British Citizenship (Northern Ireland) Bill

– in the House of Commons at 12:48 pm on 26 January 2024.

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Second Reading

Photo of Gavin Robinson Gavin Robinson Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Defence) 12:52, 26 January 2024

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

As a Back Bencher, the opportunity to table legislation of my own—to be able to proceed in this way with the leave of the House—is rare. Yes, we may question, challenge, probe, consider, support or oppose, but as a legislator the ability to legislate is constrained by the luck of the draw, the wisdom of Solomon and the patience of Job. For nine years, I have dutifully signed the ballot book for private Members and thought not another moment about it. Then I saw you take that ball, Madam Deputy Speaker, and read that number.

Today, in securing this opportunity, I wish to place on record my appreciation of the House staff, the Library, the Home Office Minister, who has been courteous and engaging in meeting me, and his officials, the Government Whips, His Majesty’s Opposition and Members of Parliament representing all parties from Northern Ireland who have offered their support. To the Minister and his officials I say that what started as courteous may at times have become frustrating when they saw my name pop up in their inbox, but I greatly appreciate their fortitude and forbearance.

More particularly, however, I claim no creativity or ingenuity around the Bill itself. In moving Second Reading, I wish to place on record my appreciation for colleagues past and present, who have sought to secure this important principled change to laws governing citizenship of the United Kingdom for individuals inherently of these islands. Even a cursory glance at the House of Commons Library’s briefing papers highlights that this has been a long and arduous road. My colleague in the other place, Lord Hay of Ballyore, commented last year that this conundrum was first raised in the House of Commons in 1985. Let me put that in context: it was before my first birthday. For a decade, he has been a passionate advocate for the changes proposed in the Bill, and has sought to complement and support the sustained and unparalleled efforts of my hon. Friend Mr Campbell. A Member of this House since 2001, my hon. Friend has consistently and, some might say, with characteristic fervour, relentlessly tabled questions, pursued debates, encouraged Ministers, and expertly tilled the ground that is consequently so fertile today. His labour has not been in vain. Over the years he has collected the support of colleagues across the political spectrum, in the Conservative party, the Labour party, the Ulster Unionist party, the Social Democratic and Labour party and the Alliance party of Northern Ireland.

Let me explain the essence of the Bill. Colleagues will recognise, or should recognise, that through the Belfast agreement efforts were made to address issues of identity. While it was accepted and acknowledged that Northern Ireland’s place within the United Kingdom was constitutionally settled, not only could those with a competing aspiration avail themselves of Irish identity, but the Republic of Ireland Government afforded them the opportunity to attain Irish citizenship.

Photo of Jack Brereton Jack Brereton Conservative, Stoke-on-Trent South

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman, whom I think of as my hon. Friend, on introducing such an important Bill. Does he agree that this issue affects people’s lives? It is about their identity, their everyday lives and their right to have British citizenship, which should not be brought into question. Given our historic links with both the Republic and Northern Ireland, it is vital that we allow the Bill to proceed.

Photo of Gavin Robinson Gavin Robinson Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Defence)

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman—my hon. Friend—for what he has said. I agree with him entirely, and I hope to draw on his point about our historic connections, which remain to this very day.

As I have said, the Republic of Ireland Government offered people in Northern Ireland the opportunity to attain Irish citizenship. Some hold that citizenship singularly, while others happily enjoy dual citizenship of both the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland. What was not settled at that time, however, was reciprocation in the other direction. As the House knows, our history and relationship are intertwined, and the Bill seeks to provide the final piece of that relationship jigsaw. Anyone who was born in the Republic of Ireland but lives in the United Kingdom and who satisfies the residency test should be able to avail himself of UK citizenship.

Those who say, “Sure, just apply for naturalisation in the normal way,” fail to recognise or respond to the special relationship that our nations have. From 1801 our nations were one, and the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland accorded the same citizenship protections to us all. When partition occurred in 1921, the rights of those resident within the then Irish Free State to avail themselves of UK citizenship was contained through and continued within their dominion status. It was only when the Irish Republic was created and the British Nationality Act 1948 came into effect the following year that those entitlements were lost. Since 1949, that has meant that those who were born in the Republic of Ireland but since then have lived in, worked in and contributed to the United Kingdom throughout their lives are not able to attain British citizenship as their forefathers did.

