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Opinion

The Nationality and Borders Bill is a slap in the face of the Windrush generation

Plans that could see Britons stripped of their citizenship without notice are inherently racist and must be resisted, writes Ramya Jaidev, co-founder of advocacy group Windrush Lives.

Priti Patel's Nationality and Borders Bill could allow people to be stripped of their British citizenship without notice. Image: Andrew Parsons / No 10 Downing Street

You may by now have seen references to a new proposed law that threatens to strip the citizenship of upwards of six million Britons without notice.

You may also have seen counter-claims asserting that the law – contained in clause 9 of the Nationality and Borders Bill, which has its second reading in the House of Lords on Wednesday – is a minor technicality that does not significantly alter the status quo. Home Office minister Kevin Foster even accused MPs protesting the clause in the Commons of “scaremongering”.

Clause 9 removes a provision in the underlying 1981 law on citizenship deprivation which compels government to give notice to a person it wishes to deprive of citizenship, if it is not “reasonably practicable” to do so, or if giving such notice poses a national security threat, is contrary to our diplomatic interests, or is “otherwise in the public interest”.

The government is right in saying the underlying power to take away citizenship is not new. But concerns over clause 9 are legitimate, and calling them scaremongering is deceitful.

While the basic power to take away someone’s citizenship has existed in law for a very long time, the scope of that power has grown massively over the past 40 years.

In the British Nationality Act 1981, it was a power against naturalised citizens, if it wouldn’t make them stateless and if they had committed treason or received a sentence of imprisonment of at least a year. In 2002, that became a power against all citizens, if it wouldn’t make them stateless, and they posed a national security threat. In 2006, that became a power against all citizens, if it wouldn’t make them stateless, and where it was merely ‘conducive to the public good’ to take their citizenship away.

In 2014, that split into two threads – if you were UK-born citizen, it was a power to deprive you of citizenship, if doing so was ‘conducive to the public good’, and it wouldn’t make you stateless; but if you were a naturalised citizen, the Home Secretary could now take away your citizenship even if it would make you stateless, so long as they had only ‘reasonable grounds’ for believing you had a right to citizenship elsewhere.

The most alarming aspect of the current discourse is that this decomposition of one our most basic human rights has happened, seemingly, without most of the general population being aware of it. That is why headlines and social media posts denouncing clause 9 have tended to focus on the underlying power of citizenship deprivation – narrow focus on the content of clause 9 effectively buries the lead. That is also why clause 9 must be resisted with force and focus.

We have sleep-walked into a dystopian reality of two-tier citizenship. The system makes it much easier to take away the citizenship of dual nationals – citizens who wouldn’t be made stateless, regardless of whether they have lived elsewhere or used that second nationality for any purpose – and naturalised citizens. It is inherently racist, because, by definition, it disproportionately affects people whose parents are migrants, or who are migrants themselves.

Clause 9 is a slap in the face of the Windrush generation, who are already treated as second-class citizens.

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When the Windrush scandal broke, the Home Office promised repeatedly to “learn lessons” from its actions; that phrase has lingered like the stench of soured milk even as Windrush victims die without receiving the compensation they are owed.

What clause 9 will result in – removal of the notice provision, meaning that you may have no idea something is amiss until the immigration enforcement vans turn up on your doorstep – is exactly what happened to many of the Windrush generation. It’s literally a scene from a Bafta-winning movie about a Windrush victim – that is the level of farce at which the Home Office is presently operating.

Any attempt to downplay how this power will be used in reality should be weighed against the Home Office’s day-to-day conduct and interpretation of its powers. The Home Secretary – this Home Secretary, who tried to deport an autistic teenager to a country he knew nothing of, over the (disputed) theft of a mobile phone – has a huge amount of discretion in how to interpret citizenship deprivation powers.

Little by little, unbeknownst to most of us, our citizenship rights have been eroded along racial fault lines.

We cannot assume that reason will prevail and it will all be okay in the end – the Windrush scandal alone comfortably proves how wrong we were to trust the Home Office to behave legally and sensibly. Clause 9 may be just the garnish to a dish of arsenic, but it is poison all the same.

And when the dust from this battle has settled, we need to start a fight to roll back citizenship deprivation powers altogether. Citizenship is not a privilege – it is a right.

Ramya Jaidev is a co-founder of Windrush Lives, an advocacy group and victim support network.

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