Amendment 30

Nationality and Borders Bill - Committee (1st Day) (Continued) – in the House of Lords at 6:15 pm on 27th January 2022.

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Lord Dubs:

Moved by Lord Dubs

30: Clause 10, page 13, line 11, after “birth” insert “without any legal or administrative barriers”Member’s explanatory statementThis would give effect to the recommendation of the Joint Committee on Human Rights to ensure that, in compliance with Article 1 of the 1961 UN Statelessness Convention, British citizenship is only withheld from a stateless child born in the UK where the nationality of a parent is available to the child immediately, without any legal or administrative hurdles.

Photo of Lord Dubs Lord Dubs Labour

My Lords, I again refer to my membership of the Joint Committee on Human Rights. We have produced detailed reports on many aspects of the Bill, including on this matter.

It is surely a basic right that nobody should be stateless. This is fundamental. Stateless people have fewer rights—they have virtually none—and they are vulnerable. I have tabled this amendment to avoid statelessness.

As things stand, stateless children born in the UK are covered by this provision in the Bill. Prior to the British Nationality Act 1981, all children born in the UK were British under jus soli. As I said earlier, I served in the Commons at the time—indeed, I was on the Public Bill Committee which dealt with this Bill for many long weeks—and we had a long discussion about jus soli, and I only hope that the position I took then is the same as the one I am taking now—in other words, in opposition to the provision. I think I can claim that I have been consistent over 40 years; I hope so, but if anyone wants to look it up in order to disprove it, I will listen to them.

Clause 10 has a new requirement that will make it more difficult for stateless children to acquire British citizenship. It puts another hurdle in the way of acquiring that citizenship. The onus will now be on children—or, if they are very young, the people responsible for them —to produce the evidence, unless the Home Secretary is satisfied that the child is unable to acquire another nationality. The provision will effectively mean that a child born in the UK, or their parents or carers on their behalf, will have to prove that they could not reasonably have acquired another nationality—so the onus is on the child, or the parents or carers, to prove that. That may be quite a difficult point to prove, and the onus is switched in allocating the burden of responsibility. That could be especially hard for children who do not have significant support or access to the relevant documents. For example, the children of refugees might find it very difficult to have the necessary documentation or to be able to produce the evidence, so it would put a significant additional burden on them.

It is an anomaly that when children become adults they can apply. It remains an oddity that a child can remain stateless for some years until they become an adult, when they can then apply. What is the advantage to anyone of having a child stateless for that period? It certainly cannot be in the best interests of the child, and that surely must be the bottom line. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child always talks about what is in the best interests of the child; Article 7 says that a child should be registered as having a nationality immediately after birth. That is fairly clear. Furthermore, it says that a contracting state shall grant its nationality to a person born in its territory who would otherwise be stateless. With this clause, the Government are going against these provisions in the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

It is difficult to see how Clause 10 complies with the United Kingdom’s obligations under both the 1961 United Nations Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness and the Convention on the Rights of the Child. It is an unnecessary measure that makes things even more difficult. I can see no argument, not even the security arguments that the Minister advanced in the previous debate, for putting this hurdle in the way of children who might otherwise be stateless. I beg to move.

Photo of Baroness Lister of Burtersett Baroness Lister of Burtersett Labour

My Lords, I support my noble friend Lord Dubs and the proposal that Clause 10 should not stand part of the Bill. I put on record my thanks to the Joint Committee on Human Rights for the very helpful work that it has done on the Bill, with a whole raft of very useful reports. According to ILPA and the Bar Council, this clause contravenes the 1961 UN Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness, and that should give us pause for thought. Research by the European Network on Statelessness shows how some children in very vulnerable circumstances will be affected, as my noble friend said, and found that there can be good reasons for delays in registering a child’s nationality.

To my mind, the justification that the clause is needed because there has been a significant increase in the number of registrations of stateless children smacks of the culture of disbelief and suspicion criticised by Wendy Williams in the Windrush report. Surely it is to be celebrated that more children are exercising their rights—no thanks to the Home Office, which has been dilatory in making children and their parents aware of these rights and in removing the barriers to registering them. It is thanks to the hard work of organisations such as the Project for the Registration of Children as British Citizens that more children and parents have become aware of the right to registration. As I say, this is to be commended, not cracked down on as if it were some kind of crime.

