Moved by Baroness Lister of Burtersett
30: Clause 4, page 3, line 8, at end insert—“( ) Regulations under subsection (1) must ensure that no fee is charged that may deter or prevent registration of an EEA or Swiss national as a British citizen.”Member’s explanatory statementThe amendment is to probe the impact upon rights to British citizenship of measures relating to fees (currently £1012 for a child and £1206 for an adult to register a statutory right to British citizenship) that have been introduced or are to be introduced in connection with the ending of free movement.
My Lords, I rise to move Amendment 30 and to speak to Amendment 68. These probing amendments are about citizenship, and I am grateful to the Project for the Registration of Children as British Citizens—of which I am a patron—and Amnesty International UK for their help with them. I pay tribute to these organisations for all the work they have done to promote and protect children’s citizenship rights.
For technical reasons, the amendments relate solely to EEA and Swiss nationals, but the issues they raise echo concerns raised previously on a number of occasions in your Lordships’ House, particularly with regard to children’s citizenship rights.
Children born in this country to parents settled here, or who have grown up here from a young age, are entitled to register as British citizens. A combination of factors, including exorbitant fees, lack of awareness of the need to register their right to citizenship and the difficulties faced by local authorities in assisting looked-after children to exercise the right, have resulted in thousands of children being denied that right to British citizenship.
One consequence of our leaving the EU is that many more children could be in this position. They are the children of EU nationals who were born or who have grown up in the UK from an early age; the Home Office appears to have ignored this group. In establishing the EUSS, it has done nothing to raise awareness of their citizenship rights or to encourage children and young people with these rights to exercise them. Instead, because the EUSS is free, there is a real danger that many of them will be encouraged to secure themselves immigration status and not confirm or register themselves as British citizens, which they may not realise is open to them and involves a fee of £1,012.
In a High Court judgment in December last year—mentioned in the debate on an earlier amendment—that fee was deemed unlawful, as it was set without having regard to the best interests of the child. That decision is being appealed, but its reasoning is highly pertinent. In particular, it underlined the importance of citizenship.
In response to a similar set of amendments in the Commons Committee stage, the Immigration Minister argued that any child looked after by their local authority can apply for limited and indefinite leave to remain without having to pay a fee, and that citizenship itself
“is not essential for any individual to work, live, study or access services in the UK.”
When he was urged not to pursue that line of argument by Stuart McDonald MP, he re-emphasised that citizenship
“is not something that people need in order to access services.”—[
Does the Conservative Party really believe in such a transactional view of the significance of citizenship? In contrast, in 1981, during the passage of the British Nationality Act, which conferred the right to register as a citizen, it was emphasised that this was in part to ensure that the children concerned should have
“as strong a sense of security as possible”.
Citizenship is about security, belonging, inclusion, integration and identity. Indeed, the High Court judgment cited the Secretary of State’s own guidance document, which states that:
“Becoming a British citizen is a significant life event. Apart from allowing a child to apply for a British citizen passport, British citizenship gives them the opportunity to participate more fully in the life of their local community as they grow up.”
As noted on the earlier amendment, the High Court judgment referred to a “mass of evidence” that the inability to exercise their right to register as citizens because of the fee causes many children born in the UK to
“feel alienated, excluded, isolated, second best, insecure and not fully assimilated into the culture and social fabric of the UK.”
Is this really what the Government want? Do we want many more children to feel this way in future? This false equation of immigration status with citizenship was one factor in the Windrush scandal. Please do not let us repeat it.
Amendment 30 addresses the impact of the fee level on registration. In her Windrush Lessons Learned Review, Wendy Williams notes that
“there’s little evidence that the impact on people was effectively considered” when fees were increased significantly. Amendment 68 specifies that the level should not exceed the administrative cost, which according to the Home Office is currently £372—£640 less than the fee charged. The Home Office’s argument that such a mark-up on the fee is justified because it provides a “benefit” and because the Home Office needs the money to run a sustainable immigration and citizenship system—repeated by the Minister at Second Reading—is specious because we are talking about a citizenship right bestowed by Parliament, not a discretionary immigration status.
Amendment 68 also excludes from the fee any child who has been looked after by a local authority—a particularly marginalised group of children. There is no logic to local authorities having to pay these fees on behalf of these children as it simply involves a transfer of resources from local to central government. I believe some other noble Lords might say more about this. It also requires the Secretary of State to take steps to raise awareness of the right to register as a British citizen but I will not say more about that now as it is the main focus of Amendment 67, which will be debated on a later day.
