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British Nationality (Irish Citizens) Bill

Volume 838: debated on Friday 17 May 2024

Second Reading

Moved by

My Lords, I am delighted to move this Bill in your Lordships’ House.

The Bill has a long and frustrating past. My colleague the Member for East Londonderry, Mr Campbell, a Member of the other House since 2001, introduced a Private Member’s Bill along similar lines as far back as 2005, which unfortunately ran out of time. Over the years, he has continually argued, through debates with and Questions to various Ministers, for long-standing residents of Northern Ireland born in the Republic of Ireland after 1948 to be recognised as citizens of this United Kingdom without the need to undertake a lengthy and costly process of applying to the Home Office for British citizenship.

The historical background to this issue is vital. We all know the history of Ireland: before 1922 Ireland was part of this United Kingdom, and between 1922 and 1949 the Irish Free State had dominion status and people born there were British subjects. The Republic of Ireland passed its own citizenship law in 1935. However, until 1948 people born anywhere in Ireland continued to be regarded as British subjects. Under the British Nationality Act 1948, which came into force on 1 January 1949, people born in the Republic of Ireland ceased to be British subjects.

Members will recognise that the problem in all this is that, when we listen to people in the media and elsewhere speak about the Belfast agreement, we often hear them cite parity of esteem—two communities working together and recognising themselves as British, Irish or other. Unfortunately, people born in the Republic of Ireland after 1948 cannot designate themselves as British in Northern Ireland. Surely this goes against the Belfast agreement, which recognises the birthright of all people born in Northern Ireland to identify themselves and be accepted as British, Irish or both, as they so choose.

Through the Belfast agreement, efforts were made to address issues of identity. While we reflect on the Belfast agreement, it was accepted that Northern Ireland’s place within the United Kingdom was constitutionally settled. Even those with an Irish identity were afforded the opportunity to obtain Irish citizenship. The approach taken by the Irish Government offered people in Northern Ireland the opportunity to obtain Irish citizenship; some enjoy dual citizenship of the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland.

Unfortunately, what was not settled at the time was in the other direction. Perhaps this was an anomaly that was missed or overlooked when the Belfast and St Andrews agreements were being negotiated, but we have an opportunity with this Bill to right a great wrong. The House knows our history, our relationship with these isles, and how the two have intertwined. The Bill gives us the opportunity to provide the finished piece of that relationship jigsaw. For anyone who was born in the Republic of Ireland who has made their home in the United Kingdom, and who satisfies the residency test, they should be able to avail themselves of UK citizenship.

The Irish Government have a very simple process of applying for an Irish passport, the system for which was reviewed in 2011. If you were born on the island of Ireland, or if your partner, grandparents or great grandparents were, you are entitled to an Irish passport, at a cost of €80—not the £1,500 to be a British citizen. That is the difference. It is a simple process, and when you apply for an Irish passport you can trace the whole process. Online applications can be completed within 20 working days. According to the latest figures, Irish passport applications have gone up by more than 30% and British passport applications have gone down by well over 40%. That is the answer to the problem in all of this.

This is a very short, two-clause Bill. It seeks to amend the British Nationality Act 1981 to enable citizens of the Republic of Ireland who are resident in the UK to register as British subjects. The Bill would establish a separate, stand-alone route to British citizenship for people born after 1948 who have made Northern Ireland their home for a significant period. Qualifying residents will be able to be part of the United Kingdom, not just Northern Ireland. I welcome that, because British citizenship should reflect the whole of the United Kingdom—this is not just about Northern Ireland, as shown in the amendment that the Government added to the Bill in the other place. That amendment strengthens the Bill, as it is now widened out to the rest of this United Kingdom. I would hope that the Bill will create a more straightforward route to becoming a British citizen—and, of course, that a Life in the UK test would not be required.

