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House of Commons

Friday 13 September 2013

The House met at half-past Nine o’clock


[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

Jonathan Lord (Woking) (Con): I beg to move, That the House sit in private.

Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 163).

The House divided:

Ayes 0, Noes 46.

Division No. 90]


9.34 am


Tellers for the Ayes:

Harriett Baldwin


Mel Stride


Benyon, Richard

Blenkinsop, Tom

Bottomley, Sir Peter

Burt, Alistair

Carmichael, rh Mr Alistair

Chope, Mr Christopher

Clark, rh Greg

Coffey, Dr Thérèse

Creagh, Mary

Crouch, Tracey

David, Wayne

Efford, Clive

Elphicke, Charlie

Evans, Mr Nigel

Fallon, rh Michael

Featherstone, Lynne

Flello, Robert

Hamilton, Mr David

Hammond, Stephen

Harper, Mr Mark

Harris, Rebecca

Hollobone, Mr Philip

Hunt, Tristram

James, Margot

Johnson, Diana

Lamb, Norman

Leigh, Sir Edward

Leslie, Chris

Lord, Jonathan

McCarthy, Kerry

McLoughlin, rh Mr Patrick

Morgan, Nicky

Munn, Meg

Murray, Ian

Murrison, Dr Andrew

Opperman, Guy

Phillips, Stephen

Prisk, Mr Mark

Robertson, rh Hugh

Selous, Andrew

Smith, Sir Robert

Swayne, rh Mr Desmond

Swinson, Jo

Timms, rh Stephen

Webb, Steve

Wright, Jeremy

Tellers for the Noes:

Mark Lancaster


Mr Robert Goodwill

Question accordingly negatived.

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Mary Creagh (Wakefield) (Lab): On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I should like to draw the House’s attention to the worrying reports in several newspapers today that the number of badgers being shot in the Somerset badger cull area is considerably lower than the target of 2,000 set by the Government. Scientists have warned us that there is a severe risk that bovine tuberculosis will become worse in badgers and cattle if the cull is not carried out properly—

Mr Speaker: Order. Before the hon. Lady proceeds, may I ask her—I understand the importance of the matter in her mind—what the point of order for me is? Perhaps she will indicate that first.

Mary Creagh: I will do so, Mr Speaker. Ministers have failed to answer the questions I have tabled about the number of badgers culled in the cull areas. Can you therefore use your good offices to ensure that the House is updated at the earliest opportunity after the conference recess?

Mr Speaker: The hon. Lady knows the premium I attach from the Chair to timely and substantive responses to parliamentary questions. Her point of order on the matter will have been heard on the Treasury Bench. I rather imagine the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs will know of it within a matter of minutes. I very much hope that the sorts of information she seeks can be provided before very long, especially in view of the extreme topicality of the matter that she has raised—I thank her for doing so.

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Citizenship (Armed Forces) Bill

Second Reading

9.47 am

Jonathan Lord (Woking) (Con): I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

The Bill is brief and to the point—it has just two clauses. It seeks to amend the British Nationality Act 1981 to ensure that foreign and Commonwealth citizens in the forces who wish to apply for naturalisation as a British citizen under section 6(1) are not disadvantaged because of time served overseas. In order to apply for naturalisation as a British citizen under section 6(1), a person must have been resident in the United Kingdom for the previous five years. The Secretary of State has the discretion to disregard time spent outside the United Kingdom during that period, but an applicant must, in all cases, have been in the United Kingdom at the beginning of the period. That means that foreign and Commonwealth citizens in the armed forces who are posted overseas may have to wait longer than those who remain in the United Kingdom.

Sir Edward Leigh (Gainsborough) (Con): I have been trying to understand the Bill. Is the key moment the precise moment at the end of the five years? Is that the law under the 1981 Act? It is unclear to me, and I am sure that my hon. Friend can explain it to the House.

Jonathan Lord: The key point is that under the 1981 Act a foreigner or Commonwealth citizen applying for naturalisation—the pass to British citizenship—has to have been in the UK on the exact date five years prior to making that application. Of course, it is invidious that a foreign or Commonwealth soldier serving Queen and country in our armed forces overseas, perhaps even in a conflict zone, should not be able to make such an application when other soldiers based in the UK or other men and women living in the UK would be able to do so.

Mel Stride (Central Devon) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend on bringing this important Bill before the House. Does he know how many armed forces personnel have fallen foul of what appears to be an unfortunate anomaly in the 1981 Act?

Jonathan Lord: It is indeed an anomaly. Currently, more than 9,000 foreign and Commonwealth persons are serving in our armed forces. I am sure that everyone in the House would wish to pay tribute to them for the wonderful work they do, putting themselves in danger for the sake of our national security—and for the sake of international security, too. Our armed forces do not go just into conflict or act defensively: they also go into very difficult areas and try to bring peace.

The Bill will probably affect only a few hundred people a year at most. Not everyone of foreign or Commonwealth nationality who serves in our armed forces wishes to naturalise as a British citizen, but for those who do, I hope that the House will support the idea that they should not be discriminated against because of the anomaly that my hon. Friend so perceptively outlines.

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Mel Stride: My hon. Friend refers, rightly, to the sense of discrimination that some members of our armed forces will feel at having fallen foul of this anomaly. Does he foresee the possibility of an amendment in Committee to do something for those who have fallen foul of that particular aspect of the naturalisation requirements by expediting their applications compared to those who were not caught by that anomaly?

Jonathan Lord: I am reminded by people with much more experience in the House than I have that it is unwise to accept unnecessary amendments to private Members’ Bills. The bar is already high enough for getting such a Bill on to the statute book. That said, it is an issue that we should look at. The key point is that the Bill would remedy the deficit that we have identified, and any armed services personnel from foreign or Commonwealth countries would not suffer such discrimination.

Mr Christopher Chope (Christchurch) (Con): As I understand it, the Government said in the Queen’s Speech that they would introduce an immigration Bill, which could include nationality issues. Surely this proposal would be much better suited to that Bill, as we could then have a full range of amendments, including the one to which my hon. Friend the Member for Central Devon (Mel Stride) referred.

Jonathan Lord: The key point is that the Bill would remedy a simple problem. I know, from having talked to the Minister, that the planned nationality Bill will have specific needs in mind, and he would not necessarily wish to take on board this aspect of immigration issues in case it perhaps encouraged more mischievous amendments and additions.

Guy Opperman (Hexham) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend on introducing the Bill, as it covers an issue that we should clearly pursue under the armed forces covenant. Does he have any information about support from the various Army charities for this proposal?

Jonathan Lord: I am pleased to say that most of the major Army charities, which do such wonderful work supporting our service personnel, our ex-service personnel and their families, are very supportive of the Bill. Like other hon. Members, I attend Remembrance day services and rattle tins for the Royal British Legion—the local branches in Woking and other areas of Surrey are hugely supportive of the Bill.

Veterans Aid, an important charity in this area, has said of the Bill:

“We warmly welcome any initiative that removes obstacles to those who have served this country with honour from settling here legally and have campaigned on this issue. Veterans Aid, more than any other military charity, has championed the cause of Foreign & Commonwealth servicemen and women disadvantaged, through no fault of their own, by bureaucracy that is demonstrably at odds with the spirit of the Military Covenant. This was an injustice and we applaud the Government and Jonathan Lord for listening. We still have many cases in being but this will definitely help us move things forward for quite a few of our clients.”

Mr Chope: I am sorry to return to my earlier intervention, but if this change is supported by the Government, why do they not bring this measure forward in their immigration Bill? Then we would be able to test whether this very

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narrow Bill is too narrow and should be extended to a wider range of people. For example, a constituent of mine married a Russian citizen and they have been working in Russia in the UK interest for 18 years. Because they have been working outside the country, that lady cannot get British citizenship without coming back to the UK.

Jonathan Lord: I think I answered that point clearly before. I am very happy with the narrow definition of the Bill. Its aims are clear to everyone, and it would do what it says on the tin. It is welcomed by military and veterans charities, and I believe it is welcomed across the House.

Harriett Baldwin (West Worcestershire) (Con): I hope that the Bill will make progress, but can my hon. Friend make it clear that when we are talking about an exception for someone who is not in the UK at the beginning of the five-year period after which they apply for British citizenship, the reason for them not being here would have to be that they were serving in our armed forces? Is not that the difference between the Bill and the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope)?

Jonathan Lord: My hon. Friend makes a very good point. That is absolutely the case. It is my understanding that the Government and all other parties will support the Bill, given the cross-party support for the armed forces covenant, and agree that the issue is best addressed through a private Member’s Bill. I do not know exactly what Bills on immigration and nationality the Government intend to introduce. That is a matter for the Government and as Back Benchers we will have to wait and see, but I am extremely happy and honoured to try to pilot the Bill through the House and, with cross-party support, hopefully on to the statute book.

Mr Chope: My hon. Friend says that an immigration Bill is a matter for the Government, but it seems, by the way he is introducing his Bill, that his Bill is a matter for the Government too.

Jonathan Lord: My hon. Friend makes a fair point—the Bill has the complete support of the Government. It is also in keeping with measures the previous Government were starting to talk about, and with the will of the House as expressed by Committees and sub-committees. There is a wish to ensure that the armed services covenant is not just fine words. Where there are anomalies, with service personnel or ex-service personnel being disadvantaged, they must be put right as soon as possible. If the Bill progresses, we will be able to do that before the introduction of any Government legislation on nationality and immigration. That is surely to be welcomed.

Margot James (Stourbridge) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend on introducing the Bill. Can he reassure me that the Government support his proposals? I have read the annual report published in 2012 on the progress of the military covenant, and it seems that the Government are doing a great deal to remove areas of discrimination, and even putting in special measures for the armed forces. It would, therefore, seem anomalous for this area not to be dealt with as part of our ongoing commitment to the military covenant.

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Jonathan Lord: My hon. Friend makes a valuable point. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s speech, but he is on the record as saying:

“It is simply wrong that any member of our armed forces should have to wait longer to gain British citizenship just because, on a specific date five years before applying, he or she was posted overseas protecting our country. Making this change was a priority commitment under the Armed Forces Covenant and I am delighted to support this Bill which will ensure that service men and women are not disadvantaged.”

Returning to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman), it is not just Veterans Aid and the Royal British Legion that support the Bill. The Army Families Federation supports Army families, serving both personnel and ex-service personnel. It said:

“This legislation will make a big difference to the many soldiers and their spouses who are currently prohibited from applying for Citizenship because they were serving overseas or were on operations at the start of the 5 year residential period. The current rule has been disproportionately disadvantaging members of HM Forces and their families for many years, and the AFF is fully supportive of the proposed changes”.

I welcome that support from one of our most important charities.

Mel Stride: My hon. Friend is making a powerful case. I am gratified that a number of military charities clearly support the Bill. I am not aware of any military-focused charities that are against it. Will he confirm that, to the best of his knowledge, that is the case?

Jonathan Lord: I am not aware that any charities, military or otherwise, are against the Bill. I am sure that if any charities that are unaware of the Bill were to listen to the debate—which I hope will have cross-party support—they would also be convinced of its merit, alongside our wonderful military charities.

The Bill will give the Secretary of State the discretion to waive the requirement that an applicant for naturalisation should have been in the United Kingdom at the beginning of the five-year residence period as laid out under the 1981 Act. This will apply only to those who are, or have been, members of the armed forces. This will ensure that all foreign and Commonwealth citizens who are serving, or have served, in the forces are able to apply for naturalisation on equal terms, regardless of whether they were posted in the UK or abroad.

Mr Chope: Will the Bill have retrospective effect?

Jonathan Lord: The Bill will apply to cases from now on. By definition, those applying for citizenship under the naturalisation rule have to have been in the UK five years before, so it is definitely for all cases going forward. I hope the Minister will help me by ensuring that we know about any potential retrospective action.

Mel Stride: Just to clarify, where an individual has fallen foul of the anomaly under the 1981 Act and has subsequently left the country, and is therefore not in the country at the point of an application the day after the Bill is passed, would the clock have to start again, or would it be enough that they would have qualified had the anomaly not existed?