As a proud Ulsterman, I remind colleagues that my Province contains nine counties, although only six of them are in the United Kingdom. While they did so before and have continued to do so since, the troubles in Northern Ireland perhaps most acutely provided a catalyst for families in Donegal, Monaghan and Cavan to move across the border to be with other relatives. Let us take, for example, my friend in the other place whom I mentioned earlier, Lord Hay of Ballyore. His lineage may best illustrate the point that I am trying to make. He was born in April 1950 in Donegal, but for the overwhelming majority of his life he has lived in Londonderry, Northern Ireland. He served on his local council from 1981, was elected to the Northern Ireland Assembly in 1998, and served as its Speaker from 2007 to 2014. That year, he was elevated to the House of Lords, and to this day he remains a peer of this realm and a legislator in our Parliament. Yet he is not a British citizen.

The question is: should anyone in that position—serving practically, materially and productively—be expected to pay a naturalisation fee of £1,580 and complete a “Life in the UK” citizenship test? The notion that he, as a legislator of this Parliament—or anyone in similar circumstances—should have to complete a “Life in the UK” citizenship test does not make sense. It would be offensive to some individuals and contrary to the spirit of reciprocation offered through the Belfast agreement in 1998. It would be blind to our history and ignorant of the legal reality.

We enjoy a common travel area already between our nations. Irish citizens moving throughout the United Kingdom are already exempt from immigration formalities. They enjoy a range of related rights to work, vote and study, and access to education and healthcare as if they were already UK citizens. I quote the former Labour MP for Thurrock and a great friend of Northern Ireland, Andrew Mackinlay, when he debated this point in this House in 2009. He said:

“we have an opportunity, which the House will probably not have again for some years, to right a wrong, provide parity of treatment for people who are Irish…and allow them to identify with their Britishness.”—[Official Report, 14 July 2009;
Vol. 496, c. 220.]

Well, 15 years later, I hope we can finally right that wrong.

This is not a coercive move. Nothing in this Bill requires somebody to avail themselves of citizenship should that not be their desire. Some will conclude that, with the same rights and entitlements already, it is unnecessary. We also know through Library research that some proceed to pay the naturalisation fee and complete a “Life in the UK” test, no matter how offensive or inappropriate that may appear, but each year the number remains in single figures, or there are none at all. We also know from 2021 census figures in Northern Ireland that some 40,400 people are living in Northern Ireland who were born in the Republic of Ireland. Furthermore, we know that circa 32,000 of them were born after 1948, and therefore could avail themselves of this Bill. Some 27,000 of those people currently hold a non-UK passport, and the remainder are split evenly between those holding a UK passport and those who continue to hold none.

It will be clear from the tenor of this speech that both the Bill and my interest lie in those who live in Northern Ireland who have been disenfranchised of their citizenship from 1949 onwards. However, I appreciate from discussions with the Government that, should the Bill proceed, they believe it could be enhanced with the removal of the restrictive scope that attached to either the year of commencement or the geographical location of Northern Ireland. I confirm my willingness to assent to both aspects. I say this firmly as a Unionist: UK citizenship, in principle, should apply across the United Kingdom, and need not be satisfied solely through the lens of our Province.

The Northern Ireland Affairs Committee published a report on this issue in 2021, and it concluded:

“The Home Office must understand the historical connection between the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland, and the personal ties, relationships, geopolitical realities and movement of people that prevail between the two countries today… Citizenship issues will not be addressed to the satisfaction of all traditions whilst the Home Office treats Ireland and the rest of the world as an amalgam. Instead, we need bespoke, granular solutions. Abolishing the fee for Irish citizens to naturalise as British would be a start. The need to complete the ‘Life in the UK’ test seems irrelevant and offensive, and attendance at the citizenship ceremony should be optional.”

