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8 December 2021

What does the Nationality and Borders Bill mean for you?

Under the legislation, the home secretary would be able to deprive British people of citizenship without telling them first.

By Ben van der Merwe

MPs this week are debating the government’s Nationality and Borders Bill, Clause 9 of which gives the government the right to deprive British people of their citizenship without informing them first:

Photo: Screenshot of draft legislation

On 1 November the New Statesman reported that nearly six million people in England and Wales could be affected, including two in every five people from a non-white ethnic minority background.

This finding was based on exclusive analysis of data from the Office for National Statistics. The figure of six million includes almost 410,000 dual nationals born in the UK, as well as 5.2 million people born abroad. These 5.2 million people could potentially be stripped of their citizenship even if doing so would render them stateless (if they are not dual nationals).

Can the home secretary make a British citizen stateless?

The Home Office told the New Statesman that the home secretary’s power to deprive people of their citizenship “cannot leave anyone stateless”, a claim they repeated in a fact sheet on the Nationality and Borders Bill later posted to the government’s website.

This was also repeated in the Commons on 7 December by the Conservative MP for Gloucester Richard Graham, as MPs debated an amendment to remove Clause 9. 

He asked the Home Office shadow minister Bambos Charalambous to “confirm at the Dispatch Box his clear understanding that when someone has a single nationality, they cannot have their nationality revoked and be sent abroad”.

Yet this isn’t correct. Since 2014 the home secretary has had the power to strip British citizenship from foreign-born nationals even if it is their only citizenship.

A Home Office spokesperson told the New Statesman: “The law is clear – where someone poses a serious threat to the UK or whose conduct involves very high harm the home secretary can only deprive them of their citizenship if they can acquire another nationality, and therefore cannot leave them stateless.”

Asked to clarify what they meant by “leave stateless”, the spokesperson said someone stripped of their only citizenship is not “left stateless” if they are eligible for another citizenship.

In reality, anyone so deprived would, in fact, be left stateless for at least as long as it would take them to acquire another nationality, and there is no guarantee that they would actually be able to do so.

The law does not require that the person being stripped of their British citizenship has to be able to end their statelessness by acquiring a foreign citizenship, only that the home secretary “has reasonable grounds for believing” that they could.

In fact, a government report presented to parliament by the Home Secretary, Priti Patel, in March 2020 on the topic of the 2014 act states that “this power means the Secretary of State may deprive and leave a person stateless”:

“By means of the Immigration Act 2014, the Government introduced a power whereby in a small subset of ‘conducive’ cases – where the individual has been naturalised as a British citizen and acted in a manner seriously prejudicial to the vital interests of the UK – the Secretary of State may deprive that person of their British citizenship, even if doing so would leave them stateless. This action may only be taken if the Secretary of State has reasonable grounds for believing that the person is able, under the law of a country outside the United Kingdom, to become a national of that country.”

The Home Office declined an opportunity to elaborate on this contradiction.

What does the new bill change?

If passed as it currently stands, the Nationality and Borders Bill would not change the number of people eligible to be deprived of their citizenship, but rather would loosen the requirement on the government to notify people who have been stripped of their citizenship.

Clause 9 of the Bill would allow the home secretary to withhold notification from someone deprived of their citizenship if it would “not be reasonably practicable” to notify them, or “if it appears to the Secretary of State that... notice... should not be given (i) in the interests of national security, (ii) in the interests of the relationship between the United Kingdom and another country, or (iii) otherwise in the public interest.”

The Home Office told the New Statesman that this new provision is “simply about the process of notification and recognises that in exceptional circumstances, such as when someone is in a war zone, or informing them would reveal sensitive intelligence sources, it may not be possible to do this”.

Discussing this provision in the Commons on 7 December, the former shadow foreign secretary Hilary Benn pointed out that individuals outside the UK are given 28 days to appeal the deprivation of their citizenship, and asked the government to clarify whether this deadline would be extended for those who had not been notified within the 28-day window.

Speaking for the government, the Home Office parliamentary under-secretary Kevin Foster insisted that the right of appeal would remain intact.

Could I be affected?

Under legislation in place since 2006, anyone who is a dual UK national can be deprived of their citizenship if the home secretary deems that doing so would be “conducive to the public good”.

What constitutes the “public good” is left to the discretion of the home secretary. The government has said that deprivation on these grounds is considered an appropriate response to activities including, but not limited to, espionage, terrorism, war crimes, serious and organised crime, and “unacceptable behaviour of the kind mentioned in the then Home Secretary’s statement of 24 August 2005”. This last category includes writing or public speaking that glorifies terrorism, foments serious crime or seeks to provoke terrorism or serious crime.

Dual nationals include dual passport holders, but also anyone born to parents of particular nationalities. Certain countries, such as Germany and Bangladesh, grant automatic citizenship to anyone born to their citizens anywhere in the world.

This category does not apply to people eligible for citizenship of other countries, such as Israel, which confer eligibility to certain people from birth but do not automatically confer citizenship itself.

It was on the grounds of the 2006 legislation that the Home Office stripped the former Islamic State supporter Shamima Begum of her British citizenship, despite her having been born and raised in Britain as a UK citizen from birth. The government argued that Bangladeshi law grants automatic citizenship to the children of Bangladeshi parents until the age of 21, and therefore Begum could be considered a dual national despite having never visited Bangladesh or acquired a Bangladeshi passport.

Since 2014 the home secretary has also had the power to strip British citizenship from people without dual nationality. This applies to any naturalised British citizen (meaning that they were not British from birth) whom the home secretary has “reasonable grounds" to believe is eligible for foreign citizenship.

They must also be shown to have behaved “in a manner which is seriously prejudicial to the vital interests of the United Kingdom, any of the Islands, or any British overseas territory”, in addition to their deprivation meeting the definition of “conducive to the public good” previously outlined.

Asked in 2014 to define “seriously prejudicial to the vital interests of the UK”, the then immigration minister Mark Harper said: “We do not want to be overly prescriptive about what this phrase means, but we would envisage it covering those involved in terrorism or espionage or those who take up arms against British or allied forces.”

In a 2002 debate on deprivation of citizenship, Geoffrey Filkin, then a Labour Home Office parliamentary under-secretary, told parliament that the term “vital interests” includes “national security, but it also covers economic matters, as well as the political and military infrastructure of our society”.

A Home Office spokesperson told the New Statesman: “Removing someone’s British citizenship has been possible for over a century and is always a last resort against the most dangerous people to protect our national security and public safety... This power is one way we can counter the terrorist threat within the UK, posed by some of the most dangerous individuals and keep our country safe.”

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