Skip to main content

UK Citizenship

Volume 575: debated on Tuesday 11 February 2014

I am grateful for the opportunity to air this issue in the House this afternoon. Although the power to deprive British nationals of citizenship, amplified in clause 60 of the Immigration Bill, might seem to some a mere legal technicality, important issues lie behind it. Clause 60 is wrong-headed, and I hope that airing the issues this afternoon will lead people in another place to throw the clause out of the Bill.

The clause provides for the Secretary of State to render a person stateless by depriving him or her of their nationality where citizenship has been gained through naturalisation and where

“the Secretary of State is satisfied that the deprivation is conducive to the public good because the person, while having that citizenship status, has conducted him or herself in a manner which is seriously prejudicial to the vital interests of the United Kingdom”.

First, I would remind the House that we are talking about terror suspects. Nowadays in Parliament, saying that someone is suspected of terrorist activity is enough for the political class to assume that that person does not deserve due process. It is worth reminding the House that those people have not actually been convicted of any crime. Sadly, I have to say, the currency of political debate about terrorism has been so debased, first under Tony Blair and now under the coalition, that alleged terrorists are now routinely deemed to be the only category of alleged criminal who are not allowed due process—even alleged paedophiles have to have due process, but not alleged terrorists.

My view is that if someone is suspected of terrorism, the obvious step is to put them on trial. I am supported in that view by no less a person than the late Lord Kingsland, the former Conservative shadow Lord Chancellor, who said in 2002:

“If we identify someone as a person proposing to commit a serious terrorist offence…surely the obligation is on us to deal with that person. If we simply deport him, we shall be handing on…this terrorist problem to another state which may not have the same capability of dealing with it…It cannot be a proper response to the terrorist threat to refuse to deal with it ourselves”.—[Official Report, House of Lords, 9 October 2002; Vol. 639, c. 277-278.]

That was the view of the Conservative party in 2002, but clearly things have changed in the intervening time.

Being realistic, we know that the security services have always resisted trial for many suspected terrorists because—this is my understanding—they do not want to make public their wire-tapping and other surveillance methods. I have always found that argument dubious, and it is even less credible post the Snowden revelations, which have revealed to us all more about state surveillance than we ever wanted to know. Instead of due process, the security services and their political adherents in both parties prefer secret courts, detention without trial and now this attempt to strip away citizenship.

That leads me to one of the big problems with clause 60 of the Immigration Bill: it creates two different classes of British citizenship. There are those, such as myself, who are British citizens because we were born here, and there are those, including some of the people who work for me, who are British citizens by naturalisation. We will have two classes of British citizens. That is a dangerous road to go down. In support of that view I quote no less a person than the hon. Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg), who, as I think most people know, is a Conservative MP and not someone who could be described as a bleeding-heart liberal. On Report, when clause 60 was added to the Immigration Bill, he said:

“I am perhaps rather romantic in my view of what it means to be a British subject. I always thought that Palmerston got it right on the Don Pacifico affair—the ‘civis Romanus sum’ principle. Once any one of us has a passport that says we are British, we are as British as anybody else, whether they were born here or got their passport five minutes ago. It is incredibly important that there is equality before the law for all Her Majesty’s subjects who are living in this country and have right of residence here. I worry that if we give the Government the ability to take passports away from a certain category of British subject but not from others, it will create a potential unfairness and a second category of citizen.”—[Official Report, 30 January 2014; Vol. 574, c. 1086.]

That goes to the heart of one of the problems with the legislation.

We should not have, as it were, class A and class B British citizens. In communities such as mine, the fear will be that although this has started with suspected terrorists, where will it end, once the state decides that British citizenship is not indivisible? The Home Secretary has said, rather unfortunately, that citizenship is a privilege, not a right, but citizenship is not a privilege or a right; it is a fact. Deciding that it is not a fact and that the state can chop and change when it comes to the light in which it regards someone’s citizenship, is, I believe—as does the hon. Member for North East Somerset—a dangerous road to go down.

Another problem with the proposal is that in stripping a terrorism suspect of their nationality, there is a danger that we could render them stateless. That problem was raised on Report. The Secretary of State argued that

“we are talking about a situation in which they”—

that is, the person deprived of citizenship—

“would be able to acquire statehood from somewhere else.”—[Official Report, 30 January 2014; Vol. 574, c. 1040.]

However, even the most cursory glance at clause 60 reveals that the provision is not limited in that way, but allows individuals to be rendered stateless without reference to the possibility of securing citizenship elsewhere. The Home Secretary said:

“The whole point of the measure is to be able to remove certain people”.—[Official Report, 30 January 2014; Vol. 574, c. 1043.]

