The Nationality and Borders Bill

The UK government’s controversial new bill is raising concern as it nears finalisation

Photo by Ethan Wilkinson for Unsplash.

Tara Weatherston

The Nationality and Borders Bill, which is close to being passed, makes it a criminal offence to arrive in the UK without permission, with a maximum sentence of up to four years. The bill lets the UK send asylum seekers to a “safe third country” and can allow for offshore processing centres overseas instead of considering their asylum claims in the UK. Home Secretary Priti Patel also introduced a provision under Clause 9 that would allow the government to strip people of their British citizenship without notice. 

Ministers claim the legislation has three main objectives; to make the system fairer and more effective so that we can better protect and support those in genuine need of asylum, to deter illegal entry into the UK and save lives by breaking the business model of criminal trafficking networks, and to remove those with no right to be in the UK. They say it is necessary considering the increase in UK asylum applications, the inefficiency of the appeals system and the cost of the system being over £1 billion a year. However, it has stirred controversy for its breaches of law, its unworkable measures and its discriminatory nature.

The government has held the right to strip dual nationals of their British citizenship since 2006 when “deemed to be conducive to the public good”. The difference now is that the government may be exempt from giving notice in certain circumstances. So, who does this affect? The government has said that deprivation on these grounds would be a response to activities including, but not limited to, espionage, terrorism, war crimes, serious and organised crime. According to this, not many Britons will be affected, but the powers have been framed widely in the law and could be used beyond the national security emergency scenario. Victims of the Windrush scandal can testify that the government’s word means nothing and that it is typically members of our BAME communities that will disproportionately suffer at the hands of our government.

The government is exempt from giving notice when it is “reasonably practicable” 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 government has said that most will still receive notice and only in extreme circumstances will they not. But again, this may not be the reality as there is a lot of flexibility in the wording of the bill. A big concern is whether the deprivation of notice will affect a person’s right to appeal. The government has insisted that it will not, but people may find their right to appeal has timed-out before they are even aware the action was taken, or they may be outside the country when they find out. The provision is a clear attempt to prevent people securing their right to appeal, despite government reassurances.

Another concern is whether people can be made stateless. According to the Nationality and Borders Bill fact sheet posted to the government’s website, the Home Secretary’s power to deprive people of their citizenship “cannot leave anyone stateless”. That is not necessarily true, however. The law only requires that the Home Secretary “has reasonable grounds for believing” that the individual could acquire a foreign citizenship. This means that people would be left stateless if this turns out to not be possible, and certainly in the time it takes to acquire another nationality if it is. The Home Office need to clarify this concerning contradiction.  

Priti Patel said that the legislation would authorise “boat turnarounds” and would give Border Force staff who commit criminal offences while pushing back boats, immunity from prosecution. This is in response to the rise of people making perilous journeys across the English Channel. However, the JCHR (Joint Community on Human Rights) argue that these push backs are not the solution and would not deter crossings but make the seas even more dangerous and the people smugglers will continue to evade punishment. They say that the current failures of the immigration and asylum system cannot be remedied by harsher penalties and more dangerous enforcement action. There are also allegations from Amnesty International that the bill undermines the Refugee Convention, the Convention of the Rights of the Child and the Convention on Reduction of Statelessness. A human rights group, Freedom From Torture, report that the government plans to send those claiming asylum to offshore centres would breach three articles of the European Convention on Human Rights.  

Many people have called for the Nationality and Borders Bill to be scrapped. As of 2nd January, over 304,000 people have signed a petition to have Clause 9 scrapped and many organisations such as Stand up to Racism and Windrush Lives have called for it to be voided altogether. MPs approved the bill on its third reading earlier in December despite criticism from all sides of the Commons. It will now go to the House of Lords where it will be debated at its second reading stage on 5th January. It will be important to hold the government accountable at every stage of the passing of this bill to ensure that everyone’s rights are equally protected.