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House of Lords

Wednesday, 19 January 2005.

The House met at half-past two of the clock: The LORD CHANCELLOR on the Woolsack.

Prayers—Read by the Lord Bishop of Southwell.

Lord Patten of Barnes

The right honourable Christopher Francis Patten, CH, having been created Baron Patten of Barnes, of Barnes in the London Borough of Richmond, for life—Was in his robes, introduced between the Lord Hurd of Westwell and the Lord Carrington.

British Citizenship: Armed Forces Service

Lord Marlesford asked Her Majesty's Government:

The Minister of State, Home Office (Baroness Scotland of Asthal): My Lords, British passports are issued in the United Kingdom under Royal prerogative by the UK Passport Office. Citizenship is a matter of law, primarily under the British Nationality Act 1981, that is usually determined by the facts of a person's date and place of birth and those of their parents. Active service in Her Majesty's Armed Forces is not a factor usually taken into account when determining eligibility for a British passport.

Lord Marlesford: My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for that Answer. She will be aware that the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig of Radley, raised two examples of this problem in the debate on defence on Monday. On that occasion, the Minister did not have time to respond to them. I do not want to refer to individual cases other to say that the one which has caused most outrage recently has, I understand, now been satisfactorily settled. However, I note that the Government were reluctant even to answer questions from the person's Member of Parliament, until directed to do so by the Speaker. My point is that the rules need to be changed, so that active service in Her Majesty's Armed Forces is indeed a very good qualification for earning British citizenship.

Perhaps I may ask the Minister a more important question. Is she aware that there is increasing concern and frustration at the way in which the Home Office, instead of reassuring and serving the British public as it is meant to, seems again and again to irritate and provoke them by making apparently foolish decisions? Is there some way in which Ministers can get a grip on the Home Office?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, first, I reassure the noble Lord that Ministers have a grip on
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this issue. I disagree with the noble Lord in his assessment of the way in which applications are dealt with. Secondly, I reassure the House that the law will apply equally to all, irrespective of whether they are within or without Her Majesty's armed service. I inform noble Lords too that settlement is possible under favourable terms for those who are members of the Armed Forces. If they serve this country for four years, they can apply to be settled and thereafter obtain citizenship on favourable terms.

Lord Dholakia: My Lords, I am delighted that the Minister has spelt out the legal requirement for passports. Does the Secretary of State have any discretion in waiving the qualifying residential period when deciding the issue of British citizenship, which then leads to a British passport?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: No, my Lords. The rules apply equally, but the noble Lord should know that in the exercising of discretion about what will count, there can be variations. So, for example, we changed the rules so that those who serve in our Armed Forces, but who do not spend the whole of the period here in the United Kingdom, are given very advantageous terms, so that long periods spent outside this country would not count against them if they were serving this country's ends. For example, the five-year criterion would now be met if the person so serving spent one year in the United Kingdom. Those are very favourable terms.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes: My Lords, as a Member of this House who is not a British passport holder, I presume that the first criterion for gaining a British passport is to be a British citizen. Is that correct?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, the first thing is that you have to be settled here. You could then use the fact that you have been settled to obtain British citizenship, as the noble Baroness rightly said. Once you have got British citizenship, of course, you can then apply for a British passport.

Baroness Seccombe: My Lords, I have listened carefully to what the Minister has to say, but does she not agree that there is a real problem with the way in which the Home Office deals with these sensitive issues?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, I do not agree with the noble Baroness. These issues are very sensitive and they have to be dealt with very carefully, but the noble Baroness must understand that they have to be dealt with equally. It is very difficult when various people are saying "We should do this, we should do that, we should change our rules". We have to be consistent. Of course we have to be flexible. I hope noble Lords have found that, in relation to these measures, we have amended the rules so that they are proportionate and very well applied.

Lord Faulkner of Worcester: My Lords, can my noble friend assure me that if a national of a country who would have some difficulty in returning to that country
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serves in the Armed Forces and applies for British citizenship, that person's application would be given particularly favourable treatment? I am thinking in particular of someone, for example, from Zimbabwe, who clearly would find it very difficult in present circumstances to return to Zimbabwe if he did not have a British passport.

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, I have to reiterate that we treat each application equally. It would be quite improper to favour one group above another. I can reassure the noble Lord that the circumstances of each individual case are of course taken into account in exercising any discretion that there may be in relation to any particular group.

Occupational Pension Schemes

Baroness Turner of Camden asked Her Majesty's Government:

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Work and Pensions (Baroness Hollis of Heigham): My Lords, the recent Pensions Act includes many changes which are designed to ensure good governance in pension schemes and which recognise the crucial role of lay trustees in managing those schemes. We have also been discussing with those organisations which currently run trustees' groups—NAPF, PMI, TUC—whether and how a standing trustees' forum could work actively further to promote and support lay trusteeship. We are considering how best to take this forward. My noble friend's Question is very apt.

Baroness Turner of Camden: My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that response. Does she not agree that it is very important that suitable people should be encouraged to come forward and take on this important function for their fellow employees? If there were a task force or something similar available for them, it would provide them with the necessary support in many instances—and possibly access to training—and give them the confidence to take on this important function.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, I agree entirely with my noble friend. Whether one calls it a task force or a forum, it is the case that trustees in this country are managing something like £750 billion-worth of assets. Some trustees, particularly those in the smaller schemes, have had no training at all, even though they are hungry for it. We certainly want to encourage more training. We shall be issuing through the regulator codes of guidance to ensure that the appropriate knowledge
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and understanding that trustees need will be exercised. If the forum is the right way to do it, I am sure we will have widespread support.

Baroness O'Cathain: My Lords, should not the training of trustees be mandatory rather than merely encouraged by the Government? The whole issue of trusteeship of pension schemes at this stage is so convoluted and difficult, even for people with financial acumen, that longer term—particularly in view of the amount of money that has been mentioned—there really ought to be some statutory obligation for proper training.

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