Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Bill

[back to previous text]

Simon Hughes: The Minister gave a reasonable answer and, as the hon. Member for Regent's Park and Kensington, North also knows, public rites of passage are a good thing. Increasingly I notice that other communities have more public ceremonies. The Church used to do baptism quietly: 12 people would turn up on a Sunday afternoon when no one else was there and hide around the back of the church in the damp and the gloom. Now they are carried out in the middle of the morning service when everyone is there.

Mr. Malins: As the son and grandson of clergymen, I know that there are mixed motives for having baptisms during the main service, one of which is the desire to avoid a separate service—one could call it laziness. However, I do not speak for my father, my grandfather or for the vast majority of the clergy.

Simon Hughes: I am grateful for that insight into the working practices of the clergy. The point is made. The Minister made a perfectly reasonable case. She was sensitive to the point about having flexibility around the edges where a public ceremony might be inappropriate. Brown envelopes are certainly a less desirable option. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Mr. Malins: I beg to move amendment No. 26, in page 69, leave out lines 25 and 26 and insert—

    '(6) The Secretary of State may'.

I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Hurst. This is a brief amendment. Clearly the Secretary of State should have a discretion. The word ''thinks'' is troublesome and may create some problems with judicial review of the exercise of the discretion. I am slightly troubled by the phrase

    ''special circumstances of a case'',

which could lead to inconsistency and a restricted use of the discretion when there is a class of person such as people with disabilities who may have problems attending appropriate citizenship classes or ceremonies.

Where else does the word ''thinks'' appear in legislation? It is a non-legislative word, and as a lawyer, Mr. Hurst, you will know as well as I do that interpretations of ''thinks'' by the courts and lawyers

Column Number: 046

in such phrases as ''thinks reasonably'', ''thinks unreasonably'' and ''has reasonable cause to think'' can give rise to difficulties. In short, what do the words

    ''thinks it appropriate because of the special circumstances of a case''

add to the schedule? How do they differ in practice from the simple proposition that the Secretary of State ''may''?

The Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department (Ms Rosie Winterton): I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Hurst.

The hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey spoke about the approach to amendments, and I am afraid to say that this amendment falls into the category of ''Resist''. I am sorry to disappoint the hon. Member for Woking in that respect.

We discussed at some length the importance that the Government attach to the citizenship ceremonies. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary eloquently described the type of ceremony that would be appropriate. The amendment would remove the Secretary of State's ability to exercise discretion solely over those with special circumstances. We want to ensure that a person would not be required to attend a citizenship ceremony only in unusual circumstances.

The hon. Gentleman asked where the wording came from. In fact, it derives from section 4(4) and schedule 1(2) of the British Nationality Act 1981, which provide that the Secretary of State may waive certain naturalisation and registration requirements if the special circumstances of a particular case demand it. To allow the Secretary of State a broader discretion than that, as under the amendment, would be inconsistent with the discretions in the 1981 Act.

It might reassure the hon. Gentleman to know that the discretion will be exercised case by case rather than with respect to entire classes of people.

Mr. Malins: I am grateful to the Minister for her reassurances. Although I am not entirely content, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Mr. Malins: I beg to move amendment No. 5, in page 70, line 3, at end insert—

    '(3) Notwithstanding subsection (2), a fee shall not be payable by the spouse of a British citizen who has himself already paid a fee in respect of naturalisation for himself under the provisions of this Act.'.

The amendment regards fees, and would combat possible, albeit unintentional, discrimination against spouses. If a person's spouse has already been to classes, has been integrating the husband or wife into British society and has paid the fee, one might reasonably ask why the couple should pay twice. It is a narrow point, but it affects couples, and there is a good argument that they should not pay twice. I hope that the Minister will take that point on board.

Angela Eagle: The amendment would allow the spouse of a person who has previously naturalised as a British citizen to be exempted from paying a fee, regardless of the time lag between applications, but also regardless of the number of times that the original

Column Number: 047

applicant marries. The current fee for naturalisation under section 6(1) of the British Nationality Act 1981 is £150. Section 2(4) of the British Nationality (Fees) Regulations 1996 currently provides that a husband and wife who live together may pay only one fee should they make their applications for naturalisation at the same time.

The hon. Gentleman's basic point is already covered by the regulations, and there is no intent to change that. However, the amendment would extend the provision to any future applications that were separate, although for husband and wife, and would move them from secondary to primary legislation. That would penalise the spouses of people who were UK born or British by descent, who would still be required to pay the fee, and the exemption from paying the fee would be effective indefinitely after the first application, no matter how many marriages then happened. Thus, more than one person could benefit from the exemption if the original applicant married non-British citizens more than once. That would make financial forecasting of fee income difficult, although we hope that the issue would not arise often.

The current position, which we need to maintain, is that if husband and wife apply simultaneously they pay one fee. However, if they apply separately over the years, they pay two fees. We are seeking to bring together some of the current, disparate fees. There is a £5 fee to swear before a solicitor, which we hope to get rid of completely, citizenship ceremonies will cost about £35 to £40—it costs £40 to marry in a registry office in Scotland and £34 to marry in a registry office in England—and we are considering whether we can reduce the £150 naturalisation fee. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will agree that it will be good to reduce the fee if that is possible. However, it is important that if spouses apply together, they make a joint payment, whereas if they apply separately they have to pay a fee each.

Mr. Malins: I accept that if they apply at the same time there is one fee. However, there is a possible prejudice on a later application in terms of paying two fees. Will the Minister consider applying a reduced fee to a spouse who does not apply at exactly the same time, but a little later, now that I have flagged up the concern that many have about the issue?

Angela Eagle: I am reluctant to do so. I suspect that that level of detail is more appropriate to secondary rather than primary legislation, so that if there were a vast change in marriage patterns, or something emerged that was different from what had happened in the past, we could accommodate it. I do not want to incorporate it into the Bill. It is reasonable to accept that a married couple applying at the same time should pay a joint fee, but I do not see why they should do so if they apply separately, over several years. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will take my views into account and will not press the amendment.

I want to correct something that I said earlier about the three forms of citizenship. I said that people with any of those three forms had a right of abode in the UK, but of course they do not. Only British citizens

Column Number: 048

have a right of abode in the UK, and I would not want to raise the hopes of the people in the other categories.

Not all adults who become British citizens currently swear the oath. Those who already bear allegiance through their original nationality do not swear it, but we will make a change, and all those who naturalise and attend ceremonies will swear the oath. That is merely a crinkle that we are ironing out.

9 pm

Mr. Malins: I sensed some sympathy for my proposition in what the Minister said, which is probably all that I could have hoped for. With that in mind, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Question proposed, That this schedule be the First schedule to the Bill.

Simon Hughes: As of now, how firm is the Government's view about the wording of the schedule? How much do they see it as open to further discussion and contemplation, in the light of representations made and views expressed?

Angela Eagle: I am fairly happy with the wording of the schedule, certainly given our discussions on amendments. The hon. Gentleman invites me to take a view on amendments that I have not seen, but which may come before us in future. That is impossible until I have seen what the amendments propose. If at a later stage he comes across an appalling mistake that none of us have spotted, I would be happy to reconsider it.

I hope that I have explained the Government's view on the amendments to the schedule, which we have discussed. We are not looking for amendments, and would not contemplate them unless they put right something that had passed us all by to date.

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