As the JCHR observes, and Amendment 31 addresses —a point made also by my noble friend Lord Dubs—it is difficult to see how this clause is compatible with the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. While the Home Hoffice human rights memorandum states that it has considered the best interests of the children affected, it is not clear from it how such a clause is in their best interests, so can the Minister spell out exactly how this clause meets the best interests of children affected?

Photo of Baroness Ludford Baroness Ludford Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Exiting the European Union)

My Lords, as a member of the Joint Committee on Human Rights, I agree with the noble Baroness that we have done good work on the Bill. On a more serious note, perhaps I may say how much we appreciate the chairmanship of the right honourable Harriet Harman MP, whose recent bereavement has saddened us so much.

I will speak to both Amendments 30 and 31. As has been said by other noble Lords, Clause 10 amends the British Nationality Act to introduce new requirements for the registration of a stateless child—a child born in the UK—and could make it even more difficult for them to acquire British nationality, to which there are already significant hurdles. I could not agree more with the noble Baroness, Lady Lister. Why should it be a problem that children are becoming stateless and ceasing to have the security of nationality?

Under Clause 10, the Home Secretary has to be satisfied that the child is unable to acquire another nationality. That puts that child in the position of having to prove that they could not reasonably have acquired another nationality. The policy rationale seems to be a suspicion that parents are wilfully causing their child’s statelessness—the culture of disbelief that the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, referred to. As colleagues and the JCHR say, it is difficult to see how the best interests of the child, as required by the 1961 UN Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness, are served by the new test in this provision. How is it in that child’s interests to be left stateless?

Indeed, asserts the JCHR, Clause 10

“risks punishing the child for a perceived failure” on the part of their parent or carer, which is obviously through no fault of their own. However, the UN convention does not impose a requirement on the parent to exhaust all avenues to seek the citizenship of another state. So Clause 10 could move the UK away from the convention. I was interested that the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, quoted ILFA and the Bar Council as saying that they do indeed think that this is a contravention of the convention, and I can see why. Amendment 30 is an attempt to move the UK back towards the intention of the convention by saying that British citizenship could only be withheld

“where the nationality of a parent is available to the child immediately, without any legal or administrative hurdles.”

Amendment 31 aims to make the best interests of the child central to the decision-making.

Finally, in addition to the risk of alienation from our society of individual children, it cannot be in the interests of British society as a whole for young people born here to be excluded from sharing citizenship and thus rootedness in their community.

Photo of Baroness Jones of Moulsecoomb Baroness Jones of Moulsecoomb Green

My Lords, I support the amendments and the proposal that Clause 10 should not stand part, and my noble friend Lady Bennett of Manor Castle has also signed them. We should be making it as easy as possible for children to obtain a nationality if they are already stateless. Quite honestly, who dreams up these cruel clauses at the Home Office? Do they not have a heart when they are writing these things? Do they not understand the impact that they can have on children through no fault of the child? The decision should be made purely in the best interests of the child, as provided by Amendment 31. I hope that the Government change course and make this as easy and straightforward as possible. People outside are looking in and are judging this to be cruel, unpleasant and perfectly horrendous.

Photo of The Bishop of Durham The Bishop of Durham Bishop 6:30 pm, 27th January 2022

My Lords, I am trying to imagine how it could ever be in the best interests of a child born and raised in this country not to be given the right to be a citizen of this country. In what possible circumstances could we decide that it would be in the best interests of someone born and raised in this country to be decreed, at the age of 13 or 14, a citizen of another state? That is the situation. You could almost forget the 1961 convention, human rights and so on; we are simply talking about the best interests of the child. You can then back it up with all the international stuff on top. I support these amendments.

Photo of Lord Paddick Lord Paddick Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

My Lords, Clause 10 talks about, to quote the Explanatory Notes,

“cases where parents have chosen not to register their child’s birth, which would have acquired their own nationality for their child, which means that the child can register as a British citizen under the statelessness provisions.”

