The Home Secretary, Theresa May, has inserted a last-minute amendment to the Immigration Bill that will enable her to make people stateless.
The amendment would significantly expand her citizenship-stripping powers. Currently May can not revoke a person’s citizenship if it would make them stateless, so the power can only be used on dual nationals who would still have another nationality even if they lost their British citizenship.
The Home Office told the BBC the new powers would be used ‘sparingly’. The Bureau has been reporting on May’s use of existing citizenship-stripping powers for more than a year, and found that the number of such orders tripled last year.
Labour MP Tom Watson told the Bureau: ‘It’s shocking that the Home Secretary has tried to slip in such a massive increase in her citizen stripping powers as a last-minute amendment to the Immigration Bill. Use of this power under the Coalition government is on the up. There is no due process and appeal is notoriously tough. If this amendment is passed, British citizens can be made stateless by their own Government without any independent scrutiny. It must be stopped.’
In total the Coalition government has stripped the nationality of 37 dual nationals in the past three years using powers in the British Nationality Act. Under the previous Labour government the powers were used five times in seven years.
Two of those who lost their citizenship, London-born Mohamed Sakr and his childhood friend Bilal al Berjawi, went on to die in drone strikes, and a further man, Mahdi Hashi, was the subject of rendition to the US, where he was held in secret for over a month and now faces terror charges.
Last year 20 people lost their citizenship between January and November. A Foreign Office source told the Bureau the rise was due to efforts to prevent fighters returning from Syria. And May told the Home Affairs select committee, when talking about British nationals returning from fighting in Syria: ‘Obviously there are a number of options that can be taken in certain circumstances in relation to the deprivation of citizenship.’
The current laws allow May to remove the citizenship of any dual national – including those born inside the UK – with no prior warning and no judicial approval in advance. Those who lose their nationality often find themselves trapped overseas as they fight legal appeals that can last for years.
And where cases are on national-security grounds – as in almost every case the Bureau has identified – the state can use secret evidence, so that the person affected may never learn more than the most basic details about the allegations against them.
The Bureau reported in December that today’s amendment was being planned. May held secret meetings with Coalition MPs late last year, where she briefed them on the plans.
Labour MP for Hackney South and Shoreditch, Meg Hillier said: ‘You can’t just take away the rights of citizenship from people – whether you like them or not. This just goes to show that the whole way the [Immigration] Bill has been handled is dog whistle politics. It’s about sounding tough on politics when the government doesn’t have the power to do these things.’
She added: ‘I have a respect for the office of the Home Secretary but to play politics this way is objectionable.’
The amendment removes the ban on making people stateless, as long as the person affected has been naturalised – so it will not apply to British-born people. The Bureau has identified five British-born individuals, with dual nationality, who have lost their UK nationality under the current provisions, which will remain in force.
The new amendment will allow May to make an individual stateless if they have done something ‘seriously prejudicial’ to the UK’s interests. The clause states that the law will have a retroactive function: May will be able to look at ‘the manner in which a person conducted him or herself’ from before the law was passed in order to decide whether to remove their citizenship.
A group of Labour MPs, including Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper and Shadow Home Office Minister David Hanson, tabled a last ditch amendment which, if accepted, would require the Home Secretary to apply to court in order to render an individual stateless.
The change to the law was first discussed weeks after the Supreme Court ruled that the Home Secretary’s efforts to remove the British citizenship of an Iraqi-born man were illegal as they would make him stateless. Hilal al Jedda had spent six years in legal battles appealing against the loss of his British citizenship.
Al Jedda had lost his Iraqi nationality when he first became British in the early 1990s and May argued that changes to the law meant that he could have reapplied for citizenship had he wanted to, so it was not her fault if he was made stateless. The judges rejected this argument. But three weeks after the judgment, May issued a new deprivation of citizenship order, effectively forcing al Jedda to return to the start of the appeals process.
A spokesman for the charity Reprieve commenting on the latest amendment said: ‘This is a very alarming development, which reverses a long-standing ban on citizenship-stripping where doing so would leave someone stateless. It would give the Home Secretary the power to tear up people’s passports without any need for the kind of due process we might once have expected as British citizens.
‘The concern is that this is all part of the wider excesses of the US-led ‘war on terror’: once someone has been rendered stateless, it becomes much easier to subject them to execution-by-drone, without the inconvenience of legal consequences.’
Britain is a signatory to a UN treaty on prevention of statelessness but the new amendment appears to have been drafted so as not to breach these treaty. Under this treaty the British government has reserved the right to make an exception if someone has done something ‘seriously prejudicial to the vital interests of the state’. This is the phrasing that has been added to the amendment to the Immigration Bill. This is a tougher test than the one that is applied to dual nationals, where May must judge that someone’s presence in the UK is ‘not conducive to the public good’, but she does not have to prove they have done anything harmful, or have her decision tested by a court of law in advance.
The Guardian reported that the plans have been rushed through with the support of Nick Clegg. He told LBC they ‘would apply in cases where individuals pose a real threat to the security of this country’. He added that the amendment, while ‘controversial’, was ‘justified’.
Immigration minister Mark Harper said: ‘Those who threaten this country’s security put us all at risk. This government will take all necessary steps to protect the public.
‘Citizenship is privilege, not a right. These proposals will strengthen the Home Secretary’s powers to ensure that very dangerous individuals can be excluded from the privileges attached to citizenship if it is in the public interest to do so.’