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Jonathan Lord: The Bill gives the Secretary of State more discretion than he has had hitherto, but we are trying to look forward more than we are trying to look back. We cannot remedy all anomalies, but I am sure that the Minister will have a view on how the Secretary of State would use that discretion for past cases.

To apply for naturalisation under section 6(1) of the 1981 Act, a person must have been resident in the United Kingdom for the previous five years. While the Secretary of State has the discretion to disregard time spent outside the UK during that period, an applicant currently must, in all cases, have been in the UK at the beginning of that five-year period. That means that foreign and Commonwealth citizens serving in our armed forces who are posted overseas may have to wait longer than those who remain in the UK before being able to naturalise as British citizens, and that cannot be right.

The Bill implements a Government commitment in the armed forces covenant 2011 for new legislation to be introduced to enable foreign and Commonwealth service personnel to be exempted from the requirement to be in the UK at the start of that residential period for naturalisation as a British citizen, if in service on that date. Clause 2 sets out clearly the territorial extent of the Bill: England and Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland, the Channel Islands, the Isle of Man and the British overseas territories.

Both clauses would come into force two months after the Bill receives Royal Assent. It is not anticipated that the Bill will lead to additional public expenditure. With regard to public sector manpower, no changes are expected to staffing at the Home Office, which is the Department responsible for processing applications for naturalisation. The Bill is not regarded as having any regulatory impact, nor will it lead to costs or savings for business, public or civil society organisations, regulators or consumers. It is a pleasure to introduce the Bill to the House this morning. I pay tribute to the work of the Home Affairs (Armed Forces Covenant) Sub-Committee, which mentioned the desirability of the measure in October 2010. It has the benefit of Government support and, I very much hope, cross-party support, too.

The enshrinement of the armed forces covenant in UK law in 2011 was a good moment in the three years that I have served as Member of Parliament for Woking, and I am sure that many Members across the House feel the same. The Government and Parliament have a moral obligation to their servicemen and women, who are asked to risk their lives for our country. That obligation extends well beyond the time when each of them leaves the Army, the Royal Navy or the Royal Air Force. Parliament chose to enshrine two key principles in law: first, that it is desirable that members or former members of the armed forces suffer no disadvantages arising from their time served in the military; and secondly, that special provision for them may be justified in certain circumstances. These are fundamental principles that reflect our country’s high esteem for the military and its personnel, and the important and sometimes difficult and dangerous work they do.

I am fortunate to have the Pirbright barracks in my constituency, which, with the arrival of the 1st Battalion the Welsh Guards, will shortly have an additional 600 service personnel and their families. A guardsman who has served with the battalion for the last 10 years will have been on tours to Northern Ireland, Iraq, Bosnia, Kosovo

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and Afghanistan, which will have been interspersed with firefighting, training and exercises all over the world. In addition, they will have carried out state ceremonial and public duties, demonstrating the busy nature of our modern armed forces. Indeed, the 1st Battalion the Welsh Guards has done two tours of Bosnia and two tours of Afghanistan. They are brave servicemen and women.

Mel Stride: My hon. Friend rightly refers to the brave men and women in our armed forces in his constituency who perform such services for our country. Earlier he mentioned their role in defending and fighting for our country, but do not a number of the examples he has given show that, equally, they are important in bringing peace to many people outside our country? For that reason, as well as the service they do for our country, we should treat them fairly and decently.

Jonathan Lord: My hon. Friend makes an important point. It is not just the citizens of this country who owe our armed forces a great debt of gratitude, but many citizens in warzones and, occasionally, those affected in times of famine or by an earthquake. We salute all the hard work, dedication and bravery of our armed forces personnel.

It will be a great honour to have the Welsh Guards come to Pirbright, but the Pirbright facility also includes the largest initial training site in the Army, which trains all female recruits over the age of 17 and the majority of male recruits. The facilities at the centre—I have seen them myself—are superb and have benefited much from recent upgrades. There are new classrooms, an education centre, a swimming pool, a well-equipped gym, all-weather outdoor sports pitches, and medical and rehabilitation facilities. It was a pleasure to visit the Army training camp and see the wonderful work done there. Our young people, aged 17 or 18, go there as ordinary citizens and come out, only a few weeks later, as members of our armed forces, trained to a high standard. I was extremely impressed with everything that I saw and learnt there.

Indeed, unlike some of the visits that we occasionally make to places in our constituencies, my visit was organised in true military fashion. I had to report at 10:00 hours. Every five minutes of the day was marked out for my instruction and there were drivers on hand in case of inclement weather. It was really quite impressive. If the Army inculcate that sort of spit-and-polish attitude in our young people, they will come out not just as potential worthy fighters in our armed forces, but as better, more upright and more organised citizens, which bodes well for them and the future of our country.

Harriett Baldwin: This is an interesting anecdote. I am proud to have participated in the armed forces parliamentary scheme since I was elected. On visiting a base—which should perhaps remain nameless—I was given athletic clothes, including a very short pair of shorts, and asked to take the fitness test. Can my hon. Friend enlighten me as to whether he had a similar experience when he visited the base in his constituency?

Mr Speaker: Order. The personal experience of the hon. Member for West Worcestershire (Harriett Baldwin) is undoubtedly an enervating one for her and of great

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interest to the House, but I know that in responding to the intervention the hon. Member for Woking (Jonathan Lord) will not be tempted to dilate upon the matter, but will focus his attention on the content of the Citizenship (Armed Forces) Bill.

Jonathan Lord: I am grateful to you, Mr Speaker. I am interested to hear of my hon. Friend’s experiences I was told to bring muddy boots, but I am pleased to say that there was no fitness test and my muddy boots were not needed.

Pirbright, along with our other Army training camps, has a big role to play in helping to make our troops the best trained in the world. As their representative in the mother of Parliaments, I wish to know that they will be treated well by the Government, the laws of the land and all our public services, both during and after their time served.

Margot James: My hon. Friend has spoken powerfully about the sacrifices that our armed forces make and the way in which they risk their lives in conflict around the world. Does he agree that they also make an enormous contribution to society in emergencies? I am thinking in particular about the Olympics last year, when the country was let down by a private company that was going to provide security. We had to reach for our armed forces, which were there without delay. Indeed, in many cases, personnel had to sacrifice their annual leave to go and serve the country in that important endeavour.

Jonathan Lord: I thank my hon. Friend for that point, which she makes extremely well. The armed forces are at the service of our country and its citizens, and they never, ever seem to let us down.

Mel Stride: My hon. Friend is being very generous in giving way. He is right to stress the dedication, excellence, training and commitment of those in our armed forces, and although they are well looked after in terms of remuneration, salary and pay, they are not very, very well looked after. Is not that, along with their dedication, yet another reason why they should be looked after properly in the way that his Bill seeks to do?

Jonathan Lord: My hon. Friend makes an excellent and important point.

I have invited the troops stationed at Pirbright to come and have tours of the House—I am sure everyone else has similar experiences—and have participated in seminars, and so on. When they next visit me, I know that they will be extremely pleased—and perhaps even a little proud of their Member of Parliament—that this Bill has been introduced. That is another reason why I hope the House will support it today.

We have the armed forces covenant, but there is still progress to be made on the way in which we treat our armed forces personnel. However, the Government are to be commended for the action that they have taken since May 2010, and I am pleased that the Minister for Immigration is here to support this contribution to the development of the law on the obligations underwritten by the armed forces covenant.

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Mr Chope: Will my hon. Friend explain the ambit of the term “armed forces”? Will it, for example, cover the support staff, engineers and technicians who support our armed forces? Let us take as an example the base at Akrotiri. How many of the people working on that base will be covered by the Bill?

Jonathan Lord: It is my understanding that all those serving in the armed forces will come under the aegis of the Bill, but they will have to be members of the armed forces; it will not cover a local cook or a local cleaner supporting a barracks.

Harriett Baldwin: Will my hon. Friend clarify whether the Bill will cover members of the Army Reserve?

Jonathan Lord: My understanding is that it would cover such people, but I look to the Minister to give us a little more clarification on that point. The key thing is that a person will have to be serving in our armed forces to be covered. It is my understanding that Army reservists are very much a part of our armed forces. I have to say, however, that we would be unlikely to find foreign or Commonwealth citizens serving in our reserve forces. They tend to join the full armed forces, rather than the reserves. It is a full-time vocation and a full-time job, and we want to recognise their hard work and dedication.

Sir Edward Leigh: Will my hon. Friend clarify what will happen when the Bill has become an Act? Someone will have to have been a fully fledged member of the armed forces for five years, but it will not matter where they were during the five years before they apply for naturalisation. Will they, at that point, have an automatic right to become a British citizen unless they have misbehaved? I am sure that that is right, but I was unable to find that fact in the Library.

Jonathan Lord: At that point, the person would follow the normal naturalisation process for citizenship. The key point is that a member of the armed services will be able to apply even if they have been posted abroad.

Sir Edward Leigh: I presume, though, that once they have done their five years and applied for naturalisation, they will pretty much have an absolute right to become a British citizen. Has my hon. Friend discussed this interesting point with the Minister?

Jonathan Lord: I have a large amount of notes relating to the naturalisation process and all the disqualifications that could block the path to British citizenship of a member of the armed forces. Factors such as dishonourable discharge and criminality could lead to disqualification, along with all the other kinds of things that one would expect a potential citizen of this country to be judged on, whether they were a soldier or a civilian.

Guy Opperman: The key point is that time spent overseas has placed people at a disadvantage. The new legislation could well apply to some of those at the barracks at Albemarle in Northumberland. The regiment that is now stationed there is moving to another part of the country, and a new regiment is coming in from Germany. Some members of that regiment could be covered by the Bill. The time that they have spent overseas is the key factor.

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Jonathan Lord: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for bringing us back to the key point of the Bill with a good local example of how it will work.

The Minister for Immigration (Mr Mark Harper): I should like to assist the House on the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh). I ask him to hold on to the thought about naturalisation requirements, because I shall touch on them in my remarks at the end of the debate. I shall clarify how the current rules work, and how we expect them to work in the future. I hope that that will be helpful.

Jonathan Lord: We look forward to hearing the Minister later.

Margot James: I am sorry to bring my hon. Friend back to the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh), but I wonder what his view is of another anomaly in the same area. If a member of the armed forces seeking British citizenship had contravened the law while in the service of our country but not in a way that would even have merited a police caution if the offence had been committed in civil society, that would be a ground for refusal. Does he agree that that seems rather unfair?

Jonathan Lord: I hesitate to use up all our available time discussing the regulations. As I have said, I have notes on the naturalisation routes to citizenship for ordinary civilians and for armed services personnel. The clear intention of the Home Office and our immigration services is to ensure that there is a level playing field, and that the armed services are not disadvantaged in relation to civilians. I believe that that is what the House would like to see. Of course, cases of dishonourable discharge or criminality would count against a member of the armed forces, just as breaking the law would disadvantage a civilian seeking to become a citizen of this country. The same rules will apply regarding the amount of money a person will need to earn in order to support himself, and his wife and his family if he has one. Those rules will be the same for armed services personnel as for civilians from a foreign or Commonwealth background. I hope that that reassures my hon. Friend. The Home Office and our immigration services take a fair-handed view in this regard, but the major anomaly in the British Nationality Act 1981 has to be put right.

Mel Stride: Is it not significant that when someone applying for naturalisation has not previously fallen foul of the anomaly in the 1981 Act, the public and Parliament have not generally been overly vexed by the rules? My hon. Friend’s Bill will simply bring those who do fall foul of the anomaly into line with those who do not, so the new arrangements will presumably be acceptable, as they are already acceptable as currently applied to others.

Jonathan Lord: I largely accept that point. The important thing is to ensure that our armed services personnel are not disadvantaged. I am sure that previous armed forces personnel have been able to apply, but it has taken them longer than the armed forces personnel who were situated in the UK during the relevant part of their service five years before, or indeed than others living in this country

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who were not serving in the armed forces. It is quite wrong for armed service personnel to be disadvantaged in that way.

