Registration as a British citizen by EEA and Swiss nationals

Immigration and Social Security Co-ordination (EU Withdrawal) Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 2:30 pm on 16th June 2020.

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“(1) No person, who has at any time exercised any of the rights for which Schedule 1 makes provision to end, may be charged a fee to register as a British citizen that is higher than the cost to the Secretary of State of exercising the function of registration.

(2) No child of a person who has at any time exercised any of the rights for which Schedule 1 makes provision to end may be charged a fee to register as a British citizen if that child is receiving the assistance of a local authority.

(3) No child of a person who has at any time exercised any of the rights for which Schedule 1 makes provision to end may be charged a fee to register as a British citizen that the child or the child’s parent, guardian or carer is unable to afford.

(4) The Secretary of State must take steps to raise awareness of people to whom subsection (1) applies of their rights under the British Nationality Act 1981 to register as British citizens.”—

This new clause would mean that nobody whose right of free movement was removed by the Bill could be charged a fee for registering as a British citizen that was greater than the cost of the registration process and would abolish the fee for some children.

Brought up, and read the First time.

Photo of Graham Stringer Graham Stringer Labour, Blackley and Broughton

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

New clause 36—Immigration Fees—

“(1) No fees may be charged for processing applications included in subsection (3) for those persons who have lost rights of free movement under section 1 or schedule 1 beyond the cost of that processing, unless the Secretary of State has complied with the procedure in subsection (2).

(2) If the Secretary of State proposes to make changes to the rules under subsection (1), the Secretary of State must get the approval of both Houses of Parliament.

(3) The list of fees to which subsection (1) applies includes, but is not restricted to, the following—

(a) fees for applications to enter or remain in the UK;

(b) fees for sponsorship licenses;

(c) immigration health surcharges; and

(d) immigration skills charges.”

This new clause will ensure that immigration fee changes must be agreed by Parliament.

New clause 37—Citizenship Fees—

“(1) No fee may be charged for processing applications relating to the citizenship status of a person who has lost rights of free movement under section 1 or schedule 1 beyond the cost of that processing, unless the Secretary of State has complied with the procedure in subsection (2).

(2) If the Secretary of State proposes to make changes to the rules under subsection (1), the Secretary of State must get the approval of both Houses of Parliament.”

This new clause will ensure that citizenship fee changes must be agreed by Parliament.

Photo of Stuart McDonald Stuart McDonald Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Immigration, Asylum and Border Control), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Attorney General)

These new clauses continue with the broad topic of fees and expense. Although I understand why they have been grouped together, it is important that they are not treated as being about exactly the same thing; we must separate out two distinct issues.

New clauses 36 and 37 were designed to flag up the issue of how far above the cost of processing immigration and citizenship fees have been set, generally speaking, and to challenge the Minister and Committee members about why we have allowed that to happen and what the appropriate approach to setting fees should be. I accept that there will be a whole range of views on what the price of immigration applications or certain nationality applications, particularly naturalisations, should be. My own view, and that of my party, is that the prices have been set too high. This brings us back to the fact that the Home Office’s budget has been cut to smithereens in recent years by the Treasury, and it is left with no other option but to milk every penny from the immigration and citizenship system to subsidise its activities. I urge Members to wake up to the enormous burden that, at this time of crisis, the Government are about to dump on business—especially small and medium-sized enterprises—as well as individuals by expanding all these fees to companies that recruit from the EEA labour market.

It is important to distinguish new clauses 36 and 37 from new clause 13, which raises a wholly separate issue and is about righting a profound injustice. We can debate fees more generally, but there should be no scope for debate about new clause 13. I know that Members of all parties have been troubled by Government policy in this area, because, like Labour, Liberal Democrat, Democratic Ulster Unionist, Green and Plaid Cymru Members, Conservative Members also signed an early-day motion that I tabled on the topic in 2018. When I applied for a Backbench Business debate I had support from Conservative MPs as well, as I did during the debate.

The issue highlighted by new clause 13 is that many children and adults who have the right to British citizenship do not have access to it because, first, they are not aware of their right, but, secondly, the Home Office charges ludicrous sums of money. Indeed, Sajid Javid, giving evidence as Home Secretary to the Home Affairs Committee, described it as a “huge” sum of money.

In 1981, Parliament decided that British citizenship should no longer be conferred automatically by birth, for reasons that many countries went along with—that, in an age of international travel, something more should be required that means there is a tie or a bond between an individual and the country. However, at that time Parliament was incredibly careful and cautious about ensuring that it did not just cut away citizenship from those kids who did indeed have a tie to the United Kingdom. It provided for a new procedure—registration of children.

