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Is citizenship a right or a privilege?

Is citizenship a right or a privilege?
4 min read

Stripping someone of their British citizenship is contentious, so a new clause allowing the government to revoke it without notice has reinvigorated the debate on how the Home Office views citizenship. Analysis by Laura Hutchinson of Dods Political Intelligence

Before the government stripped London-born Shamima Begum of her British citizenship in 2019 for joining Islamic State in Syria, many were unaware the home secretary had such powers at their disposal. 

In fact, aspects of this authority have existed in some form since 1914. New powers included in the nationality and borders legislation have brought the subject back under parliamentary scrutiny, with concerns raised about the impact this practice could have on ethnic minorities.  

Human rights groups insist the new powers will disproportionally impact non-white Britons

Clause nine specifies new powers to allow a home secretary to remove citizenship without prior notification. Previously the government had to notify individuals of its intention, thereby allowing ample time to appeal. 

The Home Office argues this change is purely administrative and the powers are vital for national security. Human rights groups insist the new powers will disproportionally impact non-white Britons, and could punish individuals who have been groomed, trafficked, or coerced into criminal activity.

The Institute of Race Relations (IRR) argues the powers are “draconian” and could lead to unequal treatment for British-born citizens with dual nationality, or sole nationals who acquire another nationality. 

Frances Webber, vice-chair of the IRR, tells The House the no-notice revocation clause “builds on discriminatory citizenship-stripping measures” and reminds dual nationals – mostly ethnic minorities – that “even if born here, they are not citizens by right, only by withdrawable privilege”.
The Home Office stresses it restricts the option of removing British citizenship to those who have obtained it by fraud or pose a threat to the UK, and failing to inform people their citizenship is being revoked will occur only in exceptional circumstances.

“That is not a policy change; the grounds on which that decision can be taken and the statutory right of appeal from it remain unchanged,” former justice minister Lord Wolfson of Tredegar told Parliament. 

Regardless, the change has reinvigorated the debate on how the Home Office views citizenship. 
Speaking to The House, the Muslim Council of Britain says the new powers threaten Britain’s historic tradition of being a welcoming place, arguing the legislation presents an “affront to human rights that will have devastating consequences on a cross-section of our communities and wider society”.

“Nationality and citizenship are not a privilege but a human right. They cannot be removed, as this allows for, by the government and without question or appeal,” a spokesperson adds. 

The 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that everyone has a right to a nationality, but the government is clear the new powers, and its use of citizenship-stripping more widely, are consistent with international obligations. 

Regardless, human rights groups argue the Home Office already has the broadest powers to strip citizenship of any G20 nation, and in recent years has deprived more people than any country in the world, with the exception of Bahrain.

Speaking to The House, Reprieve argues the government is moving in the wrong direction with these new powers.

“Rather than seek to extend these vast executive powers still further, it should reflect on how it has come to be so out of step with its allies on this key issue,” a spokesperson tells The House. 

Responding to the criticism, a Home Office spokesperson says: “Our priority is to ensure the safety and security of the UK. Deprivation of citizenship is used against those who have acquired citizenship by fraud and against the most dangerous people, such as terrorists, extremists and serious organised criminals. 

“Deprivation of citizenship only happens after very careful consideration of the facts and in accordance with international law. Each case is assessed individually on its own merits and always comes with the right of appeal.”

Visit the Dods Political Intelligence site here.

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