Because of the restrictions created by the Bill’s Long Title, these are simply probing amendments. However, as I am sure the Minister realises, the more general question of the barriers to registering the right to British citizenship, particularly the level of the fee, is one that we will return to in this House time and again. Given the Home Office’s welcome readiness to accept the recommendations of the Windrush Lessons Learned Review, and the dangers of now repeating some of the flaws it revealed, will it now think again? As a first step, will the Minister, on behalf of the Home Office, undertake to look again at the level of the fee, which even Sajid Javid, when Home Secretary, admitted was “huge”? I beg to move.
My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, has been terrier-like in her pursuit of these issues. I, like the whole House, am grateful to her for that and I too thank the organisations she mentioned.
The fees are to exercise a right, but a right is no use if you cannot exercise it. The fees are a deterrent. They are a deterrent if you think that you are in a sufficiently secure position and do not understand the distinction between immigration status and citizenship. They are a deterrent if you are told by the Government that you are in secure position through the European Union settled status scheme. They are obviously a deterrent if you cannot afford them. I will not be the only Member of the Committee who has heard distressing stories of families who have realised that they cannot afford to pay for the citizenship registration of all family members and have selected some. If there is a mother with four children—well, we can all do the maths.
The noble Baroness used words, which I have written down, that are about more than security; they are about a sense of belonging. Otherwise, over the years why would so many people have chosen to become citizens through a sometimes pretty laborious route, having to take tests about things that would probably be mysteries to many of us and culminating in citizenship ceremonies? I have been to one. The ceremony is an important part of the whole process—the recognition of that belonging.
Everyone understands that there are administrative costs to these things, but the current fees far exceed the costs. There is a surplus—I use that term rather than “profit”, because I understand that the Minister protests at the term “profit”—in the order of £600, as I understand it, and £800 in the case of adults, where the fees are something like £1,200. The Home Office talks about this surplus being justified because of the benefit, but I do not understand the logic of citizenship being a benefit if indefinite leave to remain is an equivalent, or at least sufficient to meet all the attributes of citizenship, as seems to be argued by the Home Office.
The noble Baroness mentioned the Windrush scandal, and I am sure the Home Office must be anxious not to get into a similar situation. It has said that all Wendy Williams’s recommendations are accepted. About three of those are about meaningful engagement with stakeholders and communities and the use of research. If the Home Office were to engage on this topic and undertake research, I think it would understand how very fully these issues play with the people affected. In any event, as has been said, citizenship is about rights—the right to citizenship of the children referred to—and we should not put blocks in the way of rights.
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, for the excellent way in which she introduced these two amendments. I have added my name to Amendment 30, but I support Amendment 68 as well. I echo her words and those of the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, in thanking the Project for the Registration of Children as British Citizens and Amnesty International UK for their helpful briefings.
I will not detain the Committee long, but I emphasise and urge my noble friend to consider that, as the two noble Baronesses said, this is about not a benefit but a statutory right to give someone the security of UK citizenship. If the cost of the administration is £372 according to the Home Office, it seems difficult to understand why three times that amount—a 200% mark- up—is applied to those trying to exercise their rights. It should not be a business transaction; that should not be any part of this equation.
During the passage of the British Nationality Act 1981, it was said that Parliament intended that all children growing up in the UK with that connection
“should have as strong a sense of security as possible.”—[
Charging more than £1,000 will clearly be prohibitive. As both noble Baronesses who have spoken said, the High Court found in 2019 that unaffordability meant that children who were born here—who feel British—feel alienated. Have we not learned from the Windrush generation that people should not be excluded from their citizenship rights? Indeed, on the question of Windrush, this could be a near exact repeat of what happened. In the 1980s, Parliament gave people the right to register as British citizens, but apparently they were discouraged from exercising that right. Just as it wrongly told the Windrush generation that immigration status was the same as having citizenship, I hope that today the Home Office will not repeat the mistaken claim that British people do not need British citizenship and are adequately provided for by applying for a different immigration status. These are lessons that were highlighted in the report of the Windrush Lessons Learned Review and I hope that we will take them seriously. I support these probing amendments and hope that my noble friend will be able to address them before Report.
My Lords, I also rise to speak in support of Amendment 30, to which I have added my name, and Amendment 68. By the end of this set of contributions, I think the Minister will feel that she is ensconced in an echo chamber from which she will find it hard to escape. She knows full well that the subject of citizenship fees has returned to haunt her, her colleagues and her predecessors, and will probably do the same to her successors. Why is this? The simple reason is that by any reasonable international comparisons, which are there to be looked at, our citizenship fees are punitively high and, for many, completely unaffordable.
