Clause 1 - Acquisition of British citizenship: persons born in Ireland

British Citizenship (Northern Ireland) Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 10:00 am on 17 April 2024.

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Photo of Gavin Robinson Gavin Robinson Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Defence) 10:00, 17 April 2024

I beg to move amendment 1, in clause 1, page 1, line 5, leave out “persons born in Ireland” and insert “Irish citizens”.

This Amendment changes the section heading of the new section 4AA inserted into the British Nationality Act 1981 by clause 1 to reflect the change made by Amendment 2.

Photo of Carolyn Harris Carolyn Harris Labour, Swansea East

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

Amendment 2, in clause 1, page 1, line 6, leave out from beginning to “is” and insert “An Irish citizen”.

This amendment means that Irish citizens who fulfil the requirements in subsection (2) of new section 4AA (changed by Amendments 3 and 4) are entitled to be registered as British citizens under new section 4AA, rather than just persons born in Ireland after 31 December 1948 who fulfil those requirements.

Amendment 3, in clause 1, page 1, line 12, leave out “Northern Ireland” and insert “the United Kingdom”.

This amendment and Amendment 4 change the residence requirements for the new route to British citizenship in the new section 4AA, so that the requirement is that the person has lived in the United Kingdom for the five years before their application, rather than in Northern Ireland.

Amendment 4, in clause 1, page 1, line 14, leave out “Northern Ireland” and insert “the United Kingdom”.

See explanatory statement to Amendment 3.

Amendment 5, in clause 1, page 2, line 13, leave out “persons born in Ireland” and insert “Irish citizens”.

This amendment is consequential on Amendment 1.

Clause stand part.

Amendment 6, in clause 2, page 2, line 21, leave out “Citizenship (Northern Ireland)” and insert “Nationality (Irish Citizens)”.

This amendment changes the short title of the bill, to reflect the change made by Amendment 2.

Clause 2 stand part.

Amendment 7, in title, line 1, leave out from “provision” to end of line 2 and insert

“for Irish citizens who have been resident in the United Kingdom for five years to be entitled to British citizenship;”.—(Gavin Robinson.)

This amendment changes the long title of the bill to reflect the changes made by Amendments 2, 3 and 4. The Committee has the power to consider these amendments, and the consequential changes to the long title, by virtue of the Instruction given to it by the House of Commons on 5 March 2024.

Photo of Gavin Robinson Gavin Robinson Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Defence)

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this morning, Mrs Harris. I thank all hon. and right hon. colleagues for taking the time to attend this Public Bill Committee. I am pleased to move amendment 1. In the course of my remarks I hope to provide context for the Bill, but I shall not regurgitate the commentary from Second Reading; it would not be in order to do so. However, I hope that it contextualises the nature of the amendments under consideration.

This Bill has a long, long past. The opportunity has arisen—and it is one that I have seized—to resolve an issue that has been long in gestation and hopefully is soon to be delivered. My colleague in the other place, Lord Hay of Ballyore, commented last year that this conundrum was first raised in this House in 1985, which was just before my first birthday. For a decade now, he has passionately been an advocate for the changes outlined in the Bill.

In doing so, Lord Hay has sought to complement and support the sustained and unparalleled efforts of my hon. Friend Mr Campbell. As a Member of this House since 2001, my hon. Friend has consistently and relentlessly—and with what some might say is characteristic fervour—tabled questions, pursued debates, encouraged Ministers and expertly tilled the ground to make it so fertile today. His labour has not been in vain, and over the course of the last number of years he has collected the support of colleagues from right across the political spectrum in the House of Commons.

The essence of the Bill is this. Colleagues throughout the House will recognise that the Belfast Agreement sought to address issues of identity. Although it was accepted and acknowledged that Northern Ireland’s place in the United Kingdom was constitutionally settled, those with a competing aspiration could avail of Irish identity, and the Government of the Republic of Ireland afforded them the opportunity to obtain Irish citizenship.

