I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
The Bill seeks to address a technical legal issue identified by the Home Office with a long-standing policy that operated from 1983 until the early 2000s under successive Governments of both parties, relating to the criteria for determining whether European economic area nationals living in the UK during that period were “settled”.
The concept of settlement is important. The British Nationality Act 1981 defines it as being ordinarily resident in the UK and without restriction on the period for which one may remain, and it is also referred to as “free from immigration time restrictions”. As many Members will know, the Act introduced changes for acquisition of citizenship, shifting from a “birth on soil” approach to a requirement for at least one parent to be British or settled in the UK at the time of the birth. Thus the issue of whether or not an individual is settled has a knock-on effect on the citizenship of any children born to that individual in the United Kingdom.
I thoroughly welcome the Bill. I have a constituent who falls into this category. She had to prove her nationality, although, having lived here for 33 years—this is the only country she ever knew, and English is the only language she has ever spoken—she did not even know that she was not British until she had to apply for a passport. She was estranged from her mother, and therefore found herself having to have very painful conversations with a family member to prove that she was what she had always thought she was. Does the Minister agree that the Bill will sort out issues of that kind?
I strongly agree with the hon. Lady. The Home Office would argue that her constituent has always been British and should be considered so, but there has been a degree of legal doubt following the recent case, so it was right that we brought forward this legislation at the earliest opportunity and that it is retrospective, so that all constituents who have been concerned can know that, clearly in law, they are and have always been British citizens.
I warmly welcome this piece of legislation. I have a constituent whose son falls into this category and it was frankly alarming for him to be told that his citizenship was in jeopardy. It is really good that the Government have acted so swiftly and I urge everyone in the House to support this legislation. I hope that we will see it on the statute book as soon as possible.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend. She has raised the case to which she referred with me to represent her constituent. As she says, being a citizen of this country is an important and special status, and nobody should be in doubt about whether that is truly legally sound. The Bill puts that beyond doubt, and I am pleased that we have been able to do this expeditiously. I am grateful for her support and, I suspect, that of Members on both sides of the House today.
During the period from 1 January 1983 to 1 October 2000, individuals lawfully exercising a free movement right in England, Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland—for example, as workers—were considered by the Home Office to be free from immigration time restrictions. Consequently, they were treated as settled for nationality purposes and any children born to them during that period were regarded as British citizens. This interpretation was supported by Home Office policy documents and guidance.
However, as I have just referenced, recent litigation, while not directly challenging that historical approach, has exposed a legal technicality suggesting that it was not correct and that EEA nationals in exercise of a free movement right were not in fact settled, as their residence should always have been deemed subject to immigration time restrictions. This has understandably led to concerns about the citizenship status of individuals born in the UK in the relevant period to parents exercising a free movement right who had always thought themselves to be British and been treated as such by successive Governments. Given the passage of time and the volumes of people potentially affected, the House will appreciate that this uncertainty is not something that we wish to countenance.
Hopefully the Bill will proceed with support from both sides. On a directly related matter, the Minister will be aware that there are thousands of citizens across the United Kingdom, many of them in Northern Ireland, who were born a few miles across the border in the Irish Republic after 1948 but who are currently not allowed to get a British passport. Technically, even though they reside in the UK, have lived in the UK for decades, are taxpayers in the UK and vote in the UK, they cannot get a British passport without naturalising at a cost of £1,300. They have the support of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee of this House and they have cross-community support in Northern Ireland. Once the passage of this Bill has concluded, will the Minister undertake to look again at this matter, revise it, and hopefully come forward with a proposition that will alleviate the problem?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. This is an issue that I am aware of and I would be happy to have a further conversation with him and to give it further thought. We want a fair system whereby British citizenship is available to all those who are naturalised and who have lived here for sustained periods, and a system that is as accessible as possible.
To continue the point I was making, legislating quickly and proactively to provide reassurance is the right thing to do. The Bill will operate by confirming in law the previous policy position. This will protect the nationality rights of people born in the UK to parents who were considered settled on the basis of exercising a free movement right and those who registered or naturalised as British citizens based on that policy. The Bill also clarifies when EEA nationals could be considered settled on the basis of exercising an equivalent right in Jersey, Guernsey or the Isle of Man, which are part of the United Kingdom for nationality purposes. It is right that this approach is adopted in those locations to ensure that no one loses out on a citizenship right to which they have a reasonable expectation of being entitled, based on published policy and operational practice.
Like my hon. Friend the Member for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell), I fully support and welcome the Bill.
I am not sure whether the Minister is aware that, last week, a former leader of Sinn Féin said that, when Unionists talk to Sinn Féin about a united Ireland, it would be Sinn Féin and the Republic of Ireland that would be handing out British passports. I am very proud to have a British passport and the benefits it brings, so will the Minister put it clearly on the record today that people born in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland will have a British passport; that it will be the Minister, the Government and the Department that will be handing out those passports; and that Sinn Féin and the Republic of Ireland Government will never hand out a British passport to any citizen, and nor should they?