I want to raise one issue around the fees. I know that the Government very much support the Bill, but it appears unjust to require someone born in the Republic of Ireland who has lived in Northern Ireland for virtually their entire life to pay a fee of £1,500 to become a British citizen. It would help the House if the Minister could confirm what criteria would be used in setting the level of application fees under the new scheme. Over the years, what has put off a lot of people—even those who qualify for British citizenship—is that they still have to pay £1,500, and when they pay it and are accepted as a British citizen, there is no guarantee that they will be given a British passport. It allows you to apply for a British passport only after you have British citizenship, at a huge cost of £1,500. Can you imagine two people in a household paying that? That is £1,500 each, and at the moment for a child it is £1,000 to apply for British citizenship. When we come out the other end with this Bill, I hope there will be a simplified fee, with a simplified process. That is important. The whole process of applying for British citizenship has put a lot of people off. I would like to think that, under the new system, we can have a simplified process that works for everybody.

The Bill unites people from all backgrounds and traditions in Northern Ireland, whether they describe their nationality as British, Irish or other. This is a non-controversial issue. Even the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee has looked at this issue on several occasions and made a number of recommendations to the Government, who then were not listening. There has been unity of purpose on the part of members of the committee from Northern Ireland on this whole issue; there has not been a dissenting voice. The Bill in its current form provides a wonderful opportunity for us as a nation to recognise our nearest neighbours and bring them closer. There have been many false dawns over the last 40 years on this. I hope and trust that today is an important moment to address this imbalance. I beg to move.

My Lords, I welcome the Bill. It is a proud moment for me to stand in your Lordships’ House today to support the Bill and the efforts of my noble friend Lord Hay of Ballyore in getting it one step closer to reaching the statute book.

Some of your Lordships may recall the last time we debated the issues the Bill addresses in this House, in 2022. It was obvious then, as I said in my speech on that occasion, that the bar on my noble friend and others like him to be recognised as true British citizens was not an anomaly but an abomination.

As chairman of the Ulster Unionist Party on Good Friday 1998, I accept my share of responsibility that people born in the Republic of Ireland were not included in the Belfast agreement’s definition of “the people of Northern Ireland”, and did not therefore benefit from its birthright provisions on identity and citizenship. However, many years have passed since then, and the error should have been corrected long before now.

Alongside my noble friend Lord Hay, much credit for where we have reached should go to the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee in the other place, which in 2021 conducted an inquiry into the barriers to UK citizenship for Northern Ireland residents. The committee’s members recommended that a bespoke solution was needed for Irish citizens to be granted UK citizenship, reflecting

“personal ties, relationships, geopolitical realities and movement of people”

between the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland. It also argued that the application fee, then £1,330—as mentioned by my noble friend, and which has risen in the intervening period to £1,630—should be abolished, alongside the requirement to pass the Life in the UK test. His Majesty’s Government’s response at the time could perhaps be described as dismissive, indeed verging on cold. However, a commitment was given by a Northern Ireland Office Minister at a subsequent Westminster Hall debate to reflect further on the points raised.

That period of reflection appeared to be open-ended, until January this year, when His Majesty’s Government committed to amending the current arrangements, as part of the Donaldson deal to persuade the DUP to reform the Stormont Executive. Nevertheless, it would be churlish not to welcome the outcome, which, if the Bill receives Royal Assent, could benefit more than 30,000 people living in Northern Ireland and more than 250,000 across the UK as a whole.

I commend the sensible amendments made to the Bill in the other place, including the removal of the requirement for successful applicants to undertake a life in the UK test or prove their language skills. However, I note with significant alarm that the cost of applying for a UK passport via this route is yet to be finalised. Indeed, in Committee in the other place, the Legal Migration Minister Tom Pursglove said that fees were

“under active consideration as part of a wider piece of work. It is being carried out in the usual way when it comes to fee setting for borders and migrations services”.—[Official Report, Commons, British Citizenship (Northern Ireland) Bill Committee, 17/4/24; col. 8.]

