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asked the Secretary of State for the Home Department if he will consider using the discretionary powers that exist under the British Nationality Act 1981 to ensure that on every occasion when an applicant is unable to afford the registration fee, he or she is granted a suitable extra period of time before registration is required.
The limited discretionary powers will be used very sparingly; they would not justify exercising discretion solely because an applicant stated that he was unable to afford the fee.
I am totally unaware of any such error. If the hon. Member is aware of an error, I should be grateful if he would contact my office immediately. We have distributed hundreds of thousands of application forms and leaflets explaining the rights for registration and they are now in circulation with citizens advice bureaux and immigrants advisory organisations.
Does my hon. Friend agree that £60 is a fantastic bargain for the priceless gift of British citizenship? Is it true that my hon. Friend and the Secretary of State have no authority to exercise discretion for the purposes of registration after the statutory time limit has expired?
Yes, it is a fantastic bargain. It is made even more so by the fact that the £60 fee is £10 less than it was five years ago. That is a remarkable example of Government efficiency. It is true that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has no general power of discretion. He has only a limited discretionary power, which can be used only in the special circumstances of particular cases.
In terms of the Secretary of State exercising the discretionary power, I have a constituent who came from Ireland in 1940, his family in Ireland having served the Crown since 1880. He joined the British Army and received the DCM and the Military Medal and I think is a war pensioner. He has served his country well, but he cannot prove that he was born to a British family in Ireland. He said to me:
"In 1940 I showed you where my heart was—I have the Military Medal and the DCM —but now they want £60 out of me to prove it." Is there not a discretion that the Home Secretary could use in such a case?
I was talking about the discretionary power of the Home Secretary to consider applications that arrive out of time. That is a limited power that can be exercised only with regard to the merits of individual cases. In the case mentioned by the right hon. Member, I suggest that he writes to me with the full details, and I will investigate it.
The position of those who do not apply will he unaltered. They will have the same immigration position as at present. Nor will there by any alteration in their right to civic benefits—for example, to pensions, council housing or the National Health Service. I propose shortly to issue a further leaflet concentrating on that point. The benefits of those who do not apply will not be altered.
Even though £60 may seem a fantastic bargain for hon. Members on the huge salaries that we get, does the Minister agree that for those on supplementary benefit it is an enormous hardship? Is he aware that serious delays in the issuing of nationality forms have prejudiced the rights of people who wish to exercise their rights?
This right and the fact that it was going to terminate for specific categories at the end of December has been known for over six years. It is not a new matter. It has been known ever since the British Nationality Act 1981 passed into law. People have had six years in which to save the £60 if they wished.
My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary does not have a general discretionary power to waive or extend the period for those who do not submit their forms in time. I am not aware of any case where the application forms are not being sent out rapidly to all who require them.
Yes, I can do that with pleasure. We have issued 400,000 leaflets explaining the rights of citizenship not only in English, but in Hindi, Chinese, Gujarati, Punjabi, Urdu and Bengali. We have also conducted extensive advertising campaigns in both the local and ethnic minority press. If my Friend would like any of the leaflets in the ethnic minority languages, I should be pleased to send them to him.
I listened carefully to the Minister's reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East (Mr. Vaz). Is he aware that many people cannot afford the registration fee and that they are very worried about the loss of civic rights, including the right to vote, the loss of social security benefits and the possibility of becoming more susceptible to deportation? What will the Minister do to convey the message to the people that they will not lose those rights?
The hon. Gentleman and other Labour Members should spend more time reassuring their constituents on this issue, rather than encouraging them into a sense of panic. We have constantly explained the matter in the advertising campaign and I have explained it again three times in the House this afternoon. The hon. Gentleman should go out of his way to reassure his constituents and not alarm them.