At Second Reading, as others have mentioned, the Minister said:
“On the face of it, they seem high, particularly when we are talking about children, but application fees for border, immigration and citizenship services play a vital role in our ability to run a sustainable system … and substantially reduce the burden on UK taxpayers.”—[Official Report, 22/7/20; col. 2296.]
Perhaps I may gently draw the Minister’s attention to page 68 of the Windrush Lessons Learned Review. A former Home Office says:
“The basic resource for the management of the immigration system is wholly inadequate and always has been. And the fundamental reason for that is if you’re the minister and you go to the Chief Secretary and you say, ‘I want more money for the immigration service’, they say ‘you must be joking—you think the British public would support that?’”
I turn now to page 51 of the same review. This is from a member of the Home Office’s own staff:
“Staff from both Immigration Enforcement (IE) and UK Visas and Immigration (UKVI) told the review they did not feel they had received adequate training; they also mentioned that the Home Office gave applicants minimal help, often referring people to the Gov.uk website, which staff themselves said they struggled to understand or navigate.”
What is described in the review is a cause of shame and embarrassment. I hope sincerely that the lessons that the Home Secretary has publicly stated would be taken on board and acted on will be demonstrated in the way in which the Government try to navigate their way through some of the complexities and inevitable consequences, many of them unforeseen, of this Bill.
Amendment 30 asks that EEA and Swiss nationals, who of course are eligible to apply for settled status, are not encouraged to go for this as the cheaper, easy option, because in many cases they are eligible for, and may wish to apply for, citizenship. The high fees make settled status a more realistic option for many but it is not necessarily a course of action that will be in their best interests.
I draw the attention of the Minister and her officials to the detailed submission made in July of this year by the PRCBC and Amnesty International to the Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration for an inspection called “A Further Inspection of the EU Settlement Scheme”. The submission concludes by highlighting that:
“There is, therefore, a huge risk that many British children and young people of EEA/Swiss parentage will be wrongly led to not have their British citizenship confirmed or register for that citizenship to which they are entitled.”
I ask the Home Office, at the very least, to read that submission carefully and to digest its very detailed contents and case studies so that on Report we can have a discussion in which it is clear that the issue is better understood.
As reported on page 50 of the Windrush Lessons Learned Review document, a former Minister commented on the
“total lack of proper administrative competence, basically” that the scandal had highlighted. Can we not do better than this?
Amendment 68 is more specific about the position regarding fees for the registration of British citizenship, particularly for children in care looked after by a local authority. It also asks the Home Office to raise awareness of people’s right to register their citizenship. I ask the Home Office, when looking at the document submitted to the independent inspector, to look very specifically at the case of a young lady called Mercedes, who was brought up in care, and to see the enormous complications that resulted from her situation and, frankly, the rather inadequate way in which both local government and the Home Office dealt with her parlous situation.
Both amendments have in common a challenge to the Home Office and the Government to live up to their responsibilities and core principles and values, which were often so lamentably absent during the sorry Windrush saga. As I asked earlier, can we please not do better than this?
We shall study the Minister’s responses carefully and hope and expect that at least some of the concerns and questions raised will, at the very minimum, be acknowledged. We are very happy to work with her, if she so wishes, between now and Report if she sees any merit in some of the arguments that we are putting forward. If not, she knows that all of us will be back at Report.
My Lords, I support Amendments 30 and 68, as proposed by the noble Baroness, Lady Lister of Burtersett.
Clearly, as prevented by Amendment 30, EEA and Swiss nationals should not be denied their British citizenship just because registration costs might have become too much for them to afford. Nor, of course, as protected against in Amendment 68, ought children looked after by a local authority to be caught up within the same anomaly.
However, although the corrective of Amendment 30, if accepted, might subsume that of Amendment 68, nevertheless the noble Baroness is quite right to spell out in its own right the threat to children looked after by local authorities, and the necessary remedy which she proposes within Amendment 68.
I hope that my noble friend the Minister will agree and can accept these amendments.
My Lords, I am not sure whether the noble Lord is speaking to the same set of amendments as we are. We are speaking to Amendments 30 and 68. It might be convenient to move on to the next speaker and then return to the noble Lord. I apologise if he was speaking to this group, but perhaps we could hear him after the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham.
