Ever since 9/11 the debate about terrorism has become a debased currency. The media and most of the political class seem to have completely lost sight of the fact that terrorist suspects are entitled to due process. And the distinction between a suspected terrorist and a convicted terrorist sometimes seems to have been entirely lost. From this type of thinking has emerged the Coalition government's last minute new clause in the Immigration Bill which gives the government brand-new powers to strip naturalised Britons of their citizenship and make them stateless.
The truth about this new clause was that it was thought up as a sop to the Tory backbenchers who were threatening rebellion over a clause designed to stop foreign prisoners avoiding deportation by claiming their human right to family life. This new clause had significant Labour support and the government was worried that it might actually pass. Hence the government devised the eye-catching proposal to strip terrorist suspects of citizenship.
But, like all last minute amendments designed to serve short term political ends, this new clause creates as many problems as it solves. The first problem is about the fact that it applies to terrorists suspects. Surely if the state suspects someone of terrorism they should be put on trial? But the security services are often reluctant to put terrorist suspects on trial because they do not want to reveal their phone tapping and other secret surveillance. Instead they prefer the elaborate paraphernalia of secret courts. And now the Coalition proposes to strip suspects of their citizenship. Anything it seems rather than actually put them on trial.
But the other problem with the proposal is that it creates two categories of citizenship. There will be those who acquired their British citizenship by birth, who cannot have their citizenship arbitrarily removed. But the state will be able to strip away the citizenship of naturalised Britons. Jacob Rees Mogg MP is not known as a bleeding heart liberal. But in the debate on this proposal he set out one of the central concerns:
"I always thought that Palmerston got it right on the Don Pacifico affair--the 'Civis Romanus sum' principle. Once any one of us has a passport that says we are British, we are as British as anybody else, whether they were born here or got their passport five minutes ago. It is incredibly important that there is equality before the law for all Her Majesty's subjects who are living in this country and have right of residence here.
I worry that if we give the government the ability to take passports away from a certain category of British subject but not from others, it will create a potential unfairness and a second category of citizen...Once a passport is in somebody's hands; they ought to be no different from anybody else in any legal respect."
Yet another problem with the proposal is that it may well leave some people stateless. Ever since the First World War, British governments have supported efforts to ensure that people are not forced to enter the limbo of statelessness. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1948. It said clearly that "everyone has a right to a nationality...no one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his nationality."
But in 2014 the Coalition government proposes to alter the law to allow British law to allow them to do just that. In the debate the Home Secretary claimed that the whole point of the measure to make it easier to remove certain people from the UK. However she was unable to explain how she was going to remove people whom she had rendered stateless and so would have no passport.
This is a botched proposal which is designed to make the government look tough but it actually unworkable. And it also manages to breach the fundamental basis of British citizenship. The government needs to concentrate on putting suspected terrorists on trial. It should not be tampering with centuries old concepts of British citizenship, just to gain short term advantage in its long running battles with its own back-benchers.
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