I conclude by expressing my gratitude to you, Madam Deputy Speaker, and to colleagues. Although this is only the first hurdle of many, I believe this Bill offers a great opportunity to attain a practical conclusion to a long-standing, principled and constitutionally and politically important campaign.

I commend my private Member’s Bill to the House.

Photo of Fiona Bruce Fiona Bruce Conservative, Congleton 1:05, 26 January 2024

There is a real and sensitive issue at the heart of this Bill and debate. Although the Bill affects residents of Northern Ireland, the issues of identity and citizenship affect us all.

I begin by acknowledging the case made by Gavin Robinson—or my hon. Friend, as I always call him and his DUP colleagues because we are so often on the same side of debates in this House, as we are today. I support this Bill and respect the points he makes. He has constituents who identify as British but have an Irish passport, simply because of having been born on the other side of an open border, and their only option is to naturalise, This is sensitive to people who have grown up, and lived for decades, identifying as British. For them, holding a British passport and not an Irish passport, so that their citizenship is consistent with their identity, is of profound and deep importance.

I also recognise that there are specific conditions laid down in law and in the Belfast/Good Friday agreement that shape the administrative landscape of Northern Ireland, with there being an open border with the Republic of Ireland—a border without immigration controls—a common travel area and no restrictions on working or living in the United Kingdom. The Government need to apply their administrative rules on routes to British citizenship fairly for all residents of the UK, whether they live in Coleraine or Congleton.

In discussing this issue, we need to be clear about what we mean by “national identity” and “citizenship.” National identity encompasses the shared values, culture, history and traditions that bind individuals within a nation. This profound sense of belonging and loyalty goes beyond legalities, forming the foundation of our unity as a people.

On the other hand, the administrative and legal status of citizenship is a formal recognition granted by the state. It involves adherence to specific laws, rights and duties, often outlined in a constitution or legal framework. Citizenship is a legal concept that provides individuals with certain rights and responsibilities within the borders of a nation.

Although national identity fosters a deep emotional connection, citizenship is a practical framework that governs our interactions within the state. Therefore, whether or not my hon. Friend’s Bill is successful, it will not change his constituents’ fundamental sense of British identity or the rights and freedoms under the Belfast/Good Friday agreement that give the people of Northern Ireland the freedom to identify as British or Irish, to co-exist and to complement their Britishness.

However, I am very sympathetic to my hon. Friend’s case and acknowledge that a key outworking of being British involves a sense of allegiance that is encapsulated by holding a British passport in one’s hand. Indeed, I travel frequently abroad in my role as the Prime Minister’s special envoy for freedom of religion or belief, and I have a great sense of pride every time I hold that passport in my hand, so I understand the importance of others being able to do so.

My hon. Friend is promoting a Bill that makes sense, which always helps. He always speaks sense. Its clauses make it clear that we are not dealing with a situation comparable to, say, residents of Coleraine and Congleton wanting to apply for citizenship having been born outside UK. The requirements of proposed section 4AA would make it specific to a person in Northern Ireland who has been resident pretty much continuously for a preceding period of five years.

To answer my own point regarding the need to satisfy administrative fairness across the UK, the qualifying period of five years’ residency is equivalent to other applications for citizenship that could be made in Congleton. I therefore support the Bill.

Photo of Stephen Kinnock Stephen Kinnock Shadow Minister (Home Office) (Immigration) 1:10, 26 January 2024

As Gavin Robinson Belfast East so eloquently explained, the issue at the heart of this debate is a fairly simple one: that, notwithstanding commitments made by the UK and Irish Governments in the Good Friday agreement more than 25 years ago, questions about eligibility and access to citizenship rights for many people in Northern Ireland remain unresolved. He argued with conviction that the differential treatment of people depending on whether they were born in Northern Ireland or the Republic under British nationality law is unfair and should be addressed. Along with his Democratic Unionist party colleagues, he has argued for long-standing residents of Northern Ireland born in the Republic after 31 December 1948 to be recognised as citizens of the UK—if they consider themselves to be such—without the need to undertake a lengthy and costly process of applying to the Home Office for naturalisation.