My Lords, I support Amendments 30 and 68. I declare my interest as recorded in the register as receiving research support from the Refugee, Asylum and Migration Policy project. That project, RAMP, involves a diverse network of parliamentarians working together. There are four principals: myself and three from the other place, one each from the Liberal Democrats, the Labour Party and the Conservative Party. We work together to support constructive and practical changes to ensure that the UK has a migration system fit for a successful and integrated Britain. As noble Lords can imagine, with such a diverse group of parliamentarians we do not agree on everything, but we have consistently agreed that the charging of excessive fees for citizenship is simply unacceptable.
It is a straightforward principle that those to whom Parliament has granted a right to citizenship should not be barred from registering that right by its cost. Citizenship is not a product to be sold; it is a right. As they aspire to be outward-looking and global, this Government should be seeking to make it more straightforward for people to exercise their rights to register their status as citizens.
I wish to speak specifically about the issue of children who, although they fairly regard themselves as British, may not even realise that they are not in fact properly registered as British citizens. When they realise it, prohibitive and regressive fees of more than £1,000 can prevent them from then exercising their right to registration. We have already been reminded that last November the High Court found what it called a “mass of evidence” that a significant number of children in particular cannot afford the citizenship registration fee.
Amendment 68 would specifically require that no fee for someone to register as a British citizen is set above the administrative cost to the Home Office. We have heard the figures already so I will not repeat them. It is a surplus that is indefensible for those who have a clear right to British citizenship, and to use that as a cross-subsidy of the rest of the Home Office’s work leaves many of us deeply uncomfortable.
Some may regard the price as a good deal for British citizenship. I am afraid that for many affected, such a price is simply unaffordable. It is the poorest who will be most affected. Moreover, it is iniquitous to charge a high fee simply to register a status that is a person’s right. The role of the Home Office is simply to recognise the rights granted to these people by Parliament and get them registered as citizens.
I specifically draw attention to the situation of children in local authority care, and I pay tribute to the ongoing work of the Children’s Society on this issue. These are among some of the most vulnerable children among us and are already marginalised. There should simply be no fee for such a child to register their citizenship. Where children cannot afford even the administrative cost of registration, they should not be excluded from their citizenship rights.
We have already heard powerfully from others the parallels with the Windrush scandal, the shame of which still hangs over the Home Office. We really must avoid any repeat.
I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response to these amendments. I hope she will agree with me that the Home Office has no business erecting barriers, financial or otherwise, that prevent people registering as British citizens, particularly children, when those people have been granted that right by this Parliament.
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Russell of Liverpool, said that the Minister would find this somewhat like an echo chamber—and I confess that when I looked at these two amendments and thought about whether I would speak on them, I wondered whether I might be repeating myself. I remember speaking on many occasions since
These amendments are about the rights of citizens. We are not talking about people who are saying, “Maybe I would like to change my nationality; maybe I would like to become a British citizen.” We are talking about people being able to register their right as citizens. The Minister might not think that is terribly important. She might think, particularly about an EU national with settled status, “They don’t need to worry. Their rights will be so guaranteed in the United Kingdom—a country whose values of liberal democracy, human rights and the rule of law are second to none.” However, if a member of Her Majesty’s Government can say from the Dispatch Box in the other place that the Government are willing to go against international law in a “specific and limited” way associated with the withdrawal agreement, how can people possibly have certainty about the rights of EU nationals with settled status? People need guarantees; they need certainty. Perhaps the Minister will understand why we feel it is so important to raise these issues and probe them again—because the Government do not necessarily always act in the best interests of the people they are meant to serve, or of the most vulnerable.
Children in care certainly should not have to pay a fee, which will undoubtedly be unaffordable. Nor should anybody be expected to pay a fee of more than £1,000—three times the cost of processing the right to register their citizenship. If this country really wants to go global and demonstrate its values, surely one way to do that is to ensure that the rights of the most vulnerable are secured—and one way of doing that is to make sure that we are not effectively profiteering from the costs of registering citizenship.
My Lords, I am glad to pay a tribute to my noble friend Lady Lister for the way in which, as has just been pointed out, she has consistently fought on these issues through Bill after Bill, and debate after debate. She has a firmness of resolve that is to be envied. I am also particularly glad that we heard the right reverend Prelate speak in this debate. He spoke with his usual incisive analysis, and, much more importantly, with his usual decency and humanity, which seem to underline his whole approach to public affairs.