That assertion raises a number of important questions. I am interested to hear from the Minister how the Government will remove people who have no nationality and no travel documents.

The hon. Lady is making an important point. If another state were to remove citizenship from a naturalised citizen who was originally from the UK, does she envisage that it would be at all likely that our country would be enthusiastic about offering citizenship to that person? If we would not, why should we imagine that other countries would offer citizenship to someone who has had their citizenship revoked by this Government?

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. The Government want to be able to move on people whom they consider a threat to the state, but why should other countries accept someone who has been stripped of citizenship here in the UK?

It is even worse, is it not? Potentially, the only countries that would offer nationality to a person reckoned to be a suspected terrorist would be countries where we probably would not want that person to end up, because they would by definition be countries that sponsor terrorism. We would end up with people in this country who we would simply be keeping completely stateless, without any role or standing. We cannot simply banish them to France as we would have done in the middle ages.

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. In saying that, I am accepting an argument that I do not really support, namely that somehow, because someone is alleged to be a terrorist, that makes them a terrorist. Even if we accept that logic, we will not be making the country any safer, because we cannot move such people on anywhere.

Statelessness is a notion that the British Government were trying to move away from for a long time. In 1930, Britain was among the first to ratify the convention on certain questions relating to the conflict of nationality, which included a protocol relating to certain cases of statelessness. The universal declaration of human rights, which was adopted by the UN General Assembly with UK support as far back as 1948, says:

“Everyone has the right to a nationality…No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his nationality”,

yet that is what clause 60 of the Immigration Bill seeks to do.

Deprivation of citizenship is a severe sanction and statelessness is a separate and even more brutal punishment with unique practical and legal consequences. Although it is an aspiration of human rights activists that fundamental rights such as the right to life and the prohibition on torture should attach to all human beings, the reality is that we live in a world deeply divided along national borders, in which it is notoriously difficult to access redress for, or protection on, human rights matters without nationality.

Going further forward, the UN convention on the reduction of statelessness, which is where we are supposed to be going, was adopted in 1961 and ratified by the UK in 1966. It stipulates that, absent circumstances of fraudulent application or disloyalty toward the contracting state, deprivations and renunciations of citizenship will take effect only where a person has or subsequently obtains another nationality in replacement. The clause moves away from that. This country has spent a generation trying to move away from statelessness, but we are now going in reverse.

We may not have seen the end of this matter; that is why the other place should look at the provision. We had the Home Secretary saying that citizenship was a privilege, not a right, but citizenship is a fact. During the same debate, Alok Sharma MP—

The hon. Member for Reading West (Alok Sharma) raised with the Home Secretary the question of whether we could extend the stripping away of citizenship from naturalised citizenship. He said:

“I am a naturalised British citizen and the clause therefore applies to me. I support it wholeheartedly…Perhaps my right hon. Friend should go even further…and introduce similar sanctions against anyone who is British, irrespective of how they got British citizenship”.

The Home Secretary responded:

“My hon. Friend makes an important point about…the desire that we have in the House to ensure that we can take appropriate action against people who are acting in a manner that is not conducive to the public good”.—[Official Report, 30 January 2014; Vol. 574, c. 1042.]

One of the problems with the new clause is that it opens the door to further arbitrary deprivation of citizenship. It must be wrong in principle to create two classes of citizenship. It is wrong in practice because it will create a class of stateless people who, in practice, cannot be moved out of the UK. It seems that the coalition Government introduced the clause as a short-term strategy to see off a related but separate clause covering the ability of foreign criminals to resist deportation on the grounds that they have a right to family life. I suggest that the civil liberties of British citizens are too important to be tampered with for short-term political advantage.

Coming as I do from a family in which many members of my parents’ generation obtained British citizenship through naturalisation, and representing as I do a part of London where many of my constituents obtained British citizenship through naturalisation, I am naturally wary of any move to create two classes of British citizenship, as that could affect so many of my constituents and even members of my family. The clause was thought up in a hurry, and as with so much legislation that is thought up in a hurry, it is deeply flawed. I sincerely hope that when Members of the other place consider it, they will take it out of the Bill.

I welcome you, Mr Sheridan, to the Chair. I congratulate the hon. Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) on securing this debate, and I respect the passion with which she made her points this afternoon. I hope that my comments will reassure her and clarify some of the misapprehensions she has raised in the context of the measures that have been introduced into the Immigration Bill, which is starting its consideration in another place.

I welcome the opportunity to correct some of the issues surrounding the powers to deprive a person of citizenship and the Government’s proposed legislative changes in the Bill. As the Home Secretary outlined in her speech to the House last month, depriving people of their citizenship is a very serious matter, and the hon. Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington rightly emphasised that in her contribution this afternoon. It is one of the most serious sanctions a state can take against a person. The decision requires considerable research, evidence gathering and consultation by officials throughout the Government, and the Home Secretary herself reviews and signs it off to ensure that it is proportionate and necessary. The issue also concerns national security and our attempts to remove dangerous individuals from the UK.