In Northern Ireland, some hold citizenship singularly, while others happily enjoy dual citizenship of both the UK and the Republic of Ireland. However, what was not settled was reciprocation in the other direction. This Parliament will know the history and relationship of our intertwined relations, and this Bill seeks to provide the final piece of that relational jigsaw. In my view, anyone who is born in the Republic of Ireland but lives in the United Kingdom and satisfies the residency test should be able to avail themselves of British citizenship.

Those who say, “Sure—just apply for naturalisation in the normal way,” fail to recognise or respond to the special relationships that our nations have had. From 1801, our nations were united. The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland accorded the same citizenship protections to us all. When partition occurred in 1921, the right of those resident in the Irish Free State to avail of UK citizenship was contained and delivered through their dominion status. It was only when the Irish Republic was established and the British Nationality Act 1948 came into effect in the following year that those entitlements were lost. Since 1949, that means that anyone who was born in the Republic of Ireland but lived and worked in and continued to contribute to the UK has not been able to avail themselves of British citizenship as their forefathers did.

I mentioned my colleague in the other place, Lord Hay of Ballyore, whose lineage perhaps best illustrates this point. He was born in Donegal in April 1950—some 15 months after the law changed—yet has lived for the overwhelming majority of his life in Londonderry, Northern Ireland. He served on his local council from 1981; he was elected to the Northern Ireland Assembly in 1998, and served as Speaker of that Assembly from 2007 to 2014, when he was elevated to the House of Lords. To this day, a decade later, he remains a peer of this realm and a legislator in our Parliament, yet he is not a British citizen.

The question is this: should anyone in that situation—anyone who has served our nation practically, materially and productively—be expected to pay a naturalisation fee of £1,580 and complete a Life in the UK citizenship test? The notion that they should is, to my mind, offensive, contrary to the spirit of reciprocation offered through the Belfast agreement of 1998, blind to our history and ignorant of the legal reality. We enjoy a common travel area between our nations, and Irish citizens moving throughout the United Kingdom are already exempt from immigration formalities. They enjoy a range of related rights to work, vote and study, and access education and healthcare as though they were already British citizens.

On Second Reading, I highlighted my appreciation not only for the courteous and pragmatic engagement on this issue of the Home Office Minister and his officials, but for their willingness to engage with me in a way that has brought us to this point today. The amendments before colleagues this morning were flagged as a potential on Second Reading, but were going through the process of parliamentary procedure. Though the initial drive for this legislation was to recognise those living in Northern Ireland, as I said on Second Reading and will say again today, as a Unionist, I have no principled objection to—in fact, I am delighted with—the Government’s approach that these measures should not be confined solely to Northern Ireland. There should be no restriction or import placed on geographical location.

Amendment 1 will replace a reference to “persons born in Ireland” with “Irish citizens”. Similarly, amendment 2 will ensure references to Irish citizens, as opposed to those born in Ireland. Amendments 3 and 4 will replace references to Northern Ireland with the entire United Kingdom. Amendment 5, again, will change “persons born in Ireland” to “Irish citizens”.

All amendments are within the confines of the spirit of the Bill and apply to those who are resident within the United Kingdom and satisfy legally the residency test. The Bill will apply to those who have and proudly hold their Irish heritage, who will be able to attain British citizenship throughout the United Kingdom irrespective of where they live, provided they satisfy the residency requirements. The approach will move the import of the Bill at inception beyond the confines of our 1.9 million people, and the Irish nationals who reside with us in Northern Ireland, to the entirety of the UK—a catchment of 60 million people—and the Irish nationals who live in our communities throughout the United Kingdom.

That is a hugely welcome step. It is not where I started on this journey, but, seeing the door opened so welcomingly and productively by the Home Office Minister and his officials, it is something I can rationalise as a huge step forward. We cannot predict the future, but if this is the culmination of an almost 40-year parliamentary pursuit to close the circle and formally and thoughtfully recognise the ability of Irish citizens living in our communities and as part of our country to attain United Kingdom citizenship, I think it will be a job well done.

In moving amendment 1 and having spoken to the import of the subsequent and consequential amendments, I hope that as a Public Bill Committee we can resolve that, in common with most private Members’ Bills, this Bill—although small in impact and narrow in scope—will make a huge difference for those who are a part of our country and we will be able to get, as I have said, the final piece in this jigsaw.