In this debate, we are not just talking about citizens who should be enabled to establish their rights. We are talking about vulnerable, individual people. We are talking about children. We hear a great deal from this Government about our desire to be an independent nation, standing on our own and demonstrating to the world what life should be about. What kind of Britain are we trying to portray? As an older man, I find it almost inconceivable that difficulties such as the price of registration should be used as a means of deterring a number of applicants. I also find it deeply sad that the nation that we should be in—where we are compassionate, where we are almost consumed with concern for the vulnerable, where we want them to establish their rights—is replaced by an impersonal policy of this kind. I find it incredible that we even have to look at a situation like this. It is not a Britain of which we can be proud. It is a Britain that must be raising doubts, all over the world, among all those who have fought and struggled for human rights, decency and civilised values. These are not decent civilised values that we are hearing here, and we need to ensure that this is put right.
My Lords, I am very happy to be part of the infantry supporting the arguments and the amendments put forward by the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, as we have done on previous occasions. It is a tragedy that we even have to revisit this issue, because it ought to have been resolved by now. I know the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, well enough to know that she cannot be happy that this has not been resolved, not least because of the High Court judgment that we witnessed in December. It is not worthy of this country, as the noble Lord, Lord Judd, has just said. As the noble Baroness, Lady Smith of Newnham, was pointing to, there is a sort of shabbiness of generating income through fees above the administrative cost of the registration system. The sheer inappropriateness of applying this charge to children—as the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham said, to children even in the care of local authorities—is something we surely have to rectify.
The noble Baroness will recall the exchanges we had via correspondence and Parliamentary Questions following the High Court ruling on
It my witness statement, I also referred to our duties under the 1989 United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. In fact, in 1981 it was of course against a backdrop of riots in Toxteth in Liverpool and Brixton. The main focus of our debate was expressed in a statement by the Minister of the day, who said that we had to encourage a greater sense of having a stake in society and promote British identity and citizenship, especially as some children were losing the automatic right to citizenship as a result of the 1981 Act. This entitlement was not to be made dependent on a child satisfying the Secretary of State that they met the relevant conditions of the Act. This is a point eloquently made, and insisted upon, in a statement to your Lordships’ House on
In December last, on the day of the High Court ruling by Mr Justice Jay, I tabled two Questions to the noble Baroness. One was on
“what assessment they have made of the ruling of the High Court on 19 December in the case brought by the Project for the Registration of Children as British Citizens that there is a ‘mass of evidence’ that the fee charged to children registering for British citizenship prevents many such children from registering British citizenship, leaving them feeling ‘alienated, excluded, ‘second-best’, insecure and not fully assimilated into the culture and social fabric of the UK.’”
The second Question was on
“when they intend to remove the fee charged by the Home Office to register children as British citizens; and whether they intend to refund those who paid such fees before the High Court ruling on 19 December.”
The noble Baroness replied to me, as she always courteously and efficiently does, and I was grateful for that. On
“The judgment was handed down on
I know your Lordships’ House will want to hear this evening what care has gone into that process, where we are up to and what the next steps will be. Today, she has the chance to outline those steps.
In his judgment, Mr Justice Jay said that:
“British citizenship is a status aspired to and cherished by many, conferring benefits on the holder which are both tangible and intangible.”
Mr Justice Jay confirmed the details which we in our debate have laid before the Committee of the rising costs of these fees: children entitled to be registered under the British Nationality Act 1981 must pay a fee of £1,012—with a higher amount of £1,206 for adults—together with £80 for the citizenship ceremony. He confirmed the Secretary of State’s admission that
“only £372 of that fee is attributed to the administrative cost of processing the application; the remainder effectively cross-subsidises other functions in connection with immigration and nationality.”
In his judgment, Mr Justice Jay said that:
“The evidence before me is that for a substantial number of children a fee of £1,012 is simply unaffordable.”
He cited earlier judgments that
“the fact of belonging to a country fundamentally affects the manner of exercise of a child’s family and private life, during childhood and well beyond.”
He quoted with approval the Secretary of State’s own guidance documents. At paragraph 20, Mr Justice Jay stated what noble Lords have repeated in your Lordships’ House today:
“there is a mass of evidence supporting the proposition that a significant number of children, and no doubt the majority growing up in households on low or middle incomes, could only pay the fee by those acting on their behalf being required to make unreasonable sacrifices.”
Mr Justice Jay also found a mass of evidence to support our arguments that children who are unable to attain such citizenship
“feel alienated, excluded, isolated, ‘second-best’, insecure and not fully assimilated into the culture and social fabric of the UK.”
