British voters have been sold an illusion: that the government can somehow stop migrants and asylum seekers from arriving on its shores. Unsurprisingly, its latest attempt to look like it is doing something is problematic. By criminalising desperate attempts to enter the UK, the government’s nationality and borders bill has already attracted controversy. But a clause that would allow the Home Office to secretly strip even British-born individuals of their citizenship is an unjust and draconian step that has sparked real concern among 6m Britons, mainly of migrant heritage.
Clause 9 of the bill, which had its second reading in the House of Lords this month, would exempt the Home Office from having to give written notice to those it intended to strip citizenship from, if it was deemed against national security, generally not in the public interest, or merely impractical, to do so. The late addition at committee stage of such a loosely-worded provision must be seen in the context of an adverse court ruling in July. The Home Office had tried to deprive a British woman and alleged Islamic State supporter in Syria of citizenship without her knowledge, which the court ruled to be unlawful.
A similar last-minute drafting tactic was used by Priti Patel, the home secretary, in an equally alarming policing bill. But a cynical late addition is no way to introduce measures that would deprive people — disproportionately of colour — of the practical means to fight the deprivation of citizenship: the right that confers all other legal rights.
Since 2006, successive governments have enhanced the ability to revoke citizenship. Patel can already do so to dual nationals in circumstances such as espionage, terrorism or organised crime. She can do so even to the British-born and even if it would make the individual stateless but where nationality elsewhere might be granted. This has meant foreign-born Britons, or those with migrant heritage and a possible claim on foreign citizenship — potentially 6m people — are already in a more invidious position than other citizens. But at least they have had the right to be told of attempts to revoke their citizenship, until now.
The Home Office counters that the power to revoke citizenship has existed for more than a century, that it is used sparingly and that there will always be a right to appeal such decisions. All true, on the face of it. But these powers were almost never used until after 9/11, with a noticeable uptick since then. Moreover, the right to appeal is not absolute, as evidenced by the case of British-born Shamima Begum, who ran away to become an Isis bride aged 15. The Supreme Court ruled that public safety outweighed her right to return to challenge her deprivation order.
The Home Office argues that British citizenship is a privilege, not a right. Not only is that insulting to Britons who fear that their citizenship could be revoked at the home secretary’s discretion, it is also legally questionable. Citizenship is a right, not a privilege, protected by international treaties and law to which the UK is a signatory.
Proponents say the powers will only ever be used proportionately and exceptionally. That ignores the recent Windrush scandal, which eroded trust in the fairness of UK immigration policy. It also fails to imagine a situation where an even more heavy-handed home secretary than Patel could wield great discretion over who is and is not British. It may be true that the bill’s targets are those who would harm their fellow citizens. But a democracy ought not to be judged only on how it protects those who abide by its laws, but also on how it treats those who break them.