Skip to main content

Citizenship (Armed Forces) Bill

Volume 752: debated on Friday 7 February 2014

Second Reading

Moved by

My Lords, the Bill has, of course, now passed through the other place in the expert hands of my honourable friend Mr Jonathan Lord. It allows the Secretary of State—that is to say, the Home Secretary—to waive the requirement in the case of members of the Armed Forces to have been in the United Kingdom on the date five years before an application for naturalisation. Your Lordships will appreciate that members of the Armed Forces could be on an overseas posting at the relevant date and thus placed at a disadvantage.

Accordingly, the Bill seeks to amend Schedule 1 to the British Nationality Act 1981, which sets out the requirements for naturalisation as a British citizen under Section 6(1) of that Act. That section allows for naturalisation on the grounds of residence in the United Kingdom. The same Act requires the applicant to be physically present in the United Kingdom at the start of the five-year qualifying period for naturalisation. Although so-called Crown service provides an exemption from this provision, that exemption can in practice be used only in cases of exceptional Crown service. The effect of the Bill is to broaden this exemption to accommodate service in Her Majesty’s forces, including the circumstances where a member has been subsequently discharged or has returned to the United Kingdom. The definition of members of the Armed Forces is taken from Section 50 of the British Nationality Act, to which I have just referred.

I am glad to say that the costs associated with implementing this Bill will be negligible since these applications are funded through application fees and no significant change in the volume of applications is expected. Service personnel will benefit from the Bill as soon as its provisions take effect, which is set at two months from Royal Assent. I beg to move.

My Lords, I hope that not too much of what is about to follow will be seen as motherhood and apple pie. Being at the stage of trying to lose some weight, too much apple pie is no good thing, and I have not yet tried motherhood. Those of us who are survivors of the post-Second World War baby boomer generation probably had parents who served in the forces during that war. My own father was a Royal Marine. He rarely spoke of the war in detail, but often commended the courage and generosity of others with whom he had served. A frequent theme was the remarkable generosity of foreign and Commonwealth nationals who came to serve with the British Armed Forces: Australians, Canadians, New Zealanders and so on, as well as Polish soldiers and airmen, and of course, then as now, the Gurkhas. This is a remarkable story, and one that we will remember again next year when we commemorate the 100th anniversary of Gallipoli in the First World War.

For that reason I congratulate the honourable Member for Woking on bringing this matter forward in another place. It is an inspired initiative and it is very encouraging that Her Majesty’s Government have embraced it so readily as an extension of all that has been so far achieved by putting the Armed Forces covenant on to the statute book. Some three years ago, I was pleased to offer a certain amount of time myself, alongside Peers from all parties and, of course, the Cross Benches to this very subject. During my time in this House it has been one of the initiatives in which I have been proud to play a very modest part.

The covenant has brought into statute law a tacit understanding of what our nation owes to Her Majesty’s forces and what they might expect from us in mutual support. It is an acknowledgment of the courage, tenacity and sacrifice made by those serving in the forces on land, in the air and at sea. But all those qualities are underpinned by a deeper foundation rooted in the real generosity of those who have given their time and sometimes their lives. This Bill recognises a still greater sense of self-offering by those who serve in our forces but who hail from other nations and parts of the world. The Bill is imaginative in drawing the implications of the armed services covenant into conjunction with the British Nationality Act 1981, as just noted by the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne. The amending of the requirements of that Act of Parliament ensures that foreign and Commonwealth members and former members of Her Majesty’s Armed Forces can apply for naturalisation on equal terms, irrespective of whether they were posted in the United Kingdom itself or overseas.

This is, of course, entirely consistent with the underlying principles enshrined in the Armed Forces covenant; namely, to combat disadvantage and discrimination. It is a clear sign of an act of good faith and of the trust which is implied by the very nature of the Armed Forces covenant. A covenant is an expression of mutual trust with implications, indeed imperatives, for those at either end of the covenant who thus make it a reality. I hope that noble Lords will forgive me for lapsing into theology, something which I know earlier politicians have considered takes us away from the main point. It is no accident, I would argue, that the word “covenant” is firmly rooted in the Judaeo-Christian tradition. There are at least four covenants enshrined in the Jewish scriptures, and an alternative name for the New Testament is indeed the New Covenant, which is an exact translation of the Greek. For the reason of the use of the word “covenant” alone, but for so much more in the emphasis on trust implied, the church is entirely supportive of these underlying principles.