These arguments have been heard in the House many times before—indeed, Mr Campbell introduced a private Member’s Bill along similar lines as long ago as 2005—and Democratic Unionist party Members are not the only ones to have recognised the strength of feeling among many in Northern Ireland on this issue. In 2021, the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee published a short report that concluded:

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

It should be pointed out that the fees for registration or naturalisation are currently in the region of £1,500 per person, which is not by any means an insignificant sum.

In the Government’s response to the Committee’s report, they announced that it would “not be fair” to set such fees at different levels “depending on nationality”, ignoring the fact that there is already special recognition of the status of Irish nationals across the UK’s immigration system. The Government also argued that naturalisation and citizenship fees are an important means by which the Home Office seeks to maintain the financial sustainability of the immigration system. That may not in itself be an unreasonable position, but I do wonder whether the amounts of revenue involved are really all that significant to the Home Office in the context of an annual budget in excess of £20 billion.

As has been explained, the Bill would establish a separate stand-alone route to British citizenship for Irish nationals born after 1948 who have been resident in Northern Ireland, and hence in the UK, for significant periods of time. The explanatory notes state that application fees for the proposed new route

“would need to be agreed and set in secondary fees legislation, taking into account financial implications.”

There appears to be no expectation of a blanket fee exemption for applicants under the new rules. On that basis, assuming that the Government support the Bill, it might help the House if the Minister confirmed what criteria will be used in setting the level of application fees under the new system. Will the goals remain the same as those previously set out by the Government, and which I quoted, with respect to maintaining parity between citizenship and naturalisation applications across all nationalities? What provisions, if any, do the Government intend to make for individual exemptions to the usual fees under the new system, assuming that is introduced?

In the same report that I cited earlier, the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee concluded that in addition to the fees, the mandatory “Life in the UK” test and the requirement to attend a citizenship ceremony should also be waived for Irish citizens seeking naturalisation in the UK. In their response to the Committee, the Government insisted that it was right to maintain these requirements for all applications and to limit the scope for exemptions to the special circumstances of a particular case, such as those who have long-term health reasons that would preclude their attendance. Their response, which was published in January 2022, added:

“In order to continue with ceremonies during the pandemic we worked with Local Authorities to develop and deliver virtual ceremonies, and we will assess their ongoing use as this immediate need reduces. They may be retained to allow a more inclusive approach for those who, due to long-term issues, might otherwise be excluded.”

If, as I understand it, the Government do not plan to oppose the Bill, could the Minister confirm, in light of the long-standing concerns about the “Life in the UK” test and the ceremony requirements, whether he envisages making specific provision to address these issues within the proposed new route to citizenship that the Bill envisages?

On behalf of His Majesty’s Opposition, I say in closing that the hon. Member for Belfast East has put forward strong and persuasive arguments in support of his Bill. The Government’s support will, I hope, be welcomed by Members who represent Northern Ireland’s communities in this House. On behalf of His Majesty’s Opposition, I am happy to add my party’s support to this Bill, too.

Photo of Tom Pursglove Tom Pursglove Minister of State (Minister for Legal Migration and Delivery) 1:16, 26 January 2024

May I start by congratulating my friend Gavin Robinson on his success in the ballot? His nine years of trying have yielded a positive result, and it is terrific that we can debate this Bill today. I appreciate his bringing attention to this important issue about application processes for Irish nationals to become British citizens. I am pleased to confirm that the Bill has the Government’s support, subject to some proposed changes in Committee, which I will address.

It has been a pleasure to work constructively with the hon. Gentleman to date on those points. He has eloquently set out the arguments and rationale for the Bill. He is also right to highlight that it responds directly to so many of the challenges raised by the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, whose report he quoted from directly. It is in that spirit that I am pleased we have been engaging with the hon. Gentleman and that he agrees with the necessary changes that we require to take this Bill forward in Committee and beyond. That will mean that the current version of the Bill, which will be put to the House today, will be revised in Committee, with Members able to express their views and opinions on those amendments and then to debate and vote on them in the usual way.

