Once it was the rarest of steps for a Home Secretary to tear up a Briton’s passport. But the number of times it has happened has soared since Theresa May has been in the job.
According to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, she has removed the citizenship of 37 people on the grounds that their status was acquired by fraud or that their presence was “seriously prejudicial” to the UK – in other words, that they were suspected of terrorist links.
Last year she sought to prevent the return of dual-nationals who have gone to fight in Syria. But Ms May now wants to go much further – and annul passports even if the holder is consigned to the international legal limbo of being deemed “stateless”.
The measure was introduced quietly, at very short notice, in the Immigration Bill, which has won far more headlines for voter-friendly measures designed to deter suspected “benefit tourism” from the European Union.
Autocratic governments from Nazi Germany, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, the Mobutu regime in Zaire to the military rulers of Burma have deployed “statelessness” as a weapon. As a result there are international conventions to ensure no one is at risk of persecution because they have been deprived of the protection of a national identity.
Now, to the fury of civil liberties groups, Britain appears set to become the first major Western nation to break with that principle although Ireland, Belgium and Cyprus have taken a similar step.
The plan passed through the Commons after the briefest of debates, with MPs apparently caught by surprise, but has run into concerted opposition in the Lords.
The issue was brought to a head when the Supreme Court ruled that Ms May’s decision to revoke an Iraqi-born man’s citizenship was illegal because it would have rendered him stateless.
Hilal al-Jedda was held for three years in Iraq on suspicion of smuggling weapons and planning bomb attacks. He was eventually released without charge and, but for the planned change of law, could have expected to return to the UK.
The Home Secretary insists her “proportionate and necessary” measure will be targeted sparingly against “very dangerous individuals who have brought such action upon themselves through terrorist-related acts”. She also argues the move does not breach Britain’s international commitments to reducing statelessness.
But she is struggling to convince the sceptics. When the proposal was debated in the Lords this week, a Home Office minister was the only person to speak in favour.
That was ominous for Ms May and the prospect is growing of a Government defeat when the measure is put to a vote next month.
The breadth of opposition was underlined when the former Tory cabinet minister, Lord Deben, warned of the danger of “great injustice”. Ministers are under pressure to compromise and stress that anyone deprived of citizenship would have the right of appeal. How useful this would be, though, is unclear given that suspected terrorists are not allowed to see the evidence against them.
Where would former citizens be expected to go? The Government suggests they should talk to their nation of origin. If no other country will have them, they could be granted permission to stay in Britain but without a passport.
They would be living in a curious shadow world, allowed to work and pay tax, but not to vote, use public services or travel abroad.
The situation of a handful of alleged terrorist sympathisers will win scant popular sympathy.
But Lord Deben was speaking for many parliamentarians when he told his Tory colleagues: “It is none the less injustice if it affects but one.”