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The Minister for Borders and Immigration (Mr. Liam Byrne):
I am grateful for the opportunity to respond to tonights Adjournment debate. Sometimes in debates about immigration, I think that there is a great deal of
consensus in all parts of the House that is sometimes not revealed or seen in the public domain. Tonight may be another example of the consensus between us being greater than the things that divide us.
The right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis) mentioned a specific case in his constituency, but it raises wider points of policy, as he said, which will command the attention of the House both this evening and, I hope, in months to come. I thank him for the courteous and careful way in which he has made representations to me over the past few months.
I congratulate the Hull Daily Mail on championing the case. I have not always agreed with the direction of its editorial policy, but judging by some e-mails that I received this afternoonfrom the right hon. Gentlemans constituents, I thinktelling me that many local people disagree with the Hull Daily Mail, it is doing something that it feels is right even if it is not popular with all sections of its readership.
I wish to delineate two issues: the way in which decisions are made, and why they are made. Those are the wider policy issues to which the right hon. Gentleman alluded. I shall conclude by proposing a way forward. The basic chronology of the case is a matter of agreement between us. As the right hon. Gentleman said, Deborah Phillips was born in the United States and spent the first years of her life there. She came to the United Kingdom and spent a considerable period of her childhood and early adulthood here before returning to the United States. In other words, although she was educated in the UK, she built her life in the United States, in the services and then, I think, in business. I believe that her brother remains there.
I first wish to set out how decisions are taken. It is often forgotten in the public debate that it is rarely Ministers who make such decisions. The decisions are taken by independent Crown civil servants and, often, independent immigration judges. In this case, the right hon. Gentlemans constituent failed in her appeal to the asylum and immigration tribunal in December 2006. The judge found that:
The situation as between mother and daughter
so exceptional that to deprive her of the right...to live with her mother would place this country in breach of its obligations under Article 8 of the Human Rights Convention.
In reaching its finding, the AIT held that Miss Phillipss mother was financially independent and could afford to pay for her own care, that her mother had travelled to the United States in 2006 for an operation, and that Miss Phillips had a brother in the US. That is simply a summary of some of the things that the judge said.
I do not think that when judges make decisions of such force and clarity the House would want Ministers overturning them left, right and centre. The question that we must turn to is whether the framework within which the judgment was made was not quite right, and whether justice demands a different solution. In this case, as the right hon. Gentleman set out, the question is whether the framework of the British Nationality Act 1981 and its amendments is quite right.
Before 1983, British women were unable to pass on citizenship, but there was discretion in the British Nationality Act 1948 to confer citizenship on any minor
by registration. That was why Merlyn Rees, when he was Home Secretary, said on 7 February 1979 that he would exercise discretion in favour of any minor of a UK-born mother who applied for registration before his or her 18th birthday. In other words, that concession would benefit anybody born after 1961, as long as they registered before their 18th birthday.
In the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002, this Government widened that concession through an amendment to the 1981 Act, which meant that people could register after the age of 18. The nub of the argument was that there may well have been children in some parts of the world who were unaware of the proceedings of the House of Commons, incredible as that might seem. New section 4C was introduced and added on Third Reading in the Lords without dispute.
However, the problem in the right hon. Gentlemans case is that the provision does not help Ms Phillips, as she was born before 1961, in 1959. That issue was addressed by Lord Filkin in 2002, when he said:
British women did not acquire the right to pass on their citizenship until 1983. One can only go so far towards righting the wrongs of history before the number of what ifs to be taken into account becomes unmanageable.[ Official Report, House of Lords, 31 October 2002; Vol. 640, c. 295-6.]
Any geographical or time limitation in the new registration provision would have produced hard-luck cases. At the time, the Government felt justified in drawing a line around people who, had they applied in time, would have been registered as citizens under the terms of the policy in 1979. Nevertheless, the Government accept that those born to British mothers before 1961 are at a disadvantage, so I can confirm that we shall seek to bring forward a legislative remedy at an early stage, perhaps in the immigration reform Bill we have already proposed.
Ms Phillips is one of the hard-luck cases referred to by Lord Filkin, so the question for us is whether there is a unique combination of factors that warrants leave outside the rules. The right hon. Gentleman pointed out that there is probably only a limited number of
people in that category; none the less it is important to look first at whether there are particular extenuating circumstances, and in this case I believe there are.
Many of those circumstances could come under the existing carers concession in the immigration rules. It allows Ministers and caseworkers to exercise discretion, and in compassionate circumstances a period of leave of up to 12 months can be granted. I think that that would be appropriate in this case because of a combination of factors that include the following: first, Ms Phillipss role as her mothers full-time carer; secondly, Ms Phillipss inability to apply for citizenship, as a result of the legislation that I propose soon to amend; thirdly, the length of time of Ms Phillipss residence in the UK; fourthly, the ties that Ms Phillipss daughter has built up during their four years residence in the UKas the right hon. Gentleman told me last week, and confirmed today, her daughter is in school in the UK; and, finally, and perhaps most important, the news that the right hon. Gentleman conveyed to me about Deborah Phillipss mothers condition and the role that Deborah Phillips wants to take as her carer.
Finally, I wanted to give a pointer either to my work in the future orwho knows in this job?perhaps the work of my successor. It is perfectly possible that the 12 months leave that I think I am able to grant will expire before the immigration simplification reforms that we shall propose are on the statute book, in which case I think it would be appropriate to extend the leave again.