Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Bill

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Simon Hughes: That is fairly clear. I was asking not so much for those of us in the Committee, but for those outside it who take an interest. That reply leaves an even simpler question: how long after the Bill becomes law does the Minister imagine the process will start?

Angela Eagle: Clearly, we have to get the administration right. We have already begun to discuss how the ceremonies might look and where they might take place, and we have announced who will conduct them. We have to see how practicable it is to start them as quickly as we can. I mentioned that we could disentangle the citizenship ceremonies from the educational test and the knowledge of the UK test, as those will by definition take longer to make available, set up and map around the country. I have no knowledge of a decision on dates.

I think that the ceremonies are a good thing, and I want us to proceed with them as quickly as is reasonably possible when the appropriate administrative arrangements have been made. I have now been handed a note that states that we are aiming for no earlier than September 2003 for the ceremonies. I like to push such matters along, and I think that we can decouple the tests from the ceremonies. We could

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deal with the ceremonies first, and tie up the process as we make courses available throughout the country.

Mr. Barker: Does the Minister expect the ceremonies to be self-funding, or will there be a call on the taxpayer? I presume that they will require additional staff, as 60,000 people a year is a lot if they are each to have an individual ceremony.

Angela Eagle: We are in the middle of considering the practicalities of how and where to introduce the ceremonies. We have decided that registration officers will carry them out. The fee for a marriage in a registry office is between £35 and £40, and we do not see why there cannot be a similar fee. If groups of people want to take their ceremony pledges together, we do not see any reason why they cannot. Therefore, people could have joint ceremonies, with everyone taking the pledge and oath at the same time. All that is being considered administratively, and I hope that that gives the hon. Gentleman some idea. We do not anticipate that the ceremonies will cause extra public expenditure, because the fees paid will cover it. As for the educational test that will have to be taken—once that has been organised—the Home Office will collect the fees, and they will be passed to local authorities to reimburse them for any costs that they have incurred in offering registration and the civil ceremony. The costs are neutral. I hope that all this will happen sooner rather than later.

Simon Hughes: That is helpful. I am happy that the first ceremonies will happen while the Minister is still in post—perhaps as a presiding angel, although she may have a more senior post. I have always assumed that they would often be collective ceremonies, as in Canada and elsewhere, where groups of people go through the process together.

Mr. Allan: It sounds like the sort of photo opportunity that any Home Secretary would find irresistible.

Simon Hughes: As long as it does not become as big a photo opportunity as Korean weddings, with as many as 50,000 couples being married in one go. That might be cheap, but the fees would not need to be high.

The Minister is right to decouple the ceremony from the test. I do not need a reply now, but I ask her to check with other Departments to find out what we could do to provide some sort of citizenship process for young people in this country. In the United States, children leaving high school have a graduation ceremony to celebrate the end of compulsory schooling, and that happens in other countries, including France. There may be a question about who is still at school at 16, but some process that recognises duty would be worth investigating. It would be good if Ministers looked into that.

Schedule 1 agreed to.

Clause 4

Deprivation of citizenship

Simon Hughes: I beg to move amendment No. 96, in page 2, line 38, at end insert

    'provided the citizenship was obtained by registration or naturalisation'.

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The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 35, in page 3, line 9, after 'subsection (2)', insert 'or (3)'.

No. 11, in page 3, line 10, at end insert—

    '(4A) The Secretary of State shall not make an order under subsection (2) or (3) if the relevant person was born in the United Kingdom.'.

No. 12, in page 3, leave out lines 18 to 26.

No. 80, in page 3, line 25, at end insert—

    '(7) The Secretary of State shall not make an order using powers provided in this section where the person acquired citizenship status within the meaning of subsection (1) more than five years previously.'.

Simon Hughes: This is an important clause. It is about the deprivation of citizenship. My amendments seek to change what we believe is the Secretary of State's excessive power. I hope that the Bill does not reflect what the Government plan to do.

I can do no better than read the brief supplied to members of the Committee by the Immigration Law Practitioners' Association, in which Laurens Fransman QC makes a strong case. His words are better than mine.