Although the Bill has a rather grandiose title—the Citizenship (Armed Forces) Bill—which might initially have led Members to think that I was proposing some grand and far-reaching changes to the citizenship or nationality regulations for members of the armed forces, I hope that it is now clear that my intentions are far humbler. This is a small but sensible Bill.

Margot James: I think my hon. Friend is being too modest. Although the changes are narrow in scope and in terms of the number of people affected, these provisions will directly affect, as I think my hon. Friend mentioned, some 200 serving members of our armed forces and their families. For those individuals, I would suggest, the changes that my hon. Friend is proposing are indeed far ranging and far reaching.

Jonathan Lord: I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention, with which I of course agree absolutely. For those families affected—my hon. Friend is absolutely right that 200 is a realistic estimate—this Bill will make all the difference in the world. While we in this mother of Parliaments are incredibly proud to serve our constituents, the reason many people want to serve in our armed forces is that they know that this country has, over many years, served the cause of decency, democracy and the rule of law. If they are willing to put their lives on the line for this country and all that it stands for, I am sure that they would be equally proud, as my hon. Friend the Member for Central Devon (Mel Stride) said, of the day on which they and their families took British citizenship.

Guy Opperman: Following what my hon. Friend the Member for Stourbridge (Margot James) said, does my hon. Friend agree that it is not just a matter of the families? Most of the soldiers I meet and talk to in the barracks in my constituency say that their true loyalty is not just to their family, but to the regiment and their battalion. I suggest that from the Army point of view, this is about not just the individual soldier and his family, but about the corps of the battalion and an individual soldier who is not a British citizen feeling part of the unit. Does my hon. Friend agree?

Jonathan Lord: Yes, absolutely. The regiment, the battalion and the way in which our armed forces tend to be arranged into smaller units, many of which have a distinguished history behind them and a wonderful record of service ahead of them, are all very important. That should make us reflect on how the relevant armed service personnel must think when they fill out a form and find out that they are disadvantaged because they were posted abroad five years ago in the service of their regiment or battalion. The whole ethos of this country, the battalion, the regiment and unit goes out of the window the moment these people put pen to paper on that form and realise that, by a quirk of bureaucracy and a small defect in the British Nationality Act 1981, they are at a disadvantage by comparison with other service personnel who served here or, indeed, any other ordinary citizens with a foreign or Commonwealth

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background who are able to go through the process of naturalisation and citizenship. What a terrible shock that must be for those people and their families.

Mel Stride: The terrible shock to which my hon. Friend refers is presumably exacerbated when someone who was away five years to the day prior to making an application was actually on the front line overseas, perhaps fighting in extremely dangerous circumstances and laying their life on the line at a time when others who are not caught by this anomaly in the 1981 Act might have been back here in the UK in far safer and more desirable circumstances.

Jonathan Lord: I could not agree more with my hon. Friend. That is the key point to which this House needs to address itself. What my hon. Friend describes would be a travesty, and I am sure that it has happened to service personnel posted abroad. I read out the example of the overseas service of soldiers from 1st Battalion the Welsh Guards, who will shortly be based in my constituency. As I said, they have seen service overseas in Bosnia, Afghanistan and in many other conflict zones. It is quite invidious that when it comes to their path to citizenship, they should be penalised for their service in such dangerous territories at such difficult times.

Mr Chope: My hon. Friend describes a situation in which it seems as if almost everybody in the Welsh Guards is a foreigner. Surely we are talking about very small numbers of people. At a time when our armed forces are being reduced in number and it is becoming more difficult for people to get into the armed forces, should not the policy of the Government be to ensure, as far as possible, that British people rather than foreign people join our armed forces?

Jonathan Lord: My hon. Friend makes an interesting point. There are more than 9,000 foreign and Commonwealth personnel in our armed forces. A little later in my speech, I shall go into more detail about some of the nationalities that the Bill is most likely to affect. I think it important for young British men and women to see the merits of serving their country, and I would certainly encourage them to sign up, but I would also say that some of our bravest and best soldiers in the past have been from the Commonwealth or even occasionally from non-Commonwealth foreign countries.

I recently attended a morning of prayer at the Muslim burial grounds in my constituency. This event was for soldiers from India who had served in the first world war, when the Germans had put around the rumour that if those people were killed in battle, they would not receive a proper burial. In my constituency it was clear even that long ago that there were brave men and women of what later came to be called Commonwealth origin fighting just as hard on European battlefields for Queen and country, democracy and the rule of law and against aggression as we have seen in more recent years. Clearly, this history and tradition of service in our armed forces of foreign and Commonwealth personnel goes back a long way, and I do not think that our Army should discriminate unduly against these incredible young men and women from overseas who want to carry on that tradition. As I shall explain later, it is mainly just a

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few nationalities that have had this wonderful tradition of serving in our armed forces so gallantly in the past. I see no reason why they should not continue to do so equally gallantly in the future.

Margot James: My hon. Friend has covered the point I intended to make, but does he agree that, during the second world war, were it not for the efforts of Commonwealth members of the armed forces, who were only too willing to act just as he describes, this country would have been in a sorry mess? My father served for three and a half years in India during the second world war, and he knew that fellow armed service personnel from India were crucial to our endeavours. It is also the case that many other ancillary staff who supported British troops in India made a valuable contribution to our war effort.

Jonathan Lord: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that excellent point. I entirely agree about the contribution of foreign and Commonwealth soldiers to our armed forces—not only in the second world war as she mentions, but in the first world war. In all major military endeavours between those times and since, such soldiers, with close links to this country—and, indeed, the ancillary staff without which no army, air force or ship goes into battle—have made a very important contribution. I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for her point.

It was Claudius, the first Roman emperor to be born outside Italy, who introduced Roman citizenship for the retiring auxiliary soldier and all his children. In exchange for 25 years of honourable service, a veteran was given a double-sided bronze plaque, which granted him citizenship and a few other particular privileges, such as the right to marry—I will not go into recent issues relating to marriage in detail today; I suspect that in Roman times that meant traditional marriage.

Our immigration laws today are modelled on very different principles, and rightly so. There is no automatic right to citizenship from service in the armed forces. It is right and fair that cases should be looked at on their individual merits, but we can certainly all agree that military service should not be grounds for disadvantage in this process. There is an important principle at stake: when soldiers have risked their lives serving in the British armed forces abroad, no member of the armed forces family should be at any disadvantage in the provision of public or commercial services, or in the eyes of the law, especially not with regard to citizenship. That is what is enshrined in our armed forces covenant, and that is what the Bill seeks to do with regard to the path to citizenship. No soldier or former soldier should be penalised when applying for citizenship because they have been serving our country abroad.

There is currently a requirement that applicants for UK citizenship must have been in the UK on the date five years before an application for naturalisation. That requirement disadvantages a member of Her Majesty’s armed forces who was on an overseas posting at the relevant time. There is already a provision to waive the requirement in Crown service cases—which would include service in Her Majesty’s forces—but that applies only to those who are still in service and still overseas when they apply, and in practice it is applied only on an exceptional basis.

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Harriett Baldwin: Will my hon. Friend clarify the territorial extent of the legislation, which the Bill refers to as England and Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland, the Channel Islands, the Isle of Man and—there is a list of these—the British overseas territories? Is it the intention that those are the places where the applicant might want to settle and naturalise—I assume that they are not the places where the applicant might have to be serving in the armed forces? What does he mean by the territorial extent of the Bill?

Jonathan Lord: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that query. I can confirm that those are the places where the person might wish to naturalise. The service overseas can be anywhere on the planet—and beyond, were we ever to get involved in star wars.

Mel Stride: My hon. Friend is making a powerful case for the Bill. On a narrow point, will he confirm that the benefits and rights conferred by British citizenship in these cases would be exactly the same as those for all naturalised individuals who gain citizenship, whether or not they are members of the armed forces?

Jonathan Lord: Yes, that is essentially the case, although I hope that when the Home Office or immigration officials look at a case, if it is one that is on the borderline of the path to citizenship, they will look kindly on service in our armed forces, because it is a noble calling that should be recognised as part of the process.

Mel Stride: In the same spirit of looking kindly at such circumstances, does my hon. Friend not feel that where an individual had fallen foul of the anomaly in the 1981 Act previously, and had failed in their first application for that reason, the authorities might look more kindly on the second application as a consequence?

Jonathan Lord: I feel sure that that will indeed be the case.

The Bill will also cover members and former members of Her Majesty’s forces who subsequently have been discharged and/or have returned to the UK.

Harriett Baldwin: If my hon. Friend will forgive me for returning to the issue I raised earlier on the British overseas territories, there is a special case, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope) has referred, for the sovereign bases at Akrotiri and Dhekelia, which are classified as British dependent territories but are not counted as qualifying territories for nationality purposes. Will those two sovereign bases be included in the territorial extent of the legislation?

Jonathan Lord: I am happy to tell my hon. Friend that they would indeed be included, and I am grateful to her for raising that point.

It cannot be fair that a regular civilian or a solider who has been based in the UK can successfully apply for residency but a soldier who was serving in Afghanistan, or a member of the Royal Air Force or the Royal Navy who was posted overseas five years before his or her application, cannot successfully apply for residency.

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Every day that members of the services have spent abroad should have the same value in the eyes of the immigration authorities as a day spent in the UK.

Guy Opperman: Is this not all part of what the armed forces covenant is about? It is about a situation existing for servicemen and women in which they are not treated differently from ordinary citizens in this country.

Jonathan Lord: That is the clear thrust of the Bill and the debate today. I hope that all Members listening will take that point on board and come to the ineluctable conclusion that what the Bill proposes is only fair.

In answer to a question asked earlier, the main nationalities that are likely to benefit from this measure will be Fijian, Jamaican, South African, Zimbabwean and Ghanaian, since they are the main foreign and Commonwealth nationals represented in Her Majesty’s armed forces. I am pleased to say that, in addition, Nepalese nationals who have served in the Brigade of Gurkhas will also benefit. Although Gurkhas are required to remain citizens of Nepal while serving in the Brigade of Gurkhas, those seeking naturalisation following discharge will fall within the scope of the new provision. I hope that in addition to the military and veterans’ charities that I have mentioned, that national icon, Joanna Lumley, will also look favourably on the Bill, and on the House if it decides to pass it.

The measures in the Bill will correct an unfairness that Parliament committed to resolve when it enshrined the armed forces covenant in law. I hope that, with the approval of Members, the Bill will send out a further signal to those servicemen and women who hold a UK passport, and to those who do not, that the public and their representatives in this House are on their side and working to ensure that they are treated with the respect and dignity that their hard work, dedication and sacrifices deserve. I commend the Bill to the House.

10.49 am

Sir Edward Leigh (Gainsborough) (Con): May I say what a pleasure it is to speak on this calm Friday morning, and what a pleasurable experience it is to see law being made and properly scrutinised? May I also say to my hon. Friend the Member for Woking (Jonathan Lord)—I know that this is his first Parliament—that I thought his speech was outstanding. He took many interventions, and batted them all away very deftly. He has clearly done a huge amount of research. I commend him for what he has done, and also for his choice of Bill.

It is very difficult to get a private Member’s Bill through, and I see nothing wrong with trying to persuade everyone to agree to it before it arrives on the Floor of the House. There is nothing wrong with co-operating with the Government in that sense, or indeed with the Opposition. My hon. Friend’s Bill is a very delicate creature, and it would take very few Members of Parliament to kill it. However, I have no doubt that it will become law, so I say well done to him.

The Bill is important because it is entirely in tune with the armed forces covenant. Although when I was studying it in the Library my first impression was that it was very narrow, I see nothing wrong with that. Private Members' Bills have to be narrow. In fact, this Bill goes to the heart of current public debate: the armed forces

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are centre stage at present, and the Government have rightly made a great virtue of the armed forces covenant. Any ludicrous bureaucratic mechanism that disadvantages the forces is rightly resented by the Veterans Association. This is a good Bill, and I am sure that it will be an excellent Act.