The key provisions under which children born in the UK but not born automatically British are entitled to register as British citizens arise when a parent becomes British or settled while the child is still under 18, the child lives in the UK for the first 10 years of his or her life, or the child is born stateless, and, remaining so, lives in the UK for five continuous years. Those kids are de facto British. They are entitled in law to be British as long as they register. That right to citizenship is every bit as real as the right that everyone in this room—or any of our children—has. It would be unthinkable for us to deprive our kids of their citizenship because of a fee, but that, in essence, is what the Home Office is now doing, aggravated by a lack of knowledge, generally speaking, of the law.

When Parliament set up the laws on registration, the fee was set at the level of the cost of processing the application. It remained at that sort of level for many years. Over the past decade the Home Office has changed its approach. It has just lumped those applications in with all the others, and relentlessly ramped up the fee. It has become as routine to increase the fees for access to British citizenship as to increase them for any old visa, but the two are utterly different.

As I said earlier, I disagree with what the Government have done to immigration fees generally and to fees for overseas nationals who make a choice about coming to the United Kingdom and becoming British. The Government have the right, however, to take that approach if they choose. However, it is wholly inappropriate, and indefensible, in relation to people with a right to citizenship by registration. That is a wholly different type of case. Those people did not choose the UK as their home. Circumstances made the UK their home and Parliament chose to confer citizenship on all who wanted to avail themselves of it. It is inappropriate for the right to be denied to them and for Parliament’s intention to be subverted simply because the Home Office wants to cross-subsidise visit visas, or whatever else.

I wonder whether any hon. Member in this room can imagine being asked for more than £1,000 before their kids could be allowed legal access to British citizenship, even though they had the right to it in law. It would be totally unacceptable. I urge hon. Members to take that same approach to those who should have access to that right via the registration process.

The result of all that I have described is that many thousands of kids and their families cannot afford to register. Some will not even be aware that it is an issue until it is too late, unfortunately. However, there are instances when families manage to save up enough to provide one child with the citizenship that they are entitled to, but another has to go without. Imagine facing that choice: “Which kid will I register for British citizenship and which will have to do without?” There are not even any exemptions for families who cannot afford the fee.

Subsection (4) of the new clause would provide for steps to be taken to raise awareness of the right to citizenship via registration. That is all the more important at the moment because of the danger that many people who would be entitled to register as UK citizens take on instead the less secure and generous status offered under the settled status scheme. We should and must do all that we can to support all those who are entitled to UK citizenship to get access to it.

I do not expect a sudden change in Government policy, but Members across the House feel strongly about the matter, and I urge Conservative Members to think about it and make it their cause, and lobby the Home Office. The current approach with respect to kids entitled to British citizenship defies common sense or any principle.

Photo of Holly Lynch Holly Lynch Shadow Minister (Home Office) 2:45 pm, 16th June 2020

We support new clauses 13, 36 and 37, which were tabled by the SNP and address immigration and citizenship fee charges that fall within the scope of the Bill. We believe that visa charges should not exceed the cost price, for all the reasons that have already been set out.

Subsection (1) of new clause 13 would prohibit EEA and Swiss citizens from being charged a fee for registering as a British citizen that is greater than the cost of the registration process. As we have already heard, there is enormous cross-party support for this approach.

The Home Office makes a profit of up to 800% on immigration applications from families. The fees are now £1,012 for children and £1,206 for adults, which are really quite significant sums. We have all had constituents come to us because such fees are causing a huge amount of anxiety and stress after a change in circumstances. We have all had casework in which applications have been turned down on technicalities, which we have been able to challenge through our parliamentary offices. Families are often forced to make further appeals and further applications, and to pay again.

EEA and Swiss nationals will soon join the rest of the world in having to pay visa fees or fees for starting the journey towards British citizenship. The British Nationality Act 1981 contains provisions to ensure that no child with entitlement to register for British citizenship should have to pay a fee. Subsections (2), (3) and (4) of new clause 13 are designed to safeguard that Act, in spite of the Bill. I particularly welcome subsection (2), which would provide a further safeguard for children who receive assistance from their local authorities, adding to our proposals in new clause 58. We will come on to clause 58, but those provisions seek to provide automatic settled status for all EEA and Swiss children in care, and for those entitled to care-leaving support.

