Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Bill

[back to previous text]

Simon Hughes: I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Hurst. It is always good to see those who, like you, have come to the House relatively recently gain such eminence so quickly, while we old stagers struggle along trying to retain just some of that eminence.

Angela Eagle: You could always apply, Simon.

Simon Hughes: It is true—I have not applied.

The amendments would replace the word ''citizenship'', which occurs often in part 1, with ''nationality''. As can be seen, the issue comes up regularly in schedule 1. We started to debate the matter earlier, when we discussed the citizenship open pledge. The amendment follows a conversation that I asked my assistant, Gavin Lim, to have with the Citizenship Foundation, which approached us with its views after Second Reading. I suggested that it would be a good idea to talk to that organisation, and my colleague Lord Phillips of Sudbury suggested that it was keen to talk to us.

Column Number: 042

''Citizenship'' is not a well-defined word. ''Nationality'' is much better and more frequently defined in English law and the law of other parts of the United Kingdom. It is understood across boundaries, too. There is a legal understanding of nationality, whereas citizenship implies and conjures up all sorts of ideas, some social and some philosophical. It seems that people have not quite thought through which word should be used where in the Bill. I put that to the Government seriously.

I should be grateful if, in the spirit of our previous debates, the Ministers would ask civil servants—and each other—about that matter after the debate. I hope that they will discuss whether we should be talking about nationality rather than citizenship. I understand from my conversations with the Home Secretary, and from hearing him speak in public, that he is keen to enhance the concept that we all should be better citizens. I agree with that, but it does not follow that we have to put it into legislation.

Another sign that the Government have not thought the matter through is that citizenship is not properly defined in either the Bill or the White Paper. That suggests to me that we are in particularly treacherous waters. The hon. Member for Woking has said—as have I—that it is problematical to pull words off the shelf without defining them in legislation, taking them from somewhere where they are well defined or it is very clear what they mean. The word ''citizenship'' is a bit like an elephant: although we all understand what it is, it is difficult to describe.

I hope that I have persuaded Ministers to consider the proposal. Before we discuss the Bill on Report, we would be happy to debate whether, instead of its becoming the Citizenship, Nationality, Asylum and Immigration Bill, it should remain the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Bill—the fewer concepts, the better.

Angela Eagle: I, too, welcome to you to the Chair, Mr. Hurst, without having a particular aspiration at this stage in my parliamentary life to join you there.

The group of amendments proposes that the citizenship oath and pledge should be called the nationality oath and pledge and that ''nationality'' should replace ''citizenship'' throughout the Bill. The hon. Gentleman was wrong when he said that British citizenship is not defined in law, but that nationality is. Both terms are defined in certain laws, but the nationality distinction is particularly confusing. There are six forms of nationality in United Kingdom law, many of which can be traced throughout our history.

However, there are only three forms of citizenship: British citizens, British overseas territories citizens and British overseas citizens. The remaining three categories are British nationals overseas, British subjects and British protected persons. The citizenship categories to which I have referred have the right of abode and can apply for naturalisation and citizenship in a different way from those who are not covered by the word ''citizen'' in their title. Replacing ''citizenship'' with ''nationality'' in the context of the amendments would muddy the waters

Column Number: 043

of the pledge and the oath and would make the difference less distinct and more confusing than if the Bill remains as currently worded.

We believe that more should be done to prepare people for British citizenship and to celebrate its acquisition. Reference to ''citizenship'' rather than ''nationality'' at this key stage in the process will help to underscore our commitment to develop forms of citizenship and the way in which we recognise such a society in our communities. There is a deliberate read-across to other areas of the Government's social cohesion agenda and education policies on promoting good citizenship and that may be lost if reference to citizenship is replaced by reference to nationality. It also makes sense that the pledge that is concerned with loyalty to the United Kingdom on becoming a British citizen is referred to as a citizenship pledge, not a nationality pledge.

Citizenship is defined under law and it is specific to the provisions of the Bill. Because of the difference between nationality and citizenship under law and the six different circumstances in which there are British nationalities, it would be unnecessarily confusing to refer to ceremonies, oaths and pledges, which have a specific intention, by an imprecise and more general title: ''nationality'', as in the amendments.