Mel Stride: My hon. Friend is a learned and long-established Member of Parliament. I wonder whether he will attempt to answer a question that has been niggling away at the back of my mind. It seems to me that the anomaly in the 1981 Act is an absolute absurdity. Why does my hon. Friend think that it occurred in the first place? Was it an unintended consequence of some part of the legislation? Was the aim to achieve something that we have missed here? Or was it simply an oversight that should never have occurred?

Sir Edward Leigh: The short answer is that I do not know, but the Minister is sitting here, and no doubt he does know. What I will say is that although the private Member’s Bill procedure is often criticised, private Members' Bills are in fact scrutinised much more closely than Government Bills. The British Nationality Act was a large and important measure, but I am not a great believer in the conspiracy theory of history. I do not think that anyone in the Home Office wanted to disadvantage the armed forces. I am a believer in the cock-up theory of history, and if my hon. Friend wants my honest opinion, I think that that anomaly was simply a cock-up. Now it is being righted. That is what this procedure is all about.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Woking said, it is not right that the applications of people who put their lives on the line should be refused when the very reason for their absence is that we, the British Government—we, the British people—sent them overseas to protect our country. Why the anomaly arose I do not know, but it seems absurd to me, and that is why I think that the Bill, although narrow, is important.

The Minister has said:

“Making this change was a priority commitment under the Armed Forces Covenant. I am delighted to support this Bill which will ensure service men and women are not disadvantaged.”

So the Minister is on side. As has been mentioned, Veterans Aid is also on side, and put it very well when it said:

“Veterans Aid, more than any other military charity, has championed the cause of Foreign and Commonwealth servicemen and women, disadvantaged, through no fault of their own, by bureaucracy that is demonstrably at odds with the Military Covenant.”

The Army Families Federation has said:

“This legislation will make a big difference to the many soldiers and their spouses who are currently prohibited from applying for Citizenship because they were serving overseas or were on operations at the start the 5-year residential period.”

So this is clearly an important Bill, and it is clearly widely supported.

This Second Reading debate offers us an opportunity to try to tease out more information from the Minister about exactly how many people will be affected, how much further we can go in terms of the military covenant, and how we can improve morale and recruitment. A considerable number of people will potentially be involved. As of 1 April last year, 8,510 of the 166,110 members of the trained UK regular forces were non-British, constituting

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approximately 5.1% of our nation’s armed forces. That is quite a lot. It would be interesting to hear from the Minister whether he thinks that it is the right number, and what is the Government’s policy on recruitment.

I am not sure that I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope), who intimated earlier that perhaps there were too many foreign nationals serving in our forces. The Minister, who is far more knowledgeable than me, will be able to confirm or correct that, but I suspect that the 5.1% figure is fairly constant. It seems a reasonably healthy percentage, but one would not want it to rise too far. It is important, particularly in times of economic difficulty and high unemployment, for our armed forces to consist overwhelmingly of British citizens.

Of those 8,510 forces, about 520 were Nepalese, and nearly 8,000 were citizens of the Republic of Ireland or Commonwealth countries. About 4.5% of the armed forces intake at the end of 2011 consisted of black and ethnic minority personnel. I may be wrong about this, but according to my research, there are currently no statistics stating how many non-British members of the UK regular forces currently desire to gain British citizenship. I suspect that the number is relatively low. My hon. Friend the Member for Woking mentioned a figure, but I do not know where he found it. Even if the number who will be affected is only in the low hundreds, I do not think that that necessarily means that the Bill is unimportant. It is the principle, rather than the number involved, that is important.

Guy Opperman: Is there not a distinction between the total number of overseas personnel in the armed forces and the number who are affected by the anomaly of the five-year rule, which by any standard is a much smaller number?

Sir Edward Leigh: Of course. That is an obvious point.

I should like to hear a bit more from the Minister about the armed forces covenant. The covenant states that the Government’s aspiration is that no armed forces personnel be disadvantaged in “dealings with wider society”. Those are the Government’s words, and I think that they are rather vague, but they could extend to applications for British citizenship. Clearly, what we are doing today is entirely in accord with the covenant. Although the issue with which we are dealing is important, it covers quite a small area. What do the Government mean when they say that armed forces personnel should not be disadvantaged in “dealings with wider society”?

The covenant also refers to the Government aim of removing any social or economic inequalities between them and other citizens. It would be interesting to hear from the Minister whether there are any other bureaucratic anomalies in regard to either recruitment or citizenship which still need to be addressed under the armed forces covenant. I suspect that what we are doing today will not be enough for the Veterans Association. It will be happy with it—indeed, it has already welcomed the Bill—but it will, quite rightly, ask for more.

What is the Government’s aim? What obstacles do they feel that they should remove in order to get rid of any inequalities between our armed forces and other citizens? I also wonder whether the aim of the Bill is undermined by the fact that the families of members of

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the armed forces would have to apply for naturalisation via the normal and potentially lengthy methods. I have tried to study that, and my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch asked a good question about it earlier. We want to know how far this will extend. What exactly are we talking about, therefore?

Mention was made of cleaners. Those who clean also serve their country. Families are very important, too. My point is that the armed forces community is just as important as armed forces personnel. Does this anomaly not ignore the Government’s commitments in the covenant to the armed forces community, rather than simply to armed forces personnel? The Minister has many questions to answer, but he is a very capable Minister so I am sure he will address them comprehensively.

The levels of support available in the covenant to the families of armed forces personnel extend to

“positive measures to prevent disadvantage.”

What exactly does that mean? What further proposals will the Government make? As my hon. Friend the Member for Central Devon (Mel Stride) said, our armed forces are paid well but not over-paid and their accommodation is good but in some cases it is not over-good, and there are many other areas where our armed forces feel they are disadvantaged.

Families of non-British service personnel can be based overseas, potentially causing problems in their desire for UK citizenship. The Gurkhas, for instance, have bases in Nepal and Brunei. There are, however, already institutions such as the Gurkha settlement office which provide positive support for individuals wishing to apply for a visa or indefinite leave to remain in the UK. The existence of those institutions could be interpreted as fulfilling the Government’s commitment to minimise the impacts of such irritants on military life, but I suspect there are many irritants for our armed forces personnel which the Government still need to address. The measures we are addressing this morning are only a very small part of that.

Guy Opperman: I appreciate entirely the point my hon. Friend is making, but the implementation of the armed forces covenant is an ongoing process addressing many different aspects. The armed forces covenant annual report, a copy of which I am holding, is some hundred pages long and addresses a multitude of different issues, of which this is, I accept, a solitary one. Does my hon. Friend agree that there is a process of slow, incremental progress on a number of issues?

Sir Edward Leigh: Of course. We all know that the task facing the Minister is extremely difficult and it is better to make a small step than no step at all, but I think the question still needs to be asked. What we are talking about today is just getting rid of one very small little irritant. You are the expert on order, Mr Speaker, and I am not an expert on it, but it seems to me that this Second Reading debate gives us an opportunity to get more out of the Government on how they are trying to increase recruitment and other interesting issues. On other days, there is often not time to get adequate answers.

Let us talk about the British Nationality Act 1981.

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Mel Stride rose

Sir Edward Leigh: I give way to my hon. Friend, who is an expert.

Mel Stride: I thank my hon. Friend for giving way and for his very gracious and, if I may say so, rather perceptive remark. Does not the fact that the anomaly that we are addressing today has now come to the Floor of the House, raised in a private Member’s Bill by my hon. Friend the Member for Woking (Jonathan Lord), mean that it has ceased to be a small matter? Instead it has become rather totemic, which is all the more reason why we should make sure the Bill has a safe passage through this House.

Sir Edward Leigh: On Friday mornings, Members of Parliament naturally have many other things to do in their constituencies and we therefore all accept that the Chamber is not swarming with Members, but there are many people outside watching this debate on television, including many in the armed forces, and they will see this as totemic and they will be looking at Members of Parliament doing their best to try to get rid of the little irritants of service life one by one. I therefore think what we are doing today is important and should not be underestimated.

I was in the House during the passage of the 1981 Act, but I do not have any close recollection of its passage; after all, there have been so many Acts of Parliament over the years. Clearly, however, something went wrong with it in respect of the issue we are addressing. It specifies certain residence requirements for naturalisation for British citizenship. It states that one requirement is that the applicant

“was in the United Kingdom at the beginning of the period of five years ending with the date of the application”.

That would seem to be entirely sensible.

Can the Minister also explain the thinking behind other requirements? My hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope) mentioned one of his constituents who was married to an English person and has been disadvantaged by this Act. It is not only service personnel who are disadvantaged. Will the Minister take this opportunity to explain the thinking behind this provision and others?

The Act also specifies the number of days the applicant is allowed to be absent during the five-year qualifying period. The Act gives the Secretary of State the power to waive some of the residence requirements if there are “special circumstances”, however. This discretion is applied in applications involving non-British members of the armed forces. Time spent serving in the UK or overseas can count towards the qualifying residence period. However, it does not permit the Secretary of State to waive the requirement to be physically present in the UK on the first day of the qualifying period ending with the date of the application. One must assume that, contrary to what my hon. Friend the Member for Central Devon said, there was some rationale behind that. Given that the Secretary of State appears to have quite wide discretion, I am interested to know why no discretion was given in this particular case.

Harriett Baldwin: As my hon. Friend was in the House when the 1981 Act was passed, can he remember the territorial extent of that legislation? I ask that

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because I am a little confused as the territorial extent covered under the Bill includes the British overseas territories, which would potentially mean someone living in the overseas territories could apply for UK citizenship from their location.

Sir Edward Leigh: You, Mr Speaker, must have immediately spotted this: I am sorry, but I misspoke as my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch and I only arrived in the House in 1983. We have been here so long, and sometimes old men forget. We are not responsible for this Act, therefore, so that question will have to go to the Minister, and I am very happy to pass it on to him.

Mr Chope: Is not the implication of this that somebody who has not set foot in this country for five years will be able to become a naturalised citizen? Is that the purpose of this Bill?

Sir Edward Leigh: The Bill’s promoter is unavoidably absent from the Chamber for a few moments, but he will have to answer that question. My understanding, however, is that the answer is yes. We are creating a special dispensation today because we say, “Surely if someone has served their country for five years, they should not be disadvantaged in getting British citizenship just because they have been serving in Afghanistan or elsewhere.” That may be a controversial statement but what greater qualification is there to become a citizen of a country than to have served that country?

All armies in history have done that. The quickest and best way to become a citizen of the Roman empire was to join a Roman legion, and there was very good thinking behind that. I do not think we should be in a different position, but, again, this is for the Minister to answer. I am still not clear, however, not only about exactly how many people will be involved, but whether, if this Bill becomes law and the 1981 Act is still in place, someone who has joined the armed forces, behaved well and served for five years but has never set foot in this country will pretty well have an automatic right to become a British citizen. They will have to go through the normal processes, of course, but is that the thinking? I am not sure whether I have had an answer to that yet. I know some people watching this debate may not agree with that, but I just ask the question—I am not sure I have an answer myself. Are we now moving to a situation where someone who joins the British forces, serves overseas all that time and never sets foot in this country can become British citizen? Will the Minister please make a particular note of that question and answer it.

I ask that because the 1981 Act requires that

“on the date of the application he is serving outside the United Kingdom in Crown service”.

No minimum period of service is specified, nor is there any requirement to be present in the UK at any particular time. However, those who are not overseas or not still in service at the time of applying for naturalisation cannot benefit from the provision. These are all technical but important points.

The provisions made in the 1981 Act are, however, used sparingly, as we know. Home Office guidance sets out that criteria such as rank and quality of service should be considered when assessing applications. Quality of service is of key importance in the assessment, with

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applications that do not satisfy on that ground being unlikely to be accepted, regardless of whether they satisfy statutory requirements.

The amendments made by the Borders, Citizenship and Immigration Act 2009 give the Secretary of State discretion to waive all residential requirements where

“a particular case…is an armed forces case”,

where the applicant was a member of the armed forces on the date of the application. That does not, however, cater for individuals who have left the armed forces. I have said enough to reveal that these are complex legal areas that need to be tidied up.

