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British Nationality Law

Volume 930: debated on Wednesday 27 April 1977

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

With, permission, Mr. Speaker, I wish to make a statement.

A discussion document on possible changes in our nationality law, which I have presented to Parliament, is published today.

Our present law on nationality has for long been outmoded and difficult to follow. Accordingly, when the present Government took office my predecessor set up a working party under my hon. Friend the Member for York (Mr. Lyon), who was then Minister of State, to examine the whole question as we had promised in the Labour Party manifesto of February 1974. The discussion document is based to a large extent on its work.

I emphasise that the document is a set of ideas for discussion. It is not a set of proposals for legislation. The Government do not intend to introduce early legislation. Nationality law affects all of us and thousands of people living overseas, so before we embark on change there must be a full opportunity for people and representative organisations to express their views.

The main suggestion canvassed in the document is that we should have two citizenships—a British citizenship for those with close ties in this country, and a British overseas citizenship for the remainder of those people who are now citizens of the United Kingdom and Colonies. British citizens would have an unqualified right of free entry to the United Kingdom, while the right of entry to a dependency would be reserved to those who are British overseas citizens by virtue of a connection with it. The question of who should obtain which of the citizenships on the coming into force of the new law is discussed in some detail.

In addition, the document contains, for example, some discussion about the distinction in the treatment of men and women, both in the transmission of citizenship and in the acquisition of it through marriage. It also mentions possible changes in the requirements for the grant of naturalisation, which have remained largely unchanged for many years.

An important point to keep in mind is that the changes discussed in the document would not affect anyone's existing right of entry to the United Kingdom. In particular, the obligation which successive Governments have assumed towards holders of United Kingdom passports from East Africa would be maintained, and the special voucher system would continue.

As I have said, the Government do not intend to introduce a Bill in the near future. The purpose of this document is to invite views from hon. Members, private individuals and representative bodies. We shall want to study very carefully what is put to us, and in that spirit, therefore, I commend the discussion document to the attention of the House.

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that we welcome this Green Paper as a recognition of our changed overseas relationships and as an opportunity to provide a more rational basis for our immigration policies based on citizenship? Does he appreciate that the present obscurity of our nationality laws gives rise to widespread fears of unending millions who might claim entry into this country and that this anxiety must be removed, and removed urgently? Will he, therefore, accept that the Green Paper must be used as a basis for action and not as an excuse for prevarication?

On the last point, when the right hon. Gentleman and those who cheered have read the document, I would defy anyone to get the confusion that is in our laws made clear to the legislative draftsmen. We need about a year or 18 months, even if one were working with great urgency. There are great problems in this matter. What happened in 1971 was that when the then Conservative Government came in with the patriality law they made it even more obscure than it was previously. Therefore, I would advise people not to jump into this matter until they are clear as to what it is all about.

However, having said that, I am very grateful to the right hon. Gentleman.

As my right hon. Friend has had much more time than Back-Bench Members to study the Green Paper, may I have an assurance from him that the principle of equality of the sexes shines right throughout the document? On that basis, and on the basis of page 5, which deals with the acquisition of British citizenship by virtue of marriage, if that principle is adopted, bearing in mind my right hon. Friend's most recent pronouncements on the subject of marriages of convenience—although I have never known what a marriage of inconvenience is—does he not agree that he could not operate what he has recently announced if the principle of the Green Paper came through in ultimate legislation?

No; the principle is there. My hon. Friend was referring to page 5 of the document, which is a summary. If he looks at page 18 and section 50, he will see four possible options which are put there freely for hon. Members and others to discuss. We have had a look at what has gone on in other countries. Whatever system we have, if there are bogus marriages it would be wrong for any law that we have to aid those who are marrying simply to come in rather than marrying for the normal purposes.

Does the right hon. Gentleman contemplate dispensing with the status of "British subject", which since 1948 has been largely devoid of content, and attaching to the status of "British citizen" any substantive rights, such as those of the franchise in this country?

I remember the days when the right hon. Gentleman and I served on the Committee which deliberated on the patriality Bill, as it was then, and exchanged ideas that we had. We are at one in this respect. There is no doubt that the sort of nationality that we had in 1948 was based on a concept that was even then outmoded. What we want is citizenship, and, indeed, citizenship in the same way as it is in most other countries in the world where there are rights. However, civic privileges are a separate matter. Of course they are related, and I have put in a section on that matter, because, even at present, if one wanted to alter civic privileges one could do that without waiting for a change in the law on citizenship.

While welcoming the decision to issue the Green Paper but regretting the omission of some of the argumentation in the working party document, which makes the recommendations more understandable, I understand why some of the issues have been more muted than others, but the issue about the right of British citizens to have free movement in Europe seems to me to be the most muted of all. Will my right hon. Friend recognise that, although this is subject to negotiation with our Community partners, the Government ought to recognise and to desire at any rate that British citizens should have free movement throughout the Community, so that there are not two kinds of British citizen in future?

My hon. Friend is right. I take this opportunity of saying that the detailed investigations and report of the working party which he chaired have been extremely valuable and that we are grateful to him and his colleagues for their work. The situation in relation to the EEC is one aspect of the matter. The fact that citizenship of the United Kingdom and Colonies as a nationality concept has not been accepted in Europe is basically because it is not citizenship in the sense of the term accepted elsewhere. It is most important that we get it right, because the final concept should mean that a British citizen, once given that classification, should have the right to free movement in Europe because we have defined it by statute. Until we get the whole thing correct, there will be problems.