Perhaps I am a sceptic, but I have also served in your Lordships’ House for more than a quarter of a century. In his wind-up, I hope the Minister will reassure me that there will be no additional charges to applicants beyond the standard cost of a British passport. To add a premium on top would be wrong and, most importantly, send the opposite of a warm welcome to the newest British citizens. It is with pleasure that I support the passage of the Bill.

My Lords, I support this Private Member’s Bill and congratulate my noble friend Lord Hay of Ballyore on securing it, along with Gavin Robinson MP, who steered it successfully through the other place on 26 April 2024.

My noble friend has outlined the purpose of the Bill concisely and with great clarity. It is interesting to note that it has taken some 40 years of campaigning to achieve parity of treatment for Irish citizens who want to identify with Britishness. My noble friend has campaigned on this very personal issue for decades and I know that today is important for him—and, indeed, for many thousands of others in Northern Ireland and right across the United Kingdom, who will be impacted by the common-sense changes that will be introduced if this legislation passes.

Unfortunately, when the Belfast agreement was being drafted in 1998, an opportunity was missed to remove the financial and bureaucratic barriers that existed, making it difficult for Irish-born residents, who had lived for many years in the United Kingdom, to attain British citizenship. They may have identified as British for years or many decades, but a costly, overly bureaucratic and uniquely discriminatory process meant that, in the eyes of the law, they are technically not fully recognised as British citizens yet. To suggest that someone who has been paying taxes and contributing to society for decades should have to satisfy a life in the UK test and prove that they can speak English highlights the absurdity of the present situation.

It is wrong, in my view, that anyone should have to pay a naturalisation fee of £1,500 and complete a citizenship test. This is contrary to the spirit of reciprocation offered through the Belfast and St Andrews agreements. I welcome that the Minister and the Government have engaged with the Democratic Unionist Party and looked seriously at a different approach to this issue.

The process for attaining British citizenship has been set in stark contrast to the simple and easy way of applying for an Irish passport for those born and living in Northern Ireland. Some, who have never been to or lived in the Irish Republic, can quickly apply for and receive Irish passports for a small fee of €80, under the terms of the Belfast agreement. I am pleased that the Bill now provides an opportunity to address this imbalance and a parity of treatment that allows Irish-born citizens resident in the United Kingdom to identify with their Britishness.

I support the changes in this Bill. They widen the scope, as the Bill will now extend to England, Wales, Scotland, the Channel Islands, the Isle of Man and even the British Overseas Territories. This will extend the potential to get a British passport to some 27,000 persons. The changes made in this Bill reflect the fact that many Irish nationals wish to be recognised as British.

The noble Lords, Lord Hay and Lord Rogan, raised the vital issue of fees. Can the Minister bring any clarity on the setting of the fees, as it is not in the Bill? I also note that, if passed, the Bill would come into force only on a day appointed by the Secretary of State. Does the Minister not agree that the commencement date needs to be on the day after Royal Assent, so that the Act can be expedited quickly? I suggest that, when the Bill becomes law—as I hope it will—the Home Office should look at launching a publicity campaign explaining that those who are legally entitled can apply for British citizenship, because there are many people who rightly qualify but may be ignorant of the process.

I will give a short illustration of this. In a case that is ongoing at the moment, a couple encountered great difficulties in registering their child as British. The mother, a British citizen, was due to give birth in a hospital in Belfast, but had to be transferred to a Dublin hospital to receive the necessary specialised medical treatment. When the child was born in Dublin, by law, the birth had to be registered in the Republic of Ireland. However, this meant that, when the child was transferred back to a hospital in Belfast for further treatment, it was not registered under the national health system and the parents could not register it with a general practitioner. As a consequence, they received numerous medical bills that caused them considerable stress. It took a considerable period of time—more than eight months, I believe—for them to realise that, because they had British citizenship, they were entitled to register the child with the United Kingdom authorities.

This Bill provides a solution to what was a uniquely unfair process and I am pleased to support it.

