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Ms Deborah Phillips

Volume 474: debated on Monday 31 March 2008

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

The outcome of this debate will decide whether an elderly constituent of mine, Betty Phillips, will spend her remaining years supported by the love and care of her daughter and granddaughter or separated, lonely and at risk.

The issue that I wish specifically to address is the prospective deportation of Deborah Phillips, the daughter of my constituent, Betty Phillips. That deportation is a matter of weeks away if the Minister does not use his powers to act. Let me start by describing Deborah and how she came to be in the position she is in today. The story starts when Betty, Deborah’s mother, falls in love with a sailor in the US navy, a world war two veteran, when he is on shore leave in Hull. They then get married, and go to live in America, where they live on a variety of military bases. Deborah was born in 1959 and her brother David was born in 1962. In 1963, the family returned to Hull. Mr. Phillips, who was an American citizen, got indefinite leave to remain in the UK, as did their children, and he took a job at the university, where he stayed until he retired in 1992.

Deborah grew up in, and was educated in, Hull from the age of three. After leaving school, she worked in Hull city council’s offices until she was 21. She then joined the US navy, where she remained until she retired. Her US navy record always showed her home address as England. During the period between 1981 and 1990, on returning to the UK her passport was variously stamped first, “Indefinite leave to remain” and then, “Allowed to enter for six months.” She wrongly assumed the latter to be a mistake. That was an error on her part, but one that was encouraged when her new passport in 1990 was once again stamped, “Indefinite leave to remain.” She knew that she would have to get the stamp issue resolved, but assumed that that would be a simple administrative issue. She had never had any trouble returning to England, and, despite her American citizenship, thought of herself as English. That is hardly surprising, given that she had grown up in England. The issue did not strike her as important—wrongly, of course.

It is true to say that at that point the needs of her parents were not pressing, but in 2003, her father was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and she returned home to Hull to help her mother care for him. By then, she had a daughter of her own—Alexandra. Deborah helped her mother to nurse her father until he died. After he died, the family went on holiday together to Corfu in June 2005. On re-entering the UK, she was told that she did not have leave to remain and that she had two months to rectify the problem. She was told at that point that indefinite leave to remain ceases after two years outside the UK, but she had been provided with no previous advice on this either from the Home Office or at any time after she had re-entered the UK.

From that point on, Deborah started a series of applications to obtain indefinite leave to remain in the United Kingdom, the first of which was in August 2005. She was told that it would take three weeks, but instead it took seven months. As the Home Office retained her passports, she was also unable to return to America to bury her father’s ashes in Arlington national cemetery. At the end of the seven months, her application was refused and she was told to leave the country.

Deborah made her second application from America, and then returned to Britain to return her child Alexandra to the school in Hull to which she was accustomed. After that application failed, she and her daughter were in effect deported. Her third application was also turned down. She stayed in America between May 2006 and June 2007, where she and her daughter lived from motel to motel. They had no particular place in which to live. Her mother, Betty, had to go out to America in July 2006 for a surgical operation because she had nobody to look after her here in Britain. In June 2007, Betty fell ill with a series of mini strokes and so Deborah rushed back to the UK on a military flight.

Let us be clear that Betty Phillips is 80 years old, and although she is a robust Yorkshire lady in many ways, she is physically very frail, and is in constant need of help. As each month passes she, of course, grows more fail. From Deborah’s arrival in Britain last year, there have been a series of stays of deportation, the latest of which runs out in some weeks’ time. We are now in a position where a daughter of my constituent, who received her entire education in Hull—whose own daughter is more used to English education than any other—and who wants simply to care for her mother is on the brink of being deported. She will not be a burden on the state, because she has a pension from the American navy. She is indeed likely to save the state money, as she will be looking after her mother, who would otherwise be dependent on state care. She will create no housing pressure, because she will stay with her mother. Most importantly, her mother would not have to face the emotional agony of having her daughter and granddaughter wrenched away from her at a fragile time of her life.

Frankly, if I wanted to score easy political points it would be too simple. I could ask why Deborah is being wrongly deported, in my view, when the Government cannot deport Muktar Ibrahim, the 21/7 bomber, or Mustaf Jamma, who has been charged with the murder of Sharon Beshenivsky. I could ask why Deborah has to be deported when the murderer of Philip Lawrence cannot be. I could list rapists, murderers and terrorists galore whom we cannot deport, while the daughter and carer of my 80-year-old constituent cannot stay.