I seriously question how many parents have such a detailed understanding of nationality law that they choose not to register their child’s birth in order to register their child later under statelessness provisions to give them British citizenship. That is just not credible. How many cases can the Minister cite where parents have deliberately not registered the nationality of their child in order for that child to get British citizenship under the statelessness provisions?

This strikes me as a cynical attempt to tighten the law, in a similar way to that in which the Bill tightens the provisions around modern slavery, to give the impression of being tough—bordering on xenophobic —on immigration, when there really is not a problem. It should not be part of the Bill. The power in this clause given to the Secretary of State to deny British citizenship to a child, unless she is satisfied that the child cannot reasonably acquire the nationality of its parents, needs to be qualified at the very least.

Amendment 30 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, would give effect to the recommendation of the Joint Committee on Human Rights

“to ensure that British citizenship is only withheld” from a stateless child born in the UK

“where the nationality of a parent is available to the child immediately”, without any legal or administrative hurdles. We will support this amendment if this clause stands part of the Bill.

These are decisions being taken by parents and the Secretary of State about an innocent child who has no influence over what is being decided about their future—decisions about something as fundamental as citizenship. For that reason alone, we strongly support Amendment 31: that the best interests of the stateless child born in the UK must be central to any decision whether to grant or refuse British citizenship.

This is what we have come to: seeking to deny stateless children born in the UK British citizenship. As I said on a previous group, British citizenship has benefits to society as well as to the individual concerned. This is not just about the best interests of the child, although it should be; it is about what is in the best interests of society. Keeping children stateless as they grow into adults surely increases their chance of being radicalised and becoming a threat to society. On the last group, the Minister kept talking about high-harm individuals. All the evidence points to one of the most important factors in radicalisation being people not feeling part of society or of this country. Keeping a child stateless surely will increase the danger of that person growing into a terrorist.

Photo of Lord Rosser Lord Rosser Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow Spokesperson (Transport)

My Lords, my name has been added to the proposal to oppose Clause 10 standing part of the Bill, which was tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Paddick. As has been said, Clause 10 is intended to disentitle stateless children in the UK from their statutory right to British citizenship. It proposes amending and restricting a vital safeguard in British nationality law that prevents and reduces childhood statelessness. Under our international obligations, we have safeguards that mean that a child who was born in the UK and has always been stateless can acquire British citizenship after five years of residing here.

Through Clause 10, the Government now propose to restrict and amend that obligation. Clause 10 requires the Secretary of State to be satisfied that a child was unable to acquire another nationality before being permitted to register as a British citizen. That creates an additional and unjustified hurdle to stateless children’s registration as British citizens, which could be difficult for a child or those acting on their behalf to prove.

Rather than helping such children attain citizenship, the Government are intent on putting up more barriers and making it more difficult for children under 18 to be registered. They seem to want to try to deny citizenship, particularly citizenship of the place where the child was born and lives—in fact, the only place they know. No doubt the Government will explain what substantial wrong they consider this clause addresses and what hard evidence there is that that wrong is actually significant, as opposed to it being claimed as such.

Clause 10 can only be highly damaging to a child’s personal development and their feelings of security and belonging, with this exclusion and potential alienation being inflicted in their formative years. The noble Lord, Lord Paddick, referred to the serious implications that can have. There has been no assessment made by the Government of the impact this proposal will have on those children affected, which suggests that this issue does not trouble the Government. As my noble friend Lady Lister of Burtersett said, how can this be in the best interests of the child? This issue is addressed in Amendment 31, reflecting a JCHR recommendation.

In the Commons, we supported an amendment to Clause 10 which sought to ensure that the Government act in compliance with Article 1 of the 1961 UN Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness, the Government having failed to protect the existing safeguards, which are in line with international law, in this Bill. The amendment altered Clause 10, so that British citizenship was withheld from a stateless child born in the UK only when a parent’s nationality was available to the child immediately, without any legal or administrative hurdles. That is as per Amendment 30, moved by my noble friend Lord Dubs, which also reflects a JCHR recommendation.

I am probably being overoptimistic in hoping that there will be a positive government reply to this stand part debate. At the very least, if my fears are justified and we do not get a positive reply from our point of view, I hope that we will be told what the hard evidence is that Clause 10 actually addresses a significant wrong, rather than one being claimed as such.