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point, and he is right to make that point. I will restate it for him, if that would be helpful.
I want to be clear that the Bill is not about creating new British citizens. These are people who have always considered themselves to be British, and whom successive Governments have also considered as such. They may have lived here, worked here, had children here and organised their lives based on policy published under both Conservative and Labour Governments confirming that they are British. It is essential that we provide them with legal certainty as to their citizenship status as soon as possible, so they can continue their lives in our country with the same rights and entitlements they have always enjoyed.
I think we can all agree that this short but important Bill seeks to do the right thing by putting the citizenship status of affected individuals beyond doubt, and I urge all colleagues on both sides of the House to support its quick passage.
I thank the Minister for that introduction and overview of the Bill. It is not often that I find myself in full agreement with him but, in this case, I am very pleased to say that we are on the same page. I am used to sparring with him—verbally, of course—on a range of topics on which we have not always seen eye to eye, but the Opposition welcome the Bill and the Government’s commitment to its expedited passage.
This is a narrow piece of legislation that addresses a specific issue. Its purpose is not to implement any changes in legal entitlements to British citizenship but, rather, to codify in primary legislation what has been the established position of successive Governments of both parties. As such, we have not seen any reason to table amendments and we are happy to work with the Government to facilitate the Bill’s swift passage and implementation.
The Bill covers individuals born in the UK to parents from EU countries between 1983 and 2000. It codifies their right to citizenship, in line with successive Governments’ understanding of the British Nationality Act 1981. Many of these people will have held a British passport for many years. However, recent litigation in the Roehrig case raised potential problems for those applying for a passport for the first time. The explanatory notes suggest that only a small number of first-time applications have been made, which the Home Office placed on hold in October 2022, as a result of the Roehrig case. The Government’s position is that the Passport Office will be able to move forward with those applications once this Bill takes effect. Beyond that, the total number of people who may be covered by this legislation remains unclear. According to the equality impact assessment:
“no official figures exist to highlight the scale of the cohort impacted. However, we have combined data from two sources to reach the conclusion that there were in the region of 167,000 children born to EEA mothers between 1983 and 2000”.
So I want to ask the Minister a few questions. I totally understand if he cannot answer all of them now, but it would be useful for the House to have some clarification. I reiterate that we are ready to support the Government in moving this Bill through Parliament as quickly as possible. My questions are primarily on issues of implementation, on which further detail of the Government’s plans would be helpful to the House. Given the substantial gaps in the official data available, does the Home Office have any plans to work with the Office for National Statistics to carry out further research on the number of people who may be affected, particularly in terms of first-time applicants for a British passport?
Secondly, the explanatory notes state that once the Bill is enacted, the Home Office will be in a position to resume the processing of passport applications placed on hold in October last year. Will the Minister confirm that that means the Passport Office will restart the decision-making process immediately upon the Bill’s entry into force? Thirdly, what steps does the Home Office plan to take to ensure that the individuals affected are provided with access to advice and support on their rights and, where relevant, on what action they may need to take to obtain confirmation of their citizenship status and whether and how they may need to apply for a passport? Fourthly, for those who have already applied for their passport and others who may wish to do so, will the Minister confirm whether there will be any expedited procedures to process such applications without any further delays? Finally, will he clarify the Government’s position on any fees that may be payable and whether there are any plans to waive fees for the applicants in question? I feel that in the coming months Members from both sides of the House may well come across some of those issues in their constituencies, and I am sure everyone would find it helpful to have that information on those points. As I say, the Opposition support this Bill and are happy to facilitate its rapid passage through Parliament.
I, too, do not seek to detain the House for long on this Bill. It is a rare day indeed when I agree with something that the Immigration Minister is bringing forward—let us get that point down and hope we never return to it again. [Laughter.]
The SNP welcomes the Bill for the clarity it will bring, particularly given the confusion that has been caused by different approaches taken by the Home Office on the question of what “settled” means in the context of free movement. I am reassured by the briefing that we received from the Project for the Registration of Children as British Citizens, the3million, the Immigration Law Practitioners Association and Amnesty International, which also welcomes the Bill. The way in which the Home Office has consulted with them on it is welcome and something the Home Office ought to be doing more often. The briefing states:
“We are grateful to the Home Office for consulting with us immediately prior to this Bill’s introduction. Nonetheless, the history of this matter provides a further example of our concerns that British citizenship, and British nationality law from which the right to citizenship is derived, has been badly mistreated by successive Governments over a period of some decades. This is but one stark example.”
So before the Government get too much into slapping themselves on the back for this Bill, they should be cognisant of the fact that many issues associated with citizenship remain, many of which we will see in our surgeries, as local MPs.
