We’re joined by Philip Gamble to discuss some of the complexities of UK nationality law, including what happens if a child is incorrectly given a British passport and how to claim UK citizenship if your grandfather was a British spy.

Philip Gamble guest UK nationality podcast

Posted on 28 July 2021.

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Episode transcript

(This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity)

Tallulah van der Made: Hello and welcome to the fourth episode of the Sable International UK citizenship podcast. My name is Tallulah, and I'm here with Mishal Patel. We also have a very special guest with us today. Philip Gamble is a world-leading expert in UK immigration and British citizenship. After working on the front lines in the UK Home Office immigration casework team for some years, he started his own UK visa and nationality consultancy, which eventually became part of Sable International. Philip has represented the industry to the Home Office in the past and has had a hand in shaping UK immigration law and policy. We are honored to have him as a guest today to share some of his most memorable cases with us. Thanks for joining us.

Mishal Patel: Thanks for joining us. I know you had to carve out this hour in your schedule today. I, for one, have great admiration for what Philip does because, as you guys know, it’s thanks to what he knows, and what he was able to do with my family, that I am where I am.

I don't know if you can just give some context for how you got involved in British nationality law? Was it something that you always thought of getting into?

Philip Gamble: Indeed, it's my 31st year in this industry, so I’ve been here for quite some time. In terms of your question, what actually got me into British nationality law in the first place?

You have to have an open mind and a desire to find a solution for someone.

I think, after having a grounding in the Home Office, you get a little insight to what's going on, and you then have to decide where you want to specialise. And at the time, in the early 1990s, we were some 30/40 years on from most of the independence grants of our old Commonwealth countries. And so it was still quite topical, in terms of what rights people could derive from connections to these former territories. So the straight answer to your question is: Having a grounding in it, and then having a keen interest in history as well.

MP: Just history on its own? About the Empire and its different territories?

PG: And the desire to do things to help people. I think that's probably the biggest motivator.

MP: Yes, that's exactly what I got when I walked through your doors in 2009. You know, I got this feeling that ultimately what really drove your thinking and your sort of almost obsession with finding these claims is there was a family or a client involved and you wanted to find the solution. It all came down to wanting to help these families.

PG: Yes. You have to have an open mind and a desire to find a solution for someone.

Statelessness and how you might qualify for UK citizenship through colonial connections

MP: You know, I recently ran into one of your former clients in the city. Actually, her mom was your client. And she would have been probably about five or six years old, but I kid you not, she still remembers meeting Philip and what he's done for that family. To put it into context, without mentioning names, I think it was the second ever registration as a British protected person. Do you remember?

PG: Yes. That's an excellent example of how rare and how obscure cases can be. To my knowledge, there was only one other previous case of the same nature. Then there was her, her four children, and to my knowledge, there's not been a case since.

And that was just simply about what happens if a person finds themselves stateless, as in without any nationality of any country, and where the responsibility lies when their family connections are with a former British protectorate. It allows claims for citizenship to go forward on that basis.

MP: I am always quite surprised that you still have stateless people.

PG: It happens more frequently than we would like to see. International conventions try to stop statelessness as a whole, but there are still people who fall through the cracks and end up without any type of travel document whatsoever.

TV: So you said it was the mother, who was stateless. And through her family ties to the UK, you were able to get her UK citizenship?

 PG: It wasn’t actually family ties to the United Kingdom, it was family ties to a former British protectorate, I think it was actually Uganda, if my memory serves me correctly.

And claims like that you won't find application forms on the Home Office website. For this type of application, they rely on quite old legislation.

Where the country of birth won't give nationalities to certain classes of people, whether it's through their ethnicity, or whether it's simply because their parents don't have their citizenship at the point of the subject’s birth, people can often be left without any nationality whatsoever.

And if one of those parents has retained a right to a form of British colonial nationality, they can often be passed down in situations where their children end up stateless in the modern day, because, as we said, at the end of the day, someone has to take responsibility for such people. And it’s either the the country to which they are connected, or the former European country.

MP: Which in this case would be the UK?

PG: Yeah. It would be wrong to say that people don't have a claim to UK citizenship just simply because they have no connection to the UK itself. It could certainly be a connection to a former British territory anywhere in the world.

The certificate numbers were 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6. So yes, sometimes you have to have that desire to actually try and find a way through. And it's all based on research and history.

