Making UK citizens non-persons

Last week at Westminster, the home secretary introduced a late amendment to an immigration-control bill which would allow her to make UK citizens stateless—without first requiring recourse to the courts.

Alice Ross Patrick Galey
3 February 2014

MPs voted last week at Westminster overwhelmingly in favour of giving the home secretary, Theresa May, powers to make people stateless if she felt they posed a threat to the public. After hours of debate in Parliament, a last-minute amendment to the government’s Immigration Bill passed by 297 votes to 34.  

Existing powers allow the home secretary to strip dual nationals of their UK citizenship under the British Nationality Act if she deems their presence “not conducive to the public good”. The amendment will give her the ability to remove UK nationality from foreign-born or naturalised individuals, even if they do not have another nationality—rendering them stateless.

Under prior legislation, the home secretary can remove an individual’s citizenship with just a couple of days’ notice. This order takes immediate effect, so the only route for an individual to contest the allegations against them is retrospective legal appeal, which can drag on for years. And where the action is taken on “national security” grounds, evidence can be presented in secret, effectively preventing the individual from learning anything but the most basic outline of the claim against them.

Until now, however, the home secretary could not make an individual stateless. Last week’s vote takes her one step closer. The Labour MP Tom Watson, who opposed the bill, said: “Use of this power under the coalition government is on the up. There is no due process and appeal is notoriously tough. If this amendment is passed, British citizens can be made stateless by their own government without any independent scrutiny.”

The new legislation had been in the offing for weeks. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism reported in December that May had planned to take on the power to make people stateless. It was a move considered fraught with legal difficulties. The UK is one of 54 signatories to the 1961 UN Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness, which prohibits doing so.

But the UK signed a reservation to the treaty IN 1966 allowing it to remove citizenship even if it makes someone stateless, if s/he has “conducted him or herself in a manner which is seriously prejudicial to the vital interests of the United Kingdom”—exactly the language used in the new bill. This represents a slightly tougher test than the “not conducive” ground, where May can act based on what she believes an individual might do, rather than what they have already done.

It is the lack of recourse to a court that some campaign groups and legal experts see as the most worrying part of citizenship-stripping orders. Mike Thornton of Labour’s shadow team told MPs that removing citizenship without consulting a judge meant the designation of an individual as “seriously prejudicial” could be “anything [the home secretary] chooses”. The shadow home secretary, Yvette Cooper, unsuccessfully attempted to insert an amendment to the amendment, which would have forced May to apply to a court in advance of revoking nationality. The charity Reprieve said the bill gave “the home secretary the power to tear up people’s passports without any need for the kind of due process we might once have expected as British citizens”.


May has already rapidly escalated the use of citizenship-stripping. Research by the bureau has found that 37 individuals have lost their citizenship since the coalition came to power in 2010. The home secretary stripped 20 people of their British nationality in 2013—more than in the other years of government combined.

the Home Office’s preference in these cases is simply to wait until individuals are out of the UK before stripping them of their British citizenship

A senior former Foreign Office source said citizenship-stripping was rising partly because of the war in Syria, claiming it was an “open secret” that British nationals who travelled to participate in fighting there would have their citizenship revoked. The prime minister, David Cameron, told the Joint Committee for the National Security Strategy that the war in Syria was “not unrelated” to the debate around citizenship-stripping.

In all, 41 British nationals have lost their citizenship since 2002, when longstanding citizenship-removal laws were rewritten by the Labour government to make them more applicable to terrorism suspects. During last week’s debate, May revealed that 27 had been “national security” cases, the remainder involving alleged fraud.

Two who lost their citizenship, London-born Mohamed Sakr and his childhood friend Bilal al Berjawi, went on to die in drone strikes. A further man, Mahdi Hashi, was the subject of rendition to the US, where he was held in secret for over a month and faces terror charges.

May’s amendment to facilitate statelessness seems to have been prompted in part by the Home Office’s frustration with the case of Hilal al Jedda. The Iraqi-born man was held for three years without trial by British forces in Iraq and lost his citizenship under Labour just before his release in 2007.

After a six-year legal battle, the Supreme Court ruled last October that the order was illegal as it rendered Jedda stateless. But just three weeks after her court defeat, May stripped Jedda of his UK nationality for the second time. His legal team is appealing again.

In last week’s debate, MPs grilled the home secretary on the practicalities of making someone stateless, voicing disquiet over the prospect of British nationals being whipped off the UK’s streets and banished to perpetual exile. The reality is arguably more sinister.

Court documents and decisions handed down in appeals chambers clearly indicate that the Home Office’s preference in these cases is simply to wait until individuals are out of the UK before stripping them of their British citizenship. These decisions can take years to appeal and often leave individuals stranded in a foreign country, with none of the protections offered to British citizens and often without any right to remain where they are. May said the new powers would only be used under “very particular, limited and specific circumstances”.

“Dog whistle”

The amendment was criticised by some MPs. The Labour MP Meg Hillier said: “You can’t just take away the rights of citizenship from people—whether you like them or not. This just goes to show that the whole way the [Immigration] bill has been handled is dog whistle politics. It’s about sounding tough on politics when the government doesn’t have the power to do these things.”

The Green MP Caroline Lucas tweeted: “Cynical filibustering by Govt in #immigrationbill debate—a miserable & irresponsible piece of legislation designed to out-tough [the UK Independence Party].” The immigration minister, Mark Harper, remained adamant that the new law would make Britain safer. “Those who threaten this country’s security put us all at risk. This government will take all necessary steps to protect the public. Citizenship is a privilege, not a right,” he said.

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