It would be healthy to have a philosophical debate about the meaning of citizenship. We can debate how we wish to take it forward as a concept, not only under law, but in practice in our communities. However, the hon. Gentleman's suggestions are more imprecise and confusing, and less focused, than the wording of the Bill. Given that explanation, I hope that he will consider withdrawing the amendment.

Simon Hughes: I am happy to hear the Minister's reply. She misunderstood me. I did not say that citizenship was not defined in law. It is. The Minister cited different types of British citizens. Indeed, we have ''citizen'' on our passports. I did not think, however, that it features much in the Bill or that it was defined in the White Paper. I noted what she said. Whereas there are international treaties and conventions that deal with nationality, there are not any that deal with citizenship. Therefore, nationality is a more recognised concept internationally. I ask her and her colleagues to engage with groups such as the Citizenship Foundation and others who have written to us. There is a general concern that we are going down the road of a less rather than more frequently internationally used idea. I do not have a theological view about it and am happy not to pursue the debate now. There is philosophy, but we do not have time for that now, as we have other business to do. I hope that the Government will reflect and take advice on the issue—I certainly will, but for the time being I am content.

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Simon Hughes: I beg to move amendment No. 93, in page 69, line 10, at end insert

    'or in writing at the request of the applicant'.

Column Number: 044

The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to take amendment No. 94, in page 69, line 14, at end insert

    'or in writing at the request of the applicant'.

Simon Hughes: This is a simple pair of probing amendments. The Minister heard me say before we broke for dinner that I support the ceremony as a way of welcoming new citizens, but there may be some people who find it hard or do not want to take part. Will we make it compulsory for people to go through the ceremony, or will there be some discretion? Will there, generally or in particular circumstances, be the opportunity for people to do it in writing if they prefer?

Angela Eagle: The hon. Gentleman contends that the amendments would give the applicants the discretion to exempt themselves from the requirements of the citizenship oath and pledge or attending the citizenship ceremony, or both. I hope that people will enjoy and look forward to the ceremony in which their new status will be recognised. We believe that saying the oath and pledge in a public ceremony, so that it can be recognised and celebrated in the community, will be a positive step forward from what happens now, which involves the arrival of a folded-up certificate in a brown paper envelope. At present, the pledge also takes place in private, usually in front of a solicitor for a fee.

Schedule 1 will provide for a ceremony in England and Wales, conducted by a registrar in a public place appointed for that use. Friends and family can observe and take part in a ceremony in which citizenship will be conferred. That will hopefully be a cause for celebration for the individual concerned, so we do not think that applicants should have the discretion to exempt themselves or do it more privately in front of a solicitor with a plain brown envelope. However, the hon. Gentleman will remember today's debate about waiving the requirements to pass the tests. As with that, it is not our intention to force people in every circumstance to go through the ceremonies, but we would expect it to be the norm in almost all circumstances. We would not want an individual to have the right to disapply the requirements.

Ms Buck: I am completely in support of the general spirit of the ceremony, and in most cases it would be welcomed. However, I have one slight concern. There is a minority of people who, while welcoming warmly their ability to come to this country and take citizenship, come as refugees. In some cases they are victims of torture. It is quite a difficult process for them to leave behind the country in which they grew up. A little bit of flexibility might be worth considering. Sometimes this can be quite a trauma for people, as well as a pleasure.

8.45 pm

Angela Eagle: Obviously, things can be traumatic as well as pleasurable. The important point to remember is that no one is forced to apply for naturalisation. Presumably if they apply for naturalisation they are looking forward to a transfer of citizenship to them. Unless they are in circumstances where the Secretary

Column Number: 045

of State may waive the requirement, such as infirmity, disability or old age, there is no reason why they should not participate in the lessons that we discussed earlier.

I can foresee that there might be circumstances where the discretion can be exercised, but as I said earlier, I would not want it to be, as the amendment suggests, the individual who can decide whether to take oath. That is not the case now: it has to be taken by everybody. In a Bill that is trying to enhance, celebrate, protect and make more public the occasion, I do not want us to end up with a weaker situation, where the oath does not have to be taken at all. I do not claim that there are not circumstances where it would be sensible to try to do this in a different way, but I expect them to be a small minority. I hope, given that clarification, that the hon. Gentleman will withdraw the amendment.

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