The judgment reminded the Government that they have a paramount duty to consider a child’s best interests. Evidence was laid before the High Court demonstrating that a disproportionality in this policy, inevitably hitting the poorest and most disadvantaged, needs to be addressed. Put simply, it is discriminatory and unfair. In his conclusion, he said:
“My conclusion that the Secretary of State has violated the section means that the 2018 Regulations are unlawful in that respect to the extent that they set the fee for registration applications brought by children at £1,012.”
Basic are the human rights at stake here. Being mindful of the Windrush scandal, which has been referred to, and the arguments about inclusivity, integration and the promotion of British citizenship, we must surely support amendments that rectify this arrangement and fly in the face of all these things. We must reassert the principles enshrined in legislation enacted by the Conservative Government of the day in 1981, and hope that the Home Office will not only carefully consider the implications of Mr Justice Jay’s judgment but use the opportunities of this Bill to rectify the injustices that undoubtedly exist.
My Lords, I am pleased to follow powerful speeches from across the House, not least the one I immediately follow, from the noble Lord, Lord Alton, and of course that of the noble Baroness, Lady Lister. I join the tributes to her and her record of campaigning, and indeed to the noble Lord, Lord Alton. Other noble Lords have driven in the same direction: the noble Lord, Lord Russell of Liverpool, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham, the noble Baroness, Lady Altmann, others on the screen, and of course my noble friends Lady Smith and Lady Hamwee—everybody, to be honest—made the very reasonable request that the Government reconsider their policies on the fees for citizenship. The terms “shabby”, “punitive”, “revenue generator” and “indefensible cross-subsidy”—I think that was from the right reverend Prelate—have all been used.
It seems extremely odd to be discouraging potential citizens. As the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, said, this is being put in a sort of transactional context, but it is more than that. I have only once had the honour of being asked to preside at a citizenship ceremony—when I was an MEP, I was out of the country a lot of the time, so the opportunity arose only once. It really was an honour and a privilege to see all those eager faces looking back at me. Those people wanted to become British citizens, for all the reasons that have been expressed in this debate: to have their status recognised; to have a stake in our society; not to feel an outsider; and to feel that they truly belonged in Britain.
The contrast between the current situation and the language recalled tonight from the debates on the British Nationality Act 1981—which of course was also passed under a Conservative Government—is considerable. We should be encouraging people to become citizens, even if they are dual citizens, which I am glad to say is generally permitted—it is perfectly reasonable for people to choose which cricket team they wish to cheer without feeling that they are not loyal to the country. It seems incomprehensible that we would not want people, particularly those who have been in the country a long time, to move into the full role of citizens. That is good for our existing society, as well as for them. We want more people to feel that they have a stake, that they belong and that they are fully recognised, not fewer people.
Then, of course, there is the special concern about vulnerable children, especially those in care, for whom it is even more unreasonable to charge more than £1,000 for them to become citizens. The danger of a new Windrush scandal has been raised tonight, and we will have a further debate on that at the end of our discussions in Committee. After the experience of the appalling treatment that the Windrush victims suffered, and the Williams review and the Government’s pledge to implement its recommendations, it does not seem very wise to knowingly run the risk that we could be creating more people who are not properly recognised and integrated and who risk all sorts of horrible things happening to them.
From the non-partisan nature of this discussion, it is evident that this proposal has such wide support across the Committee, so I implore the Government to think seriously about whether the cost-benefit ratio of charging what, in the words of the noble Baroness, Lady Altmann, may be three times the actual administrative cost—a 200% mark-up—is truly worth it in view of the wider cost of potentially either excluding people from citizenship or, even worse, having a new Windrush generation.
I will be very brief, since I would only be repeating what has already been said, but I congratulate my noble friend Lady Lister of Burtersett on her determination on this and, indeed, other related issues. EEA and Swiss nationals will shortly be joining the queue of those having to pay visa fees or fees when seeking a right to British citizenship. As we know, the Home Office currently makes a very substantial surplus in relation to this kind of applications following the major cuts in the department’s budget over the last decade. We believe that visa fees should not exceed the cost price.
“must ensure that no fee is charged that may deter or prevent registration of an EEA or Swiss national as a British citizen.”
Amendment 68 provides that no person who has lost their free movement rights under this Bill may be charged a fee for registering for British citizenship over the cost of processing their application.
Reference has been made to the British Nationality Act 1981, which contained provisions in respect of payment of fees relating to a child with an entitlement to register for British citizenship. For children with a parent who had free movement rights, Amendment 68 seeks to protect this position by providing that, if they are in care, they may not be charged any fee to register—if they are eligible—for British citizenship and that, otherwise, they may not be charged fees that they or their parent, guardian or carer cannot afford.