Photo of Fleur Anderson Fleur Anderson Shadow Minister (Northern Ireland)

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mrs Harris. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Belfast East on his success in the ballot and on bringing the Bill as far as this stage. I am delighted that after nine years of trying in the ballot, he has finally had this positive result with lucky number 322—that may be a hint for all of us.

The issue at the heart of the debate is straightforward. This Bill is an important acknowledgment of the special relationship between our nations and a worthy follow-on from a debate that we held recently on the value and recognition of the contribution of the Irish diaspora to our life in the UK.

Following the Good Friday agreement, the Government of the Republic of Ireland offered people in Northern Ireland the opportunity to attain Irish citizenship, but what was not settled was an agreement for citizenship rights in the other direction. Questions about citizenship for Republic of Ireland nationals living in the north and wishing to become British have been left up in the air for too long—nearly 40 years, as the right hon. Gentleman said. Long-term residents of Northern Ireland from the Republic should be recognised as citizens of the UK —if that is their desire—without the need for a citizenship test and the need to prove their intention to stay in the UK. We need to streamline the process and to be welcoming to them as well.

The Opposition’s support for these amendments, which broaden the scope of the Bill, is certain. The amendments make it much more inclusive and fair. First, we support amendments making British citizenship available to Irish nationals regardless of how they became Irish and not only to those born in the Republic of Ireland. That is clearly a practical and sensible change to the Bill, and we support it.

I extend our support to amendment 2, which removes the requirement for Irish nationals to have been born after a certain date to qualify for this route to citizenship. We also support amendment 3, which alters the residence requirements for the new route to British citizenship, so that those wishing to gain citizenship can have lived in any part of the United Kingdom for five years and not only Northern Ireland. That obviously widens the scope of the Bill to constituents in all our constituencies, including those in London, from 31,000 people in Northern Ireland to about 270,000 people. This amendment addresses concerns about possible discrepancies across the United Kingdom and ensures equality, which we welcome.

We support the amendments, but we remain concerned about the Government’s implementation of this new route to citizenship. Specifically, I would like to mention the issue of fees. The Northern Ireland Affairs Committee has made previous recommendations that fees should be waived for Irish citizens seeking naturalisation in the UK. When it comes to getting an Irish passport or getting a British passport, there is an enormous difference and discrepancy. On Second Reading, the Government indicated that a dedicated route for Irish citizens would reduce the burden for applicants, creating a more straightforward route to British citizenship, which could lead to lower fees. Can the Minister confirm today whether that decision has been taken, and if not, when are we likely to know by?

It is worth pointing out that the fees for registration or naturalisation are currently in the region of £1,500, a not insignificant sum. A slight reduction is noted in the Library briefing, but that still leaves the fee as £1,431, so I ask what provision, if any, the Government intend to make for individual exemptions to the usual fees under the new system—assuming that it is introduced, which I firmly hope it is. Lastly, we are pleased to hear that the Life in the UK test will not be a requirement for the new route.

On behalf of His Majesty’s Opposition, I say in closing that the right hon. Member for Belfast East has put forward strong and persuasive arguments in support of the Bill and been tenacious in pursuing it. The Government’s support, given the passing of the amendments in front of us, will, I hope, be welcomed by Members who represent Northern Ireland’s communities in this House, and beyond. On behalf of His Majesty’s Opposition, I am happy to add my party’s support to these amendments and this Bill.

Photo of Tom Pursglove Tom Pursglove Minister of State (Minister for Legal Migration and Delivery) 10:15, 17 April 2024

It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Harris. I start by congratulating my friend, Gavin Robinson, on his efforts in stewarding the Bill to this stage. I also congratulate him on his recent appointment to the Privy Council, and on the responsibilities he has assumed as the head of his party. We wish him well in that regard. As was said by the shadow Minister, Fleur Anderson, he has campaigned tenaciously and constructively for these changes, working with colleagues from Northern Ireland in both Houses to make the arguments.

