As longstanding human rights campaigners, we are both well acquainted with the harsh realities of inequality and injustice in modern Britain. But the government’s nationality and borders bill – which will be in the committee stage at the House of Lords for the next two weeks – feels like a very personal insult. This is because it lays bare an uncomfortable and usually unspoken truth: that people like us, born in Britain but with foreign-born parents, are second-class citizens.
We are talking about the bill’s provision to strengthen the government’s ability to deprive people of citizenship – a profound exercise of state power. Currently, the home secretary has the power to do this if they determine it is “conducive to the public good” and if they believe the person being deprived is eligible for the citizenship of another country. This last condition has been estimated to be applicable to several million people.
Hundreds of formerly British citizens, especially from ethnic minorities, have already been stripped of their citizenship in the past 15 years. But Boris Johnson’s government wants to go even further. Clause 9 of this generally poisonous bill would give ministers the ability to remove our British citizenship without even telling us. This would severely affect the right of appeal; contesting government decisions needs to be done in a timely and effective way, but how would this be possible if you don’t know that the decision has been made? It seems the government is saying, if we take your citizenship, you’ve lost it. Period.
This is why we have come together, as members of the House of Lords, to oppose the government’s plans and will be supporting an amendment removing clause 9 in committee stage, along with other amendments to restrict already draconian citizenship removal powers.
Why does clause 9 feel so personal? Because it seems to say that no matter that this is the only country we’ve ever lived in; no matter that our life’s work has been to make our nation fairer; no matter that we are both peers of the realm because of this work; no matter that our ancestors gave their lives in two world wars: our citizenship is precarious and conditional in a way that isn’t the case for many others. It can be stripped away by the government of the day.
For those pushing through this bill, the history of Commonwealth migration of British citizens to the UK counts for nothing. Simon’s mother arrived in the late 1950s to give her best years to the recently formed NHS. Soon afterwards, the then health minister Enoch Powell (before he became an overt racist) flew to Barbados to call on British overseas citizens to come to the UK and support the NHS: thousands responded to that call. In that same era, Shami’s parents came from Kolkata to London. Years of race discrimination and even physical attacks never deterred them.
In a House of Lords debate on the bill this month, peers spoke about the hundreds of thousands from Africa, the Caribbean and Asia who fought for Britain in two world wars, believing they were part of a wider family. They believed they had earned the right for their children and grandchildren to be treated as equals. It seems they were wrong.
And this is not just an argument about morality: because when you have a second class, precarious version of citizenship it becomes open to political interpretation – as we have tragically seen in recent years. Everyone now accepts that the Windrush scandal – which saw legitimate British citizens denied healthcare and benefits, or hounded out of their country and left to die impoverished in places they had left as toddlers – is a stain on this country. So why are hundreds of British citizens still being stripped of their citizenship? Just recently a British-born man with Bangladeshi heritage had his citizenship removed and spent four years challenging the decision. He is now on his way back to the UK after winning his appeal.
What the Windrush scandal and other cases show is that governments make a lot of mistakes. The idea that a “good British citizen” – particularly those from the most affected groups of Black and Asian people – can be safe and secure is frankly fanciful. Rather than continuing to erode fundamental rights, the government should be trying to strengthen security and belonging for everyone. That also goes for other parts of the bill, which trash even the 1951 refugee convention by treating the most desperate, who escape persecution by clandestine means, as second-class asylum seekers.
This shouldn’t be a partisan issue. When the Conservative Lord Moylan spoke passionately about witnessing citizenship ceremonies as wonderful celebrations of belonging, he said: “My conception of British nationality is much more profound than a mere travel document. It is – or should be – a permanent and reciprocal bond of loyalty on the one hand and protection on the other … we should be building up and strengthening the bond between citizen and nation, whereas it seems to me that this provision goes only to dissolve it further.”
He is right, of course. Millions of people in this country, whose passport photos show faces that are not white, are vulnerable to structural racism – including when turbo-charged by broad powers of citizenship deprivation. The thought of citizenship being stripped without notice will only create fear and alienation, and do nothing to bring the people of this nation closer together.
Shami Chakrabarti was shadow attorney general for England and Wales from 2016 to 2020, and was director of Liberty from 2003 to 2016. Simon Woolley is the director of Operation Black Vote. He was chair of the No 10 race disparity unit until July 2020