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Shamima and Jarrah Begum

Volume 796: debated on Monday 11 March 2019


My Lords, with the leave of the House I will repeat a response to an Urgent Question given by my right honourable friend the Home Secretary in the other place:

“Mr Speaker, we estimate that over 900 people left the UK to engage with the conflict in Syria and Iraq. Many have been killed fighting; some remain there; some have returned; others could still come back. Some irresponsibly took young British children with them. Some had children whilst there, as part of their mission to expand the so-called caliphate.

We have made it very clear since 2011 that no British citizen should travel to Syria. Those who have stayed until the bitter end include some of the most devoted supporters of Daesh. One of the ways we can deal with the threat they pose to the UK is to remove British citizenship from those holding another nationality. Since 2010, this power has been applied to around 150 people of a range of nationalities. It would not be appropriate for me to comment on the details of an individual case—although, clearly, the loss of any child is a tragedy. But if I may, I will address some of the issues raised.

First, these decisions are made very carefully. Where citizenship deprivation is being considered due to national security concerns, the decision is based on advice and intelligence from the security services, counterterrorism police and specialist security and legal officials in the Home Office. When people dedicated to keeping our country safe give an informed recommendation, any Home Secretary should listen very carefully.

Secondly, we are unable to provide support to British nationals within Syria, as the UK Government do not have a consular presence there. Thirdly, the status of a child does not change if their parents’ British citizenship is subsequently revoked.

There are no easy answers. I must think also about future conflicts and the precedents we set. I do not want any more children brought into a war zone because their parents think they will automatically be bailed out, no matter what the risk. But the UK is doing all we can to help innocent people caught up in this conflict. We have committed £2.8 billion to Syria since 2012—our largest ever response to a single humanitarian crisis. And we are on track to resettle 20,000 vulnerable refugees who have fled the country, with our national resettlement programme resettling more than any other EU member state in 2017.

I understand the public interest, so I have asked my officials to expedite the publication of our next transparency report on disruptive and investigatory powers, including the most up-to-date annual figures on deprivation of citizenship. This Government remain committed to protecting our citizens around the world. But I will not shy away from using the powers at my disposal to protect this country”.

My Lords, the decision taken by the Home Secretary to strip Shamima Begum of her citizenship was the wrong one. The route should have been for her to return to the UK and be fully investigated. It evidential tests were then met, she should have been prosecuted to the full extent of the law. If the tests were not met, appropriate prevention order measures should have been put in place.

The death of an innocent baby is a tragedy. Can the Minister please tell the House how the Government ensure that the rights of children—innocent young children and babies—are properly taken into account when decisions regarding their parents’ citizenship are made? Will she tell the House, when they decide to strip a child’s parent of their citizenship, how leaving that child in a more dangerous and risky situation—effectively abandoned by their country—complies with Articles 2, 3, 6, 19, 22, 38, 39 and 41, in particular, of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child?

I thank the noble Lord for that question. Of course, the death of any child is an absolute tragedy. In the camps in Syria, two-thirds of all deaths are children under the age of five. The situation in northern Syria is absolutely dire, and I know the noble Lord will agree that any parent who takes a child to that region, despite all the advice to the contrary, puts not only themselves beyond help but their child too.

I thank the Minister for repeating the explanation of the deprivation of British citizenship. I had understood that this should be used only as a last resort, but it now seems to be used as a first response. The Statement refers to removing British citizenship from those “holding another nationality”. Could the Minister confirm whether that means currently holding another nationality, or—as I believe is the case with Shamima Begum—entitled or possibly entitled to another nationality?

The noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, asked about taking the interests of the child into account in a fairly objective way. With regard to the particular child, we have heard—not specifically from the Statement—that the Home Secretary said that he took the interests of the child into account. Could the Minister tell the House how that was done?

Finally, there is obviously concern about safeguarding individual children. I believe that there is also an obvious concern about the new generation of children now in the region who will grow up to see the UK as an enemy, despite the fact that they have British citizenship. Can the Minister explain how we will prevent that situation getting much worse?

My Lords, we must make no mistake; the noble Baroness talked about making the situation worse, but it is hard to think how it could be any worse. As I said to the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, two-thirds of the people who die in the camps are children under the age of five.

On people who hold another nationality, my right honourable friend the Home Secretary has been absolutely clear that he will not deprive someone of their citizenship unless they possess the citizenship of another country.

On the interests of the child, the Home Secretary said that he took the decision based on all the facts of the case, which included the interests of the child. It would be very difficult to establish how one could take a child out of Syria, when it would be wrong to send British officials there to remove the child. The noble Baroness talked about safeguarding. Speaking of “safeguarding” in Syria seems to be a contradiction in terms: any parent who takes their child to Syria puts not only themselves beyond help but their child too.

My Lords, in relation to this matter, I raised the specific situation of children twice in previous Urgent Questions. Our law has a strong history of not just taking the interests of a child into account: in our family courts the interests of the child are paramount. How can it be that we do not have any legal process for the interests of the child to be considered separately from those of the parent?

The Statement said that children were taken out of the jurisdiction into Syria. Is it not the duty of a local authority to get this matter before our family courts, so that the interests of these children can be represented separately from those of their parents, and a decision made on whether it is safe to get them out of that situation if they should be separated from their parents?

My noble friend is absolutely right that the interests of a child should be paramount for local authorities. However, if that child is not in this country and is, for example, in Syria, they are—it is sad to say—beyond our help.

My Lords, the Minister rightly said that this case involves a highly complex set of issues—Britain’s security, the need for effective justice and the possibility of human rights abuse. But would she not agree that the tragic death of little Jarrah illustrates a much wider issue: that the British Government have a responsibility to British citizens, whoever they are, wherever they are and whatever they have done, and that the right thing is to bring them back to face justice, which we believe in and which surely has the right combination of fairness and robustness?

The noble Lord raises a very important question. Of course, if British people who go to Syria return, they face the full force of the law as to why they travelled to that country when the Government had given every advice against doing so. The noble Lord will know of many cases where citizens return. However, to go into a war zone and retrieve someone is beyond what the Home Secretary is willing to do. Of course, the other point is that the Government put a huge amount of money into the region in humanitarian assistance, but the Home Secretary has rightly said that he will not risk the lives of British officials to go to retrieve foreign fighters—or, indeed, the children they have brought with them.

My Lords, to focus on the practicalities of recovering a child from Syria is to go down the wrong road. At the core of this problem is the fact that a decision was made within days, without any due process, using television and newspaper interviews to judge a teenager and without taking into account the interests of their child, and eventually to decide that that individual, if they were so dangerous that they could not come back to this country, should be dumped on our Commonwealth partners in Bangladesh. Everything about this decision was wrong. What will the Government learn from this experience? They directly contradicted what they said last year was their policy on a returning young mother from Syria in a decision so soon after publishing that policy; surely they should learn from this experience, review the process and publish a transparent due process that will be used in every case, rather than responding to newspaper headlines.

My Lords, what the noble Lord said is interesting, because responding to newspaper headlines is quite often what happens in both Houses of Parliament. The Home Secretary makes decisions based on information that he is given—robust legal advice, including on the interests of the child. Over 150 cases of deprivation have been made since 2010, so I dispute the noble Lord’s assertion. On transparency, as I said in my Statement, we are looking to provide a transparency report shortly with the most up-to-date figures.