A rights based society? How the UK Home Office is plummeting us into a rights disaster

When did it become acceptable for a government to disregard its duty of care to its citizens? When did the every day abuse of power become normal? We have a government department that is often described as being “a law unto itself” and that is tolerated. Either through apathy, ignorance or acceptance. The “hostile environment” is well publicised, the staggering incompetence documented and regularly reported on. Yet instead of reform or a roll back we are seeing an expansion of the draconian policies that cause immeasurable hardship on citizens. We are sleepwalking into a rights disaster like no other. One that sees international treaties thrown to the wayside, normalising routine breaches of domestic policies which will affect us all.

Citizenship is fast becoming tied to rights. Rights such as freedom from discrimination, a right to a fair trial are all free from government interference. But increasingly, an undeniable human right is being dictated and infringed on by government – that of controlled citizenship. The British government and the British Home Office are especially skilled at the removal of rights through citizenship. We’ve seen case after case after case such as the removal of British citizenship in the Shamima Begum case, the denial of British citizenship for Shane Ridge and the forced British citizenship on people such as myself.

Dual citizenship is allowed in the United Kingdom. However, the Home Office has latched on to an ECJ ruling in 2012 as a way to restrict rights and entitlements of dual nationals resident in the UK.

Prior to 2012, dual British nationals were able to access their EU rights such as family reunification in the United Kingdom. As a result of the 2012 changes, dual British/EU nationals cannot now access some of their fundamental EU rights including family reunification whilst in the United Kingdom. Moving to another member state changes that, but domestically this is used as a way to remove rights.

This restriction on dual nationals will continue post-Brexit after it was established that the Home Office settlement scheme – the UK’s enactment of the citizens rights chapter of the withdrawal agreement – is inaccessible to dual EU nationals who were born British. This is a very specific rule, as dual EU nationals who have naturalised as British citizens, and are therefore also dual British/EU nationals, are able to access it, thereby fully accessing and retaining their rights as EU citizens.

Sounds complicated right? That’s before we even look at the complexities of Northern Ireland where each individual has the right to be accepted as British or Irish or both without discrimination. Windrush, a scandal that rippled across the UK and beyond, happened with just three categories of citizenship in the United Kingdom. Post-Brexit we are looking at a possible 13 categories of citizenship – which the Home Office will be entirely responsible for. If that isn’t a rights disaster waiting to happen I don’t know what is.

The department’s statistics are eye watering in the reckless waste of resources and the needless, heartless treatment of citizens.

75% of Home Office decisions are overturned on appeal – let that sink in.

The department regularly denies valid applications forcing citizens into the appeals process, which is costly and time consuming. The right of appeal has been removed in many cases and legal aid removed in most immigration circumstances, making the process even more difficult for the most vulnerable. The process is slow, even more so as it has become common practice for the Home Office to withdraw their decision the day before the appeal hearing, stating that the department “cannot stand over the decision.” Our tribunals are backed up every single week with these tactics.

How is this acceptable for 75% of complaints against the Home Office to the ombudsman to be upheld? That’s a stark contrast to the 10% of complaints against HM Revenues and Customs. Is no-one looking at the expenditure and resource management of this department? A department that is funded by the taxpayer and that has a duty of care to the people.

There are too many cases, too many instances of ineptitude to cover. My husband and I are one of those cases, and we’ve experienced many of the tried and tested Home Office violations of rights. There was the removal of freedom of movement, that lasted two years. The inability to prove my husband’s legal right to reside in the UK – even though the Home Office is supposed to issue a document proving so. Without it his ability to work, access healthcare and to obtain a drivers license were all restricted. We were denied the right to family life in the midst of a family bereavement, told we were welcome to leave but would not be able to return. A Home Office decision cost us and our wider families more hardship than we care to recount.

These restrictions are based on imposed citizenship. I am an Irish national born in Northern Ireland, I have never held a British passport and under the Good Friday Agreement the British government has a responsibility to accept me as an Irish national only. However, the Home Office maintains that I am a British citizen, by birth and are using this unclaimed citizenship as a way to remove my rights as an Irish/EU citizen. They do not dispute that this right exists in the Good Friday Agreement but rather that because it hasn’t been legislated into domestic UK law the department is not bound to upholding it.

Northern Ireland is unique within the United Kingdom, something the Home Office often ignores. Immigration solicitors have spoken of cases where Irish citizens are being told they’ve obtained their Irish passport fraudulently – having been born in Northern Ireland, that their Irish children are not settled in the UK, that a person couldn’t be Irish if born to a parent from Northern Ireland. Random examples that have worryingly been argued in court and that have been allowed to continue unimpeded and unquestioned. 

Astoundingly, Irish citizens in Northern Ireland are often advised to renounce British citizenship by the Home Office in order to be accepted as Irish and to access their wider EU rights. The Home Office has taken a rather interesting view of the Good Friday Agreement birthright provisions, where instead of accepting NI citizens as Irish or British or both, they deem everyone to be British. This does not provide security or better access to rights and entitlements, but rather restricts rights based on dual nationality. Where is the political outcry and accountability for this affront on citizenship and the Good Friday Agreement?

Concern grows for the EU settlement scheme and for EU citizens in the United Kingdom who will now be privy to the inner workings of the hostile environment.

EU citizens have increasingly been targeted by Home Office policies even before Brexit. In Larne House, an immigration detention centre in Northern Ireland, the number of EU nationals detained rose from 15 to 161 between 2012 and 2016. In 2018 1 in 4 people detained at Larne House were EU nationals. Thousands of EU nationals were denied their vote in the European elections in the United Kingdom in May 2019. Nothing was done to prevent the mass denial of a fundamental right. And I’d anticipate that little may be done to rectify it.

Our own case continues. Beginning in 2015, it has been plagued with by the predictable bureaucratic tactics of the Home Office. After the ruling in our favour, the Home Office has successfully stalled and delayed and deferred the process. The department appealed against us – an appeal that was initially denied and followed up with a further appeal. Once in court, with a raft of QCs, barristers, solicitors and observers, the Home Office requested an adjournment, as they “could not present their argument at this time” the adjournment lasted 6 months.

We were relieved to be re-listed, ready to go to court and present our argument. What we got instead was a further adjournment, the Home Office managed to bide itself another 6 months – 6 more months of our lives.

Since they lodged their appeal in February 2018, the department has successfully managed to avoid presenting their argument. They’ve successfully kept the case in the immigration tribunals, and they’ve successfully kept the blatant disregard for the Good Friday Agreement under wraps.

It’s been 16 months since that appeal was lodged. 16 months that we will never get back. Another tried and tested Home Office policy. One that our government enables and our MPs accept. We are walking into a rights disaster that Brexit will expedite and that no-one is protecting us from.