The UK should take a more positive and welcoming approach to citizenship, with Brexit presenting an opportunity for a major overhaul of citizenship policy, according to the report of a year-long independent inquiry into citizenship policy chaired by Alberto Costa MP.
It’s an approach that would reflect the public consensus on the issue, with ICM polling finding two-thirds (67%) of the public in agreement that it is a good thing when migrants who are settled in the UK long-term decide to take citizenship. Just 8% of people disagree.
The final report of the inquiry, ‘Barriers to Britishness,‘ finds that citizenship is prohibitively expensive, placing it out of reach to frontline key workers who want to become British. For the price of UK citizenship, the report states, one could become a citizen of Australia, Canada, France and the United States. The report calls on the Government to review the current costs.
Families in particular are penalised, with a family of four needing to spend up to £5,000 to become British citizens. The inquiry recommends that the Government makes citizenship by registration free of charge, a move that would mainly affect children. It should also allow children born in the UK to be British automatically by birthright – a return to the policy that was in place before Britain joined the EEC.
Public attitudes research by ICM for the inquiry found that 61% of the public would support birthright citizenship for children born in the UK. Just 13% of people disagree (2).
Citizenship ceremonies should also be revitalised, becoming higher-profile, public-facing and celebratory events, held in iconic locations like Wembley Stadium, Edinburgh Castle or Shakespeare’s birthplace, and with members of the local community invited to welcome new arrivals.
The report also recommends that each year her Majesty the Queen and the Prime Minister should also hold a high- profile citizenship ceremony where British citizenship is awarded to a select number of people who have been outstandingly brave or made a great contribution to life in the UK, either as an individual or because they represent a particular group whose contribution is valued, for example NHS staff and other key workers.
Alberto Costa MP, who chaired the inquiry, said:
“For too long it’s been hard to tell if UK citizenship policy was trying to encourage people to become British or put them off.
“Our starting point should be that it’s great when people become citizens and we should celebrate it when they do.
“Becoming British is good for new citizens, who get added security and access to rights; and good for our society as a whole, as a common bond that connects us.
“We should remove some of the needless barriers to becoming British, while keeping the strict requirements that show British citizenship is special and valuable.
“The process shouldn’t be so complex that you need a lawyer to apply. And it shouldn’t be so expensive that it’s out of reach to a key worker, or to children who were born here.
“At the end of the process when people become citizens, we should welcome them and celebrate people becoming British – not hide the events away in council buildings. High-profile ceremonies at Old Trafford, Edinburgh Castle or the Palace of Westminster would send a clear message that this is something we can all be proud of.”
Dr Alexandra Bulat of the3million, who recently became a British citizen herself, said:
“It is great to see that the British public is so supportive of citizenship reform, especially at a time when many EU citizens chose to become British.
“Successive governments have made this process extremely costly and bureaucratic – and the high fees and obscure requirements are hard to find and even harder to understand.
“The UK Government has a huge opportunity to build a positive vision for citizenship. A global Britain needs global Brits.”
Fraser Nelson, Editor of The Spectator and member of the Inquiry panel, said:
“Britain is finally leaving the EU and the Government has finalised its new, points-based immigration system. Now is the time to look at how we go about offering citizenship – and come up with a positive, welcoming agenda for those who seek to make their lives here. In doing so, Boris Johnson would send precisely the right message about Global Britain, both at home and abroad: that we are proud of our island story and welcome those who wish to be part of it.”
Paul Sathianesan, Civic Ambassador for the London Borough of Newham, who has presided over many citizenship ceremonies welcoming new citizens to the UK, said:
“It is a very special moment when one becomes a British citizen – much more than just getting a passport. For me it has meant security and an opportunity to serve the community in the place I now call home.
“On a national level I think we could find ways to make citizenship ceremonies more of a celebration – not just to welcome new arrivals but also to celebrate who we are as a society.
“An annual event, where honorary citizenship is awarded to someone who has done great service to the UK, would help shine a light on the importance of citizenship. At this extraordinary time the obvious choice would be one or more of the many frontline NHS workers of migrant background who have worked so selflessly during the Covid crisis.”
The Government has committed to review the English language requirements for citizenship and also to review the content of the Life in the UK test, which people must pass to gain citizenship. The inquiry is critical of the Life in the UK test, which it says contains too much trivia and does not encourage debate and dialogue about our shared values. The test and Life in the UK guide also fails to offer any message of welcome to aspiring citizens: the inquiry notes that Canada’s guide to citizenship opens with a message of welcome from Her Majesty the Queen; while our monarch does not appear in the UK version until page 121. The inquiry proposes that the test is reviewed.
British Future, which acted as secretariat to the inquiry, held two deliberative events as inputs to the inquiry, in Southampton and Edinburgh, bringing together ‘new Britons’ who had attained citizenship recently and ‘old’ Britons who were born British. Together they did a version of the ‘Life in the UK’ test and discussed its content, together with issues such as how much citizenship should cost, how long someone should be required to have lived in the UK to be eligible, and the purpose of citizenship ceremonies.