Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Bill

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Mr. Gregory Barker (Bexhill and Battle): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the prime motivation for most people who come to this country is not that they are fans of Great Britain who have read about it and want to come here and be citizens? In fact, they invariably, and certainly in the case of asylum seekers, are fleeing persecution or a country that offers them no opportunity or future. The choice of Britain is often a negative rather than a positive one. Asylum seekers and many economic migrants come here not because they are keen to come to Britain but first and foremost because they feel an overwhelming urge to get out of their country of origin, in which they were born, in order to improve their lot and that of their families.

Simon Hughes: I understand that, but there is a big difference between the two categories. Asylum seekers have as their proper motivation escape from a place where they feel they cannot stay. They are generally less bothered about where they go, provided that it is safe. However, we are not discussing that. By definition, when asylum seekers are given that status, they are given not citizenship but a right to be here, which is either limited or unlimited. They are given either refugee status or another status. In this case, we are discussing people who might have come in by that route but who, perhaps having married someone who is British, want five, 10, 15, 20, 30 or 40 years later to become British. The Lord Chancellor recently found that a few people who had been justices of the peace for ages suddenly realised that they were not United Kingdom citizens, even though they had lived here for 30 years and were married to British citizens, and that they would have to lose their job as JPs.

Many people come. We all have constituents—I have many—who at some stage decide to come here and be British. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will understand if I say that we must take the asylum seeker issue out of the debate, as asylum seekers come for other reasons. Many who come for economic reasons are not motivated by a desire to come to Britain. People who ask to be British have made the big decision to be principally based here—like moving house, but usually for life, as people do not change nationality more than once. Many countries do not allow people to hold more than one nationality, and once people give up one, they usually cannot get it back. That raises issues in this context. If someone is deprived of a nationality after having changed it, they might be stateless. There is a real debate about that.

Amendments Nos. 45 to 47 offer an alternative. They would allow the Government to tell us what they regard as sufficient and who will judge sufficiency. It

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may be better for knowledge of the United Kingdom to be judged objectively at a lower threshold. ''Sufficient'' must be higher than knowledge of the United Kingdom as a whole. Questions also arise about how that can be applied to people in different circumstances with a different language base, for example.

Some of the issues that arise under the clause relate to ensuring that we get right any tests or requirements and that they are applied sensitively. I am conscious that the Bill ensures another round of discussions, as it will involve regulations further down the track. However, unless we get the definition right in clause 1 and decide on a phrase to define how we judge someone, we may encounter difficulties later. I look forward to the Minister's response.

Mr. Malins: I want to speak to amendments No. 15, 16 and 22, which are purely probing amendments. I am sure that the Government will give us some answers that will take the debate forward. They are not lead amendments, but even if I were able to, I would not seek a Division on any of them.

As the hon. Gentleman said, the Bill requires the applicant to have

    ''sufficient knowledge about life in the United Kingdom''

Amendment No. 16 would insert a lesser standard into the Bill. Amendment No. 22 was suggested by the Immigration Advisory Service. When I referred earlier to the programme motion, I drew attention to several organisations that had contacted me. The Refugee Legal Centre is yet another body that made many constructive suggestions.

I do not know what the phrase

    ''sufficient knowledge about life in the United Kingdom''.

means. It cannot be defined. People in many communities throughout the land have many different lifestyles. Life in the United Kingdom is so wide and all-encompassing that if I were an examiner asked to set a GCSE—or, in my case, something slightly easier by way of a test—featuring life in the United Kingdom, I would not be able to do so comprehensibly. This is not the moment to go through all aspects of life in this country, as there are enough of them to keep the Committee and the House going for years. The phrase troubles me because of its width. As the Law Society said, what is meant by ''sufficient knowledge about life in the United Kingdom''?

Having focused on a phrase that is incapable of definition, what about the word ''sufficient''? Amendment No. 16 probes the Government's thinking in that it would insert ''basic''. I am anxious to find out what standard of knowledge will be required from applicants. To put it bluntly, I am anxious to see that the Government use what the Home Secretary called in the White Paper ''a light touch''. A sensitive approach must be taken to such matters, thereby enabling those who seriously make an effort to acquire knowledge about life in the United Kingdom to achieve their ultimate objective without being faced with too high a hurdle over which they must jump to acquire citizenship.

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How will the Government enforce the proposal, and how will they monitor it? Will they do so by way of an oral examination, or a written test paper? If they use a written test, what language will it be in, and what sort of standard will be required?

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What about the expense involved? Some people have asked me whether applicants' fees will cover it, and whether there will therefore be a dramatic increase in the cost of application for citizenship. Might not that result in British nationality being available only to wealthier applicants, regardless of eligibility? It is worth pointing out what others have said. The IAS is responsible for the drafting of amendment No. 22, which is a probing amendment that refers to ''political, civic and multicultural'' life in the United Kingdom. The IAS believes that the clause leaves open to wide interpretation the phrase

    ''life in the United Kingdom'',

and for that reason it finds it unsatisfactory.

The IAS is concerned that the provision could be applied differently and arbitrarily to different applications, and could in some circumstances be discerned to be discriminatory. The provision would be welcome if the Government's intention was that applicants for citizenship should, for their own benefit, have adequate knowledge of their political rights and responsibilities, such as voting, standing for political office, protection against arbitrary arrest, their human rights and their obligations under the law. However, the IAS fears that the requirement could be used in an exclusionary way, and may require a knowledge of customs that are not universal. The IAS is not alone in thinking that in the interest of good domestic race relations and cultural harmony, a knowledge of different cultures should be demonstrated.

Under amendment No. 15, I have suggested that applicants should have

    ''a basic knowledge of the history and government of the''

United Kingdom. That is a narrower approach than requiring them to know about

    ''life in the United Kingdom''.

I took a look at what happens when people apply to be naturalised as citizens in the United States and Canada. Interestingly enough, both countries set quite difficult written tests about their geography, history and political make-up.

In Canada, there is an exam with 197 questions, such as:

    ''What is the name of your Member of Parliament?''

The last time that I was a household name in my constituency, we sent a group to ask 100 people the name of their Member of Parliament. I regret to say that fewer than five had any idea who it was, and they all, no doubt, were British citizens. That just shows how badly known we are. The questions asked in Canada are quite wide-ranging. I shall give some of them, starting with the easier ones:

    ''Who is Canada's Head of State?''

    ''Who is the Queen's representative in Canada?''

    ''What is the name of the Governor General?''

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    ''Which province is Canada's leading wheat producer?''

    ''Which products from southern Ontario are among Canada's key exports?''

    ''Name three minerals still being mined in the territories today.''

I do not know whether the test in Canada is taken orally or in writing, or how one passes or fails.

I shall not go through the detail of the position in the United States, but the Committee can take it from me that a fair amount of serious questioning occurs.

Mr. Allan: Listening to the list of questions that the hon. Gentleman quoted from the Canadian example—I understand that the United States has a similar test—it struck me that the applicant learns information simply to pass the test. That is rather like the written driving test. After people leave the examining room, they forget everything that they have learned until they must learn it again through real life experiences. I question the value of such tests in producing a good citizen. They have been sold to us by the Government, but I suspect that the person learns information only for the duration of the test, and does little more.

Mr. Malins: Yes, that is a valid point. Many people swot up only for the day in question, and after that the information goes out of their heads.

 
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