Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Bill

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Angela Eagle: Of course we will not be saying that. It is not our intention to force people who are infirm, elderly, mentally ill or have other relevant disabilities to take the tests just for the sake of it. A provision in the British Nationality Act 1981 already allows the Secretary of State to waive the requirement to pass a language test in certain circumstances.

The essence of this amendment, and amendments Nos. 98 to 100 to clause 2, is to probe us about whether the same right to waiver will exist for the test on knowledge of the UK. Having examined the Bill, I am not completely satisfied that the provision is drafted appropriately. That right should be in the Bill in the same way as the language test requirement waiver. We will deal with the other amendments when we come to them, but if amendment No. 17 is withdrawn, I hope that we can introduce amendments that will place the Secretary of State's ability to waive the test requirements in certain circumstances—the ones that I just mentioned—in the Bill. That will reassure people that there is no intention to waive the language test but not the knowledge of the UK test: it is simply a lacuna that occurred in drafting.

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Mr. Malins: That has been a most helpful exchange, and I thank the Minister.

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

The Chairman: Before we embark on this debate, as we have spent a considerable time debating the clause, I ask hon. Members to be as brief as possible.

Simon Hughes: I just want to make one point. As it is now almost two hours since we started and we are just about to finish clause 1, I am mindful of our difficulty. I should like to follow up the point made by the hon. Member for Walthamstow about the importance of processes that ensure that when people are here, whatever their status, their time is used to best effect. He mentioned that he and I, together with Sir Peter Lloyd, the former Home Office Minister, went to Kosovo with the director of the Refugee Council. The key lesson that we learned was that whether people come to stay permanently or temporarily, whether they are asylum seekers or economic migrants, there is no point in their hanging around doing nothing. It did not help community relations. It was not good for them. It was not good for the community to which they might return or for the community here.

This may have more to do with administration than legislation, but I hope that systems are in place to give people opportunities. In those cases, we came to the view that three things were necessary: language improvement, the ability to become more technologically competent—a skill from which most people could benefit—and business skills, especially for those who are economically active. There is an hotel at the Elephant and Castle that is used for immigrants and asylum seekers. There are about 750 people there. It is galling for everyone—the residents, the management and the community—that they must simply pass the time with nothing to do. I am sure that there is no difference between us. We must ensure that when people are within our communities, in this case between arrival and seeking nationality, we use their time to best effect. I did not want to lose that point, which is clearly felt outside by native born Britons and by people who come here wanting to stay and to become British citizens.

Mr. Malins: I will take your strictures to heart, Mr. Illsley, and speak briefly. It is as well to stress that we support the clause in principle. We have pointed out that there are difficulties with the phrase:

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

and we hope that the Government will think again about that. Getting matters into perspective, the current language test is administered with a very light touch. It is often carried out over the telephone. Sometimes it is assessed in the provinces by police officers who potter along to see an applicant and have a chat. Provided that they can converse reasonably, that is the end of it. Sometimes it is done by the immigration service. I understand that in 1996—I do not have up-to-date figures—only 27 applicants were

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refused on grounds of language as opposed to the 17,600 who were accepted.

It is a small-scale problem. We have highlighted one or two issues such as the need not just for more clarity of language and purpose but to approach the matter with sensitivity. It is not in the Bill, but is there, or should there be, a mechanism whereby anyone who is utterly aggrieved about a decision made by the Secretary of State about a naturalisation application can appeal either to a court or elsewhere for a second opinion? I do not suppose that it will happen often, but does such an appeal mechanism exist or will it exist in future? Broadly, we wish the clause well.

Angela Eagle: Clause 1 introduces new provisions into the British Nationality Act 1981. As hon. Members have pointed out, paragraph 1(1)(c) of schedule 1 to that Act already requires someone applying for naturalisation as a British citizen to be able to demonstrate sufficient knowledge of English, Welsh or Scottish Gaelic. The clause will ensure that that requirement is applied more consistently and that evidence of a particular standard of achievement is produced.

