The Controversial UK Nationality Bill

Asad Mirza
The controversial Nationality and Borders Bill was introduced by the ruling Conservative Party in the House of Commons on 6 July 2021. The bill has now progressed to the House of Lords, and if passed it would impact the current UK immigration system as it relates to asylum seekers and refugees; and does this primarily by introducing a two-tier system for asylum-seekers arriving in the UK, based on method of arrival.
In addition, as per other measures recommended if voted to a Law, the bill would put at risk the future of six million minorities living in Britain. Majority of British citizens who possess dual passports, fear that they would become more vulnerable and victims of discrimination in a legal manner. The government earlier had the power to withdraw nationality but after notifying the affected person.
The Bill also includes clauses to allow the UK to be able to send asylum seekers, particularly the boat refugees from various Muslim countries to a “safe third country” and to submit claims at a “designated place” determined by the Secretary of State.
The Indian-origin British Home Secretary Priti Patel said the Bill would tackle illegal immigration and the “underlying pull factors into the UK’s asylum system”. The government in its defence asserts that the bill looks to alter the current system for asylum claims and appeals, as well as looking to stop the flow of people-smuggling and modern slavery.
Why the controversy?
The bill has been criticised by the opposition Labour Party and also some members of the Conservative party. Former Conservative minister David Davis described the plans to strip people of British citizenship as “uncivilised” and “legally disputable”.
Under existing law, deprivation of citizenship can be executed for those people who are considered to pose a threat to the UK – based on terrorism or war crimes records – or if they obtained their citizenship fraudulently.
However, as reported by different newspapers in November, home secretary Priti Patel surreptitiously introduced a provision that would allow the government to strip people of their British citizenship without notice. And this move has set the alarm bells ringing.
The British Nationality Act 1981 requires the secretary of state to give a person written notice of a decision to deprive them of their British citizenship before a deprivation order can be made. But Clause 9 of the new bill exempts the government from giving notice if it is not “reasonably practicable” to do so, or in the interests of national security, diplomatic relations or is otherwise in the public interest.
Why the criticism?
Critics say this will give the government enormous power over British citizens who have another nationality or who may have been born elsewhere. Effectively, naturalised citizens can be made stateless without notice. The government, however, claims that it will not make anyone stateless and will not affect their right to appeal.
Citizenship stripping can take place for public interest reasons, mostly connected to national security and counter-terrorism. These decisions come into effect even before appeals can be processed, so it is crucial for the affected person to be notified. The UK has had a recent, significant rise in citizenship deprivations. Most have taken place when the British citizen is already overseas, so they would be unlikely to know about cancellation orders and would find it difficult to appeal.
Mr Davis also said his amendment to clause nine of the bill would have still enable the home secretary to deprive a person of British citizenship but it would remove the right to do it without notification.
The British Law Society giving its take on the Bill says that “We believe this bill contains a number of measures which are, or are likely to be incompatible with international law, damage access to justice, and impact on the role of lawyers in immigration cases.”
It further says that “We’re concerned that allowing differential treatment of refugees depending on how they arrive in the UK would penalise those arriving via irregular means; this is incompatible with the UK’s obligations under the Refugee Convention 1951.”
In its recommendations to the government, the Society says that “We believe the government should remove provisions that are likely to be incompatible with international law; this includes provisions that relate to the differential treatment of refugees based on their mode of arrival, increase the standard of proof for establishing whether someone is a refugee, and re-define what is considered a particularly serious crime, remove provisions that would harm access to justice; including those that reduce safeguards in relation to appeals, and unfairly penalise late submission of evidence, remove the power for the Immigration Tribunal to impose additional fines on lawyers.
Devyani Prabhat, Professor in Law at University of Bristol says that currently, no other country can make its own citizens stateless by depriving them of citizenship.
In the an article on Prof. Prabhat further says that the UK’s citizenship deprivation practice affects minorities and those of migrant heritage much more than it does white British nationals born in Britain. Taking away notification requirements will make appeals even harder. Even without this change, deprivation laws risk alienating minority communities, but with it, potential challenges in courts will be eliminated at source.
Human rights organisation Amnesty International says, if passed, the Bill “will create significant obstacles and harms to people seeking asylum in the UK’s asylum system” and that the legislation undermines the Refugee Convention and the UK’s obligations under the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Convention on Reduction of Statelessness.
In October, a team of leading immigration lawyers also concluded that the controversial bill breaches international and domestic law in at least 10 different ways and accused the government of “riding roughshod” over its obligations. Leading the team, human rights QC Raza Husain said, if passed, the legislation would lead to challenges under international human rights and refugee treaties.
It seems as if the Conservative government of Prime Minister Boris Johnson is keen to move away from the liberal policy that Britain had adopted since the 1940s, and particularly during the last 40 years or so, motivating the talented to join its work force. This had slowly resulted in making UK a multi-ethnic, multi-lingual and multi-religious society. Though racial prejudice still persisted but it was possible to protest in the name of the British law and jurisprudence. But now it may not be possible in future.
(The author is a political commentator based in New Delhi)