British Nationality Act 1981 (Remedial) Order 2019 - Motion to Approve

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:49 pm on 23rd July 2019.

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Photo of Baroness Lister of Burtersett Baroness Lister of Burtersett Labour 4:49 pm, 23rd July 2019

My Lords, I wish to use this opportunity to raise three burning injustices addressed by the Joint Committee on Human Rights in its report on the order. The first two concern children who have to register their citizenship entitlement because of their parents’ status. The third concerns the denial of citizenship to the offspring of fathers from British Overseas Territories who were not married to their mothers.

First, I and others in both Houses have many times raised the question of the level of fees charged to children who were born or who have spent most of their lives here, who are entitled to British citizenship but who have to register their entitlement because of their parents’ status. The fee is £1,012, of which only £372 represents the administrative cost of processing registration. Ministers bristle when the rest is referred to as profit, but profit it is even though it is ploughed back into the system to subsidise totally separate Home Office immigration functions.

The JCHR spells out what this means, stating that,

“children from more disadvantaged backgrounds, and children in local authority care who are less likely to be able to afford the fees are more likely to be disadvantaged by the fee level impeding their ability to register as British nationals”.

The committee echoes the concerns raised by the Select Committee on Citizenship and Civic Engagement, of which I was a member. It concludes:

“Home Office fees for children who have a right to be British should be proportionate to the service being offered and should be priced at a rate that is accessible for children accessing their rights. This is not the case at the moment since fees for children are three times more than the cost of the service—four-figure fees merely to register an existing right to be British are unacceptable. Disproportionately high fees should not exclude children from more vulnerable socio-economic backgrounds from accessing their rights”.

I shall not rehearse all the arguments again other than to remind the Minister that citizenship matters, not just for practical reasons such as access to higher education but for reasons of belonging, identity and security.

I find it depressing that despite the Home Secretary’s admission more than a year ago that the fee represents a “huge amount” and that he should look at it, despite concerns raised repeatedly in both Houses and despite the chief inspector’s critical report, nothing has happened other than that the fee was not raised this year. It is not good enough that we continue to be fobbed off with vague assurances that the matter is “under consideration”. Will the Minister explain exactly what is meant by that? Is it active consideration? If it is, who is considering it and how, and when will the results be made public? If not, when will it be actively considered?

As if the exorbitant fees were not bad enough, these children are also subject to what is called the good character requirement. The JCHR report traces the history of this and how it was inappropriately extended to this group of children, who are entitled to British citizenship, wrongly referred to by a Minister at the time as “coming to the UK”. This is an example of how, time and again, the Home Office conflates and muddles up nationality law, which establishes who is entitled to British citizenship, and immigration law, which is quite separate. The JCHR, and those giving evidence to it, questioned the appropriateness of applying the test to children who were born in, or have grown up in, the UK. It again cites the Select Committee on Citizenship and Civic Engagement, which questioned the age—10—from which the test is applied. The JCHR concludes:

“It is inappropriate to apply the good character requirement to young children with a right to be British, where the United Kingdom is the only country they know and where they have grown up their whole lives here’.

The JCHR is also critical of how Ministers refer to “heinous” crimes in relation to the test, ignoring how it is applied also to cautions, minor offences and some forms of non-criminal behaviour. Indeed, it notes that half the children denied their right to British citizenship on good character grounds have not even received a criminal conviction, let alone been prosecuted for a “heinous crime”. It notes that the Home Office has updated the guidance in response to an earlier report by the chief inspector, to make clear the duty of,

“safeguarding and promoting the welfare of children’, and to make,

“the ‘best interests’ of the child a primary consideration”.

However, in essence, the revised guidance does not address the concerns raised and the JCHR observes that it seems that,

“to date, the best interests of the child and child safeguarding obligations are not being adequately taken into consideration in Home Office decision-making”.

It reports that the Home Office has still been unable to explain or justify why the test is applied to children who know no other country and, in particular, to children as young as 10 so that the policy,

“is preventing children whose only real connection is with the UK from becoming British”,

contrary to what was originally intended. It calls on the Government to review the application of the test again in view of their,

“obligation to consider the best interests of the child when considering the impact on children with such a close connection to the UK”.

It also says that the Home Office has failed to explain why a child should be deprived of this important right merely on the basis of a police caution. Will the Minister now give an explanation of, and justification for, applying the test to these children, undertake to review its application, as called for by the JCHR, and, while carrying out the review and without further delay, undertake to limit its application to serious crimes so that minor offences are excluded?

I pay tribute to those who have campaigned relentlessly on these issues, in particular the Project for the Registration of Children as British Citizens, and give due notice to the Home Office that their champions in this and the other House do not intend to give up the fight. With a new Prime Minister, why not put an end to these two injustices and claim some credit for doing so? I also pay tribute to those who have campaigned on the final citizenship injustice I will raise, particularly one of its victims, Trent Miller, who has been writing to me about it ever since I acted as a humble foot soldier to the late and much missed Lord Avebury who went as far as the constraints of the Immigration Bill allowed on this issue during its passage in 2014.

The JCHR refers to the recommendation made in its previous report in 2018. It deemed it ‘unacceptable’ that acquisition of British nationality should depend on whether a person’s father or mother was a British Overseas Territories citizen and on whether or not their parents were married. It recommended urgent legislative action to remove this discrimination affecting those born before July 2006. The Government’s response was that they would undertake consultation with the overseas territories at a point when a suitable legislative vehicle was identified. The JCHR expresses dismay at this further delay. It also notes that the Explanatory Memorandum to the order explains that the legislatures of the overseas territories,

“have not been consulted since they have no competence in matters relating to nationality and citizenship”.

One might have thought that the Government would have known that before committing to such consultation. As it is, we seem to be back we where we started. The JCHR was unsurprisingly not impressed, and made it clear that:

“The Home Office and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office should not wait to consult on this at some unspecified point in the future, but should take action to consult and actively seek to remedy this human rights violation as swiftly as possible, rather than proffer excuses for delay”.

In fact, according to a Written Answer I received on 10 May, it seems there has been “engagement” with the British Overseas Territories to,

“seek their views on possible future changes on the matter”,

and, once again, there are those weasel words:

“This matter is under consideration”.

Will the Minister therefore tell us what the outcome of that engagement has been and why the Government continue to drag their feet on remedying this blatant and anachronistic piece of discrimination? Will she give a commitment to do what she can to ensure that legislative action is now taken sooner rather than later? In introducing this order, she said how this kind of discrimination is unacceptable. To quote Trent Miller:

“This would remedy the deep hurt and sense of rejection felt by children, now adults, affected who simply want to be respected and treated fairly”.

As it is, he feels he is being treated as “less than” and being “shut out”. How can this possibly be justified? It is high time to bring an end to this injustice.