Before I sit down, I wish to make a more general point about the armed forces, a subject in which I take a great interest as chairman of the Conservative party’s Back-Bench defence and foreign affairs committee. I hope that you will forgive me, Mr Speaker, if I use this opportunity to say that I am worried about the number of personnel in our armed forces and what is happening to our armed forces. I am now ranging a bit wide of the narrow point we are discussing. It has been a turbulent time in the Ministry of Defence, with a report due on the Defence Reform Bill at the end of October. A budget cut of 1.9% for 2015 will add to the large-scale cuts that have already been taking place, including recent reductions in the number of senior military officers. Many critics have voiced fears that such reductions could leave the UK with a smaller than adequate armed service.

Mr Speaker: Order. This is exceptionally cheeky on the part of the hon. Gentleman, and I feel sure, given the puckish grin on his face, that he is entirely conscious of the fact. If he wishes to air his concerns on this matter, he needs constantly to bear in mind the word “recruitment”.

Sir Edward Leigh: I know I was being cheeky, Mr Speaker, but I could not resist the opportunity to try to expound on what is happening to our armed forces. I will not say any more about total defence spending, but, on personnel, I will make the following point. As of 2012, there were 750 non-UK citizens serving in the Royal Navy, which is relatively few of the 33,190 trained personnel; 7,640 non-UK citizens were serving in the Army, out of a total of 94,000 trained personnel; and only 120 non-UK citizens were serving in the Royal Air Force, which is a very small proportion of the 38,000. Intake of black and minority ethnic personnel at the higher levels of the UK regular forces is incredibly low, with only 20 officers joining in 2011 out of a total of 1,070. In the context of the wider armed forces debate, this is an opportunity for the Minister to talk about recruitment and his policy on attracting—or not attracting—people from Commonwealth countries to join the armed forces.

I also hope that the Minister will say a bit about that context and how the Bill will affect the immigration debate in total. I suspect that that is what lay behind the interventions made by my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch. Granting of UK citizenship in the year ending June 2013 was at a five-year high, with 204,541 applications having been accepted, with the figure having risen steadily to an average of an extra 7,000 successful applications a year. I know that the Minister cannot give too wide a discourse on the whole immigration debate, but it is important that we reassure people

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watching this debate that we are very conscious of not only the need to remove discrimination against the armed forces, but the wider immigration debate in this country. There has to be a balance.

Mr Chope: Will my hon. Friend comment on the concern, which I certainly have, that one of the perverse consequence of this legislation might be to encourage the armed forces to do more overseas and foreign recruiting, rather than concentrating on trying to recruit at home? We know that it is difficult to recruit reservists at the moment—the Government are hard up against the issue of how they will meet the target on reservists—but it seems that this could be an agenda whereby we will fill our armed forces with people from overseas instead of from our own country.

Sir Edward Leigh: As is often the case, my hon. Friend makes an intervention that just needs to be answered; we do need to reassure people. We value tremendously the men and women who are not UK citizens but who serve in our armed forces, with the Gurkhas being the most famous case, but he is making a fair point. I hope that the Minister will reassure my hon. Friend, me and those watching this debate that nothing in the Bill encompasses an attitude of, “It is difficult to recruit here in the UK and therefore the proportion of non-UK citizens serving in our armed forces is going to have to rise.” I suspect that my constituents would not necessarily welcome such a position. That is not to make any criticism of those serving or to disagree in any way, shape or form about the huge sacrifices made in the past century—mention has been made of the first world war—but I know that the Minister will understand the point being made in that intervention and will want to reply to it.

Let us leave aside those wider worries about the level of recruitment in the armed forces and the wider debate about concerns about the level of immigration into this country. The year ending June 2013 did see a 14% rise in the number of non-British persons granted citizenship compared with the same period for the previous year.

Harriett Baldwin: Does my hon. Friend think it would be appropriate, when targeting net migration to this country, for the Government to make it clear how many of those who do come here are former members of our armed forces?

Sir Edward Leigh: That is a good point, and I think I may end on it, as it allows me to sum up what I have been trying to say. There is concern about immigration into this country, but I am sure that the Minister can reassure us that the numbers we are talking about in this Bill are very small. Not only that, but the people involved have served our country and they are at a unique disadvantage. This modest but correct Bill will deal with that disadvantage, so I join my hon. Friend the Member for Woking in commending it to the House.

11.17 am

Harriett Baldwin (West Worcestershire) (Con): I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Woking (Jonathan Lord) on introducing this excellent private

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Member’s Bill. I am delighted to be here to speak in support of it, just as he was kind enough to be here to support my private Member’s Bill. The Minister, who is my neighbour, as he represents Forest of Dean, was also in the Chamber that day. Since then, he has been promoted to his current role, so I hope that the fact he is sitting on the Front Bench today augurs well for the Bill.

The Bill is an extremely worthwhile piece of legislation, but, as we were just hearing from my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh), it is incredibly important that we scrutinise these pieces of legislation in great detail. Although the Bill appears short, containing few clauses, my scrutiny of it has found that it raises many questions in this important area, on which I seek the Minister’s clarification. I wish to ask him about the time an individual is required to spend, and where they are required to spend it, before the process of naturalisation can begin. I want to explore the Secretary of State’s discretion in these matters, which is clearly outlined in the Bill, and to ask the Minister further questions about the territorial extent clause. I also want to clarify whether the naturalisation provisions added to our general citizenship legislation since the 1981 Act—specifically the requirement to pass a citizenship test and how the test has been changed—would continue to apply in this case. Given that this is a Second Reading debate, I hope that you will regard all those areas of questioning as in order, Mr Speaker.

As I understand it, the provisions on timing relate only to the starting point of the application for naturalisation. As things stand at the moment, the individual making the application needs to be in the United Kingdom at the point at which the clock starts ticking for the five-year period. I would like that clarified.

I also want clarification on the territorial extent of the Bill. My interpretation is that clause 2(3) would extend the Bill to England and Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, which all seems very logical, but also to the Channel Islands, the Isle of Man and the British overseas territories. It is on the British overseas territories that my questions begin to multiply. It is worth putting it in Hansard that they are Anguilla, Bermuda, the British Antarctic Territory, the British Indian Ocean Territory, the Cayman Islands, the Falkland Islands and its dependencies, Gibraltar of course, Montserrat, Pitcairn, Henderson, Ducie and Oeno Islands, St Helena and its dependencies, the sovereign base areas of Akrotiri and Dhekelia, the Turks and Caicos Islands, and the British Virgin Islands.

Guy Opperman: On the 300th anniversary of the treaty of Utrecht, my hon. Friend has mentioned Gibraltar. She may recall that it was taken under British command, but with the aid of Dutch and Austrian troops.

Harriett Baldwin: The question is whether those troops settled in Gibraltar and what the rules were for their naturalisation as British citizens prior to 1981. I can honestly say that I do not have the faintest clue, but that is an interesting historical point.

I was evacuated to the British sovereign base of Dhekelia as a child when, as a British citizen, I was growing up in Cyprus. We were living in Nicosia at the time, and we were often under threat of invasion by Turkish forces. I remember being evacuated to Dhekelia,

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and feeling incredibly safe and secure there, on British sovereign territory. My father, however, had to remain behind in Nicosia to do his job. He put a Union flag on the roof of our house, and we sincerely hoped that the Turkish air force would be able to spot it from the air should it decide to bomb Nicosia. However, I digress, Mr Speaker.

I am trying to find out how my hypothetical examples would be affected by the Bill. My hon. Friend the Member for Woking told us that the provision would probably apply to a citizen of Fiji. Let us imagine that that citizen of Fiji joins Her Majesty’s armed forces, does exemplary service and decides—I do not know what the residence requirements would be—that he or she wants to remain in the British Indian Ocean Territory. Does the territorial extent of the Bill mean that the first date of the five-year period includes residence in one of the territories I have listed? That is my interpretation.

In relation to the questions asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough, a situation might arise in which, as we heard, a Jamaican citizen who joined our armed forces abroad and served with great courage with them in other parts of the world decides to settle in Gibraltar, or perhaps closer to Jamaica, in the Cayman Islands. From there, could that person apply for naturalisation as a British citizen, without ever having resided in what we might more naturally think of as the United Kingdom? I particularly want clarification on that point. I understand that the 1981 Act requires people to spend five years resident in the UK, but does the territorial extent in the Bill define the UK more widely? I look forward to hearing from the Minister about that.

The first residence requirement in the 1981 Act is that applicants must have been resident in the UK for at least five years, and I am again interested in the Minister clarifying the territorial extent of the United Kingdom in that regard. The second requirement is that they must have been present in the United Kingdom five years before the date of application, which is the provision that we are tackling; the third is that they are free of immigration time restrictions on the date of application; and the fourth is that they are free of immigration restrictions for a period of 12 months before making the application. Will that remain in force when the Bill is passed?

The fifth requirement is that the applicants have not spent more than 450 days outside the United Kingdom during the five-year period. I understand that that is covered by the Secretary of State’s discretion with regards to serving members of the armed forces. The sixth is that they have not spent more than 90 days outside the United Kingdom in the last 12 months of the five-year period. The final requirement is that they have not been in breach of the immigration rules at any stage during the five-year period. Can the Minister confirm that all those aspects of the residency requirements in the 1981 Act will continue to apply, and that the Bill will change only one particular area?

Since the 1981 Act, there has been one major modification to what it takes for someone to be naturalised as a citizen of the United Kingdom. I refer, of course, to the UK citizenship test. I do not know whether you have ever had the chance to see whether you can pass it, Mr Speaker, but in preparation for this debate, I thought that I would see whether I could do so. I looked at some

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sample tests, and I regret to inform the House that in the first sample test I failed to reach the necessary 75% required to pass.

Let me give some examples of questions that I did not answer successfully. I will not put you on the spot, Mr Speaker, although I know you are an encyclopaedically knowledgeable man. The following question stumped me: in which year did married women get the right to divorce their husband? To help the applicant there are four possible answers, and I am happy to take an intervention from anyone who can answer the question correctly. The options are 1837, 1857, 1875 or 1882. I do not know the correct answer, but I know I got it wrong. I am glad to say that I did know that it is not the Prime Minister who calls a by-election and that we have two Chambers in our national Parliament, so I sailed through some of the questions.

Here is another question that I failed miserably to pass: what is the number of children and young people up to the age of 19 in the UK? Again, Mr Speaker, I will help you out, but I will not put you on the spot. I will take interventions from colleagues who know the answer. The four possible answers are 13 million, 14 million, 15 million and 16 million. I failed on that one and I can see that the House has also failed on that measure of citizenship. I was getting rather depressed with my results from the test until I discovered a crucial fact. I compliment my hon. Friend the Minister on any involvement that he may have had in this crucial fact, which is that this Government have now introduced a much more sensible citizenship test. Those examples were taken from the citizenship test that can only be described as a new Labour fantasy about the level of knowledge that we would all have about our country.

I will not go on with further examples of questions that I failed—

Mr Harper: Please do.

Harriett Baldwin: Shall I? In that case, here is another one.

Jonathan Lord: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her support for the Bill. I was pleased to support her in her private Member’s endeavours and it is nice to have that compliment returned. I hope the new citizenship test is much more about our democracy, our history, the rule of law, Magna Carta and so on, rather than how to claim benefits or some of the more esoteric questions that she has just cited.

Harriett Baldwin rose—

Mr Speaker: Order. May I say to the hon. Lady that whatever the insatiable appetite that might or might not exist among colleagues for examples of taxing questions in citizenship tests, it is important to retain the focus on the Bill? I fear that dilating on what she regards as the flaws in an earlier citizenship test takes us some distance from that narrow focus, to which I know she will now return with enthusiasm and accuracy.

Harriett Baldwin: The enthusiasm and the accuracy with which I welcome the Bill are such that I want to hear confirmation from the Minister that any serving member of our armed forces who has settled in any of

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the territories described in the Bill will still have to go through all the aspects of acquisition of citizenship outlined in the 1981 Act, as well as the additional step—the citizenship test brought in since that time.