As a fellow child of the 1980s, I recognise that these measures were being campaigned for just before the birth of the right hon. Member for Belfast East. As a child of 1988, it is fair to say that the campaign was going on a few years prior to my birth, which puts into perspective the way in which Members in this House and the other place—and campaigners more generally—have been making the argument to have a more inclusive approach to citizenship. I thank them for their efforts to shine a light on the issue, and for being so persistent in helping us to get to this point. I am delighted to be the Minister responding to this debate, and to be able to commit the Government to taking the Bill forward with complete backing.

As I said on Second Reading, the Bill reflects the unique position that Irish nationals hold with regards to the United Kingdom. I am confident that the Bill, with these amendments, will make a real difference to those Irish nationals who also wish to be British citizens, with a bespoke registration route in place.

We have debated in a number of proceedings related to the Bill the arguments behind the amendments, so I do not intend to re-rehearse those now. However, I believe that they help the Bill to be more inclusive and ensure that it is even fairer in its ambitions than it was when the right hon. Member for Belfast East drafted the original iteration Bill with the Clerks. Ultimately, the amendments will mean that the Bill applies to all eligible Irish nationals resident in any part of the UK. It is not just confined to those born at a certain time in Ireland, and resident in Northern Ireland. That is right and fair. British citizenship is about ties to the whole of the UK, not just one of its constituent parts.

The specific issue of fees, which has come up previously, is something that is under active consideration as part of a wider piece of work. It is being carried out in the usual way when it comes to fee setting for borders and migrations services. There have been some strong representations that have helped to inform my thinking on that, from both the shadow Front Bench and from the right hon. Gentleman. I hear those strong arguments and the Government will come forward as soon as we are able to and give certainty around the fee provisions related to the Bill.

There are regulations, and the way in which such matters are handled goes through a standard process that we in this House are well accustomed to. I am happy to continue the conversations about the issue of the fee externally to this debate and the passage of the Bill, because it is important we hear those arguments and make appropriate decisions. That is the spirit in which we are taking the Bill forward, with good solid cross-party support. I thank hon. and right hon. Members from across the House for their support.

Photo of Shailesh Vara Shailesh Vara Conservative, North West Cambridgeshire

I congratulate Gavin Robinson on introducing the Bill, which I think is long overdue. Does the Minister agree that, given that the Bill is tidying up something that should have been done a long time ago, it is important that he looks carefully at the fee structure? No doubt the Treasury will have its own view; we all know that it will be less flexible. I urge the Minister to fight hard in the corner of this long overdue legislation, and look carefully at the review of fees.

Photo of Tom Pursglove Tom Pursglove Minister of State (Minister for Legal Migration and Delivery)

My right hon. Friend has got to the essence of how I am approaching the specific question around fee setting. He makes some very eloquent arguments about the spirit in which the Bill has been introduced about and the spirit in which it will proceed through the House, which I hope will be reflected in the other place. As I have said, I am very cognisant of these arguments. My right hon. Friend touches on a very important point in saying that this is a very long-standing campaign. People feel very passionately about this change. It is a common-sense change. I think we need to reflect on those factors when making the decision about fees which, as I have said, is being carried out as part of the wider way in which we review fees and charges and the way in which that is done.

Photo of Mark Francois Mark Francois Conservative, Rayleigh and Wickford

I place it on the record that I have the privilege to serve on the Defence Committee with the right hon. Member for Belfast East. I would like to take this opportunity to congratulate him on being elevated to the King’s Privy Council and to wish him the best of luck with his leadership of the Democratic Unionist party, albeit achieved in very difficult circumstances. A number of people have paid tribute to his tenacity. As many Ministry of Defence witnesses can attest, there is no doubt about that whatever. He is a dog with a bone and he never drops it, so I am delighted that he has been elevated in that way and we wish him and his legislation Godspeed.

Photo of Tom Pursglove Tom Pursglove Minister of State (Minister for Legal Migration and Delivery)

I am not sure I could have put it better than my right hon. Friend. I find it very difficult to say no to the right hon. Member for Belfast East. He goes about his business in this House impeccably— always with good humour, always in an incredibly polite way, but also very persuasively. I think that that is as relevant to the question about fee setting as it has been to the Bill itself and the substantive change that we are bringing about. With that, I again thank right hon. and hon. Members across the House for their support for these measures and I wish the Bill a speedy passage through the remainder of its stages in this House and in the other place.