It may be helpful if I start by outlining the Government’s existing provisions and powers, and the safeguards that already exist, before going on to explain the purpose of the proposals in the Immigration Bill and addressing some of the hon. Lady’s specific questions.

The Minister will be aware that in response to a freedom of information request, we now know that between 2010 and 2013, the Home Secretary revoked the passports of 16 British nationals under the current section 40 of the British Nationality Act 1981 on public good grounds. At least five of those people were born in the UK and one had been resident for almost 50 years. When the Home Secretary was asked during Report stage of the Immigration Bill what happened to those 16 people, she did not provide specific information. Can the Minister provide information now, or at least write to me with an explanation?

I will certainly address some of the hon. Lady’s points, but I am unable to provide further details about specific cases. She is right about existing powers being utilised. Since 2006, there have been 27 examples of that. The powers have their origin in legislation dating back to the first world war—the hon. Lady looked at some of the history—when provision was made for the revocation of citizenship if a naturalised person was suspected of treasonable activities.

The current position under section 40 of the British Nationality Act 1981, as amended by the previous Labour Government in 2002 and 2006, is that the Home Secretary can deprive a British citizen of their citizenship in two scenarios. The first is when the person acquired it using fraud, false representation or concealment of a material fact. That essentially means that they used deception to obtain citizenship for which they were not eligible or, had we known the full and true facts, we would not have granted the application. In such cases, the person involved may be left stateless. The second scenario is when the Home Secretary is satisfied that deprivation is

“conducive to the public good”

and the person would not be left stateless as a result. We want to amend the second of those two conditions to ensure that individuals who are a serious threat to this country cannot retain citizenship simply because deprivation would leave them stateless.

As I said, a Labour Government amended the British Nationality Act 1981 in 2002 and 2006. That provided for deprivation when it was

“conducive to the public good”.

That is a broad power which gives the Home Secretary discretion to respond to changing threats, and covers cases involving national security, including espionage, war crimes, serious and organised crime and unacceptable behaviours such as the glorification of terrorism. Conducive deprivation can be pursued against any British citizen, including British-born citizens, as a result of the changes introduced in 2002. In practice, because a person cannot be left stateless, it applies only to those who would have another nationality when they are deprived. That provision would remain and is unchanged by our proposals.

A number of safeguards are in place for deprivation cases and those will remain, which is important to understand. First, any decision to deprive will arise only after extensive research and understanding of an individual’s previous behaviour, any potential human rights issues and the threats that they pose to the UK. Officials from the Home Office and other Departments are consulted before the information is reviewed and a final decision made by the Home Secretary.

Secondly, any person deprived of their citizenship has a full right of appeal. Grounds for appeal can include both the legality of the action and the merits of the Secretary of State’s decision. Such appeals are heard at either the first-tier tribunal—the immigration and asylum chamber—or, where issues of national security are relevant, at the Special Immigration Appeals Commission, or SIAC. In both cases, any onward challenge can be to the Court of Appeal or other higher courts. That is not being changed by the wider, necessary changes to the appeals system contained in the Immigration Bill.

Thirdly, deprivation action is taken only against those individuals who meet the thresholds that I have outlined. We do not and cannot take deprivation action against family members—husbands, wives or children—on the basis of their relationship to the person being deprived.

Finally, let me be clear: this Government do not take deprivation action lightly. There is a high threshold and only a small number of individuals are deprived of their citizenship. As I said, since 2006, 27 people have been deprived under these conducive powers.

The hon. Lady highlighted the new provisions in the Immigration Bill. Clause 60 is the relevant clause that she touched on: it seeks to address the most serious deprivation cases where we have previously been prevented from taking action because it may leave the individual stateless. At present, we cannot deprive someone of citizenship even in circumstances where an individual could acquire another nationality or reacquire their previous one.

We recognise the need to avoid statelessness and are committed to maintaining our international obligations. However, we do not believe that that should be at a cost to the national security of the UK. It is a fact that article 8(3) of 1961 UN convention on the reduction of statelessness specifies that a state may retain the right to deprive any person of their nationality, regardless of whether it would leave them stateless, if the person has

“conducted himself in a manner seriously prejudicial to the vital interests of the State”,

if, at the time of ratification, those grounds exist in domestic law.

