Last barrier to citizenship?

Commonwealth soldiers serving in the UK armed forces are not often in the news these days, but when they are, the occasion is invariably prompted by immigration issues. Most recently it has been in connection with individuals who have served in the army for years but, after leaving, been refused settlement in the UK or even UK citizenship, for a variety of reasons. These situations routinely point to the contradictions inherent in their fraught position as soldiers (patriotic citizens!) and migrants (unwanted scroungers!).

The latest episode to attract media attention – although minimal by comparison – concerns a private members bill currently going through parliament. Its aim is to fix a clause in the 1981 Nationality Act that effectively disadvantages members of the armed forces applying for UK citizenship. The 1981 act ruled that those applying for citizenship must show that they were physically present in the country five years to the day before the application is made. For those Commonwealth citizens in the armed forces, either based outside the country or deployed in Iraq, Afghanistan or elsewhere, this presents an obstacle that was not officially recognized until 2010 when the coalition government was forced to consider the legal implications of the military covenant.

This private member’s bill, proposed by Woking Tory MP Jonathan Lord, Citizenship (Armed Forces) Bill has romped through the House of Commons with minimal objections from those who stayed in to debate it. Having established that it only affects around 200 service people in all, and won’t herald a new flood of migrants demanding to live in the UK, the bill has now begun the process through the House of Lords. A transcript of the Commons debates can be found here and gives a vivid, though utterly predictable, account of how these issues are treated by our leaders.

Commonwealth army recruits in 2010

Map showing home countries of Commonwealth recruits at the Infantry Training Centre, Catterick, in 2010.

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