My Lords, I, too, congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Hay of Ballyore. I am delighted that, after his many years of persistent campaigning, it is finally beginning to pay off. It is a pleasure to support this short Bill from these Benches.

I am glad that the Government appear to have shifted their position on this matter somewhat, towards one of common sense. I welcome that they have encouraged a wider interpretation than in the original Bill, tabled by Gavin Robinson MP in the House of Commons; and that the Bill was amended in Committee so that it will now apply to all Irish citizens, wherever they live in the UK, should they wish to benefit from it. As the noble Lord, Lord Rogan, said, when we last debated this matter during a debate in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Hay, in October 2022, there was a somewhat dismissive attitude to it. I repeat that I am very glad that that attitude appears now to be shifting.

As I referred to in that debate, I am someone who has benefited from the generosity of the Irish passport provisions. My father was born in Enniskillen in County Fermanagh so, three years, ago I applied for an Irish passport, for which I am increasingly grateful. It is right that we recognise our special relationship, shared history and common bonds with our Irish friends and neighbours. So many people in the UK have Irish roots and ancestry—including the Minister, Tom Tugendhat MP, who dealt with this Bill at Third Reading in the other place.

It is also welcome that some of the unnecessary—and frankly insulting, as the noble Lord, Lord Hay, said—previous obstacles to acquiring UK passports and UK citizenship will now be dropped as a result of the Bill, once it goes through all stages. There are a few remaining questions, which have already been raised by other noble Lords, not least on fees and costs. I would therefore be very grateful if the Minister can give an indication of when the orders on fees for processing applications will be published, and what processes will be used for consultation.

In conclusion, I am pleased that this constructive Bill has so far received cross-party support. I hope that very soon, the noble Lord, Lord Hay of Ballyore, who has served his country so long as an MLA, Speaker of the Northern Ireland Assembly, and now as a Member of your Lordships’ House, will finally be able to have a UK passport and citizenship.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Hay of Ballyore, for the clarity of his explanation of this short but very important Bill, which has at its heart a simple but long-standing and unresolved issue, and for his long-standing campaign on this. The issue is that, notwithstanding the commitments made by the UK and Irish Governments in the Good Friday agreement more than 25 years ago, there are still outstanding questions about eligibility and access to citizenship for many people in Northern Ireland. My understanding is that attempts have been made to resolve this before, as mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Hay, including by a previous Private Member’s Bill in 2005, and I note that, in 2021, the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee produced a short report that concluded:

“The Government should abolish the naturalisation fee charged to Irish applicants who wish to naturalise as British citizens”.

Understandably, there has been great strength of feeling about the fact that there is such a significant contrast between the arrangements for people born in Northern Ireland, who are entitled to Irish citizenship at birth and need only pay the usual fee for an Irish passport, and those born in the Republic of Ireland after 31 December 1948, who must go through the process of satisfying residency requirements, passing a Life in the UK test, proving language skills and paying a fee—which I think is now £1,630.

We believe it is time that this long-standing anomaly was resolved, so we will certainly support the Bill today. Why has such heavy weather has been made of this, and why it has taken so long to get this through? We note that the Bill was amended with cross-party support in the House of Commons, and we welcome the amendments, moved by Gavin Robinson and accepted by the Minister in the other place, that broaden the scope of the Bill to cover “Irish citizens” rather than “persons born in Ireland” and change the absence requirement, as well as changing the title of the Bill to reflect the new provisions.

As all noble Lords have mentioned, the question of fees is still outstanding, and as my honourable friend Stephen Kinnock pointed out in the other place, it would really help the House if we could have some confirmation of

“what criteria will be used in setting the level of application fees under the new system”.—[Official Report, Commons, 26/1/24; col. 561.]

It has been argued that there should be parity, and there should be nothing to pay other than the current cost of a British passport. I hope the Minister will be able to give us some more information about the Government’s proposals in that regard.

