New Clause 17 - Duty regarding rights to British citizenship or British overseas territories citizenship

Nationality and Borders Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 2:15 pm on 4th November 2021.

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“(1) It is the duty of the Secretary of State to encourage, promote and facilitate awareness and exercise of rights to British citizenship or British overseas territories citizenship among persons possessing these rights.

(2) In fulfilment of that duty, the Secretary of State—

(a) must take all reasonable steps to ensure that all persons with rights to British citizenship or British overseas territories citizenship are able to exercise those rights;

(b) must make arrangements, including with local authorities, to ensure that all children in a local authority area are aware of their rights to British citizenship or British overseas territories citizenship and of the means by which to exercise those rights;

(c) must, when considering any application for confirmation or registration of British citizenship or British overseas territories citizenship, have regard to information held by or available to the Secretary of State that would demonstrate the applicant to be a British citizen or British overseas territories citizen or entitled to that citizenship; and

(d) shall have, and where reasonably necessary to ensure that all persons are able to exercise those rights shall exercise, the power to waive any requirement to attend a ceremony or in connection with biometric information.

(3) For the purposes of this section—

“rights to British citizenship” means rights of acquisition of British citizenship by birth, adoption, commencement or registration under the British Nationality Act 1981;

“rights to British overseas territories citizenship” means rights of acquisition of British overseas territories citizenship by birth, adoption, commencement or registration under the British Nationality Act 1981; and

“to exercise those rights” means to be registered as a British citizen or British overseas territories citizen on the making of an application under the British Nationality Act 1981 or to obtain documentation from the Secretary of State confirming British citizenship or British overseas territories citizenship (including by receipt of a passport) on the making of an application to the Secretary of State.”—(Stuart C. McDonald.)

This new Clause would require the Government to encourage, promote and facilitate awareness and exercise of rights to British citizenship or British overseas territories citizenship.

Brought up, and read the First time.

Photo of Stuart McDonald Stuart McDonald Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time. The new clause would place on the Government an obligation and a duty to undertake promotion of British citizenship rights and British overseas territories citizenship rights.

If there is one thing that members of the Committee can all agree on, it is that nationality law is complicated, and British nationality law is particularly complicated. As I have said, nationality law is also absolutely fundamental to people’s identity, and their ability to fulfil their potential and to exercise so many other rights. That is why it is enshrined in the UN convention itself. It is much superior to any form of immigration leave, which is no form of substitute for holding nationality. The very need for the Bill indicates, however, that lots of people miss out on their entitlements. That is terrible for them as individuals, and it is terrible for the country as a whole—bad for social cohesion—if people are missing out on rights of citizenship that they could have and that are set out in law.

An example is looked-after children. During the registration process for the EU settlement scheme, it was clear that a number of local authorities might have been signing children up for EU settled status when in actual fact they were probably entitled to register as British citizens. The new clause therefore simply calls for the Government to take a more proactive approach and to work with organisations such as local authorities and others to ensure that as many people as possible are aware of and know about their right to register or to access citizenship in other ways, so empowering them to do so.

One welcome thing about the EU settlement scheme was that the Home Office caseworkers did not say, “This or that is missing, so I am going to refuse the application.” There was a concerted attempt to work with people to ensure that all the necessary evidence was found. A lot of the time, the Government took it on themselves—by liaising between Departments—to track down the necessary evidence to allow that person to achieve the status to which they were entitled. We call for the same approach on the more fundamental right to nationality.

That is the reasoning behind the new clause. I look forward to the Minister’s response.

Photo of Tom Pursglove Tom Pursglove Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Ministry of Justice and Home Office)

I thank the hon. Members for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East and for Glasgow North East for their new clause. I understand their thinking behind it: people who are entitled to citizenship should be able to find the information that they need and that the process should be simple and straightforward. That is a sentiment I would echo.

The measures the new clause proposes represent best practice, much of which already exists in the nationality and passport processes. For example, both UK Visas and Immigration and Her Majesty’s Passport Office publish information and guidance on gov.uk, and use information that is already available on their systems when processing applications. As part of considering Windrush applications in particular, UKVI caseworkers have demonstrated a proactive approach, helping people to locate the information needed and consulting internal sources.

The existing legislation already contains discretion to excuse or exempt a person from attending a citizenship ceremony or to enrol their biometrics. The Home Secretary can disapply the requirement to attend a ceremony in the special circumstances of a case and, if it would be too difficult for an applicant to enrol their biometrics in the form of a facial image and fingerprints, an authorised person such as an official acting on behalf of the Secretary of State can defer or waive the requirement to enrol some or all of the biometrics. I am happy to listen to the thoughts of the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East about the areas where we could do more.

I do not think that we can accept the new clause, however. It would impose a statutory requirement that I am not sure is measurable. For example, while we could take steps to ensure that local authorities have information about citizenship and are encouraged to pass on that information to children in their area, I do not see that we could fulfil a statutory requirement to ensure an awareness for every child—that would be outside our control.

Similarly, the new clause is not specific about the steps that the Home Secretary would be expected to take—the lengths she would be expected to go to, for example, to obtain “available” information when considering an application, without being in breach of such a statutory duty. I take on board the sentiment of what the hon. Gentleman is trying to achieve, but I ask him to withdraw his new clause.

Photo of Stuart McDonald Stuart McDonald Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

I am grateful to the Minister for his reply and for his constructive approach to the issue. Perhaps we may continue the conversation in the weeks and months ahead. In the meantime, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Clause, by leave, withdrawn.