People will no longer need to be notified that they are being stripped of their citizenship, thanks to a clause smuggled into the nationality and borders bill last week. This is an unfair and draconian measure that MPs ought to be ashamed to pass into law. How can a person challenge a decision that they do not know about? It is hard to imagine that the home secretary, Priti Patel, who has agitated for the death penalty, would lose any sleep over enacting such an unjust, authoritarian measure. But she should think again.
The principle of rule of law is that an individual has a right to know of a decision before their rights can be adversely affected. Currently, the Home Office has to make some effort to contact someone before depriving them of citizenship. Ministers think this legal requirement should be dropped in favour of executive discretion because of the threat, and crucially the fear, of terrorism. The new power is exceptionally broad: notice will not be needed if it would not be “reasonably practicable” to give it; or in the interests of “national security” or diplomatic relations; or for other “public interest” reasons.
The home secretary can revoke British citizenship when it would be “conducive to the public good”, but would not make that person stateless. There is a wrinkle: naturalised citizens could lose their British nationality if the government has “reasonable grounds” for believing they could acquire citizenship of another country. Removing the citizenship of such persons without telling them signals a retreat from one of the law’s most fundamental values.
It also sends a message to a group of Britons, especially non-white citizens and particularly Muslim ones, that despite being born and brought up in the UK and having no other home, their citizenship is far from secure. It seems the lessons from the Windrush scandal have not been learned. Citizens with links to other nations are being told they could be at risk of being deprived of their British nationality without warning and for reasons deemed so security sensitive that they may never be made public.
Ministers have argued that they are ultimately democratically accountable and that this is grounds for judicial deference. But there is no or very little democratic accountability for national security decisions that are shrouded in secrecy and made with little oversight. Between 2006 and 2018, 175 people lost their citizenship on national security grounds – but 100 of those instances occurred in just one year, 2017. There seems little cause to give ministers more leeway about delaying and perhaps even denying information about deprivation of British citizenship.
This policy is also potentially counterproductive– allowing the UK to dodge its international responsibilities by exiling people whom it considers security risks. Britain ought to be dealing with such people at home, not offloading them for others to handle. The increased use of deprivation powers and the expanding categories of people against whom action can be taken suggests this is the thin edge of the wedge. Citizenship may now be revoked for serious crimes, and has been used against the members of “grooming gangs”. The public may have little sympathy, but once the precedent is established then others perhaps guilty of less odious crimes could also be targeted. In a seminal House of Lords judgment on notice in 2003, Lord Steyn wisely said that “surprise is regarded as the enemy of justice”. MPs ought to reject the clause. Citizenship isn’t a privilege dependent on ministerial whim, but a status on which legal order is built.