Jonathan Lord: Does my hon. Friend think that battles that were important to our nation’s past and influenced us over many centuries would be an obvious topic for questions, and ones that our armed services personnel ought to be able to answer? That great history and tradition may be one reason they joined up in the first place.

Harriett Baldwin: My hon. Friend gives an excellent example of why he is so well placed to introduce the Bill. It demonstrates that he understands all the things that we as British citizens consider appropriate ways in which to demonstrate that we understand what it means to be British. If Mr Speaker will bear with me one moment, I shall give an example of the sort of question that used to be in the test, which I do not think was appropriate: how many days in any given year must a school legally be required to be open? Suggested answers are 150 days, 170 days, 190 days and 200 days. Again, I will take interventions from any colleagues who feel confident that they know the answer to that question.

My hon. Friend is right. In bestowing on people the highest gift of citizenship that anyone can have bestowed upon them, which is British citizenship, we want successful individuals to be able to demonstrate that they understand the quintessence of what it means to be British.

Sir Edward Leigh: This is all rather absurd. Can one imagine such a situation when the Emperor Claudius allowed Roman legionnaires to become Roman citizens? There they were, spending five years fighting barbarians on the German frontier, and then they would be required to come back and answer questions about how many days there were in the qualification to become a tribune. All those obscure questions about the constitution are ridiculous. If someone has served their country for five years, surely that is qualification enough, without having to answer absurd questions.

Harriett Baldwin: Perhaps I am about to introduce a note of dissent into our discussions this morning. I think that when we bestow on people that highest honour of citizenship, British citizenship, we expect those who are so proud to take on our citizenship to understand aspects of our history and culture, and to understand the long and distinguished history of our armed forces, for example. That is why I welcome the fact that the citizenship test that this Government have introduced covers much more of the history, the culture and the spirit of democracy that we have in this country, rather than esoteric questions such as from which two places one can obtain advice if one has a problem at work. The possible answers are the national Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service—

Mr Speaker: Order. I think that the point that the test that the Government envisage is in the hon. Lady’s mind preferable to earlier incarnations of it has now been very fully made. What is not legitimate is for the

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hon. Lady, while feigning politeness towards the Chair and acknowledgement of the instructions issued from it, then to proceed to do again precisely what I have indicated to her she should no longer persist in doing. I know that she is so intellectually dextrous that she will now transfer to the present, and we will look forward to the racy and intoxicating character of the remainder of her speech.

Harriett Baldwin: Mr Speaker, I shall have that speech of yours printed and engraved. It is so eloquent that I can only—

Guy Opperman: May I draw my hon. Friend back to the Bill? Surely the point is that this country, whose virtues she is extolling, has a long history of support by overseas troops and forces to win key battles. Waterloo would not have been won without the Prussians, Wellington famously crying, “Where is Blucher?” I presume General Blucher could have applied, were he willing to change from Prussian to British, to become a British citizen.

Harriett Baldwin: My understanding is that he would have had to have been resident in the territories outlined in the Bill for a considerable period of time before applying.

I will bring to a conclusion this line of discussion, but I am pleased to report to the House—you will forgive me, Mr Speaker—that I was able to get 100% on the new citizenship test. I expect that all the people who go through the process will, as a result of these changes, be able to demonstrate not just the narrow technical points that we define on a page in legislation, such as the number of days, but the wider cultural and historical aspects of what it means to be a British citizen.

My next line of questions for the Minister relates to the Secretary of State’s discretion, which I understand is a crucial part of the legislation. That discretion is vital because someone serving in our armed forces might get into trouble with the law, either civilian or military, and might—I am sure that the numbers are very low—have to go through the ignominy of a dishonourable discharge. If a member of the armed forces has been dishonourably discharged, would that almost invariably mean that they would not meet the new criteria for applying for naturalisation? Perhaps the Minister will confirm that from the Dispatch Box.

That former member of the armed forces might have lived a blameless life for many years since, their dishonourable discharge having been some time in the past, so to what extent will the Secretary of State’s discretion be used in that example? Would it be the case that, however much time had elapsed and however honourable the person’s life had been since, the fact that they had been dishonourably discharged would be sufficient to count against their application for naturalisation?

Will the Minister, when he responds, clarify exactly how the Secretary of State’s discretion might be used in other situations? What other aspects of that discretion might be required? For example, if the person had had a magnificent period of service, left the armed forces, lived in one of the overseas dependencies I listed earlier and was then perhaps convicted of rape or murder, would that be something the Secretary of State would

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see automatically as a red line? My understanding is that it would, because being of good character is a requirement.

The other area of discretion I would like clarified relates to the requirement to be able to communicate to an acceptable degree in English, Welsh or Scottish Gaelic. Someone might have exemplary military service and fulfil all the conditions, and they might be one of the people who will be helped by the Bill, because at the beginning of their process of naturalisation they were on active service overseas, but perhaps their command of English, Welsh or Scottish Gaelic is not quite at an acceptable level. To what extent will the Secretary of State be able to use his or her discretion in those circumstances? It is a question of how discretion will be used to define good character. Similarly, how will discretion be used to define the ability to communicate in English, Welsh or Scottish Gaelic?

Jonathan Lord: I am not sure how many Fijians in our armed forces are fluent in Scottish Gaelic, but I suspect not many. Does my hon. Friend think that that would be a handicap to our foreign armed services personnel who come to this country and try to acclimatise to our customs, language and communications?

Harriett Baldwin: I am proud to say that my grandmother spoke Scottish Gaelic fluently.

Mel Stride: Was she Fijian?

Harriett Baldwin: No. As a girl, I learned to say, “An t-Eilean Muileach, an t-eilean àghmhor”, which means, “The Isle of Mull is of all isles the fairest”, because my grandmother’s heritage was from the Isle of Mull. However, I think that the discretion will probably be more concerned with the command of English.

Will the Secretary of State’s discretion be needed—perhaps the Minister will clarify this—in relation to the characteristics of being of sound mind? That is an extremely important point, because sadly people who have served in our armed forces can suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. The Secretary of State might feel that it was appropriate to use discretion in relation to soundness of mind on compassionate grounds, perhaps for someone who has given great service to our armed forces and been helped by the Bill because they were not in the United Kingdom at the beginning of the five-year period because they were serving Her Majesty in our armed forces and might be suffering as a direct result of that active service. To what extent could the discretion be used in schedule 1 to the 1981 Act in relation to the applicant’s soundness of mind? We as a society are making enormous progress on tackling the stigma associated with mental illness. Indeed, the stigma that attaches to a Member of Parliament in relation to their mental capacity is something that this House has discussed at length during this Parliament. I want to see a great deal of progress on this in our society so that we accept that one of the consequences of time served in our armed forces may be post-traumatic stress that requires the Secretary of State to be more understanding in his or her use of discretion as regards this aspect of schedule 1.

Those are some of the questions that I look forward to hearing the Minister deal with. I join the whole House in commending my hon. Friend the Member for

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Woking for having introduced a really exemplary piece of private Members’ legislation. He has identified an issue, worked with the armed forces charities on how we can resolve it for members of our armed forces who are on active service when they want to start their application for citizenship, and realised that the most expeditious way to do so is to introduce this Bill. I look forward to voting for its Second Reading.

11.50 am

Mel Stride (Central Devon) (Con): It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for West Worcestershire (Harriett Baldwin), who was indeed, as the Speaker suggested, both racy and intoxicating in her comments. I almost feel as though I will need a cold shower when I leave the Chamber after this debate. She was also extremely comprehensive in dealing with all the various detailed elements and issues that arise from the Bill—so much so that she has covered almost all the points that I was likely to make. However, I will make one or two none the less.

Before I do so, I join colleagues in congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Woking (Jonathan Lord) on introducing this extremely important Bill. Many Members will be aware that this is not the first time he has introduced a private Member’s Bill; he is very lucky in the ballot and has been so this time as well. It was a great privilege and honour for me to serve with him on the Committee that considered the Bill that successfully passed through this House and became the Sports Ground Safety Authority Act 2011. I have every confidence that this Bill, not just because of its merits but because of the diligence and skill with which he presents Bills, will pass through the House. It is extremely important that it does so.

I remember as a young man at university in the early part of the 1980s being much affected, as many people were, by the sight of our troops on active service in the Falklands conflict. I well remember some of the tragedies that followed from that conflict. I remember Brian Hanrahan’s extraordinary phrase,

“I counted them all out and I counted them all back.”

Of course, that was a euphemism to provide us with the comfort that our men and women, in those extreme circumstances, were, on that particular occasion, safe and well. That left a deep and lasting impression on me. I have been a member of the Royal British Legion for several years, although I have never had the privilege of serving in our armed forces. I none the less value them immensely. Of course, we also think of our armed forces fighting in other theatres such as Iraq and Afghanistan more recently.

It is therefore incumbent on us, as expressed in the armed forces covenant to which the Government committed themselves in May 2011, to place great emphasis on the very special, unwritten contract between the British people and those who serve us in the armed forces, not only in fighting for us on the front line, often in direct defence of our country and our national interest, but in carrying out their sterling work in promoting peace and humanitarian assistance throughout the world. In that sense, we are talking not just about our own people, in our terms, fighting for our country, but about humanity and the work that our brave men and women do to support humanitarian needs and peace throughout the world.

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Guy Opperman: I endorse entirely my hon. Friend’s comments, but I would go one step further. Although there may be an unwritten contract between the public and the armed forces, the Government have brought in the armed forces covenant and will provide updated reports on its progress and changes to it. Not only do the public have the unwritten contract but we, the public and the state now have the covenant between ourselves and our armed forces.

Mel Stride: I thank my hon. Friend for making that extremely important point. We have the annual report on the armed forces covenant. The Bill proposed by my hon. Friend the Member for Woking addresses one key omission in the last annual report, namely the qualification or otherwise for naturalisation based on where a person happens to be five years prior to making their application.

Some have argued that that is a relatively narrow and small point, but it is a large and significant one, particularly now that it has gained huge public notice as a consequence of my hon. Friend’s Bill. Many of the military charities, including the Royal British Legion, have demonstrably shown support for it. It is therefore important that we give the Bill every possible support as it passes through both Houses.

Jonathan Lord: I thank my hon. Friend very much indeed for his strong support for the Bill, and for serving in Committee on a previous private Member’s Bill of mine. He speaks movingly of the Falklands conflict—he and I were at college together at the time—which was a pivotal point for our country. Does he have other insights, perhaps from the armed forces based in his constituency? Has he taken part in the parliamentary armed forces scheme to give him further insights into how much citizenship could mean to our foreign and commonwealth armed forces personnel?

Mel Stride: As I intimated earlier, I have never been a member of the armed forces, but I am acutely aware of that through my contacts with constituents and the Royal British Legion, and particularly the Ashburton branch. I should like to take this opportunity to salute all they do to support not only servicemen but their families and those in wider community who are affected when they have difficulties. The Bill is a totemic issue. Were it to fail to pass, it would have serious implications for the message we seek to send to our armed forces in support of them.

The anomaly whereby, if a person happens not to have been resident within the UK five years prior to the moment at which they make their application for naturalisation, they cannot, even at the discretion of the Home Secretary, achieve British citizenship, is quite wrong. I hope the Minister gives serious thought to how reapplications by the small number of individuals who have been caught by that anomaly in the 1981 Act can, in some sense, be looked upon more favourably than if they had not applied or failed in the past because of the anomaly.

Jonathan Lord: I am very grateful for my hon. Friend’s strong support and excellent speech, but can he help me? If the Bill is given a Second Reading, will he consider serving on the Committee that scrutinises the Bill?

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Mel Stride: I would be delighted to serve on the Public Bill Committee, subject to my availability—[Laughter.] I was not allowing myself a get-out, incidentally. I would be genuinely delighted to serve in Committee. I am sure there is a special tie to commemorate serving on two of my hon. Friend’s private Member’s Bill Committees. He might want to give that some thought.

