting the extreme case.

Therefore, the rule applies in favour of the husbands of women of British birth and parentage who have been resident here. The basis of the rule is the prevention of hardship—that it would be a hardship to compel a woman whose background, whose friends and whose life had been in this country, to go overseas. In the present case there is none of that hardship at all. Until she came here in 1953 this woman had, except for a relatively short visit, been overseas ever since she was 12 years old. She had married a man who had never been here at all. She had had four children. She could have come back immediately after the war. She did not. She could have stayed here instead of going back to Italy. She did not. She might conceivably have come here immediately after marrying, but she did not.

Mrs. Devoti voluntarily lived out of the United Kingdom for all these years. She married a man of her own people and she continued to live in Italy for a number of years after marriage. I should say to the hon. Member who has tried to draw a parallel between this case and that of the Russian wives that the trouble in the case of the Russian wives is that the Russian authorities forbade those women to leave Russia. There is absolutely nothing of that in this instance. Mrs. Devoti is completely free to come or to go as she pleases. She is a British subject. Therefore, there is no parallel whatever.

Mr. Hynd

There is. The whole of the indignation expressed in this House was because these women were not permitted to join their husbands and we claimed that they had a divine right to come to live with their husbands in this country.

Sir H. Lucas-Tooth

The hon. Member is quite mistaken.

Mr. Hynd


Sir H. Lucas-Tooth

The difficulty was that the Russian authorities would not allow these women to leave Russia.

Mr. Hynd

And we say that they were entitled to leave.

Sir H. Lucas-Tooth

The parallel would be if we prevented Mrs. Devoti from going to Italy. There is no question of that. It has never been raised. Mrs. Devoti is completely free to come and go. Indeed, as I have already pointed out, her husband has been allowed here on two occasions since she has been over here.

Of course, a foreign husband. is certainly allowed to come here on visits; but to say that, in circumstances such as this, a husband and his family—many of them Italian born children—though it would not make any difference if they were of some other nationality—should be allowed to come here simply because the wife herself is a British subject, would be making far too high a claim which I do not believe could be substantiated. It would be to enlarge the field of entry into this country beyond a point which is at the present time possible having regard to the necessary stringency of our rules.

I am not for a moment saying that there is any impropriety in the request made by Mr. Devoti or by the hon. Member on his behalf. What I am saying is that we have to make rules, that the rules are stringent, and that we have to be fair as between one class of immigrant and another and as between one person and another in that class. In this case, I am personally satisfied that the rule is a fair one having regard to what we can do, that it has been fairly applied in this instance, that there is no real hardship, and that we should continue to maintain the refusal of immigration upon which we have insisted.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-four minutes to Five o'clock.