Photo of Baroness Williams of Trafford Baroness Williams of Trafford The Minister of State, Home Department

My Lords, I start by thanking the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, for tabling Amendments 30 and 31 to Clause 10, which requires the Secretary of State to be satisfied that a child aged between five and 17 cannot reasonably acquire another nationality in order to be registered under the stateless child provisions. I also note the opposition to and concerns about this clause of the noble Lords, Lord Paddick and Lord Rosser, should they not be satisfied by my response. In an ideal world, we would not need to include this clause, but current trends mean that we feel we must.

That goes to the question that the noble Lords, Lord Paddick and Lord Rosser, asked about the figures. In 2017, in the case of R v Secretary of State for the Home Department, even though the applicant was eligible for the grant of British citizenship under paragraph 3 of Schedule 2 to the BNA 1981, and despite the fact that they could acquire the nationality of their parents, the judge recognised that his conclusion

“opens an obvious route to abuse”.

The figures bear that out. In 2010 there were five cases; in 2018 they peaked at 1,775. There is obvious evidence that this is happening. I rest my case there.

Clause 10 has been developed in response to concerns that a number of non-settled parents, many of whom did not have permission to be in the UK at the time of their child’s birth, have chosen not to register their child’s birth with their own authorities in order to qualify under the current child statelessness provisions. This in turn can impact on the parents’ immigration status.

Amendment 30 would add a new condition to Clause 10, so that a child is defined as being able to acquire a nationality from birth only if there were no legal or administrative barriers to them doing so. That would mean that the parents I have talked about could, in theory, benefit from the stateless child provisions by not registering their child’s birth. In answer to the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, it is very easy to register a child’s birth. The parents simply need to complete a form and provide supporting information about their identity, status and residence and the child’s birth. I do not think that is difficult.

I appreciate that the noble Lord’s use of the term “barriers” might have been intended to suggest something more significant and assure him that the clause already reflects our expectation that children who cannot reasonably acquire another nationality should not be excluded. The UNHCR’s document Guidelines on Statelessness no. 4: Ensuring Every Child’s Right to Acquire a Nationality through Articles 1-4 of the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness recognises that the responsibility to grant nationality to children who would otherwise be stateless is not engaged where a child could acquire the nationality of a parent through registration or a simple procedure. The genuinely stateless child will not be affected. This is about those who can reasonably acquire another nationality. It is not about the Windrush generation—they are entitled to be British.

We do not think it is fair that parents can effectively secure a quicker route to British citizenship by choosing not to register their child’s birth. In doing so, they are depriving their child of a nationality, which is not only about identity and belonging, as I heard one noble Lord say, but can allow them to acquire a passport or identity document and the ability to travel overseas to see family, for example.

They are also taking advantage of a provision intended to protect those who are genuinely stateless. We want them still to be able to benefit, but we want to change the registration provisions so that parents cannot effectively choose statelessness for their children and then benefit from the provisions. We think it is appropriate that families should take reasonable steps to acquire a nationality for their child. We will set out in guidance the sort of steps that we think are reasonable, and applications will be considered on their individual basis.

Amendment 31 would mean that we could not regard a child as being able to acquire another nationality, and so decline their British citizenship application, if it would not be in the best interests of the child to gain that nationality. Noble Lords have pointed out the value they see in a child being able to secure and acquire a nationality, and it is difficult to see why parents might argue that it is not in their child’s best interests to share their status. We have already taken into account that some countries’ nationalities may be problematic for a child to acquire. The proposed clause reflects our expectation that a parent should not need to try to acquire a nationality for their child if it is not reasonable for them to do so.

Adding a statutory assessment of a child’s best interests in not holding a particular nationality would not be helpful. The Home Secretary is already required by Section 55 of the Borders, Citizenship and Immigration Act 2009 to take into account the need to safeguard and promote the welfare of children. Including this requirement here could cast doubt on the application of Section 55 in other areas where the duty is not expressly required.

We want to use Clause 10 to amend the existing registration provision for stateless children by adding a requirement that the Secretary of State must be satisfied that the child cannot reasonably acquire another nationality. We hope that this will encourage parents to acquire a nationality for their child where they can. As I have said, it will not affect genuinely stateless children or those who have a nationality but whose parents cannot approach their own country’s authorities for a passport or documentation.