With that in mind, we welcome the independent chief inspector’s report, “An inspection of the policies and practices of the Home Office’s Borders, Immigration and Citizenship Systems relating to charging and fees”, which was presented to the Home Secretary last September. It set out concerns about the legislative procedure for citizenship and immigration fees, and it recommended that the Home Office undertake to provide considerably more clarity on fee levels, stating that the Government should:

“Either make public any Policy Equality Statements produced for ministers or publish separate statements that show clearly what has been considered when proposing fees levels/increases in terms of equality and diversity, in particular the social and welfare impacts on children, families and vulnerable persons.”

New clauses 37 and 38 would require Parliament’s consent for changes to be made to citizenship fees and immigration fees respectively. As we have discussed, the Government are attempting to grant themselves sweeping Henry VIII powers throughout the Bill; we have rehearsed that debate several times. We believe it is vital that parliamentary oversight is at least afforded to these charges, which will dictate the lives and prosperity of EEA and Swiss migrants in the UK for years to come. Ideally, that should be done through parliamentary legislation rather than through the current framework, which relies on statutory instruments.

Photo of Kevin Foster Kevin Foster The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

I am grateful to the hon. Members for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East and for Argyll and Bute for tabling new clauses 13, 36 and 37, which provide the Committee with the opportunity to consider fees charged in respect of applications made by those who will lose the right of free movement under the Bill for citizenship, leave to enter or remain in the United Kingdom, the immigration health surcharge, the immigration skills charge and sponsorship licences. I pay tribute to the hon. Gentlemen’s diligence in going through all the points that they wished to highlight.

It may be helpful to provide some background information for the Committee. Application fees for border, immigration and citizenship products and services have been charged for a number of years, and they play a vital role in our country’s ability to run a sustainable system. To put them into context, the current charging framework across the operation delivered £1.98 billion of income in the financial year 2018-19. That income helped to deliver the funding required to run the borders, immigration and citizenship system, and it substantially reduces the burden on UK taxpayers, as I am sure members of the public would rightly expect us to do.

The immigration health charge ensures that temporary migrants who come to the UK for more than six months make a fair contribution towards paying for the NHS services that are available to them during their stay. As was touched on earlier, income from the charge directly contributes to the long-term sustainability of our fantastic health service across our United Kingdom. Certain groups are already exempt from the requirement to pay the charge, and others benefit from a discounted rate.

The immigration skills charge is designed to incentivise employers to invest in training and upskilling the resident workforce to move away from reliance on the UK’s immigration system as an alternative to investment in staff retention, productivity, technology and automation. Income raised from the charge will be used to address skills gaps in the UK workforce, and that will be of benefit to businesses in the long term. Any fees to be charged are already approved by both Houses of Parliament.

New clause 13(1) is designed to limit the Secretary of State’s power to charge a fee for applying for British citizenship to the cost of processing. That would apply to anybody who has enjoyed free movement rights at any point. Imposing such a provision would cut across the existing statutory framework for fees and would risk undermining the funding and coherence of the whole current and future system.

Additionally, making fee provisions that are specific to certain nationalities as part of the Bill would be unfair to all users of the border, immigration and citizenship system, and it could lead the Home Office to discriminating on the basis of a person’s nationality. That clearly goes against our policy, although I accept that part of the rationale for that was to get the new clause into the scope of the Bill.

Photo of Stuart McDonald Stuart McDonald Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Immigration, Asylum and Border Control), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Attorney General)

Yes, that is absolutely the case. This does not apply even to every EU national exercising free movement; it applies to EU nationals who have the right to British citizenship through registration. It is a very specific subset, to which hugely different considerations apply; they are not in the same position as folk who have chosen to turn up and apply through naturalisation. They have a right, under an Act of Parliament, to British citizenship.

Photo of Kevin Foster Kevin Foster The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

I re-emphasise that having this type of provision in the Bill would cut across and create a new precedent. We would be talking about someone whose right of free movement was removed by the Bill. That would create incoherence, particularly once we have left the European Union, with provisions based on rights from being in the EU—a situation that does not now exist. We have put in protections that are appropriate and proportionate.

New clause 13(2) is designed to prevent the Secretary of State from charging the child of a person who has exercised free moment rights a fee to register as a British citizen, if the child is in receipt of local authority assistance. “Local authority assistance” is too broad a term and could include those who access a range of financial and practical support measures offered by local authorities. For example, a child may receive assistance from a local authority if they attend day-care facilities while they are not yet at school. That is quite different from a child who is looked after and in the care of the local authority by way of a care order made by a court, or a voluntary agreement with the parent to accommodate the child.