Those questions were certainly put to me by Mrs. Betty Phillips, and they are questions for which I have no answer. I do not want to score political points. I have a great deal of respect for the Minister and I simply want a civilised answer that prevents this terrible prospect for Mrs. Phillips. I suspect the Minister is as conscious as I am that, whatever the technicalities, Deborah Phillips is a victim of a weakness in the law that means that someone born of a British father before 1961 has a right to citizenship, but someone born of a British mother at the same time does not have that right. That morally dubious distinction arises, I believe, from a mistake in the legislation.

The British Nationality Act 1981 was amended by the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002, which inserted new section 4C to correct an historical wrong and an historical discrimination. The discrimination that the amendment sought to correct was that before 1983 legitimate children born to a British mother and foreign father would not become British citizens by descent through the maternal line, whereas if they were born abroad to a father of British descent and a mother who was a foreign national, they became a British citizen by descent through the paternal line.

Unfortunately for Deborah, the new law to correct the discrimination, that is section 4C of the 1981 Act, was limited to children born after 7 February 1961. Deborah was born on 5 November 1959. Therefore she still does not benefit from Parliament’s intention to correct the historical wrong. The issue is even more profound in her case, as her brother, David Phillips, who was also born in the US, was born on 20 March 1962 and therefore qualifies to register as a British citizen. The law therefore discriminates between Deborah and her brother, even though they have the same parents, were born in the same place, and were born only two years and four months apart. That is ludicrous.

A further policy consideration arises from the case. There will not be a large number of people in the same situation as Deborah Phillips, but a high proportion of those who are will have parents who are entering an era of frailty as they enter their ’70s, ’80s and even ’90s. Those parents need support from their adult children.

My request to the Minister is straightforward. First, in the legislation that he is due to introduce to the House, will he please review the operation of the law to correct the anomaly? Secondly, since any change in the law will be too late for Deborah, will he use his discretion to allow Deborah Phillips to stay in the United Kingdom? That is acutely necessary in this case at this time, since a change in the law that comes into effect tomorrow—in fact, in precisely 17 minutes—means that if Deborah has to leave the UK, she will not be allowed back in for 10 years, as far as I can tell, under any circumstances. That means that she will not be allowed even to visit her mother, whatever the circumstances, because the effect of the law is mandatory. So, no matter how ill her mother is, no matter what goes wrong, no matter what the circumstances, Deborah will not even be able to visit her.

I repeat that my request is straightforward. We all like to claim that our preferred immigration policy is both firm and fair, but both parts are important. Policies should be both firm and fair. Let the Minister demonstrate today that he believes that too, and prevent Mrs. Betty Phillips from having to live out the latter stages of her life in loneliness and unhappiness, forcibly separated from her daughter and granddaughter by a law that was simply not thought through properly.

The Minister is a civilised man. I hope that he will give us a civilised answer to the problem.

I am grateful for the opportunity to respond to tonight’s Adjournment debate. Sometimes in debates about immigration, I think that there is a great deal of consensus in all parts of the House that is sometimes not revealed or seen in the public domain. Tonight may be another example of the consensus between us being greater than the things that divide us.

The right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis) mentioned a specific case in his constituency, but it raises wider points of policy, as he said, which will command the attention of the House both this evening and, I hope, in months to come. I thank him for the courteous and careful way in which he has made representations to me over the past few months.

I congratulate the Hull Daily Mail on championing the case. I have not always agreed with the direction of its editorial policy, but judging by some e-mails that I received this afternoon—from the right hon. Gentleman’s constituents, I think—telling me that many local people disagree with the Hull Daily Mail, it is doing something that it feels is right even if it is not popular with all sections of its readership.

I wish to delineate two issues: the way in which decisions are made, and why they are made. Those are the wider policy issues to which the right hon. Gentleman alluded. I shall conclude by proposing a way forward. The basic chronology of the case is a matter of agreement between us. As the right hon. Gentleman said, Deborah Phillips was born in the United States and spent the first years of her life there. She came to the United Kingdom and spent a considerable period of her childhood and early adulthood here before returning to the United States. In other words, although she was educated in the UK, she built her life in the United States, in the services and then, I think, in business. I believe that her brother remains there.