MP: Anywhere in the world, yeah. And it wasn’t just the mom. It was the older children as well. I think that’s why that young lady, who would have been a child at that point, remembers it.

PG: And claims like that you won't find application forms on the Home Office website. For this type of application, they rely on quite old legislation. And the skills and the knowledge to actually determine that are not readily available in the civil service anymore. So there’s certainly a bit of direction needed. Indeed, for those cases themselves there was no application form ever made for such applicants and we had to design one specifically for the people concerned and the certificates of nationality they were given at the end were, again, something that was designed specifically for these people.

TV: So custom-made citizenship?

MP: Custom-made nationality. That’s amazing.

PG: The certificate numbers were 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6. So yes, sometimes you have to have that desire to actually try and find a way through. And it's all based on research and history.

MP: Right? Yeah, so a lot of reading, and knowing what the past was in order to know where the present and future stands. You said that this is your 32nd year of doing this work?

PG: Yes, 32nd year from October. So effectively, the essence of having a good lawyer is really just down to the experience that they have. Right? When you're looking at cases which only come up once in every 30 years, then it's very difficult to get good advice in this area. Very often, we’ll find that our clients have gone to mainstream law firm, not managed to get the answers that they want, and they've come to us just simply because we have those records. So in terms of my own research, which has been very much assisted by the Home Office over the years – I have to say there's been a great deal of cooperation in that regard – we've got this list of precedent cases, which go back to the 1940s, for example. So they go back even beyond my practising life. Unless you actually have that information, it's impossible to get an accurate view now. 

What would you do if your grandparents or your grandfather turned out to be a spy for the British government?

And there are lots of, lots of, obscure cases that we come across. It's not only a question of knowing how a potential client may qualify, you've also then got to look at the standard of evidence that might be required for them to actually get through the government identification processes and all the rest.

So a good example of that, or the most extreme example of that, would be perhaps where you're looking at claims to British citizenship by descent in the second generation. By double descent, if you prefer. So that's where the subject is born overseas and the grandparent is born in the UK. A popular route that is through what we call Crown or designated service.

The Crown service – a common route to British citizenship through civil service in Southern Rhodesia and elsewhere

So Crown service is where your ancestor is working for the British government, or British civil service, whether in the UK or overseas and the overseas territories. And that allows the British nationality to pass a further generation by descent than it would do otherwise.

So crown service would come in with people working in the armed forces in the diplomatic service, and that sort of thing. And you have to show that your grandparent was recruited in the UK for that post trying to be effective. So yes, civil servants, army people. But there are a lot of other government positions, which are a little more obscure. So for example, what would you do if your grandparents or your grandfather turned out to be a spy for the British government? A spy in Rhodesia, let’s say, during the UDI period. Just think about the type of evidence you'd need to prove your grandparent was recruited in the UK?

TV: If there's evidence, then they didn't do their job properly, basically.

PG: All the evidence you will have, will show they were employed in something completely different.

All joking aside, that was actually based on an actual case that we processed. 

MP: Are you at liberty to tell us a little bit more about it?

PG: It was successful.

You’ll meet lots of interesting people, you'll find lots of interesting family histories out there. And very often they can lead to a claim.

MP: So they accepted it as designated or Crown service for the purposes of the next two generations getting nationality? So a great chance of being issued a British passport.

PG: I can't think of any other occupation which could be more related to the Crown.

crown service 

So you get some very obscure cases. I suppose another one that always sticks in my mind was the definition of Crown service for the purposes of these laws. We've spent a great deal of time obtaining rights in the second generation where the ancestors were in Crown service for areas that were previously not accepted by the UK Government. And the most prolific example of that was in Southern Rhodesia.

The view of the British government was that those who were in the civil service in that particular country cannot be in Crown service during the periods where the country had declared unilaterally that they were to be independent vendors. But, in fact, what had actually happened was that the view of the UK government at the time on Southern Rhodesia was that the Declaration of Independence was illegal itself. So you can't have things both ways effectively. And ultimately, their arguments as to why the government in Rhodesia was unlawful at the time, we used to actually get the descendants of the civil servants over there their UK passports.

TV: Clever, because if you're gonna say it's illegal, then we're also gonna say it's illegal. Therefore, citizenship.

PG: Exactly. And that's benefited a vast number of people.  