It is important to remember that any child, irrespective of nationality, who is looked after by their local authority can apply for limited and indefinite leave to remain without being required to pay application fees, ensuring that no child in local authority care is unable to access leave to remain. Although many will choose to pursue British citizenship, having citizenship, as opposed to an award of indefinite leave to remain, is not essential for any individual to work, live, study or access services in the UK .

Photo of Stuart McDonald Stuart McDonald Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Immigration, Asylum and Border Control), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Attorney General)

I urge the Minister not to pursue that line, which was pursued by a previous Prime Minister and Home Secretary. No one would say to anyone in this room, “You don’t really need British citizenship. Why not just settle for indefinite leave to remain?” The Minister is missing the point—I am talking about people who have as much right to British citizenship as anyone in this room. It is not a substitute to say, “Just become a migrant in your own home country and apply for immigration status here.”

Photo of Kevin Foster Kevin Foster The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

I was talking about the logic of our fee system and the fact that we have exemptions to do with the status of people who need to access public services. Traditionally, our position on citizenship is that it is not something that people need in order to access services. I re-emphasise the breadth of the provisions in the new clause—I notice that that was not disputed.

New clause 13(3) would remove fees for the children of people who have exercised free movement rights to register as a British citizen where the child or the child’s parent, guardian or carer is unable to afford any associated fees. It raises similar points to subsection (1) in respect of fairness, discrimination and suitable legislative structures already being in place. 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.

When explaining the rights that are afforded by settled status obtained via the EU settlement scheme, we make it clear that they may include a right to apply for British citizenship, provided that eligibility requirements are met. Of course, there is no charge for applying to the EU settlement scheme. Information about becoming a British citizen is also available in published guidance on gov.uk, and we are committed to ensuring that information of this nature is fully accessible for all. I hope that reassures the Committee that we are taking steps to make people aware of their rights, and that a statutory obligation to that effect is therefore unnecessary.

To return to my pertinent point on new clause 13, we already have a legislative structure for application fees, with long-standing and appropriate checks and balances. Making any change by way of amendments to the Bill would therefore undermine the current legal framework and its purpose of providing the ability to set fees and exceptions in secondary legislation. It would also reduce clarity in the fee structure by creating an alternative statutory mechanism for controlling fees.

I now want to focus on subsection (1) of new clause 36, the aim of which is to limit the fee that may be charged by the Secretary of State for leave to enter or remain, sponsorship licences, the immigration health surcharge and immigration skills charges to anyone who has enjoyed free movement rights at any point. As I have already mentioned in respect of new clause 13, application fees for border, immigration and citizenship products and services play a vital role in our country’s ability to run a sustainable system. Under no circumstances do the Government want to undermine the future system or discriminate on the grounds of nationality, which would almost certainly be the case if we were to accept such proposals. As we have mentioned before, we have now left the European Union and free movement rights have dropped away, so it would be difficult to justify maintaining exemptions beyond those that we have already granted in order to guarantee existing rights.

The immigration skills charge serves an important role by incentivising employers to invest in training and upskill the resident workforce, reducing reliance on migrant workers. Any fees that are charged are already provided for in legislation that has been approved by both Houses. It is also important to note that the immigration health surcharge, which ensures that temporary migrants who come to the UK for more than 6 months make a fair contribution to our fantastic health service that is available to them during their stay, is not subject to an application process. The level of the surcharge, which is agreed by Parliament, is set by the Department of Health and Social Care and is based on actual data on surcharge payers who use the NHS. It is an estimate of the total NHS cost of treating the average surcharge payer per year.

Under the new points-based immigration system, all migrants to the UK who are subject to immigration control will be treated the same. That includes payment of the immigration health surcharge. People will be required to pay the charge if they are staying for temporary periods of longer than 6 months, unless an exemption applies. Earlier we discussed the exemptions that are being created for those who work in the NHS and social care. Hon. Members will be aware that EEA and Swiss citizens who are resident in the UK before the end of the transition period on 31 December 2020 will be eligible to apply to secure their status under the EU settlement scheme, and they will have until 30 June 2021 to make their application.

