Jean-Yves Gilg

Editor, Solicitors Journal

Immigration: The long and winding road to being British

Immigration: The long and winding road to being British


An explosion of misdirected legislation on immigration has failed to tackle cultural integration, and has confused authorities, writes Thom Brooks

Immigration is the issue that worries the public most. Concerns about affordable housing, school standards, and health care funding - not to mention the EU referendum vote in June - have only ensured that immigration will continue to feature in the headlines and public debates for some time
to come.

In these debates, there is much missing. Talk on immigration is typically about how 'we' might regulate 'them' - as if there is no movement between the two entities. Migrants newly arrived in Britain may not remain non-citizens forever. Many of them can become members of 'us'.

A second gap is that the voices of migrants - and especially naturalised citizens - are usually left out of the discussion; there is much to learn from the experiences of those migrants who became British.

I have examined the UK's rules on citizenship and immigration, conducting interviews with citizens and migrants across the country.

Two problems stand out.
The first is that political reactions have reached a breaking point. Westminster responds to public anxieties about immigration
not by engaging with it, but by reacting to it. There has been an explosion of new legislation over the last two decades. Much of it is made ad hoc at the speed of a fire ball. Within months of passing the Immigration Act 2014, the government proposed a new Immigration Bill - partly with
the purpose of amending part
of an Act they had just enacted into law.

Changes are coming so fast that few can keep afloat with the current law. I found evidence of High Commissions, border agents, and advocates providing inaccurate advice to migrants -which led to much avoidable distress and heavy costs to migrants trying to play by the rules, not to mention deportation orders.

The second problem is that one of the purposes behind many of the rules on naturalisation is designed to ensure - and even promote - integration. Yet the fact is they appear to have the opposite effect.

The British struggle

Setting clear guidance for becoming British in a diverse society is no simple task. When Sir Bernard Crick led the last review into citizenship over a decade ago, his advisory group struggled to find much beyond a commitment to shared principles - our British values - and practical institutions interacted with in daily life. Crick's group then tried to spell this out in a new citizenship test. But instead of bringing people together, it may pull them apart.

There have been over 1.5 million tests sat since its launch in 2005. Applicants must answer 18 or more from 24 multiple-choice questions correctly over 45 minutes - and at £50 a try. The early editions in 2005 and 2007 asked little about history or culture, but much on practicalities. Prospective citizens had to know what is in the national curriculum, the minimum wage, and the percentage of women in the workforce.

However, the earlier tests put too great an emphasis on practical trivia. For example, it is unclear why knowing what a quango is should be part of a test to become a British citizen.

In 2013, the current test was published. It did well to bring in more historical information, but it came at the expense of making the test even more trivial. Cut were requirements to know how to contact the police or register with a GP. In their place, applicants had to memorise the height of the London Eye, the approximate age of Big Ben, and - my favourite - know the name of the man who set up Britain's first curry house (answer: Sake Dean Mahomet). Gone was the need to know the number of MPs, but still all must recall the number of members in every regional assembly.

Pub quiz citizenship

The problem with the test is that it sets a bar for being British based on a knowledge of life in the UK few, if any, British-born citizens have. Coupled with inaccuracies and unnecessary information, it gives many prospective citizens the clear impression it is designed to create a barrier and not a bridge. Instead of guiding people to integrate, it sets them apart.

I am not against the test. After all, I sat and passed it - I am a naturalised British citizen. However, we need a new test that is fit for purpose and not one more akin to a bad pub quiz. We should learn from those who became British to get a better understanding of what works. The government should also launch a new national conversation on immigration - not only about how we might restrict borders, but also on who we should welcome as fellow citizens. This would give us time to reflect on the many changes made to gain a clearer picture, rather than stumbling from one reform to the next in reaction to tabloid headlines.

Thom Brooks is professor of law and government at Durham University. Brooks is also the author of Becoming British @thom_brooks  

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