I simply conclude by expressing support for the amendment moved by my noble friend Lady Lister. I share the concerns that she expressed about the seemingly very casual attitude to citizenship shown by the Government in the debate in the Commons on this issue. I hope we hear a more understanding response from the Government tonight.
My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have spoken so passionately in this debate, but I pay particular tribute to the noble Baroness, Lady Lister of Burtersett. If nothing else, she is utterly consistent. I was going to describe her focus as laser-like but I think terrier-like is probably a good additional description.
I will address the court judgment first for the noble Lord, Lord Alton, and others. My right honourable friend the Home Secretary has been given leave to appeal on that, and we expect a judgment in the autumn. Therefore, the noble Lord will totally understand that I actually cannot even speak about this.
However, putting that aside, I will address the concept of citizenship fees being profit making. The overall income from citizenship fees is £2.09 billion; the cost of BICS, the borders, immigration and citizenship system, is £3.18 billion, so it does not even meet its cost overall. Far from making a profit, it still subsidises the overall cost of BICS. I might add that the principle of charging above cost has been in place for more than a decade: that clearly includes all three main political parties represented here in your Lordships’ House. A consultation was run at the end of 2013 on charging principles, which are included in the Immigration Act 2014. We have continued to apply these charging principles, agreed by Parliament, in any proposed fee changes. That said, the Government’s intention is that EEA and non-EEA citizens will be treated the same under the future immigration system. This means that under the new system, the intent is that existing fees, waivers and exceptions will be applied equally.
The issue of fees charged to EEA citizens has been discussed here and of course, as noble Lords have said, in the other place during the passage of the Bill. Throughout, the Government have been clear that decisions regarding future fees payable or funding of the system should be taken in the round and outside of the passage of the Bill, but I totally understand—I would probably have done the same had I been the noble Baroness, Lady Lister—that this is a good opportunity to discuss it. A legislative structure for application fees, with long-standing appropriate checks and balances is already in place. Any changes by way of amendments to the Bill would obviously undermine the existing legal framework, with its purpose of providing the ability to set fees and exceptions in secondary legislation. It would also reduce clarity in the fees structure by creating an alternative statutory mechanism for controlling fees.
Amendment 30 would have the effect of creating a two-tier system and would not deliver the required funding to the system, or indeed deliver the policy intent of FBIS, the future borders and immigration system.
Turning to Amendment 68, this is clearly an important matter and one which has been discussed during the passage of the Bill in the other place. The aim of subsection (1) of the proposed new clause is to limit the Secretary of State’s power to charge a fee for British citizenship applications to the cost of processing the application for anybody who has enjoyed free movement rights, alongside the wider context of charging fees to register as a British citizen. As I have already noted, imposing any amendments to fees as part of the Bill would cut across the existing statutory framework for fees and would risk undermining the funding and coherence of the current and future system, but I think the noble Baroness knows that; we are simply having a discussion about her feelings and the feelings of others on the level of the fees.
Subsection (2) seeks to prevent the Secretary of State charging a fee to register as a British citizen to the child of a person who has exercised free movement rights if the child is in receipt of local authority assistance. The noble Baroness and other noble Lords will know that local authority assistance is a broad term that could include those accessing a range of financial and practical support measures offered by local authorities, including citizenship fees. The Government offer fee exemptions that allow access to limited and indefinite leave to remain to be obtained free of charge for those who are looked after by a local authority. The ability to obtain citizenship may therefore be delayed, but not removed entirely.
Subsection (3) seeks to remove fees to register as a British citizen for children of those who have exercised free movement rights, where the child, child’s parent, guardian or carer is unable to afford the associated fees. This raises similar points to those in subsection (1) and Amendment 30, and I refer to my responses on those points with regards to maintaining a sustainable current and future immigration system and there already being suitable legislative structures in place.
Implementing subsection (4) would require the Secretary of State to take steps to make persons who have exercised free movement rights aware of their rights to obtain British citizenship under the British Nationality Act 1981. The Government have made it clear, when explaining the rights afforded by settled status obtained via the EU settlement scheme, that this may include a right to apply for British citizenship, providing that eligibility requirements are met. The information about becoming a British citizen is available on GOV.UK and we are committed to ensuring that information of this nature is fully accessible for all.
I hope that, with those explanations, the noble Baroness will feel able to withdraw her amendment.