I do not seek to reiterate what others have said, but I am concerned at the lack of official statistics identified in the equality impact assessment. It mentions 167,000 children born to EEA mothers between 1983 and 2000, but there are an unknown number of grandchildren also in this cohort. So what further work are the Government doing both to identify these people to let them know what their rights are and what they should do, and to make sure that Home Office and Passport Office officials who are making the decisions are also very clear about the situation. The lack of clarity over this has been a real problem. It should be the case that everybody, when applying for their first passport, knows that they are doing so properly and have the right to do so to avoid any confusion. There is nothing worse than people applying for passports and then there being an unexpected delay in the process. We are coming into that season where we will get those kinds of inquiries.
I understand from the Library briefing that the Home Office had stopped issuing first-time British passports to people affected by this, so it would be useful to hear from the Minister exactly how many people are in this paused group and what will be happening now to ensure that they get their passports. I expect that there has been some delay involved as a result of that passport being paused—people will not have been able to travel or do the things that they wanted to do and they will want to know when they will get those passports once the process restarts. It would be useful to have a picture of exactly how many people are affected, and I am sure that the Passport Office will have those figures.
I also note that the equality impact assessment references “The Windrush Lessons Learned Review” of Wendy Williams. This uncertainty around status speaks to some of the difficulties caused for the Windrush generation, but as the UK Government have ditched some of their commitments on upholding the principles from the review, can we be assured that the confusion that has led up to this point will not be recreated in a new EEA Windrush? People who have the right to be here, who have settled status, and who have the right to apply for a British passport should face no further impediment or confusion in applying for their passport.
In closing, there is a lot more that the Government need to do to improve the processes around citizenship and applying for passports and to make sure that there is a clearer, simpler, cheaper and more effective route to citizenship in the UK. I am certain that an independent Scotland will seek to make that route much clearer, much simpler and better so that people have the right to be here and can fully participate as Scottish citizens in an independent Scotland, and I look forward to that day.
I am grateful to the hon. Members for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock) and for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss) for their support for the Bill. Hopefully, this spirit of unity will be contagious for other legislation shortly to return to the House.
Let me reply to the specific and valid questions. First, on statistics, I will not repeat the numbers that the hon. Gentleman raised. Those are the best assessment that the Home Office currently has. We do not have a plan to ask the ONS, or any other body, to do further, deeper research. We do not feel that that is necessary, primarily because, by virtue of this piece of legislation, the rights of those British citizens will be confirmed. It will be retrospective, so those individuals should not need to do anything now, other than the small category of individuals whose passport applications were paused. We will need people at the Home Office and the Passport Office to process those applications as soon as possible.
The hon. Lady asked how many applications had been paused. As of 26 May, 95 passport applications were on hold. We are in communication with those affected to keep them updated. Once the legislation passes, it will be beyond doubt that they are British citizens in law and have always been so and we will be able to proceed with their passport applications. I will ask the Passport Office to process their applications expeditiously, so that any inconvenience they may have been put through can be resolved as quickly as possible. There will not be a need for them to pay any additional fee beyond what they have already paid, which will be the normal fee for a British citizen renewing their passport or applying for a first-time passport.
When I have experienced casework delays with the Department for Work and Pensions, a consolatory payment is sometimes offered to people where there have been extensive delays. Given that only 95 people are involved, would that be appropriate in this case?
We have not considered that, and I do not think it is necessary. We are of course sorry that those individuals have been inconvenienced; that was never the Home Office’s intention, either today or in the past. This litigation was unexpected and we have set out to remedy it as quickly as possible. I hope the hon. Lady will appreciate that we have brought forward this legislation quickly and, as she rightly noted, we have tried to consult relevant stakeholders so that there are good communications prior to its introduction.
The hon. Lady also mentioned Windrush; that is a very serious situation, but is a quite a different situation from the one we find ourselves in here. In this legislation we are reflecting a position that has existed in policy and guidance for several decades. We have responded quickly to implement the legal change necessary, following the court case heard in October last year, to provide that certainty. As I said in my opening remarks, we are not creating any new British citizens here, but recognising the citizenship of that cohort in law whom we had always believed existed and reflected in policy.
We remain absolutely committed, of course, to righting the wrongs of Windrush, whether through the Windrush compensation fund or more broadly, as she referred to, through ensuring that the Home Office makes good on its commitments to the Wendy Williams review. That is something we take very seriously.
In terms of any other impacts upon the individuals concerned here, there should be none. Once we have processed the remaining passport applications, those British citizens can and should continue with their lives as previously. We will ensure that Home Office staff, Passport Office personnel and any relevant stakeholders are properly trained so that, should people come forward with concerns in the weeks, months or years ahead as a result of this case, we can reassure them that, once this has been settled in law, they are and have always been British citizens.
I hope that responds to all the points made. With that, I shall conclude my remarks.
Question put and agreed to.
Bill accordingly read a Second time.