Picking up on the earlier question that the shadow Minister asked, I should say that my understanding when it comes to this amendment is that the clause will affect only a small number of people. But it is an area of law out of touch with modern society, so it is right that we should make this change.
The issue is that in British nationality law the mother’s husband is the child’s father, even if she has been separated from him for years and the child is not biologically related to her husband. That can create difficult cases—for example, when a child’s biological father is a British citizen, but their father for nationality purposes is the mother’s estranged non-British husband. The child misses out on British nationality as a result.
Generally, we think it is right that the mother’s husband should be treated as the child’s father for nationality purposes. The common law presumption is that a child born during a period of marriage is the child of the mother’s husband, unless shown otherwise. For nationality purposes, however, there should be certainty about a child’s status, which should not be subject to change at a later date if paternity is disputed. But we need a solution for the child whose father is not the mother’s husband, so that they do not miss out on becoming British through their natural father.
Until now, we have been registering such children as British citizens using the discretion that the Home Secretary has to register any child under the age of 18 under section 3(1) of the 1981 Act. We recognise that those children would have been British automatically were it not for their mother being married to someone else, so we made that a fee-free route last year.
However, the inconsistency has been highlighted by the courts. In the case of K, the court ruled that, although it was a correct interpretation of the legislation for the child not to be a British citizen automatically, the fact that the only remedy was through discretionary legislation was incompatible with the European convention on human rights.
We must take this opportunity to create a specific route for children in this position to be able to acquire British nationality. That is achievable by removing from existing registration provisions the requirement for children of unmarried fathers to have been born before
We are also using the clause to allow a child of a non-British member of the British armed forces to make an application to register as a British citizen, despite their mother being married to someone other than their biological father at the time of their birth. That will bring them in line with other children whose parents were serving overseas at the time of the birth.
It is deeply regrettable that British statutory law has long discriminated against children born out of wedlock, preventing British nationality from being derived from a British father if he was not married to the child’s mother. The British Nationality Act 1981, when first passed, did not correct that discrimination relating to British citizenship, but since then there have been various attempts to remove it. Those amendments have created rights to be registered as a British citizen for some of the people affected by that discrimination. However, no corresponding right has been introduced for people who would have become British overseas territory citizens. As we have seen, clause 2 is intended to correct this omission, and the Opposition support it.
However, clause 2 is not sufficient in itself to correct the discrimination relating to British citizenship; indeed, the relevant legislation has led to an anomaly. That anomaly, which is to be corrected by clause 6, which we also support, is that people who would have been born a British citizen but for their father not being married to their mother now have the right to be registered as a British citizen if they were born before
However, people born on or after that date, who would similarly have been born a British citizen but were not because their father was not married to their mother, do not have a corresponding right. The courts have declared that discrimination to be incompatible with the Human Rights Act 1998. Clause 6 is intended to correct that injustice, and we therefore support it. It does so only for British citizenship. That is because the correction for British overseas territories citizenship is built into clause 2.
As has been said, our primary concern with clauses 1, 2, 3, 5 and 6 is not with the text or with the fundamental intentions behind them but with the fact that, when commenced, the rights that are to be established must be accessible. There are too many examples of British nationality rights being inaccessible. The Windrush scandal is but one especially painful relevant example.
The following matters are therefore crucial. We would like the Minister to give assurances as to how these rights will be made public and will be sufficiently widely publicised, not least because many of the beneficiaries will be in other territories or countries.
Ministers must equally give assurances that evidential and procedural obstacles will, to the fullest extent practical, be removed or reduced. Biometric registration and overseas and mandatory citizenship ceremonies, for example, must not be prohibitive to the exercise of these rights, as they have been in the past. Biometric registration must not be prohibitively expensive or inaccessible. Ceremonies can be waived, and that should be done where a person wishes to do that, or where a ceremony cannot be offered without undue cost or delay to the person being registered.
Where relevant information is available and can be confirmed by the Home Office or the Passport Office, that should be done. People must not be obstructed by unreasonable demands for evidence. It must be understood that, for some people, there may be considerable obstacles to securing evidence of their rights so many years after the original injustice—for example, due to age, somebody passing away, or separation, including by reason of abuse or violence. The Home Office or Passport Office must be as helpful as possible to facilitate the exercise of these rights.
In conclusion, we support the clause and the intention behind it, but it is of great importance that the Minister also ensures that these rights are fully accessible.
Let me respond briefly to the point that has understandably and rightly been made. As I said in response to earlier clauses, there is a very constructive working relationship between the Home Office and the various overseas territories for which these provisions are relevant, as well as with the various governors. There is good engagement, and we are keen to see this information cascaded.
The point I would strongly make is that we are seeking through the provisions in the Bill to put right past injustices, and we would want this information to be as readily available as possible to people who may find themselves affected. The hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate has my undertaking that I will take that point away and monitor it very closely to ensure that that happens.
In the discussion on an earlier clause, my right hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough and Whitby showed an interest in relation to proof of paternity. In relation to this clause, regulations will set out what can be accepted as proof of paternity—first, being named before