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1980s

British Nationality Act 1981

British Nationality ActThe British Nationality Act received Royal Assent on 30 October 1981 and came into force on 1 January 1983. The legislation made significant changes to the requirements for British citizenship. Citizenship was reclassified into three categories: British citizenship, British Dependent Territories citizenship, and British Overseas citizenship.

The legislation was not passed without criticism. The Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants (JCWI) linked the civil unrest of 1981 to the Nationality Act, pointing to the negative effects of such laws on the security of and discrimination against the black community.

Before the Act, any person born in Britain was entitled to British citizenship. However, after the Act came into force, at least one parent of a child born in the UK had to be a British citizen or a permanent resident in order to claim citizenship. The new legislation therefore left a generation of effectively 'stateless' children, whose citizenship was demoted to Overseas Citizen status, despite them having been born and raised in the UK.

British Overseas Citizenship was a more symbolic than functional status as it was not recognised for immigration control in other countries. Canada viewed Overseas Citizens passports as, 'not a passport at all' unless it included a stamp confirming the right of readmission to Britain.

British Indian passportNearly 21,000 people of Indian ancestry were left effectively stateless as British Overseas citizens, while, for example, white South Africans continued as citizens because of direct ancestry. Minister of State Timothy Raison spoke at the Sri Guru Sabha Sikh Temple in Slough, defending the government against claims that the bill was racially discriminatory: 'There are already a great many people in the United Kingdom who hold our citizenship after coming here from overseas. They will all become British citizens irrespective of race or cultural background. And acquisition of citizenship when the Bill becomes law will be on an entirely non-racial basis.' To improve the situation, special provisions were made for non-British UK-born children to acquire British citizenship.

A Runnymede statement released shortly before the Act was passed argued that, 'the government has completely failed to grasp that questions of nationality and citizenship are not solely about rights of entry and immigration but about rights and duties generally and allegiance to a system of law and government.'

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