Photo of Gavin Robinson Gavin Robinson Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Defence)

It is not often that we get to speak having heard such obituaries, but to be able to do so is a great opportunity, because most people do not get to reflect on obituaries offered. I thank everyone so much for all the contributions that have been made. I greatly appreciate it. The Minister and I entered this place at the same time—I think I have a couple of years on him, and a few more grey follicles, but it is not much in age terms. This has been a very encouraging process. It shows, despite the differences that we sometimes have on the Floor of the House, in Committee sittings and so on, just how productively parliamentarians can work together when there is positive and common cause. That is not something seen very regularly in the public sphere, but I think this process encapsulates the best of what we can do.

The process of arranging a Public Bill Committee has been interesting as well. A couple of colleagues across the Committee Room here today are fellow travellers in the private Member’s Bill process. We are supporting one another, and I am very grateful for their being here.

I want to mention a number of others, including the former Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, the right hon. Member for North West Cambridgeshire. He has been a long traveller on Northern Ireland issues and has taken a keen interest in them. There is also my friend, the right hon. Member for Rayleigh and Wickford. Spartan-like, he stands up and speaks positively to this Bill.

It is hugely encouraging to have my constituency neighbour, the hon. Member for Belfast South, with us today. She is somebody who approaches constitutional politics from the opposite side from me, but we have never been opposites in a personal sense. We have always worked well for the collective good in Belfast, so I am really encouraged that she is with us today and that she is giving her support for something that I think is open and not coercive in any way; it is open for anyone to avail themselves of it should it pass.

To the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Putney, I will make two points. I am delighted that she is here —that is not one of the points. A word to the wise: 322 was the number that I used on each of the nine occasions, so although it came up on the ninth occasion, that is not to say that it is in any way more lucky than another. I have recognised through the process of this Bill that fees will come separately, as part of a fees order. I agree entirely with the thrust of the comments that the shadow Minister has made, and I appreciate the way in which the Minister has engaged on that issue as well. He recognises the position I have adopted; I do not believe there should be a fee over and above passport fees.

There is an administrative argument as to what else should be additionally placed upon that, but I am quite comfortable with the Northern Irish Affairs Committee report and its comments and recommendations to Government. It is helpful and instructive for officials for the Opposition spokespeople to indicate their support, but I know that the Minister has never been difficult in this, and has always engaged very helpfully on it. It does not form part of this Bill, Mrs Harris, and therefore it is probably in order for you to rule me out of order for referring to it in any great detail.

I give huge thanks to all hon. and right hon. colleagues who have turned up this morning for the thoughtful way in they have engaged with this Bill, and I thank you for your chairmanship, Mrs Harris. The Clerks are often left out of the thanks, so I thank the Clerk to your immediate left. She has been hugely helpful over the last number of months, despite tenacity bordering on some sort of possessive contact about what was happening next. I also thank the officials from the Home Office, who similarly have had to bear my contact and questions. They have been hugely gracious and helpful.

Amendment 1 agreed to.

Amendments made: 2, in clause 1, page 1, line 6, leave out from beginning to “is” and insert “An Irish citizen”.

This amendment means that Irish citizens who fulfil the requirements in subsection (2) of new section 4AA (changed by Amendments 3 and 4) are entitled to be registered as British citizens under new section 4AA, rather than just persons born in Ireland after 31 December 1948 who fulfil those requirements.

Amendment 3, in clause 1, page 1, line 12, leave out “Northern Ireland” and insert “the United Kingdom”.

This amendment and Amendment 4 change the residence requirements for the new route to British citizenship in the new section 4AA, so that the requirement is that the person has lived in the United Kingdom for the five years before their application, rather than in Northern Ireland.

Amendment 4, in clause 1, page 1, line 14, leave out “Northern Ireland” and insert “the United Kingdom”.

See explanatory statement to Amendment 3.

Amendment 5, in clause 1, page 2, line 13, leave out “persons born in Ireland” and insert “Irish citizens”.—(Gavin Robinson.)

This amendment is consequential on Amendment 1.

Clause 1, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.