PG rhodesia

MP: So what's the most common type of service you are seeing being performed in that period of time in Southern Rhodesia?

PG: Well there's a lot of them in a lot of different areas, but the largest of which would be the British South Africa police and descendants. And second to that would probably be teachers, civil servants, vets. Mostly anyone who worked for any of the ministries over there at the time. Ministry of Agriculture, or Roads and Transport, Post and Telecommunications and so on.

MP: So like a postmaster getting recruited from the UK for that job.

PG: Right. Government departments in other countries were at one time under central government control and then they've slowly become privatised over the years. So the date ranges have to be correct.

TV: Right. But within those date ranges, would that mean... you mentioned the South African police? So would that be somebody who was recruited from South Africa to go and work in Southern Rhodesia, that was recruited by the UK Government for that job?

PG: No, the recruitment has to take place in the UK. So the typical scenario, at the end of the Second World War there were large amounts of soldiers being demobilised in the UK, looking for work. There was work available in Southern Rhodesia, so lots of people emigrated at that point. So they were actually recruited in the UK through the High Commission and then they have their medicals here and they pass through South Africa, generally, up to Southern Rhodesia and that forms your evidence for recruitment in the UK, showing the departure from the UK before the employment started.

 MP: So that's a straight passport application. It's not that you've got to go into the Home Office and register or naturalise first. It's basically claiming that this grandchild has been British from the day he or she was born, because of that grandparent being classified as British other than by descent.

A lot of people think of Crown service... I mean, obviously, you've taught us otherwise, but initially, I always thought Crown service was RAF, or, you know, UK army service.

PG: It’s the civil service as a whole.

TV: It’s surprising actually how common these applications are. Because just in the people I know, I know two people who have had that claim through their grandparents. One of them was RAF, but the other one... I mean, maybe it was a spy? I don't know. He didn't say.

British citizenship for Afrikaners

I think one of the most impressive things about Philip is he's kind of like a magician, because he's got so much knowledge in his head that he can look at a person and say, “You're British”, “You're not British”.

A story that they were telling at our year end function last year was about this Afrikaans town in South Africa. And this guy walks in late and he could not be more Afrikaans looking, and he gave Phil two facts about himself and Philip was like, “You’re British” and apparently nobody in the room could believe it. So I wanted to know if you remember that, and maybe you can tell us more about that story and how he qualified?

MP: I don’t know this one! Was that maybe when you were down there with our CEO, Reg?

TV: With Reg, yeah.

PG: I have to say that I can't remember the specifics of that. But what I can say is you're absolutely right. It's that it's not necessarily a connection to the UK that gives people rights. For people of Afrikaans origin, the rights are generally accrued through movement from South Africa, to the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland and how South Africans registered as local federal citizens while there. Then the Federation being dissolved in 1963, end of ‘63 and the British government having to take responsibility for those people again because, as we've discussed before, constitutionally, Southern Rhodesia was still a colony at that point. Northern Rhodesia, which is Zambia, was a protectorate, and Nyasaland, which is modern day Malawi, was also still a protectorate at that point.

So yes, it's very often the way. You need a connection to the Commonwealth, if you'd like, rather than a connection to the UK.

It’s also important to remember that a lot of the people we work for overseas, and who we obtain citizenship for, don't necessarily come and live in the UK.

But that's not what it's all about. Having that ability to move between different countries has a tremendous effect on future trade relations with different countries involved. So there's a knock-on effect, which is good for the UK, and good for the Commonwealth country concerned. And, as we know, with Brexit, we had a free movement arrangement, which was involved with those countries before. So free movement, having passports to the other country is extraordinarily important in stimulating trade and prosperity for the future. For all the countries concerned. The UK and the Commonwealth country involved. It's good for everyone.

British citizenship for Americans

And you must include the United States in that group. We obviously have the War of Independence to deal with 200 years ago. Apart from that, relations were very good and there's primary waves of immigration from the US into the UK in very large numbers, coming down to the present day. So the descendants of those people, again, have very close links to the UK.

TV: Yeah, that was actually our previous podcast episode. Mishal, went through quite a few of those routes.

Barack Obama missed out on British citizenship by a whisker.

MP: That's right. What I realised when talking to a few of these whilst I was working from home last year, I think it only hit me at that point that there were that many people with UK-born grandparents in the US. It's not that there are five generations born out of the UK. They were just a second generation.