    ''The proposed new section 40(2) of the 1981 Act''—

that is the Act that will be amended by clause 4—

    ''provides a sweeping power to deprive a person of British nationality not just where that nationality was acquired by grant in response to an application but also where it was acquired automatically by birth in the UK by descent. This draconian new power arises as presently drafted wherever the Secretary of State just 'thinks' that the person has done something 'seriously prejudicial to the vital interests' of the UK or an overseas territory, he may remove that person's citizenship. ILPA is concerned that these expressions are far too vague, that a requirement only to 'think' there is prejudice lays down an unacceptably low threshold for the Secretary of State to attain in invoking the power.''

It is unprecedented in ILPA's experience to use the phrase

    ''the Secretary of State thinks''

in legislation and it is outrageous to use it in so important a matter.

The opportunities for litigation on whether the Secretary of State is entitled to think irrationally, or what his thought processes were in coming to a conclusion, are almost infinite. Amendments proposed by both the opposition parties substitute a phrase which is already understood in the law, which explains the standard of proof required. We succeeded in getting such an amendment, incorporating a reasonableness clause, included in the Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security Bill before Christmas:

    ''Without this limitation, the Home Secretary's power would be unfettered.''

The example of Lotfi Raisi has been given. He is the Algerian who was held in Belmarsh prison, in south-east London, for five months, without any evidence being produced against him. Would the Secretary of State be allowed to get away with presuming that evidence would be produced when, in the end, it was not? Similarly, would it be possible to suppose that someone had failed the test, and to deprive him or her of citizenship, even if that person had not failed the test? The worry is, first, that the threshold in the provision is low; secondly, that the proposal is

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retrospective; and, thirdly, that it is too general. Even more surprisingly, it applies to people who were born here, not just to those whose citizenship, it could be argued, needs to be more conditional because they have to apply for it and it could be regarded, at least in the initial phases, as something that could be taken away from them.

We know from other cases and discussions on other Bills that the ''seriously prejudicial'' test is poor and can cover a multitude of sins. The ''vital interests of the United Kingdom'' test is a general test, which allows the Home Secretary vast discretion. That is why amendments have been tabled to tie down those tests. However, the crucial issue is what happens if the Home Secretary exercises the power. Amendment No. 96 deals with the consequence—that someone would become stateless. I know that international conventions deal with that, but my understanding is that, under the Bill, the Home Secretary will have the power to deprive even UK-born nationals of UK citizenship, except if that would leave a person stateless. We want to ensure that such people could not be deprived of citizenship, even if it would not render them stateless. That is a strong point because many written constitutions declare that citizenship is a fundamental identity right. In the United States, the Supreme Court Justice, Earl Warren, said just that. We must be very careful not to leave people stateless.

I want to mention two linked points relating to amendments Nos. 35 and 12. Amendment No. 35 would prevent the Secretary of State from using his deprivation powers under new section 40(2), if it would make the person involved stateless. No such limitation is included in the criteria listed at the top of page 3, which includes:

    ''(a) fraud,

    (b) false representation, or

    (c) concealment of a material fact.''

I am told that that would be consistent with the convention on the reduction of statelessness and the European convention on nationality. I gather that those documents are designed to ensure that people do not end up with no nationality or state.

Lastly, on amendment No. 12, there is a real worry about the retrospective deprivation of citizenship. That point was not only made by ILPA, but by the Immigration Advisory Service, whose director is Keith Best. The obvious example is that people who may be thought to be involved in terrorism, such as Muslim extremists, could suddenly find themselves, whether they were born here or acquired British citizenship later, having that citizenship taken away from them on a charge for which there was a lesser threshold of proof than reasonable doubt. That could happen on the basis of the Home Secretary thinking something, and that could not easily be reviewed by the courts.

I share the view that this appears to the most dangerous clause that we have considered so far. I hope that the Minister will consider the amendments seriously and come up with a better and safer drafting of this measure that does not take away the rights of

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people to citizenship under any of the circumstances that we have discussed.

9.15 pm

 
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