I do not wish to detain the House for much longer, as other hon. Members wish to contribute. My hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) touched on a point before he was, quite correctly, stopped by Mr Speaker. He spoke of the resources going into the armed forces. That is a pertinent point, inasmuch as that has an effect on how those in the armed forces feel about how we as a Government, as Parliament and as people in turn feel about them. For that reason and the others I have outlined, it is important that we see the Bill pass successfully through Parliament.

Many men and women over many centuries have stood up for our country, defending democracy, the rule of law, our culture, our history and all we stand for. I hope the Bill has a successful passage through Parliament. It is thoroughly deserved. I once again congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Woking on introducing it.

12 noon

Margot James (Stourbridge) (Con): It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Central Devon (Mel Stride) and to reinforce many of the points that he has made. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Woking (Jonathan Lord) on choosing such an important subject for his private Member’s Bill.

As we have heard, there are 9,000 foreign and Commonwealth personnel serving in our armed forces. Without negating the desirability of recruiting more British-born personnel to our armed forces, the House is in accord when it comes to the huge contribution that members of the Commonwealth have made to our armed forces over the years. My hon. Friend gave the first world war as an example, and I intervened to point out that this country was in great need of the services of people from the Commonwealth in the second world war, so this tradition goes back a long way.

More recently, we have been fortunate to have the services of people from the Commonwealth in Iraq, Afghanistan and many other parts of the world, sometimes in conflict situations, sometimes in peacekeeping roles and also in meeting sudden needs in this country, such as the security challenges for the Olympics last year. It is a crucial part of the military covenant, and I am proud to be a supporter of a Government who have put such store by that covenant. As the Bill proves, there is still some way to go to honour fully the spirit of the covenant and ensure that we demonstrate our moral obligation to members of the armed forces, and their families, who make such sacrifices for the nation. We must also counter any disadvantages they might suffer by dint of being members of the armed forces. Most importantly, we must compensate them with special treatment wherever appropriate.

My hon. Friend mentioned that the concept of the military covenant goes back to Roman times, with the issue of nationality and the status that it gives being the ultimate reward for people who put their lives at risk serving their nation. Men who served in the Roman

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army were automatically given the status of Roman citizenship, and it is that principle that I hope we will be able to see into British law today.

The UK Border Agency is trying to improve the situation for people from overseas and Commonwealth territories who serve in our armed forces in several ways to ensure that immigration and nationality issues do not disadvantage them. It currently does so in a number of ways. We have seen that army charities support the Bill as a way of reducing discrimination in matters of nationality, and I would like to quote the Army Families Federation, which sums up the welcome for the Bill:

“This legislation will make a big difference to the many soldiers and their spouses who are currently prohibited from applying for Citizenship because they were serving overseas or were on operations at the start of the 5 year residential period. The current rule has been disproportionately disadvantaging members of HM Forces and their families for many years, and the AFF is fully supportive of the proposed changes”.

I am sure that in its support the AFF and other charities are mindful of the fact that the people who join the armed forces are subject to service law. That distinguishes them from people in other occupations, in that once they are committed to a career in the armed forces, they have no choice about being deployed overseas, often at short notice. It therefore comes as no surprise that there have always been, and, unless the Bill is passed there will always be, individuals who are in the wrong place at the wrong time in the service of our country while putting their lives on the line.

The Bill is incredibly important. It may affect only approximately 200 people at any point in time, but the House is not just about protecting the rights of the many; it is also about protecting the rights, liberty and equal treatment of the few, and I can imagine that for those 200 people this is probably the most important thing in their lives. I can well imagine the shock on realising that they are barred from citizenship. I am sure that most of them are unaware of the state of the law until they embark on the application process.

I would like to talk a little more about the military covenant, as it is the basis for the legitimacy of the Bill. I was interested to read the armed forces covenant annual report published last year. There was a lot in the report—if Members are interested, it is available in the Library—about the challenges facing people from the Commonwealth serving in our armed forces when they come to apply for citizenship or exercise their rights. The report received many contributions from charities such as the Naval Families Federation, the Army Families Federation and the RAF Families Federation. My hon. Friend the Member for Woking cited in support of his Bill many of the charities that have contributed to the report and to the ongoing monitoring of the military covenant in practice. He mentioned, of course, the Royal British Legion, with which all Members work in their constituencies, particularly on key dates of the year, such as national Armed Forces day and, most importantly, Remembrance day. These groups have given their time to monitor the progress of the military covenant. When my hon. Friend takes the Bill through Committee, as we all hope he will, he might consider some related issues on nationality. The charities that contributed to the report, particularly the Army Families Federation, receive regular, continued complaints about families receiving inconsistent advice from the

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UK Border Agency. I am pleased that the Government are listening to those complaints and that changes are in train that should allow those families to be treated like any other family applying for visas. That is crucial.

The other matter that I want to raise concerns an issue that I mentioned in brief earlier. In order to ensure greater consistency, there is a need for guidance from the Home Office and the Ministry of Defence to clarify, both for case officers considering applications for settlement and naturalisation and for applicants, how people’s military service will affect an application. As I mentioned earlier, at the moment applications for settlement and naturalisation can be rejected on the basis of military offences, which I understand can be quite minor in nature and which, importantly, would not incur a conviction in civilian life. That is surely an example of a disadvantage of being a member of the armed forces, which the military covenant is designed to remove.

The military covenant has been successful at removing discrimination in other areas and making special allowances for the fact that those leaving the armed forces will be at a disadvantage for having served. I am thinking, for example, of parents with primary school-age children who move to an area where there is huge pressure on primary schools. Such parents are being helped by the special measures that are now being put in place. I cite that as an example of the Government’s acknowledging that members of the armed forces are at an inherent disadvantage by virtue of their former profession. The Government are correcting that disadvantage. Indeed, there are many other examples, which Members will know from their constituencies—citing them would perhaps force me to stray too far from the Bill—of where the Government have righted previous wrongs. This is an important area that my hon. Friend the Member for Woking is giving us a chance to address.

In conclusion, we hope that the military covenant will be a living instrument. We need to build on progress and sustain the momentum, to uphold the principles of no disadvantage and, crucially, of special treatment—I have given an example in education, but there are many others, including in health. The Bill contributes significantly to that momentum.

Jonathan Lord: My hon. Friend speaks well about the beneficial effects of the armed forces covenant and how the Bill helps to fill a small gap in it. Has she met any soldiers or servicewomen in her constituency who might benefit from it or who think it is a good idea?

Margot James: I have met many serving or retired members of our armed forces—I work with the Royal British Legion, among other organisations. Having a relatively stable population in my constituency, I have not been privileged to meet any of the 200 or so individuals who will be affected by the Bill, but I am sure that the Royal British Legion and other representatives of the armed forces charities in my constituency would be right behind my hon. Friend in introducing this important measure. It will contribute hugely to the momentum that we want to maintain behind the military covenant, removing as it does the anomaly that places some 200 members of our armed forces at a disadvantage. I congratulate my hon. Friend on bringing the Bill to the House.

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12.15 pm

Guy Opperman (Hexham) (Con): The Bill is about two of the most important issues that we in the House of Commons debate—namely, the armed forces and immigration. Most of all, however, it is about justice and fairness, and that is surely what the armed forces covenant is all about. The covenant is not just a piece of paper; it is a priority for the Government. It is about fair treatment for our forces and about having an impact on the lives of the military personnel who serve in our communities. Its remit goes wider than that, however; it is about justice. The armed forces covenant is about an obligation on the whole of society. It involves voluntary, charitable and other bodies, as well as private organisations and it is about how all of us as individuals treat those who put their lives on the line for us. We all need to recognise that fact and to engage with it, so that we can implement the crucial elements of the covenant.

I urge those who are in any doubt about the process that the Government have entered into to study the covenant itself and to work their way through its history. The covenant was established in May 2011, and it was based on the principles of removing disadvantage from serving personnel in relation to access to public and commercial services, and of allowing special provision in some circumstances for the injured and the bereaved. The Government committed to rebuilding the covenant and established an armed forces covenant taskforce in July 2010. The taskforce reported to the Government, and many of its recommendations have subsequently been implemented. It produced two reports. The size of the second report—the “Armed forces covenant annual report 2012”, which runs to almost 100 pages—is testimony to the seriousness with which the Government are addressing these issues. It contains details of the specific measures that we are taking.

Significant achievements are to be found in many discrete areas of the covenant. Health care, for example, is a matter of prime importance for service personnel. Investment has been made in areas such as medical equipment in theatre and mental health care provision. Many of us have spoken in the House about the importance of providing support for our servicemen and women after they have been discharged from the Army, or when they are merely returning home on leave. I urge Members to visit Headley Court, the Defence Medical Rehabilitation Centre, which was opened with £17 million of assistance from the Government. A further £5 million is going towards wards and accommodation. Thanks to the armed forces covenant, there have also been developments in housing. Members of the armed forces are now being placed at the top of the priority list on the Government’s First Buy scheme.

The armed forces covenant is why we are here today. The anomaly that the Bill seeks to address is that a serviceman or woman who serves overseas for a considerable length of time does not satisfy the requirements for naturalisation in the way that others are able to do.

This has great relevance to my own constituency because I have the privilege of having Albemarle barracks in my Northumberland constituency. For many years, the troops based there have been the 39th Regiment the Royal Artillery. By reason of the basing review, they are moving down to Wiltshire. We shall therefore be welcoming in the near future the 3rd Regiment Royal Horse Artillery. Let me explain the relevance of this to the Bill.

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The 3rd Regiment RHA has been based at Caen barracks in Hohne, Germany. Many soldiers have spent a considerable period of time there—overseas. I do not know the exact number of individuals, but if that regiment has overseas servicemen working there who, by reason of the British Nationality Act 1981, do not qualify for citizenship, they would be exactly the sort of individuals who would benefit from the fact that this Government are addressing this particular anomaly.

I speak as a fifth generation immigrant—one with a lot more “Saxon” than “Anglo” in my name. It is certainly the case that anyone coming from 3rd Regiment RHA should be able to benefit when, as we all hope, the Bill of my hon. Friend the Member for Woking (Jonathan Lord), who has done great job bringing it before us, becomes law. I endorse entirely the support that various charities and Army organisations have expressed for the Bill and I welcome the fact that the Government have consulted them and got them involved. Like many others, I am a huge supporter of the Royal British Legion. I have raised funds for my local branch and it does a fantastic job. In addition, I welcome the fact that organisations such as Veterans Aid and the Army Families Federation have got involved and strongly supported my hon. Friend’s Bill.

Mel Stride: My hon. Friend makes a powerful case for the Bill. Is it not just as significant that, as far as we are aware, no organisations are hostile to the Bill, just as all the military charities are in favour of it?

Guy Opperman: That is the case. We need to recognise that there is a rich tradition of this country working with overseas soldiers in pursuit of the aims and objectives of the Queen and this country. One needs to think only of the battle of Britain. The Spitfire was not manned to the greatest degree by Anglo-Saxon men and women, as there were 145 pilots from Poland, 135 from New Zealand, 112 from Canada and 88 from Czechoslovakia; 41 were Irish and there were 32 Australians, 28 Belgians, 25 South Africans, 13 French, 11 Americans and one each from Sri Lanka, Jamaica and Zimbabwe. An interesting point that dovetails with our consideration of this Bill is that Jamaica will be particularly affected because its citizens continue to support and serve in our armed services to this day.

We appreciate the fact that the Bill is amending just one small part of the armed forces covenant, but it is certainly something that we should all support. As I reflect on the fact that there appears to be no opposition to the Bill and full support for it from a whole range of organisations, it makes me glad to be participating in private Members’ Bill proceedings for what I believe is the third time—I have a rich history over three years and three months with the Mobile Homes Bill and the Antarctic Bill, both of which I am pleased to say became law. I am very pleased to support my hon. Friend the Member for Woking on his Bill; he has done a fantastic job.

12.24 pm

Diana Johnson (Kingston upon Hull North) (Lab): I congratulate the hon. Member for Woking (Jonathan Lord) on bringing this important issue before us today and on setting out so eloquently the aims of his private

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Member’s Bill. Let me say right from the start that the Opposition support its aims, so the hon. Gentleman has the cross-party support that he was looking for.