PG: Barack Obama missed out on British citizenship by a whisker, through his connections with Kenya, but he didn’t qualify.

British citizenship and dual citizenship issues

So that's another thing that you have to be careful of with British nationality, because unfortunately there's been a number of Australian politicians who are MPs in Australia who found that they've had obscure claims to British nationality, and you have to be Australian without any other nationality or they can lose their posts.

TV:  I remember that case actually. But dual citizenship in general is something that people must just be aware of. Because I know in South Africa as well, you have to apply to Home Affairs here if you want dual citizenship, before you claim the UK citizenship, otherwise, you lose your South African citizenship. And you know, people may think, “Well, I've got UK citizenship, why would I want South African citizenship?” But the problem is that it's forever. So unless you actually come back to South Africa and live in South Africa for a certain amount of time, you won't be able to vote, you won't be able to have a say in the future of the country. And there are certain things you won't be able to do if you lose your citizenship. So it is just something that we always tell people to be very careful about before you claim another citizenship.

PG: Yes, you may lose citizenship or indeed your job.

MP: Were you approached by anyone in terms of the Australian MP situation? Can you tell us? 

PG: We’ve had a number of requests for advice from politicians, not just in Australia.

MP: Wow, you never think that it's a bad thing to become British or get another nationality until your job’s on the line.

PG: Yes. Sometimes we're asked to confirm that someone has no claim.

MP: That would be an odd request to find coming out of this podcast. “Tell me I'm not British, please?” That's  quite interesting. Any other memorable cases that you can share with us? Or memorable moments, perhaps, in the three decades of being here?

Gender equality in British Citizenship and all the claims it leads to

PG: Yes, I think probably one of the others that I would term as a sort of crowning glory of our time was when the laws came into effect allowing citizenship to become gender equal.

So, in the time before 1981, British citizenship only passed in the male line, not the female line by descent. This was corrected in 1981. Unfortunately, at the point when they created the law, unless you were under 18, you still couldn't make a claim unless your father was born in the UK, so it still had a bearing on people's lives, even after the change.

So between 2002 and 2010, new laws were introduced to try and equalise the position and to try and cover the people who were left out. So, my view at the time was very much that it was the right thing to address that. But what happens is there's a knock-on effect for the next generation. So if a child of a person would have acquired citizenship were it not for gender discrimination in the old law, should something be done about that? At the time, I was in quite close communication with Home Office Policy. We agreed that perhaps something should be done about that and a submission was made to the Minister, who also agreed, and that resulted in a policy which then allows those children under the age of 18, to qualify now, if their parents have missed out on citizenship through gender discrimination.

MP: So that's in two generations. That’s not the parent who, himself or herself, has missed out due to gender discrimination, but their children.

PG: As long as they would have otherwise qualified. So it just makes the position equal. So it’s a question of fairness and, sometimes when the laws are drafted, it’s impossible to consider all the possibilities, all the what ifs and maybes that could occur from things cascading through the generations. And so it's using fairness to really address the final parts of that and the position children are in today.

We’ve been in other correspondence with the Joint Committee on Human Rights in the course of the last few years as well. Our desire is to extend that sort of discretion into adults as well.

MP: That's right. I mean, that must have been incredibly rewarding to be part of this change. But what that also meant was, now all these claims become a reality. And no doubt they are complex, because now you're going two generations back, if not further back, to find out whether this child now would have a claim in the modern day. And I'm sure that affects people or countries we just talked about, where there is a dual nationality restriction, because I think, just in line with that unfairness with gender discrimination, I have seen the firm and yourself process a lot of these children that were born to parents who had renounced their British citizenship, does that work on the same principle of fairness as well?

What happens if your parents or grandparents renounced their British citizenship?

PG: Yes, it does. That's based on the principle that, generally speaking, the parent has actually renounced (or removed their British citizenship voluntarily), not because they wanted to, but because the countries in which they were living had restrictions on dual nationality. So it was really a question: Give up your British nationality or get out. Simple as that. And if you're faced with that, and it's the place where you've lived for many generations, and it's the place you know,  it's your home, then the answer is generally to give up your British citizenship to allow you to stay there. So, yes, same thing applies.