The examples given by the hon. Member for Woking show how lackadaisical the 1981 test has become. It is in all our interests to ensure that it is more consistently and more meaningfully applied. At the same time, we must get right the balance that I mentioned in previous exchanges. The test must not be too onerous, but must be as inclusive and as useful as possible.

With regard to an appeal mechanism, I will write to the hon. Gentleman, but I suspect that I would run in horror from the thought of creating new appeal rights for examination results. Judicial review is available to challenge nationality decisions, but there are very few challenges a year on the grant of citizenship, and I would not want to open a wide new avenue of judicial activity.

Simon Hughes: I can think of one challenge.

6.30 pm

Angela Eagle: I can think of one, too, but we will not mention who it concerns. I have described what is currently available, and that is probably how it should stay.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 1 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 2

Naturalisation: spouse of citizen

Simon Hughes: I beg to move amendment No. 98, in page 2, line 12, after 'paragraphs' insert '2'.

The Chairman: With this we may discuss the following amendments: No. 99, in page 2, line 13, leave out 'spouse of citizen'.

No. 100, in page 2, line 14, at end insert—

    '( ) In paragraph 2(e) for 'the requirement specified in paragraph 1(1)(c)' substitute 'the requirements specified in paragraph 1(1)(c) and (1)(ca)'.

Simon Hughes: I shall be brief. It took us an hour and a half to deal with only four groups of

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amendments under clause 1, so we are clearly beginning to get into difficulties and I shall press on.

Anyone reading the amendments would not understand them, but they all address a simple point. The idea was not mine; it came from the Immigration Law Practitioners Association. The amendments make a point to which I think the Minister may be sympathetic. Clause 2(1) extends the existing language requirement to include those who are applying for naturalisation as the spouses of a British citizen or British overseas territories citizen. Under the Bill, spouses will also have to comply with the knowledge of the UK requirement.

It will continue to be possible for the Secretary of State to waive the language requirement on grounds of age or physical or mental condition, but there is as yet no provision to allow the Secretary of State to waive the knowledge of the UK requirement in such circumstances. The argument is that it should be possible to waive that requirement for those who come and apply on residence grounds and for those who come on marriage grounds.

The logic of that is clear. Some people, perfectly reasonably and lawfully, meet someone and decide to marry them. It may not take them six years to make a decision. In fact, it may not even take six months; some people in this country get married perfectly properly after six days, three weeks or whatever. We cannot expect people suddenly to fit in to those arrangements the learning of the language and so on. The person from this country may might speak the other language, or a couple may not have a language in common. Sometimes that does not prevent people from deciding that they love each other and want to get married. We must be sensible about this issue.

What is the minimum residency requirement, if any, that the Government have in mind before any residence in Britain by virtue of marriage can be turned into a citizenship entitlement? When people apply as spouses, they usually get a conditional right to be here. The period has traditionally been a year, but the Government have talked about it being two years. Would that apply in the context that we are discussing? If someone married a UK citizen and wanted to be naturalised, would it be assumed that there would have to be a minimum of two years before they could put in their application? The clause would be more sensible if it were amended in that way. I am grateful for the fact that such matters were brought to our attention, and that the Minister may be sympathetic towards the amendment.

Angela Eagle: I am glad to have said in advance that we consider that amendment No. 17 tabled by the hon. Member for Woking should be made to the Bill. Our original intention was to deal with appropriate parts under secondary legislation, but the fact that the waiver for the language test is contained in primary legislation makes it sensible for the waiver in respect of the knowledge test, which we are inserting into the British Nationality Act, to be included in the Bill. It is a tidying up exercise and I am grateful to those who brought it to our attention.

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The hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey asked about minimum residency requirements for spouses. No period of marriage is required. The three years' residence can be before or after marriage. Residency rather than marriage is the determining factor.

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