As the Green Paper is being published well in advance of the Commonwealth Conference, and as most Commonwealth countries in recent years have brought their own law of nationality up to date, will the right hon. Gentleman have consultations with Commonwealth leaders, if they seek them when they come here, or at least invite their observations on the Green Paper? Is it not correct to say that our nationality law, based on an Imperial concept applying in 1948, is so outmoded that all the efforts to deal with, for example, immigration problems through concepts such as patriality and the right of abode have further complicated the law because we have delayed in dealing with nationality?

The hon. and learned Gentleman is right on the last point. That is the basic reason for the publication of the Green Paper. Whatever differing views right hon. and hon. Members may hold, I think that we are at one in agreeing that the whole concept is out of date. The hon. and learned Gentleman asked about consultations with the Commonwealth. Our High Commissioners have already been instructed to consult Commonwealth Governments, and Her Majesty's Government will be ready to take into account any views they may wish to put forward. Indeed, in the preparation of the Green Paper I myself have studied what Commonwealth countries are doing.

Order. May I seek the help of the House? With the agreement of the House, I shall call only those right hon. and hon. Members who have stood so far, because there is a very long statement to follow this one and also a Second Reading debate. We obviously want to get on.

Is the right hon. Gentleman satisfied that, in publishing the Green Paper and envisaging a prolonged delay before legislation, there is not a danger that some groups of people around the world who presently have the right of abode in the United Kingdom will be frightened into trying to exercise their right before legislation is produced? May I urge upon him the point that many people will feel that civic rights are an integral part of the concept of citizen ship and that there will be some disappointment that this point was not dealt with more fully in the document?

Civic rights are not part of nationality law. It must be made absolutely clear that that is the case. As I said to the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell), it is not the case that nationality by itself, basically important as it is, is connected with civic rights. The State has the right to give civic rights to whom it likes. We have taken such a line over the years.

The hon. Gentleman referred to there being a danger that some groups of people might be frightened into trying to exercise their rights before legislation is produced. This document has been published as a Green Paper. I have made clear the time scale involved. I see little danger that people will jump to conclusions. If there were proposals which were to be effective next week, the situation would be different, but when the hon. Gentleman reads the Green Paper and studies the immigration aspects he will see that the effect on immigration in the short run, even when the Bill is published, will be very small. In the long run, however, it will be quite different, because there is a conceptual argument involved in a change of nationality law, and in the long run there will be a difference of tone as well as an effect on what was once the Empire.

Is it not a reflection of an appalling mess that the Green Paper deals with no less than one-quarter of the world's population and that the majority of the population of no fewer than 35 countries are, in British law, British subjects and entitled as such, if they happen to be resident in this country on a magic date in October each year, to vote in our elections? Will my right hon. Friend reconsider the connection between civic rights and citizenship on the ground that we historically gave civic rights to British subjects and it was only because we botched the job in 1948 and did not notice that time had passed that we have had to give civic rights to people of other independent countries, a practice which is not operated in most of the rest of the world, where they see things more clearly?

Of course there is a mess. I think that most right hon. and hon. Members agree that the law is a mess in this matter. My hon. Friend's view of the question of civic rights is different from that in most other countries. If there were a desire for a change in that concept—and there is none on the part of the Government—the question of civic rights would be dealt with separately.

Will the right hon. Gentleman accept that the time taken to produce the Green Paper and some of the phrases used in it suggest a somewhat leisurely approach to a problem that is closely enmeshed with the immigration question? Will he reconsider the timetable with a view to having a fairly early debate in the House on the Green Paper, with legislation in the next Session?

I have been much concerned about this matter since I was a junior Minister at the Home Office. When I took office as Home Secretary, I immediately asked what was going on about it. I must advise the hon. Gentleman—I am sure that he will agree when he reads the Green Paper—that we cannot move quickly. This is an extremely complicated matter. I advise him also to recall the days of 1971, when the Conservative Government, wanting to move quickly, got it wrong.

Will my right hon. Friend give some thought to the problem of women citizens of the United Kingdom who are working abroad or who are abroad because their husbands work overseas and whose children happen to be born abroad? Will he ensure that it will be possible for British women to have British babies wherever they happen to be born?

The aspect raised by my hon. Friend emphasises the point that we should be careful not to move quickly, because we might get it wrong again. There is a passage in the Green Paper which deals with the problem to which my hon. Friend has referred. It is extremely complicated, but I do want to deal with that aspect because there is different treatment for men and women in this respect. Other countries have put their minds to the problem in recent years, and in preparing the Green Paper I have taken account of what they have done.

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that there are really only two types of British citizen—those who are British and those who are not? Regardless of what is in the Green Paper, can he assure the people of England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales that those who are born here as native-born citizens of the United Kingdom will not be placed as second-class citizens because of what is in the Green Paper?

I do not think that the hon. Gentleman would have asked that question had he read the Green Paper first. On his first point regarding types of British citizen, I am tempted to ask him "Are you one?"