In answer to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham, for children born in the UK who do not become British and do not have any other nationality, there are specific provisions to register as a British citizen. A child can be registered as a British citizen if they were born in the UK, have always been stateless, have lived in the UK for five years and make an application before their 22nd birthday. This means that, if a child is stateless and has had no other citizenship or nationality from birth, they can effectively be registered on reaching the age of five, rather than after the age of 10, like other children born in the UK.

On international obligations, the noble Baronesses, Lady Lister and Lady Ludford, asked whether we are breaching the 1954 and 1961 conventions and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. We propose having two separate registration routes: one that applies to those aged between 18 and 22, to which no additional requirements apply; and a new registration route that applies only to children below the age of 18 and which introduces a new requirement that the Secretary of State be satisfied that the child is unable to acquire another nationality. We are satisfied that this complies with our obligations under the statelessness conventions, and we have taken into account the approach recommended by the UNHCR’s guideline No. 4 in drafting this provision.

I should add that citizenship is not the only option. There are also provisions in the Immigration Rules for a stateless person to apply for permission to stay in the UK and for which they do not have to wait five years. Equally, their parents are able to apply for immigration leave more generally if they believe that they have a valid basis to stay here.

I hope that, with those explanations, noble Lords will be happy to withdraw and not press their amendments to Clause 10.

Photo of Lord Paddick Lord Paddick Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Home Affairs) 6:45 pm, 27th January 2022

My Lords, can the Minister clarify something? She gave us some figures; I did not have a chance to write to them down. She talked about the figures peaking at, I think, somewhere around 1,700 cases. Is that the number of stateless children born in the UK who are granted British citizenship, or are they cases where parents deliberately chose not to register their child’s birth in order to take advantage of the system?

Photo of Baroness Williams of Trafford Baroness Williams of Trafford The Minister of State, Home Department

I assume that it is the latter, but I will write to the noble Lord with the details of the figures I have here. In particular, I will give him more detail about the countries from which these cases derive.

Photo of Baroness Ludford Baroness Ludford Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Exiting the European Union)

I want to follow up, because the Minister has answered the question I was going to ask. She mentioned that the 1,700 figure—I cannot remember what year it was for—was evidence of abuse, and as she just replied to my noble friend, she is assuming that the parents in those cases could not apply. It seems to me that there is no evidence of abuse. I am thinking of the strengthened safeguards in Amendments 30 and 31, especially Amendment 31. The Home Secretary must be satisfied that “in all the circumstances” it is reasonable, et cetera. The Minister referred to circumstances where parents cannot access the authorities of the relevant state. One can think of dozens of countries around the world in conflict, civil war or whatever chaos. Adding the words

“without any legal or administrative barriers” would go with the flow of the Home Secretary having to be satisfied that it is reasonable to refuse, and I really cannot see why the Home Office cannot accept Amendment 30, even if it is claiming that Amendment 31 is unnecessary because it already cares about the best interests of the child.

Photo of Baroness Williams of Trafford Baroness Williams of Trafford The Minister of State, Home Department

I shall write to noble Lords about this in more detail, because it is quite detailed, and explain where the figures have derived from. I was actually quoting the judge in his conclusion that an “obvious route to abuse” would be opened. I shall send the figures to the noble Baroness. On case sampling, many of the cases have a poor immigration history, with 79% of the parents having no leave at the time of the birth and only 16% having such leave, but I will outline it to noble Lords in greater detail and they can draw their own conclusion.

Photo of Lord Dubs Lord Dubs Labour

My Lords, I have tried to follow the Minister’s reply, and I am bound to say that I too am a little confused about these figures. I think she has just not yet made her case. Please could she give us more information before we get to Report? If not, we will not be persuaded by this. I may not have been quick enough to pick up all the nuances—I do not think any of us were, really; it was quite difficult. I look forward to getting more information from her; we shall have to listen to what she has to say. I am grateful to noble Lords who contributed to the debate, and I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 30 withdrawn.

Amendment 31 not moved.

Clause 10 agreed.

Amendments 32 and 33 not moved.

House resumed.

House adjourned at 6.53 pm.