Therefore, when the UK ratified that UN convention, it made such a declaration that allowed for the prospect of leaving a person stateless in certain circumstances. Those circumstances, as they existed in the domestic law of the time, include the ability to deprive a naturalised person of their citizenship—regardless of whether it would leave them stateless—when an individual has conducted themselves in a manner seriously prejudicial to the vital interests of Her Britannic Majesty. That is a high threshold for cases involving national security and those who take up arms against British or allied forces. Clause 60 of the Immigration Bill seeks to recreate that very set of circumstances.

Many of us are puzzled about why the Minister calls in aid national security in making people stateless, if making people stateless would in effect make it almost impossible to move them to another country. Some people cite the case of Bilal al-Berjawi, who was a British-Lebanese citizen whom we did make stateless when he was overseas. His solicitor has argued that

“the process of deprivation of citizenship made it easier for the US to then designate Sakr”—

who accompanied Bilal al-Berjawi—

“as an enemy combatant, to whom the UK owes no responsibility whatsoever.”

This man was killed in a drone attack. Are we really talking about making people stateless when they are overseas in order to make them vulnerable targets of drone attacks by the United States?

May I directly address the suggestion that any action on deprivation of citizenship is linked, in any way, to the sort of activity that the hon. Lady highlighted? I strenuously deny that. They are two clearly separate issues and there is nothing to indicate, in any respect, that they are linked.

It is true that people have been deprived while outside the UK, but I do not accept that it is a particular tactic. It is simply an operational reality that in some cases the information comes to light when the person is outside the UK or that it is the final piece of the picture, confirming what has been suspected. In other cases, we may determine that the most appropriate response to the actions of an individual is to deprive that person while they are outside the UK. Equally, there are cases where it can be determined that it is appropriate to take action to deprive individuals while they are inside the UK.

It is not true that all those deprived under the clause will be stateless. Some may be able to acquire or reacquire another nationality. In those cases, where the individual has been deprived while in the UK, we would seek to remove that individual from the UK once they had acquired another nationality. However, the clause is not limited to those cases and can be applicable to those who cannot acquire another nationality. In that event, it is open to them to make an application to stay in the UK as a stateless person.

The UK would continue to comply with the provisions of the 1961 UN convention on the reduction of statelessness, regarding the rights of stateless persons. Where appropriate, we could regularise a person’s position in the UK by granting limited leave—possibly with conditions relating to access to public funds and their right to work and study.

I come back to the hon. Lady’s point about the concept, as she described it, of two-tier citizenship. We do not accept that there is, or will be, a two-tier citizenship system. The proposal merely reflects the fact that there are differing routes to citizenship, and therefore, different actions permissible depending on the actions of the person concerned. The power to deprive a person of citizenship, as I have explained, already exists and certain aspects can only be applied depending on a person’s route to citizenship. Naturalised or registered citizens can be deprived if they obtained it by means of fraud, false representation or concealment of a material fact. Any citizen can be deprived if the Secretary of State considers it conducive to the public good and the person would not be left stateless as a result, so I do not accept the hon. Lady’s suggestion.

I understand that Members are concerned about instances where deprivation action takes places when a person is outside the UK, and I hear the hon. Lady’s point. I restate that the Home Secretary takes deprivation action only when she considers it is appropriate and that may mean doing so when an individual is abroad, which prevents their return and reduces the risk to the UK. That individual would still have a full right of appeal and the ability to resolve their nationality issues accordingly. It is often the travel abroad to terrorist training camps or to countries with internal fighting that is the tipping point—the crucial piece of the jigsaw—that instigates the need to act.

The Minister refers to the right of appeal, and he outlined earlier the courts available for that process. Will he confirm that it would therefore, in some cases, be an appeal that is conducted under closed material proceedings?

As I indicated, a route is open to SIAC to consider that, and closed material proceedings could be applicable in certain circumstances—not automatically; it would depend on the nature of the individual case. It is appropriate, however, that there is that right of appeal and right of challenge, and SIAC effectively provides that ability to do so.

I reassure Members that the new power would apply only to those who are naturalised citizens—crucially, not children, who are not able to naturalise as British citizens, nor anyone who is British by birth or registration. That is because our original declaration reasonably limits action only to those who have sought the privilege of British citizenship but then betray the values and laws that they swore to maintain.

Ultimately, the new power will be used sparingly. It will be relevant only in a small subset of the most serious deprivation cases, where we are currently precluded from taking action because those people would be left stateless. Our proposed clause is a targeted and proportionate measure that protects the security of the UK without jeopardising our international obligations. It provides for effective rights of appeal and for upholding the 1961 UN convention on the reduction of statelessness.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington for bringing the matter to the Chamber this afternoon and for enabling me to set out more details on the proposals. As she has rightly identified, this matter is before the other place, and I am sure that it will give the issues careful scrutiny and consideration.

Sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No.10(13)).