The Bill is not about providing preferential treatment or positive discrimination for one particular section of society. Rather, it is about building inclusive communities by combating marginalisation and disadvantage. At heart it is about supporting the common good. For all these reasons I want us to support the Bill with all our hearts.

My Lords, it is very refreshing to be here on a Friday in early 2014 with a Bill before us on which I think we can all agree. It is a rather refreshing contrast to the experiences of recent Friday sittings. I give my support to my noble friend Lord Trefgarne unreservedly, and I do so for personal as well as general reasons. Having been born in Lincolnshire, I was brought up in Scotland during the war, as my father was stationed up there. One of his prized possessions, which is still a treasured memento within the family, was a little silver cigarette lighter inscribed by Polish officers whom he had instructed in the arts of navigation in the war. I can remember one or two of those Polish officers coming to our home and my father saying what marvellous men they were. At the end of the war I went back to Grimsby, the town I had been born in. A Polish regiment, the Carpathian Lancers, was being disbanded. Many of those soldiers became esteemed members of the local community. They also took up British citizenship, not necessarily because they wanted to do so—they wanted to go back to Poland—but because Poland had been absorbed into the Soviet bloc and they could only hope to enjoy freedom by staying in the United Kingdom. As I say, many of them became valued members of the local community.

We have moved on since then, and indeed in a year’s time we will be marking the 70th anniversary of the end of the Second World War, but it does well for us to remind ourselves, while we are discussing what I hope is a totally uncontroversial Bill, of just what we in this country owe to those who were not necessarily born as British subjects, but who took up arms to fight for freedom and, in the process, to fight for our country and for what they believed in. Today, the circumstances are very different, but even now we still depend, with the much reduced numbers in our Armed Forces, on a number of people who are not native-born British subjects. We all know about the Gurkhas, but there are many others from the Commonwealth and other countries who give valiant service. A number have been decorated for their service in Afghanistan, and some have lost their lives. So it is wholly right that those who enlist in the British Armed Forces should not suffer any impediment if they wish to become British subjects while they are still serving in the forces, when they have retired, or if they have been forced to leave through injury.

This is a modest measure but it is a very important one symbolically. I hope that we will never need to talk of it in a Scottish context. I give my noble friend my total support. We all owe him a debt of gratitude for bringing the Bill forward, and I trust that it will receive the unanimous support of all Members of your Lordships’ House.

My Lords, I think that the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, is right to say that the Bill will receive unanimous support across your Lordships’ House. We certainly welcome the Bill and join other noble Lords in congratulating Jonathan Lord and the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne, on bringing it forward to your Lordships’ House. In addition to its content—which, rightly, has widespread support—the Bill has the advantage of being short and very clear and precise in what it seeks to do. Such clarity of purpose is very welcome in a Private Member’s Bill. I also join in the tributes to members of our Armed Forces. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Wakefield and the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, spoke with eloquent passion on that issue, and I concur with the comments they made.

We all read and see reports of the activities of those who serve in our Armed Forces, both at home and abroad, but it is really only by talking to them and their families that we can fully appreciate the extent of the work they do and the sacrifices that they and their families make. We welcome the Bill. The principle enshrined in the Armed Forces covenant—that no member of the Armed Forces should face disadvantage as a result of their service—is a very important one. We must also recognise that to fulfil that commitment to our service men and women, they will at times receive special and different treatment to ensure that they do not face discrimination or disadvantage. That principle has our total support. It is also right that it should apply to those who serve and apply for British citizenship.

I know that in the other place they had lengthy debates, which I have read, and they looked at all the potential problems with the Bill; but there are none. Although I do not think that that kind of debate will be necessary here, a couple of outstanding matters were raised in the other place which I do not think were addressed by the Minister, Mr Harper. Perhaps the noble Lord can help with those, either today or in writing.

First, can he clarify the numbers? Government immigration policy has been largely based on numbers—for example in respect of net migration and immigration —but the number of people who will be affected by the Bill is not very clear. I think the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne, said there will be no impact on numbers, but the estimates that I have seen from looking at the debates in the other place range between 100 and 300. It is slightly unclear. It may be that there is no reliable estimate—I have no difficulty with that—and that the strength of the case of those who are serving in our Armed Forces and wish to become British citizens is enough in itself. However, if there is any reliable estimate of numbers, that would help your Lordships’ House.

