Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Bill

[back to previous text]

Simon Hughes: As the hon. Member for Woking and I said, the amendments were intended to open the

Column Number: 019

box and see what lay inside, and to try to take the Government on from their position in the White Paper and in the Chamber. It has been helpful, but I want to ask the Minister a couple of further questions.

I hope that we all agree that conventional tests are inappropriate for some people. There are already various prerequisites, at least in theory, to naturalisation, including having sufficient knowledge of one of the three languages—English, Welsh or Gaelic—no relevant, appropriate convictions, or ''good character'' as it is generally defined, and an intention to live here permanently and make the United Kingdom their principal home.

After a parliamentary question tabled by a Conservative Member, I looked at the table that the Government included in their White Paper. Annexe A sets out helpfully, although not conclusively, the different tests that are used in eight other countries. Some countries have a minimum residency of between one and eight years. Some test an applicant's knowledge of society, but others do not. All countries have a language skills test, while three out of the eight have a good character test. There is a criminal record test in seven countries and, it says, ''possibly'' one in the United States of America. My experience of getting into the USA, even for short periods, suggests that it is a strong ''possibly''. Duel citizenship is accepted by four countries, and an oath is used in five countries. Some have language classes, some do not, and others are proposing to introduce them, but even those that have them do not necessarily require people to attend them. There is also the question whether to have citizenship classes separate from language classes.

There are many different systems, but all the countries seem to be trying to ensure that there is a preparedness on the part of the individual and an ability to be included. Like the hon. Member for Regent's Park and Kensington, North, I am sympathetic to the objective, but two aspects residually worry me. First, we must ensure that we have a similar process for our own citizens. Secondly, we should bear in mind the fact that someone could be a European Union citizen and live here for ever. They could come here aged one and live until they were 99, and there would be no requirement to have any qualification because we are in a common travel area. We must ensure that we do not have a position in which there are no barriers for UK-born citizens—although, if they go to class, they will go through a citizenship education process—or for people from the EU or Ireland within the EU, but barriers for people coming from somewhere else. We must be careful that we have common experience.

Even though the Danes have a tough language requirement—

Angela Eagle: A tough language.

Simon Hughes: Indeed.

Mr. Allan: Not as tough as the Finns.

Column Number: 020

Simon Hughes: When I was working in Brussels at the European Union, I asked a friend to buy a copy of the European Union treaty in Irish. The Minister may not think that it was a great birthday present, but my friend went out and got one in Danish. I did not notice the difference, which was unsatisfactory.

We cannot expect a 75-year-old who comes here with his or her family from a rural community in a less-developed country to be able to adapt in the same way as a 15, 25 or 55-year-old.

We shall come in a moment to the next stage of the process, so I shall not deal with that now, but clearly we need to proceed sensitively. There is a willingness to make progress, but many people are keen to ensure that we make the right progress and that we learn from the best examples.

Before I withdraw the amendment, I have one substantive question for the Minister. Is it possible in theory that there could be no regulations for a period and therefore no sufficiency test? Are the Government thinking about an option that would involve introducing the sufficiency test later? As I read the Bill, it is an option to have that as an add-on, and it would be helpful to know the Minister's thinking on that.

Angela Eagle: EU citizens can live and work in this country without taking any test, but if they wished to change their nationality they would have to take the tests. Anyone who goes through immigration legally and has the right to work here can live and work here without taking the test. It is only if they apply for nationality that tests become relevant, which is fair.

There has been a misunderstanding outside the House, because people have thought that the language test will apply to anyone who wishes to cross the border, but that is not the case. The test is relevant to those who wish to become naturalised; it will not apply to people who wish to work here, although clearly they will probably do a better job if they can speak the language. The tests apply in the naturalisation process when citizenship is conferred, and they apply equally, whatever country the person seeking naturalisation as a British citizen comes from.

The hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey asked about the sufficiency test. With regard to commencement, the issue is how quickly and effectively we can develop the curriculum and ensure that people have access to it. Speaking off the top of my head, I think that we could have the citizenship ceremonies before introducing the tests, but we have had no discussions about the practicalities of which way round we shall do that. The two aspects seem to me to be separate, although in an ideal world they would be linked. If we want to have citizenship ceremonies before we are able to put the tests in place, we may be able to do so.

Simon Hughes: That is very helpful, but there is a practical issue. The number of applications received has dropped in the last couple of years, but we are still talking about 63,000 applications a year. That is a not inconsiderable number of people to put through a process, and obviously the process will involve more

Column Number: 021

than just testing. That said, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Simon Hughes: I beg to move amendment No. 95, in page 1, line 16, at beginning insert—

    '(1AA) No Regulations shall be made under (1)(ba) or (bb) without prior consultation with, and agreement from—

    (i) the Commission for Racial Equality,

    (ii) the Citizenship Foundation, and

    (iii) the Immigration Advisory Service.'.

The amendment is straightforward and follows logically from the last one. I hope that the Minister will be sympathetic, although I do not propose to force it to a vote now. The amendment would ensure prior consultation with obvious candidates or organisations. It states:

    ''No Regulations shall be made . . . without prior consultation with, and agreement from'',

after which I list three organisations with an obvious stake in the matter. I do not pretend that the list is exclusive or perfect, but the organisations were not chosen accidentally. I included the Commission for Racial Equality, which self-evidently has an interest and would like to be involved, the Citizenship Foundation, a body that has made it its business to think through these issues and is keen to be engaged in the debate, and the Immigration Advisory Service, which sees the practicalities of these matters in large volume all the time.

When the CRE briefed us before Second Reading, it pointed out that there had not yet been proper consultation with interested parties about what constitutes citizenship and what defines a British citizen. There are various options. Is it our values? Is it our rights? Is it our way of life? The proposition is that we should have full and frank consultation. I am sure that the Government will be keen to do that; I do not question their good will. However, it is not for the Government to define what makes British life. It should be agreed more widely. We are all entitled to have a voice in that, regardless of our faith, colour or background.

5.45 pm

It is rather paradoxical given where we are, but I took part in 1987–89 in a commission on citizenship set up by Lord Weatherill, the then Speaker, with widespread support. The other two parliamentary colleagues were none other than the current Home Secretary, who was the Labour party nominee and the then Member of Parliament for Mid-Kent, Andrew Rowe, who retired at the last election. Apart from us three, there were extremely eminent people such as John Monks, who was at that stage only the deputy general secretary of the TUC, Ted Wragg, Ben Whittaker, Maurice Stonefrost, John Beishon, Rodney Bickerstaffe and Professor Charles Handy.

The Speaker encouraged us to spend a lot of time considering how citizenship was defined. I do not want us to reinvent the wheel, because it is possible to have endless debates about this. I hope that we can draw on that serious work, in which people invested a lot of time and effort, and which had a slow gestation

Column Number: 022

period, and on the work carried out by the Citizenship Foundation, which is a thoughtful and engaged body. I should like us to end up with an agreement to a consultation process. As a minimum I should like us to agree that there are certain people whom we should regard as allies throughout this process. I am open about who those groups should be, but I am sure that they should be people who can look after the interests of the wider community outside.

Mr. Malins: There is some good thinking behind the amendment. A number of outside bodies will have an awful lot that is really useful to say before the proposed tests are set in concrete. The amendment mentions three, but there are many others including the Refugee Council, the Refugee Legal Centre, the Immigration Law Practitioners Association, the Law Society, the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants and the National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux. I often wonder whether those bodies are consulted widely before a Bill is drafted. I believe that quite often they are not. Leaving that aside for a moment, there is something to be said for the Government saying that they will consult a variety of outside bodies—not necessarily getting agreement from them, as they may take different lines—before introducing regulations.

Previous Contents Continue

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries ordering index

©Parliamentary copyright 2002
Prepared 30 April 2002