If a child born to a person who's renounced citizenship would have acquired citizenship, but for the renunciation, right, that there's a route to assist that child when and if that parent subsequently resumes British nationality.

MP: Amazing. So that, again, is built on that same sort of fairness policy as the one for the gender discrimination. And that's a second generation. But at the moment, like you said, it's capped at an application going in before the 18th birthday. They are looking at removing that restriction, perhaps.

PG: And we always have to consider what is in the best interest of the child as well. So that’s paramount with these cases.

MP: I think we might have to discuss that in a future podcast. There is a deadline for the 18th birthday.

TV: Yes, we are going to. Next podcast, we're going to be doing a follow up on the EU settlement scheme and what happens now, and then the one after that is going to be specifically around children. So if you're interested in that, then please subscribe, because we'll do a whole episode dedicated to children,- and how to get British citizenship for your children and what the deadlines are and all of that.

 And then just to end off. So you've spoken about law changes, but is there a particular family story that you will always remember that made an impression on you?

What happens when a child is given a British passport by mistake and then it’s revoked?

PG: Well, goodness, outside of Mishal’s? Yes, there’ve been lots of different cases along the lines of, sometimes, children are given British passports by mistake. Because their parents are British. And as you've heard, it doesn't always follow that it cascades down the generations and other criteria apply. So sometimes children are given passports by mistake in their home countries. They then become adults, they then move to the UK, and then 10 years down the track when they go to renew their British passport, the UK Government says actually, no,  we issued this an error, so you shouldn't have it. You’ve just been here illegally for the last 10 years building your life and are now subject to detention and removal.

TV: Wow.

And then their whole lives have been shattered and taken away from them in a sort of half hour’s visit to the passport office.

So I've had people that have gone into the passport office, obviously in the days when it was possible to still make personal visits, and they go over the counter, and then their whole lives have been shattered and taken away from them in a sort of half hour’s visit to the passport office. They have been threatened with arrest when they tried to argue and when you see that sort of thing happen, you realise that your job is necessary.

So being able to use case law to show that where a person in those situations has lost an age- or time-related entitlement due to an official error, and forcing the UK government to then construe that application as one that's an undetermined application for citizenship now, and then suddenly the person's back and got their citizenship back again, their family is secure.

MP: Yes, I think there’s no greater feeling than that. I'm sure it’s a lot and lots and lots of hours. I mean, I remember you mentioned to me the other day that, “Ah, Mishal, it’s done.” And I asked you and you said that something had been outstanding for a long, long time. I mean, what has been the longest time you’ve worked on a case? Because I'm sure you told me it was well beyond four or five years for that particular case?

When you see that sort of thing happen, you realise that your job is necessary.

PG: Seven or eight years isn't unusual.

MP: Seven or eight years on one case?

PG: Yeah, if it's a particular point that's argued. It goes back and forth many times.

MP: Yeah I think it’s safe to say that it isn’t the money that keeps you going there. It has to be that the point that you really want to get results for the client.

PG: Absolutely, you just keep pushing. When you think you've got justice on your side and it's right to do so, never give up. And as you rightly say, those cases are normally two to four years on average. And very often involves us briefing the MP for the person involved as well. We also assist in trying to rally the Home Secretary into making a move on these cases.

TV: Wow, it's quite a high level, but you have to argue that case.

MP: And also a big implication for the client, because I don’t know personally anyone else who would have kept on pushing. So I think what Philip’s been able to build and what he represents, is that sort of unwavering support when you're committed to something. And, you know, that's definitely something that is instilled in myself and everyone else around here, which is, which is such a great attribute to have, especially with this type of work, when you actually may not know the outcome, it could be against you. And you have to keep persevering and pushing for a successful outcome.

Thank you very much for being on here.

TV: Thank you so much for your time. This has been really interesting. And thank you, Mishal, as always, and we'll be talking to you in two weeks time for a follow up on the whole EU settlement scheme saga. Okay, bye for now.

Find out if you have a British citizenship claim by filling in our free online British Citizenship Assessment.  

Get in touch with our citizenship team on +44 (0) 20 7759 7581 or at citizenship@sableinternational.com.


Catch up on the rest of the series

  1. How Mishal gained his UK citizenship
  2. The EU Settlement Scheme
  3. Routes to UK citizenship for Americans
  4. Complex UK nationality (with Philip Gamble)

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