If you will allow me to digress slightly, Madam Deputy Speaker, I was intrigued by the question of the hon. Member for West Worcestershire (Harriett Baldwin) who asked when women were allowed to divorce their husbands for the first time. I found out that it was in 1858 and that the first woman to do so was Caroline Norton, who was apparently married to a hard-line Tory MP. She felt she needed to divorce that man, which was the driving force behind the marriage and divorce legislation that came into force in 1858.

Harriett Baldwin: I am delighted that the hon. Lady is alone in the Chamber in being able to answer that question successfully, but did she have to use Google to find out?

Diana Johnson: I will admit that I did.

To return to the subject of the Bill, I want to pay tribute to our armed forces for the difficult job they do on our behalf. The Labour party campaigned for the armed forces covenant to be properly enshrined in law—the Armed Forces Act 2011. The core principles of the covenant state that no one across the armed forces community should face disadvantage for their decision to serve in the forces. The covenant also states that where appropriate and necessary, the Government look at special treatment to prevent disadvantage for the forces.

I had a little sympathy with the question that the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope) asked about why this private Member’s Bill is before us today, and why its provisions are not going to be in the immigration Bill on which the Minister for Immigration is currently working. Unlike this private Member’s Bill, the Government’s immigration Bill would provide an opportunity for Members to table amendments on other categories of people who deserve special consideration, to which reference has been made today. Will the Minister comment on that?

This Bill implements a commitment that the Government made in the armed forces covenant in 2011 that new legislation would be introduced to enable foreign and Commonwealth service personnel to be exempted from the requirement to be in the UK at the start of the residential period for naturalisation as a British citizen, if in service on that date. As I have said, the Opposition support the Bill’s aims, but, like the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh), I want to ask a number of questions about how the Bill would work in practice.

We heard that 9,000 servicemen and women will potentially be eligible for settlement under the Bill. Will the Minister confirm that that is the correct figure? We also heard that about 200 service personnel might want to take advantage of the change in the law. Will the Minister confirm that that is an accurate estimate? Has the Home Office been able to ascertain the number who would want to take advantage of the change? Will he also comment on the knock-on effect for dependants of armed forces personnel? How many additional people will follow from any claim that is made?

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Have the hon. Member for Woking and the Minister given any thought to guidelines that would need to be brought forward to flesh out how the Bill would operate? For instance, will there be a minimum period that members of the armed forces will have to serve to have that counted towards the five years? Will there be a time limit within which such a person could apply to settle? On the retrospective nature of the Bill, we look forward to hearing from the Minister whether there is potential for people who have served previously in the armed forces to use the new provision.

On the issue of reservists that was raised by the hon. Member for West Worcestershire (Harriett Baldwin), the debate did not make it clear whether people who do not have the right to remain here in the first place are able to join up as reservists. Will the Minister clarify that?

What will happen if a person is injured in service? How will that affect their ability to take advantage of the new provision if, for instance, they could not complete a tour of service and left the armed forces early? I have an example of a soldier from Ghana who arrived in June 2009 on a visitor visa. He joined the armed forces in September 2010. At that point he became exempt from the timings of the visitor visa, but unfortunately he was medically discharged in August 2012 owing to injuries contracted as a result of a military exercise. After leaving the forces, he was unable to work or to claim benefits because he had not completed his infantry training, which was a stipulation of his visa. He was then detained, and removal directions were set in June 2013. I understand that military personnel who have not served in the forces for at least four years are not normally eligible for settlement in the United Kingdom. This soldier applied for a concession because of his circumstances, but his application was rejected.

That is a specific example, but what would happen if other people serving in the armed forces found themselves in a similar position? I know that the Secretary of State has discretion, but would the guidance suggest a presumption that the full length of military service be taken into account, rather than if it is cut short by injury? I should also like to know whether there will be an appeal process. Again, I know that the Secretary of State has discretion, but is there any possibility of a review of the use of that discretion, or would there have to be a judicial review, as often happens in the case of a discretionary measure?

Is any preferential treatment given to Commonwealth citizens because of our long-standing arrangements with the Commonwealth? Do they have a better chance of obtaining settlement than someone from a country outside the Commonwealth? If that is the case, are citizens of countries that are currently suspended from the Commonwealth at a disadvantage?

It has been a pleasure to listen to the contributions to the debate. I think we all recognise the valuable part that the armed forces play in our society.

12.32 pm

The Minister for Immigration (Mr Mark Harper): It is a great pleasure to see you in the Chair, Madam Deputy Speaker. I had prepared only a brief speech, but the debate has been so wide-ranging, and Members on both sides of the House—including the hon. Member for

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Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson)—have asked such complex questions, that I fear that I may need to draw on some more material.

The Government’s support for the Bill will not come as a surprise to my hon. Friend the Member for Woking (Jonathan Lord), because he quoted my remarks earlier. I am grateful to him for presenting it. I had forgotten, until I was prompted by my hon. Friend the Member for Central Devon (Mel Stride), that this was his second private Member’s Bill in what has so far been a short, but I know will be a very long, parliamentary career. He has been rather more successful in the ballot than I have been during my time in the House, and he has used his opportunities well. I know that his first Bill was very good, and I hope that this one reaches the statute book as well. I am also grateful to those who have supported the Bill.

My hon. Friend said that part of his reason for presenting the Bill was the fact that the Pirbright establishment was in his constituency and was important to a number of his constituents. The 1st Battalion the Rifles is based at Beachley barracks, on the southern tip of my constituency, and I have spent a great deal of time supporting it. I was privileged to be invited to join members of the battalion for their pre-deployment, before they embarked on their first tour of duty in Afghanistan in 2009. I was fortunate enough also to join them—all too briefly—in theatre to observe their operations. The battalion contains a number of foreign and Commonwealth members, and I have provided many of them with advice on immigration matters in my capacity as their constituency Member of Parliament. I know this measure will be welcome, and I hope it will benefit one or two of them as well.

I also draw on my own experience from the last Parliament when I was a shadow Defence Minister and I had the opportunity to visit a number of armed forces establishments and meet many people who serve in our armed forces. From that, I know what a great contribution they make to our country both here and overseas. It is right to acknowledge that some Members of this House have served in our armed forces, including the Whip who is present, my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes North (Mark Lancaster). This matter is just one small part of the armed forces covenant and the process we are undertaking, which I think is very valuable.

I will not talk about the covenant at length, as I know that would test your patience, Madam Deputy Speaker, but I want to refer to it briefly. My hon. Friend the Member for Stourbridge (Margot James) drew attention to the fact—indeed, it was a public service announcement—that each year we publish a thorough report that is available in the Library. That report sets out very comprehensively the purpose of the covenant with a foreword by the Secretary of State, and it also sets out a range of measures we have taken across Government policy to deliver benefits and to remove discrimination in respect of serving personnel.

I also want to refer to the embedding of the work we do with external groups as part of that process. There is a covenant reference group, the successor to the original external reference group. It includes service charities and those very knowledgeable about these areas. I recently had the opportunity to attend a meeting of the ministerial

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committee looking at these matters and the covenant reference group. It was held at No. 10 Downing street and the Prime Minister attended for a period. That close working between Government and the service charities means we have been able to deliver on these achievements, and it is one reason why this measure is supported by a number of organisations and not, as far as we know, opposed by any.

Veterans Aid says:

“We warmly welcome any initiative that removes obstacles to those who have served this country with honour from settling here legally and have campaigned on this issue. Veterans Aid, more than any other military charity, has championed the cause of Foreign & Commonwealth servicemen and women disadvantaged, through no fault of their own, by bureaucracy…This was an injustice and we applaud the Government for listening.”

I am grateful for those generous words. I worked with Veterans Aid when I was a shadow Minister and it is good that it has welcomed this move. The Army Families Federation has also welcomed it and fully supports the changes.

I should say at this point that I am grateful to the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North for two things. First, she put on record her party’s support for the work our armed forces do. That is a good cross-party acknowledgment which we can never hear too often. Secondly, she formally put on record the official Opposition’s support for this private Member’s Bill, which I hope means it has a relatively smooth passage through this House and the other place. You were not in the Chamber earlier, Madam Deputy Speaker, but my hon. Friend the Member for West Worcestershire (Harriett Baldwin) referred to the citizenship test and I am very pleased to say that she passed one bit by being able to confirm that she knew there were two Houses of this Parliament. Once the Bill is finished in this one, it will wing its way to the other House, where I hope it will be as successfully endorsed and can then reach the statute book.

We had a wide-ranging discussion on the citizenship test, Madam Deputy Speaker, and you will be delighted to know—as I am sure Mr Speaker would be if he were here—that although I have a copy of the guide containing all the material used for the citizenship test, I left it in my office so I will not be tempted to draw on it at length or, indeed, at all. My hon. Friend brought her copy with her, however, so she was not as disadvantaged as I am. I know that she did slightly test the patience of Mr Speaker, but he clearly was not upset with her, as he then referred to her “racy and intoxicating” speech. I have never made one of those in this House, and the Whip is probably hoping that I never do so. However, her speech was very welcome, and I am grateful for not only her support, but that of colleagues.

A number of hon. Members raised important points about the Bill, and I wish to deal with a couple of them. First, however, I should say that my hon. Friend the Member for Woking was supported formally in his Bill by my hon. Friends the Members for Bedford (Richard Fuller), for Keighley (Kris Hopkins) and for Mole Valley (Sir Paul Beresford), who appended their names to it. It is worth saying that they are fully in support of it. For the benefit of colleagues in the House, the Home Office sought the permission of my hon. Friend the Member for Woking to prepare some explanatory notes, which he gave. I hope that the notes are helpful, and I know that a number of hon. Members have drawn on them today.

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The explanatory notes briefly set out the purpose of the Bill and the fact that it amends the 1981 Act. Although I was not intending to go through this at length, my hon. Friends the Members for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) and for Christchurch (Mr Chope) both asked for a little more detail about how the naturalisation rules work and whether they are automatic or otherwise. The notes deal with that, but I will take the opportunity to discuss it, although not at enormous length, because I know that that would test your patience, Madam Deputy Speaker. I will just set out for the House what the requirements are and how the Secretary of State uses her discretion, to the extent that she has it.

Foreign and Commonwealth personnel in Her Majesty’s armed forces generally apply to naturalise under section 6(1) of the 1981 Act, and they have to meet the following requirements: five years’ residence in the UK; be aged 18 or over; and be of sound mind, a point to which my hon. Friend the Member for West Worcestershire referred. My understanding is that the reference to “sound mind” in this context simply means that the person has the mental capacity to complete the application for naturalisation. I can reassure her that where a former member of the armed forces has a mental health problem, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, whether as a result of their service or otherwise, that would not prevent them from successfully applying for and securing naturalisation if they met the other rules. She rightly says that both in the armed forces and outside we have moved on in our understanding of such mental health conditions, and I am pleased to say that we do not, in any way, discriminate against people, be it deliberately or inadvertently, in this matter.

Applicants must also intend to continue to live in the UK, or to continue in Crown service, the service of an international organisation of which the UK is a member, or the service of a company or association established in the UK. That will be relevant when I go on to talk about the overseas territories, to which my hon. Friend referred. Applicants must also be able to communicate in English, Welsh or Scottish Gaelic—I heard lots of sedentary interventions from Opposition Members when that was mentioned and, although I cannot speak it, I try to pronounce it correctly. Applicants should also have sufficient knowledge of life in the UK and, importantly, be of good character.

I will not go through the residence requirements in enormous detail, but they are broadly that the person has been resident in the United Kingdom for at least five years; has been present in the UK five years before the date of application—that is, of course, where we run into the problem; and is free of immigration time restrictions on the date of application.

Foreign and Commonwealth personnel in Her Majesty’s armed forces are exempt from immigration while they are serving, which means they automatically meet the requirement to be in the UK without a time limit attached to their stay. The Secretary of State already has the discretion to overlook absences, and there are things in the rules that say for how many months someone is allowed to be outside the UK. She generally exercises her discretion in armed forces cases where the absence is caused by service overseas.