The Minister talked about the service being far from making a profit, yet we have heard from the Government on previous occasions about the surplus that is achieved from individual payments and fees. Will she write to noble Lords after today’s debate explaining in only as little detail as is required what the finances of this service are in order to square those two statements?
I could go through them tonight, but I think the Committee is probably getting quite weary, as is the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, so I will write and explain.
I am very grateful to all noble Lords who added their names to this amendment or who spoke from across the Committee. The noble Lord, Lord Alton, talked about being a member of the infantry. With infantry like this, who needs generals? We have had such powerful, passionate, well-informed speeches from across the Committee. I think they all came from the heart, and that is what made them so powerful. It is clear that everybody feels very strongly about this, particularly when talking about the implications for children.
The right reverend Prelate used the word “iniquitous”, which is unusually strong, given his measured approach. This is iniquitous and we should take note when someone such as the right reverend Prelate uses that word. It is a tragedy that we are having to come back to argue this again. The Windrush scandal is hanging over it all like a spectre. It is important that we do not repeat that shameful episode in our country’s history.
I thank the Minister. I am relieved that she did not try to argue that citizenship is not important—I think she realised that she was on hiding to nothing if she tried to do that. Apart from that, however, I am disappointed that there is no sign of any give in the Government’s position.
I am sorry to interrupt, but somebody else wants to ask a question. I shall let them ask the question and then come back to the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, to let her finish. I am really sorry about this. The noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, has made a late request to ask a question and I think we should let her ask it.
I thank noble Lords and apologise for my lateness; I am having a very bad day with technology. I tried to send the email about 30 minutes ago.
I join other noble Lords in being very disappointed given the powerful and wide-ranging contributions from all sides of the Committee, both spiritual and temporal. In asking my question, I think I need to declare my position as a vice-president of the Local Government Association. I wonder whether the Minister can offer us one concession tonight or whether she will go away and think about making this concession. I refer to Amendment 68 and to subsection (2) of the proposed new clause which refers to children in the care of a local authority. I do not need to tell noble Lords that local authority funding is extremely stretched and extremely fragile and that there are huge demands on children’s services. As a responsible institutional parent, a local authority would surely want to secure citizenship for a child in its care, but that would be taking money away from other services, so will the Minister consider at least thinking about ensuring that if there is no waiving of fees, local authorities are recompensed for the cost of those fees?
The noble Baroness has just demonstrated that it is really beneficial to be here throughout the whole of the debate, because I covered that aspect on local authorities in my speech. If she reads Hansard, it will clarify the matter for her, and if she would like to come back to me again, I would be very happy to respond.
My Lords, I was saying that I found the Minister’s response disappointing. Yet again, when she talked about the cost of the immigration and citizenship service, she seemed to be conflating immigration and citizenship. Part of the point that we are making is that they are different and that it is irrelevant what the overall cost of the immigration and borders system is, because these fees should not be paying for that system. They should simply be paying for the cost of registering a right of citizenship that already exists. That was disappointing, and she might want to look again at that.
The Minister said that EEA and non-EEA people would be treated the same in future. That is not very reassuring because we have been going on for years about how badly the non-EEA people are treated in this area. She talked about a two-tier system not delivering the required fund or policy intent, and I was not sure what she meant by “policy intent”. As she is going to be writing a letter to us anyway, perhaps she could clarify that.
I was also very puzzled—this might be partly what the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, was referring to—that subsection (2) of the amendment does not refer to local authority assistance. That was an original amendment that was put down in the Commons. The Minister in the Commons pointed out that this was a very vague term, so we deliberately put in this amendment the words
“looked after by a local authority.”
I do not quite know whether the Minister was speaking to an amendment that was laid in the Commons rather than the amendment that is before her now. We are talking very specifically about looked-after children, not any child who gets any kind of assistance from a local authority. Perhaps she could clarify that when she writes her letter.
I think it was the noble Baroness, Lady Smith of Newnham, who talked about the importance of doing the right thing. That is why we are all still here, in this echo chamber, and we will continue to be here until the Government do the right thing. The only dispute I have with the notion of an echo chamber is that echoes tend to fade away. This echo is not going to fade away: it is going to get stronger. The more the Government try to resist it, the more we will be coming back. It might not be part of this Bill, because clearly the amendment is not going to pass, but there will be ample opportunities and we will not let this go. We will, of course, wait to see what will happen in the appeal, but I hope the Government will remember the importance of doing the right thing, because the Government are now doing the wrong thing. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 30 withdrawn.
Amendments 31 and 32 not moved.