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Stripping citizenship undermines the rule of law

Reprieve’s Director Maya Foa’s opinion piece in The Times:

British citizenship is indeed a great privilege, but it is extraordinarily dangerous to assume, as this Government has, that it is held at the pleasure of the home secretary.

Citizenship is our connection to this country, its history and its institutions – and to democratic principles of which we are rightly proud. It is not something to be taken away lightly.

Yet this is exactly what the government is proposing in clause nine of the Nationality & Borders Bill. Priti Patel, the home secretary, can already take away all the rights that come with a British passport simply by posting a letter to your last known address. She now wants to skip that step and do so in complete secrecy.

This is the power of an absolute monarch or tyrant, not of an elected representative in a modern state. If you don’t know you have been stripped of citizenship, you cannot appeal. You can’t tell people or contact your MP and ask for democratic public scrutiny of the home secretary’s actions.

This corrodes the rule of law and sovereignty of Parliament and gives individual government ministers powers to deny their fellow citizens their fundamental right to a fair hearing – now or under any future government. Even if you trust Priti Patel with that power, you don’t know who will hold that office in future.

When you are issued a speeding ticket in this country the government gives you notice in writing. Something has gone profoundly wrong when a person caught doing 78mph on the M4 is afforded more due process than people being stripped of their British citizenship and the rights that come with it.

Banishment is an ancient punishment: the Romans called it “deportatio”. It fell into disuse following the Second World War, as states recoiled from the wholesale citizenship-stripping of German Jews by the Nazis, under the Nuremburg Laws of the 1930s.

Until 2006, it was almost unheard of for British nationals to be deprived of their citizenship on grounds of behaviour, the few exceptions being people caught spying for Russia. But in the last decade, the use of this draconian punishment has increased exponentially, for an ever wider range of reasons.

Under both British and international law, citizenship may not be stripped if to do so would leave the person stateless, but this only protects those with no possible claim to a second nationality – and the government has shown that it considers very tenuous links to another country to be sufficient.

Britain’s increased use of citizenship-stripping is already causing disquiet among our allies, with former US State Department officials warning that governments “should think twice about stripping their nationals of citizenship”.

In resorting to the summary deprivation of rights, the government is demonstrating, once again, that it does not trust British institutions to administer justice. In testimony to parliamentarians last month, the former director of public prosecutions Sir Ken MacDonald was scathing about this lack of faith in our courts.

“It’s demeaning to the British state to be washing its hands of its own citizens,” he said. “I think that a nation that has any confidence in itself and any confidence in its own institutions and in particular its institutions of justice would never go down this path of saying, this individual who was once a member of our national family we can no longer cope with and we’re going to cast out.”

Whether a person is British or not should not be at the whim of the home secretary, and nor should the decision of whether to inform them that their citizenship is being taken away.

The distinguished judge Lord Steyn once said that in “our system of law surprise is regarded as the enemy of justice”. Citizenship deprivation by surprise is an affront to ideals of justice Britain holds dear.

The irony is that one of the key traits that defines the British in the eyes of the world is respect for the rule of law. This government appears to have lost sight of that.