Bishop of Wakefield speaks on Citizenship (Armed Forces) Bill

The Lord Bishop of Wakefield: My Lords, I hope that not too much of what is about to follow will be seen as motherhood and apple pie. Being at the stage of trying to lose some weight, too much apple pie is no good thing, and I have not yet tried motherhood. Those of us who are survivors of the post-Second World War baby boomer generation probably had parents who served in the forces during that war. My own father was a Royal Marine. He rarely spoke of the war in detail, but often commended the courage and generosity of others with whom he had served. A frequent theme was the remarkable generosity of foreign and Commonwealth nationals who came to serve with the British Armed Forces: Australians, Canadians, New Zealanders and so on, as well as Polish soldiers and airmen, and of course, then as now, the Gurkhas. This is a remarkable story, and one that we will remember again next year when we commemorate the 100th anniversary of Gallipoli in the First World War.

For that reason I congratulate the honourable Member for Woking on bringing this matter forward in another place. It is an inspired initiative and it is very encouraging that Her Majesty’s Government have embraced it so readily as an extension of all that has been so far achieved by putting the Armed Forces covenant on to the statute book. Some three years ago, I was pleased to offer a certain amount of time myself, alongside Peers from all parties and, of course, the Cross Benches to this very subject. During my time in this House it has been one of the initiatives in which I have been proud to play a very modest part.

The covenant has brought into statute law a tacit understanding of what our nation owes to Her Majesty’s forces and what they might expect from us in mutual support. It is an acknowledgment of the courage, tenacity and sacrifice made by those serving in the forces on land, in the air and at sea. But all those qualities are underpinned by a deeper foundation rooted in the real generosity of those who have given their time and sometimes their lives. This Bill recognises a still greater sense of self-offering by those who serve in our forces but who hail from other nations and parts of the world. The Bill is imaginative in drawing the implications of the armed services covenant into conjunction with the British Nationality Act 1981, as just noted by the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne. The amending of the requirements of that Act of Parliament ensures that foreign and Commonwealth members and former members of Her Majesty’s Armed Forces can apply for naturalisation on equal terms, irrespective of whether they were posted in the United Kingdom itself or overseas.

This is, of course, entirely consistent with the underlying principles enshrined in the Armed Forces covenant; namely, to combat disadvantage and discrimination. It is a clear sign of an act of good faith and of the trust which is implied by the very nature of the Armed Forces covenant. A covenant is an expression of mutual trust with implications, indeed imperatives, for those at either end of the covenant who thus make it a reality. I hope that noble Lords will forgive me for lapsing into theology, something which I know earlier politicians have considered takes us away from the main point. It is no accident, I would argue, that the word “covenant” is firmly rooted in the Judaeo-Christian tradition. There are at least four covenants enshrined in the Jewish scriptures, and an alternative name for the New Testament is indeed the New Covenant, which is an exact translation of the Greek. For the reason of the use of the word “covenant” alone, but for so much more in the emphasis on trust implied, the church is entirely supportive of these underlying principles.

The Bill is not about providing preferential treatment or positive discrimination for one particular section of society. Rather, it is about building inclusive communities by combating marginalisation and disadvantage. At heart it is about supporting the common good. For all these reasons I want us to support the Bill with all our hearts.


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