I believe it was confirmed by the Minister in the other place that the Life in the UK test would not apply to applicants, but the Minister for Security indicated that perhaps a citizenship ceremony might be a requirement. Can the Minister clarify what is being proposed in relation to these two elements? In my view, retention of either would mean there is still a difference between the processes of Ireland and Northern Ireland.

Although I come from a town in the south of England, it is fair to say we have incredibly strong connections with Ireland. As my town was built largely in the 1950s and 60s, there was a very significant community of Irish settlers and pioneers, who came to build the town and work in its industries. Our first Irish mayor, Mick Cotter, who later became a freeman of the borough, was one of those who came to build our town, but who also gave us the true legacy of a strong sense of community that blesses us to this day. The Irish Network Stevenage is one of our strongest community groups to this day, with over 1,000 members. When I was reading the background to the Bill, it reminded me of the fabulous service the network gives in helping people with their Irish citizenship. If members are listening today, I hope they will feel that we are at last doing the right thing here today—I will be in real trouble if we are not.

It is time the promises made 25 years ago were kept and this anomalous situation put right once and for all. I thank all those who have worked on and supported this Bill on its passage through both Houses, and all those who have spoken today.

My Lords, I thank all noble Lords for their contributions to this debate. This Bill will make it possible for Irish nationals who have been resident in the UK for five years to become British citizens in a far easier way than is currently possible. Before discussing the detail of the measures, I recognise the interest of, and work done in the past by, many noble Lords on this subject, most notably the Bill’s sponsor today, the noble Lord, Lord Hay of Ballyore. He will be aware that following the introduction of this Bill by the right honourable Member for Belfast East in the other place, the Government have supported its underlying principles. I am glad to say that our full support for it was confirmed following amendments passed in Committee.

Irish nationals can currently work, study and vote in the UK and are usually deemed to be settled from the moment they enter the UK. The common travel area arrangements for Irish nationals are now set out formally in statute in the Immigration Act 1971, which provides protections for the ability of Irish nationals to enter and live in the United Kingdom without needing a grant of immigration leave to enter or remain. This relationship is reciprocated by the Irish Government in regard to British citizens entering Ireland, and this strengthens the relationship between our two countries.

Irish nationals who are resident in the UK must currently complete the naturalisation process to gain British citizenship. There are many requirements associated with naturalisation, such as a period of residence, which is usually five years, and this is replicated in this Bill. However, many of the immigration-related requirements for naturalisation are designed for those who require formal permission to enter and live in the UK and are not applicable to Irish nationals. Equally, the UK has a unique relationship with Ireland, as noted eloquently by the noble Lord, Lord Hay of Ballyore, and the close historical links, geographical proximity and shared institutions between the two countries mean that those who could make use of this Bill would, in our view, already have a sufficient knowledge of language and life in the UK, which would be further reinforced by five years’ qualifying residence. As such, being expected to pass the Life in the UK test or to demonstrate competence in English is inconsistent with the reality.

The Bill as first introduced was limited in scope to Irish nationals born in Ireland after 31 December 1948 who were resident solely in Northern Ireland. The Government are delighted that the Bill before your Lordships today is now marginally broader in scope and more inclusive, and we should note the constructive conversations that led to these changes and have characterised the Bill’s progress.

Following amendments, the route to British citizenship will now be available to Irish nationals regardless of how they became Irish, not just those born in Ireland. Secondly, it will not have a requirement that an Irish national must have been born after 31 December 1948, meaning that there are no age restrictions and all Irish nationals may make use of the Bill. Thirdly, qualifying residency will be in any part of the United Kingdom, not just in Northern Ireland. This reflects the important consideration that becoming a British citizen is about a tie to the whole of the United Kingdom, not just one constituent part of it, even if the Bill may be expected to be used proportionately more in Northern Ireland. That is the right approach.