Applications under the EU settlement scheme are not subject to application fees or the immigration health surcharge. That was agreed as part of the negotiations on the withdrawal agreement with the EU, which also protects the rights of UK nationals in the EU. In addition, certain groups are already exempt from the requirement to pay the charge, and others benefit from a discounted rate. As we touched on earlier, hon. Members will be aware that the Prime Minister has asked the Home Office and the Department of Health and Social Care to exempt NHS and care staff from the charge. The exemption will apply to relevant applications made by EEA and Swiss citizens once the new immigration system is in place.

Making provisions in the Bill that are specific to certain nationalities would be unfair to all users of the border, immigration and citizenship system by creating a two-tier fee system: one tier for members of the EEA, and one tier for the rest of the world. That is clearly against our policy intent, and imposing such in this legislation would cut across the existing statutory frameworks for fees and risk undermining the coherence of the future system.

Let me turn to subsection (2) of new clause 36, which seeks to ensure that the Secretary of State must seek approval from both Houses of Parliament should they propose to make changes to the rules under subsection (1). As I noted in response to new clause 13, we already have in place a legislative framework that governs immigration and nationality fees. The hon. Members who tabled the new clause already have the opportunity to scrutinise and approve or prevent proposed changes to immigration and nationality fees. A fees order, which sets the maximum fee that could ever be charged, is laid in Parliament and is subject to the affirmative resolution procedure. Fee levels are then set out in regulations that are presented to Parliament and are subject to the negative procedure. The Home Office cannot amend fee levels without discussion across Whitehall and the approval of Parliament.

Nothing proposed in these new clauses would add additional powers or provide further flexibility to the existing framework. In fact, they would have the opposite effect and increase the demand on parliamentary time, which the introduction of the current structure under the Immigration Act 2014 aimed to reduce, while maintaining those key safeguards and opportunities for scrutiny. I do not think that any Immigration Minister feels that they have been short of opportunities to be scrutinised, and the interest in the brief shown by Members across the House is welcome.

The immigration health charge and the immigration skills charge are both set and approved by Parliament through legislation, which is approved by a resolution of each House. Nothing proposed in new clause 36 would alter the current position or provide additional parliamentary scrutiny.

Finally, I would like to address new clause 37, the aim of which is to limit the Secretary of State’s power to charge a fee for applying for British citizenship to the cost of processing the application, for anyone who has enjoyed free movement rights at any point and requires the Secretary of State to get the approval of both Houses of Parliament to deviate from this position. The new clause raises similar points to those raised by new clauses 13 and 36, on which I have spoken about existing safeguards and parliamentary scrutiny of the fees charged by the Home Office, and why we do not agree that specific fee requirements should be set for certain nationalities, so I will not reiterate them now.

I hope that our intention to maintain the coherence of the current and future system, and the fact that Parliament already has the opportunity to scrutinise and approve any proposed changes to immigration and nationality fee levels, the immigration skills charge and the immigration health charge, reassures the Committee. Accordingly, for all the reasons I have given, the Government will not accept the new clauses.

Photo of Stuart McDonald Stuart McDonald Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Immigration, Asylum and Border Control), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Attorney General) 3:00 pm, 16th June 2020

I am grateful to the Minister for his comprehensive explanation, at least in so far as it related to new clauses 36 and 37. I do not agree with everything he said about the degree of scrutiny that MPs can apply on these matters, but he makes a very detailed case.

On new clause 13, I think that the Minister, probably for the first time, has not got the point that was being made. I challenge him to go back and speak to his officials about what the issue is really about. It is quite a narrow issue, in some respects, but none the less it is profound. It relates to kids, in particular—although it can be adults—who have a right to British citizenship. That is a small subset of EEA and Swiss nationals.

It is slightly bizarre that it is a Scottish National party MP who is having to stand up and champion the cause of British citizenship in this Parliament—I urge some Conservative Members to make this their cause, grab some headlines and win the day. These kids deserve it. They are as entitled to British citizenship as anybody in this room, and it is totally inappropriate for them to be priced out of that. I ask Conservative Members to think again.

I ask the Minister to speak to his officials again. Under his predecessor, I had the privilege of being able to take some kids who had been impacted to discuss the matter, along with some organisations representing them, and I would love to have that opportunity again. I feel very strongly about new clause 13 and wish to press it to a vote.

Question put, That the clause be read a Second time.

Division number 13 Immigration and Social Security Co-ordination (EU Withdrawal) Bill — Registration as a British citizen by EEA and Swiss nationals

Aye: 7 MPs

No: 8 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Nos: A-Z by last name

The Committee divided: Ayes 7, Noes 8.

Question accordingly negatived.