That process will mean that the Bill will become marginally broader and more inclusive. First, it will be available to Irish nationals, regardless of how they became Irish, and not just to those born in Ireland. Secondly, it will not have a requirement that an Irish national must have been born after a certain date. Thirdly, qualifying residents will be able to be from any part of the United Kingdom, and not just Northern Ireland. We are confident that those changes will address equality concerns with the current version of the Bill, while still benefiting those whom the hon. Gentleman wanted to cover. The other requirements before the House today will not change.

The Government are clear in our support for the underlying principle of the Bill, and we will work with the hon. Gentleman to produce an amended version in Committee. When those changes have been made, the Bill will enjoy the Government’s full support. We are confident that the amended route will not undermine the integrity of the system; it is about introducing a more appropriate route for people who could otherwise seek to naturalise. It is, of course, possible that the route may yet be used proportionately more by people resident in Northern Ireland, but we think it is important that British citizenship reflects ties to the whole United Kingdom, not just one constituent part. It is our belief that a dedicated route for Irish citizens would reduce the burden for applicants, creating a more straightforward route to becoming a British citizen. That would potentially also allow for the charging of a lower fee, although no firm decision has been made, and that would form part of later secondary legislation, made through the fees Order, should the Bill attain Royal Assent. I suspect that the hon. Gentleman will be keen to have conversations with me on that point, and I am definitely willing to engage constructively as we take the Bill forward.

To respond directly to the shadow Minister, Stephen Kinnock, the “Life in the UK” test would not be a requirement with this Bill in place, and it is important to make that clear on the record this afternoon.

In conclusion, I again congratulate the hon. Member for Belfast East on his success in the ballot and for helping the Government to find a way to correct this issue in our nationality system. I am incredibly grateful for the constructive and good-natured way in which he always conducts his business in the House, but particularly so on this matter, working both with myself and with officials. The Bill will help reaffirm and reflect the unique position of Irish nationals in the UK and make a credible difference to those Irish nationals who wish also to be British citizens. As I have said, if the suggested amendments are made in Committee, we will firmly support the Bill. We wish it well as it travels through the House, and I look forward to working with the hon. Gentleman.

Photo of Gavin Robinson Gavin Robinson Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Defence) 1:21, 26 January 2024

I appreciate all the contributions to the debate. Just to reflect on the private Member’s Bill ballot, not only did I sign up nine years in a row, but I signed the same number nine years in a row—322 for anyone who is interested. I greatly appreciate the support of Fiona Bruce and, to dispel the myths of any cynics out there, I hope to be in a position to support her private Member’s Bill in a moment or so, but my support was not conditional on what she said in this debate on my Bill, because hers is similarly as principled.

I am grateful to Jack Brereton for his intervention and to the shadow Minister for his contribution. I hope he appreciated from my contribution that there was no ownership of this issue. It has been a long-standing campaign from a number of colleagues of mine and, indeed, from Members across the House, including colleagues of his.

Perceptively, the shadow Minister also raised the issue of fees, and the Minister graciously indicated that that is a discussion yet to be had, but it will come in secondary legislation should the Bill proceed. The Minister knows clearly where I shall start in that constructive discussion, and I suspect that he will not start in the same place, but hopefully we can be pragmatic. It is at least good for the Minister to know that the Opposition will be in a sensible place at the start of that discussion too, so he should bear that in mind—I say that in jest.

To the Minister, let me say that this has been a pleasure. He added further context to my reference earlier to the forbearance of officials and all those who have had to engage with me in the discussion of this Bill and the complexities around it. As I said in my contribution, what the Minister has outlined causes me no difficulty whatsoever from a Unionist perspective. I am totally content with where the Government believe this should go, but the constraints around an earlier published title meant that we have had to take a curvier route to, hopefully, the same destination.

I am grateful to have had this opportunity, and I look forward to continuing the engagement with officials. I trust that we will be able to land this, because it was only in 2009—15 years ago—that a former Labour MP said, “We need to take this opportunity now, because it may not come back for some time to come.”