I turn to the specific details of the Bill. Clause 1 will insert a new section, namely Section 4AA, into the British Nationality Act 1981, which will allow an Irish national to be registered as a British citizen if they make an application and satisfy the requirements. To qualify under new Section 4AA, the person must have been in the United Kingdom at the beginning of the period of five years ending with the date of their application. They must not have been absent from the United Kingdom for more than 450 days in the five-year period ending with the date of their application, and they must not have been absent from the UK for more than 90 days in the 12-month period ending with the date of their application. They must also not have been in breach of the immigration laws at any time in the five-year period ending with the date of their application. Of course, the vast majority of Irish nationals already comply with this. The Secretary of State will, in special circumstances, be able to treat a person who has applied for registration under this section as satisfying the requirements, even if they did not fully satisfy them.

Clause 2 sets out the extent and commencement of the Bill. It extends to England and Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland, the Channel Islands, the Isle of Man and the British Overseas Territories, in keeping with the same extent of the British Nationality Act 1981, which it amends. It will come into force by commencement regulations made by the Secretary of State at a later date.

All speakers have made reference to the potential cost to applicants of this registration route. This is currently being considered. The Home Office undertakes an annual review of its migration and border services, and unit costs for this route will be calculated in line with the fees set as part of that exercise. The Minister for Legal Migration and the Border has committed to further discussions with the right honourable Member for Belfast East in this regard. However, nothing substantive has yet been decided on this matter. The Minister also noted the strength of views expressed in the other place on the issue of fees, and I will ensure that he is similarly made aware of the comments made in this House today.

Noble Lords have also queried when this registration route will be available. For a commencement date to be set, the Bill would need to be introduced by a commencement order and, were there to be any fees, there would need to be fees regulations. The Home Office is currently working to design processes and IT systems to enable decision-making on applications in this route. The commencement of this registration route will, of course, need to be fitted in with respect to the Government’s overall priorities.

I am pleased to say that there is considerable support for this Bill within Parliament and among the public. I hope that noble Lords will agree on the importance of the legislation. With this in mind, I can assure the House that I have listened carefully, as ever, to all the contributions made today. I look forward to continued engagement with noble Lords as the Bill goes forward.

I thank the noble Lord, Lord Hay of Ballyore, again for introducing this Bill. I commend the work done to ensure the smooth passage in the other place by the right honourable member for Belfast East and the Minister for Legal Migration and the Border. I commend this Bill to the House.

My Lords, I thank Members for their contributions this afternoon, especially for their cross-party support for the Bill. I also congratulate my colleague the Member for Belfast East, Gavin Robinson. After nine years, he successfully secured the opportunity for a Private Member’s Bill on this issue and steered it through the other House.

Sometimes it is not mentioned, but I want to place on record my appreciation to the staff of this House, particularly the Library and the Minister’s officials, who have been kind and very engaging on this Bill. Sometimes, we forget the staff in this House who do a tremendous job.

I come back to the cost of all of this. I listened to what the Minister has said on the cost and when the Bill might commence when it comes out the other end. I emphasise to the Government that they should look seriously at the cost of fees in all of this. It should not still mean that it is £1,500 to apply for British citizenship. It would be totally wrong and a waste of time for this particular Bill. I believe the Government are coming at this Bill with a good spirit, and that is important.

The other issue is when all this might start. I got a wee bit worried when the Minister said that the Home Office is working out the issues around it. The Home Office has a lot of issues, and I know this Government have a lot of issues, but once again I emphasise to the Minister and the Government not to hold this particular Bill up—or this particular piece of law when it eventually hits the ground. I would not want it to be another six or nine months or a year until somebody in the Home Office works out the procedures around all of this.

I would hope, at the end of it all, there will be a very simple process of applying for British citizenship, because that is what the Bill is all about. It is about simplifying the process and reducing the cost. It is important that we can achieve that sooner rather than later. Once again, I thank the whole House, particularly for the cross-party support that the Bill has received.

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

House adjourned at 1.54 pm.