The second point was a specific example raised by both Diana Johnson and Steve Reed, my honourable colleagues in the other place. I am aware of the general point, and the Minister may be too, but I will put it to him and hope that he can help me, even if it is in writing after today’s debate. If the length of service is cut short by a military injury or due to an injury sustained while serving in HM Armed Forces an individual cannot fulfil all the criteria required for citizenship, although in both cases he or she would have done so without such an injury, would they still be granted citizenship? It is a matter that can be addressed in guidance, and I do not intend to hold up the debate in any way, but I would be grateful for the noble Lord’s assurances on that point.

We agree that foreign and Commonwealth citizens who serve this country in the Armed Forces should not face disadvantages for doing so when applying for British citizenship. We are pleased to support the Bill.

My Lords, I am delighted to be here myself today to support the Bill on behalf of the Government. I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Trefgarne for taking up this Bill, which was so ably steered through the Commons by my honourable friend Jonathan Lord, and to colleagues in this House for lending their support. I appreciate the support the Bill has had from Her Majesty’s loyal Opposition, as expressed so positively by the noble Baroness, Lady Smith of Basildon, today.

I can give the noble Baroness some indication on numbers, although it is an imprecise science. The answer is that no separate figures are kept but, anecdotally, caseworkers estimate that they deal with approximately 200 to 300 cases per year. Only a small proportion of those will directly benefit from the provision in the Bill. If I can give any more precise figures I will do so in writing, but that is the situation at present.

This is one of those measures that does not affect a great many people, but those whom it does affect, it affects greatly, so we are right to support it in this House. I have discussed with the noble Baroness the matter of service overseas being interrupted by injury or disability. I have provided my noble friend Lord Trefgarne with a briefing note, as it is his Bill and I felt it appropriate that he should be able to answer that particular aspect.

The Bill is likely to have a considerable impact on the people at whom it is directed, as my noble friend—and fellow Lincolnshire yellowbelly—Lord Cormack pointed out. He gave a graphic description of how lives are affected by those who give service to this country overseas and how the whole point of the Bill is to safeguard their interest in questions of nationality. Once implemented, it will enable us to overlook the requirement to be in the UK on day 1 of the qualifying period for naturalisation, in the same way as we already overlook the requirement to have spent a certain number of days in the UK where the absence was a result of service in our Armed Forces. It is an unintended and unjust consequence of existing legislation that a member of our Armed Forces should have to wait longer to gain British citizenship just because he or she happened to have been posted overseas at the relevant time.

I am sure that my noble friend Lord Trefgarne will appreciate the support of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Wakefield, who rightly connected this measure to the Government’s commitment to the Armed Forces covenant. The measure is recognised as a priority commitment under the covenant, which the Home Office takes seriously. The service welfare organisations have both supported and challenged the Home Office throughout its delivery of this and other covenant commitments, and we will continue to work with them for the benefit of the Armed Forces community. The Government wish the Bill well.

My Lords, I am enormously grateful to all noble Lords who have spoken in support of the Bill, including the noble Baroness. The right reverend Prelate is of course quite right that the Bill comes within the context of the military covenant and is very much a downstream effect of that particular measure.

The noble Baroness, Lady Smith, asked about delays caused by injuries that might have been incurred overseas. For settlement applications, the requirement for four years’ service can be waived if an illness or injury is attributable to service and is sustained in an operational theatre. If it is not, a number of factors will be considered, including the severity of the injury, the length of service, the prognosis for recovery and the applicant’s ability to support himself or herself. Limited leave may be given where the applicant does not qualify for settlement but needs a period of recovery before they leave the United Kingdom. A member of the Armed Forces who is granted settlement following medical discharge will be able to apply for citizenship as and when the five-year residency requirement is met. For example, if the individual is medically discharged and granted indefinite leave to remain after two years’ service, he must wait a further three years before becoming eligible to naturalise. The Bill has the potential to help such an individual where he or she was serving overseas on the date five years before the application for naturalisation. The Secretary of State could, at the moment, waive the requirement where the individual was still serving and still overseas, but the Bill will extend this discretion to those who have left Her Majesty’s forces or who have returned to the UK. I hope that that is a satisfactory explanation.

Bill read a second time and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.