I first wish to set out how decisions are taken. It is often forgotten in the public debate that it is rarely Ministers who make such decisions. The decisions are taken by independent Crown civil servants and, often, independent immigration judges. In this case, the right hon. Gentleman’s constituent failed in her appeal to the asylum and immigration tribunal in December 2006. The judge found that:

“The situation as between mother and daughter”

was not

“so exceptional that to deprive her of the right…to live with her mother would place this country in breach of its obligations under Article 8 of the Human Rights Convention”.

In reaching its finding, the AIT held that Miss Phillips’s mother was financially independent and could afford to pay for her own care, that her mother had travelled to the United States in 2006 for an operation, and that Miss Phillips had a brother in the US. That is simply a summary of some of the things that the judge said.

I do not think that when judges make decisions of such force and clarity the House would want Ministers overturning them left, right and centre. The question that we must turn to is whether the framework within which the judgment was made was not quite right, and whether justice demands a different solution. In this case, as the right hon. Gentleman set out, the question is whether the framework of the British Nationality Act 1981 and its amendments is quite right.

Before 1983, British women were unable to pass on citizenship, but there was discretion in the British Nationality Act 1948 to confer citizenship on any minor by registration. That was why Merlyn Rees, when he was Home Secretary, said on 7 February 1979 that he would exercise discretion in favour of any minor of a UK-born mother who applied for registration before his or her 18th birthday. In other words, that concession would benefit anybody born after 1961, as long as they registered before their 18th birthday.

In the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002, this Government widened that concession through an amendment to the 1981 Act, which meant that people could register after the age of 18. The nub of the argument was that there may well have been children in some parts of the world who were unaware of the proceedings of the House of Commons, incredible as that might seem. New section 4C was introduced and added on Third Reading in the Lords without dispute.

However, the problem in the right hon. Gentleman’s case is that the provision does not help Ms Phillips, as she was born before 1961, in 1959. That issue was addressed by Lord Filkin in 2002, when he said:

“British women did not acquire the right to pass on their citizenship until 1983. One can only go so far towards righting the wrongs of history before the number of ‘what ifs’ to be taken into account becomes unmanageable.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 31 October 2002; Vol. 640, c. 295-6.]

Any geographical or time limitation in the new registration provision would have produced hard-luck cases. At the time, the Government felt justified in drawing a line around people who, had they applied in time, would have been registered as citizens under the terms of the policy in 1979. Nevertheless, the Government accept that those born to British mothers before 1961 are at a disadvantage, so I can confirm that we shall seek to bring forward a legislative remedy at an early stage, perhaps in the immigration reform Bill we have already proposed.

Ms Phillips is one of the hard-luck cases referred to by Lord Filkin, so the question for us is whether there is a unique combination of factors that warrants leave outside the rules. The right hon. Gentleman pointed out that there is probably only a limited number of people in that category; none the less it is important to look first at whether there are particular extenuating circumstances, and in this case I believe there are.

Many of those circumstances could come under the existing carer’s concession in the immigration rules. It allows Ministers and caseworkers to exercise discretion, and in compassionate circumstances a period of leave of up to 12 months can be granted. I think that that would be appropriate in this case because of a combination of factors that include the following: first, Ms Phillips’s role as her mother’s full-time carer; secondly, Ms Phillips’s inability to apply for citizenship, as a result of the legislation that I propose soon to amend; thirdly, the length of time of Ms Phillips’s residence in the UK; fourthly, the ties that Ms Phillips’s daughter has built up during their four years’ residence in the UK—as the right hon. Gentleman told me last week, and confirmed today, her daughter is in school in the UK; and, finally, and perhaps most important, the news that the right hon. Gentleman conveyed to me about Deborah Phillips’s mother’s condition and the role that Deborah Phillips wants to take as her carer.

The combination of those factors points to a requirement on me to exercise discretion in this case, so it is appropriate to grant leave of 12 months, exceptionally, outside the rules.

As the hon. Gentleman is clearly moving towards the solution I was hoping for, I take this opportunity to thank him for being as civilised and thoughtful as I always thought he was.

The right hon. Gentleman is very kind. I thank him, too, for the way in which he presented the case to me and for his efforts to draw the wider issues to the attention of the House.

Finally, I wanted to give a pointer either to my work in the future or—who knows in this job?—perhaps the work of my successor. It is perfectly possible that the 12 months’ leave that I think I am able to grant will expire before the immigration simplification reforms that we shall propose are on the statute book, in which case I think it would be appropriate to extend the leave again.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at seven minutes to Twelve o’clock.