Ryan Shorthouse is Director of Bright Blue and Anvar Sarygulov is a Researcher at Bright Blue.
The public debate on immigration is dominated by the number of people entering and leaving Britain. However, very little attention is paid to the final step of a journey for many who decide to make UK their home: obtaining British citizenship. Boosting citizenship rates, which have fallen this decade, could be part of an agenda by Boris Johnson to bolster an inclusive post-Brexit Britishness.
Substantively, the only difference between migrants with Indefinite Leave to Remain (ILR), which grants migrants a right to reside in the UK permanently after five years, and British citizens is the right to vote. However, there are several positive effects that derive from citizenship that have been underdiscussed and underutilised.
Research from both Britain and overseas shows that citizenship benefits immigrants themselves in a variety of ways. It is associated with improving employment prospects, with a greater feeling of belonging and security, and with higher rates of political participation. Furthermore, adopting citizenship is a significant symbolic commitment, reaffirming the place of that individual in Britain and making them more invested in our past, present and future.
Eighty-four per cent of the British public say it is important for migrants to be committed to the way of life in Britain to be able to come and live here. As research by British Future has shown, native Britons prefer it when migrants settle in the country for the long term and integrate. There is no better way to achieve it than by ensuring that more migrants obtain citizenship. By ensuring that more migrants become British citizens, it might even be possible to alleviate some public concerns around migration.
That does not mean that we should give out citizenship to anyone. Considering its significance, it is understandable to expect that those wishing to adopt it must meet specific criteria. Those wishing to become citizens of the UK already must prove that they have sufficient knowledge of English and of life in the UK and that they are of good character. These long-standing criteria should not be significantly relaxed.
The number of non-EU migrants who were granted citizenship decreased significantly from 189,000 in 2013 to 105,000 in 2018. Though some of this decrease is accounted by the decline in net migration that occurred in early 2010s, the data suggests that an increasing number of non-EU migrants do not obtain citizenship.
However, the number of EU migrants who are becoming citizens is now increasing due to Brexit. And with 930,000 EU nationals already being granted Settled Status, which allows them to apply for naturalisation within a year, there will be a much greater number of migrants eligible for citizenship in the near future.
There are existing barriers to citizenship that are unreasonable and unnecessary. Chief among them is the exorbitant cost. Obtaining ILR for one person costs £2,389. Meanwhile, the subsequent naturalisation fee for adults is £1,330, following a sustained rise in fees, with the cost now being 49 per cent higher in real terms than in 2010. In comparison, the average naturalisation fee across Australia, Canada, Germany, the Netherlands, the US, Norway and Sweden is around £225. Furthermore, the actual cost of processing a naturalisation application to the Home Office is only £372, highlighting that the Government is now excessively profiteering from applicants.
Citizenship should be encouraged, not discouraged. The high costs prevent many hard-working individuals and families, who have contributed to our economy and communities for years, from fully putting down roots and becoming citizens of the UK. The Government should rectify this by mean-testing citizenship fees to enable everyone who wants to, and are eligible to, become a British citizen. Considering the prohibitive prices and the large profit margin, the mean-testing system should be generous and provide relief to the majority of applicants.
Particular attention should be brought to the naturalisation fee for children, which at £1,012 does not lag far behind the adult one. Considering the importance of citizenship, it is absurd to discourage citizenship amongst those who have been here from birth, who have been educated in British schools and who have been brought up in Britain by subjecting them and their families to an obscene cost. Indeed, the High Court recently ruled this fee for children to be unlawful. The Government should abolish naturalisation fees for children who were born in the UK.
Considering the benefits of citizenship, we should not only remove undue financial barriers to it, but financially incentivise it – through nudging long-term migrants towards it. Currently, thousands of migrants in the UK continue to stay here on an Indefinite Leave to Remain (ILR) for years, even though most of them can apply for citizenship 12 months after receiving permanent residency.
A simple measure would be to ask ILR applicants to signal their intention to apply for full British citizenship in their application in return for a future significant discount on citizenship fees. A year later, they should receive a reminder they are eligible for this discounted citizenship, and be charged the discounted price in their application.
There is also room in the process to reward migrants who are doing what we expect good citizens to do: contributing to the economy through working and contributing to society through volunteering.
The Government should grant such civic-minded migrants a fast-track route to obtaining citizenship. For most visa routes, it takes five years before a migrant is eligible for ILR and an additional year before they are eligible for citizenship, but the ILR period should be decreased to three years for civically engaged migrants who promise to become a citizen 12 months later. Such migrants should have consistently paid National Insurance for three years, and have proof that they have volunteered with a school, community organisation or registered charity on a regular basis for a substantial number of hours over the past three years. A discount should also apply to the citizenship fee for those on this fast-track route.
Citizenship should play a much more significant role in the Conservative Government’s reforms to the immigration system. Doing so would improve social integration, enhance the contribution that migrants make, and allay public discontent over immigration. It will be a way of strengthening the image of an inclusive Britain after Brexit, which Boris is so eager to cultivate.