The Ties that Bind: Citizenship and Civic Engagement in the 21st Century Contents

Chapter 9: Naturalisation—facilitating inclusion


453.At the start of our inquiry we decided that we would not consider the question of who should be entitled to British citizenship, and we made this clear in the Call for Evidence by not including any questions on this topic. This question, closely associated with immigration, has been and is being considered by many other persons and bodies, not least the Government in the context of Brexit. It would moreover have taken up a major proportion of our time. In this chapter we consider naturalisation—the mechanism by which those who have indefinite leave to remain in the United Kingdom399 and wish to acquire British citizenship actually do so.

454.It is right that those acquiring citizenship by naturalisation should have to show that they are properly qualified to become fully integrated members of the community they wish to join—in particular that they should speak the language and know about the country they will be living in. We consider the requirement to be of good character, the knowledge of English qualification, the citizenship test, the citizenship ceremony and the cost of naturalisation: all legitimate hurdles which have however become major barriers which must be surmounted on the civic journey leading to British citizenship. At the end of the chapter we consider the acquisition of citizenship by registration.

What is “good character”?

455.There is no legal definition of what constitutes “good character” or what might cause an applicant to fail the “good character” test. The Home Office guidance for applicants contains a lengthy but not exhaustive list of matters which might lead to the failure of an application. The guidance states: “You must say whether you have been involved in anything which might indicate that you are not of good character … If you are in any doubt about whether you have done something or it has been alleged that you have done something which might lead us to think that you are not of good character you should say so.”400 This gives officials an almost unlimited discretion to refuse an application on the basis of matters beyond the already lengthy list.

456.Dr Nisha Kapoor, a lecturer in Sociology at the University of York, suggests that the “good character” requirement can be used to exclude applicants from gaining citizenship unfairly. She highlights that individuals can be denied citizenship on the basis of honest mistakes made when completing asylum documentation. Minor convictions, such as for driving misdemeanours, have also been used to refuse naturalisation. In one case a discrepancy in the applicant’s date of birth on two different forms (a typo of one number) was the given reason for her refused application. There are particular problems for asylum seekers, since it is difficult to enter the UK legally to claim asylum. This can mean that these people can become stranded in the insecure state of having leave to remain but being denied naturalisation.401

457.Not being of “good character” has become the principal reason for refusal over the last 10 years. Since 2008 the number of people being refused naturalised citizenship on this ground has been gradually increasing so that, after a small dip in 2014, in 2015 43%, and in 2016 44% of people who were refused British citizenship were denied it on this basis.402

458.The Government should review the use and description of the “good character” requirements of naturalisation. It should ensure that these requirements are transparent and properly explained to applicants. Honest mistakes made during the application process should not by themselves be treated as evidence of bad character.

459.Until 2010 being of “good character” was a requirement for naturalisation, but not for the acquisition of British citizenship by registration—a topic we deal with at the end of this chapter. In that year being of “good character” was added as a requirement for the registration of an “adult or young person”, defined as “a person who has attained the age of 10 years”.403 Between 2010 and 2014, 415 children aged 10–17 were refused citizenship on this ground, 25 of whom were aged 10–13, 95 of whom were aged 14–15, and 300 of whom were aged 16–17.404 We do not know the reasons for these refusals. This may be a valid ground for refusing an application by a young person aged 16 or 17, but we find it hard to accept this as a good reason in the case of a 10-year old child.

460.The Government should reconsider the age from which the “good character” requirement applies for the acquisition of British citizenship by registration.

Proving a knowledge of English

461.The knowledge of English requirement is subject to exemptions. Citizens of some, but by no means all, Commonwealth countries do not have to prove a knowledge of English,405 and nor do Irish or United States citizens. Some citizens of those countries speak little or no English, as do too many citizens of this country.406 We agree with Professor Thom Brooks, Dean and Chair in Law and Government at Durham University, that this exemption is entirely arbitrary, and may well allow applicants with little or no English to apply successfully for naturalisation.407 This should not be possible; a knowledge of English is the most basic requirement for British citizenship, and nationality of a country which has English as one of its official languages should not be a ground for avoiding that requirement.

462.There are a number of ways in which applicants can satisfy the test. To have passed GCSE or A level, even in English language or literature, is not enough; however a degree-level qualification in English, even if from a higher education provider in a country not on the nationality exemption list, will suffice. Professor Brooks took the view that this exemption too should be scrapped and all applicants should be required to pass a test from an approved provider, as is the case now for those not exempt.408 Some of these tests include reading and writing English, but some only spoken English. Most of the test results are valid only for two years, which suggests that they do not guarantee a very profound knowledge of English.

463.We believe that some exemptions should still be allowed, but that the current exemptions should be re-thought. It cannot be right that a person can complete mandatory education in the UK but still be deemed to not speak English to the level required for naturalisation. A level qualifications in subjects requiring a substantial use of written English, and the equivalent Scottish qualifications, should suffice. However some A level subjects, such as the STEM subjects409 or media vocational subjects, require only minimal written English; the Government must decide which subjects fall on the right side of the line. A degree from a UK university should also be sufficient, but a degree-level qualification in English from a university in another country should not automatically suffice.

464.The Government should alter the English Language requirement so that an applicant with an A level or equivalent qualification to an adequate level in a subject that requires the substantial use of written English is exempt from the test. A degree in any subject from a UK university should also suffice, but a degree from a university in another country should not automatically suffice.

Improving the Citizenship Test: Life in the UK

465.There seems to be confusion about the purpose of the citizenship test which is currently entitled Life in the UK. Is the object simply to ensure that applicants for naturalisation know about the country, or should it be to test the ability of an applicant to make a life in this country and to contribute to it? Dr Henry Tam’s view was that “we need to separate out concerns with civic identity from those about socio-cultural identity. The emphasis should be much less on selective cultural knowledge, and far more on civic-political information relating to the rights and responsibilities of citizenship, legal and political procedures, and how to access and check guidance on appropriate civic behaviour (e.g., registering to vote, paying taxes, learning about public policies, reporting crime, etc)”.410

466.The basis of the test is the current (third) edition of the book Life in the UK,411 published in 2013. The advertisement on the TSO website states: “Ensure you are fully prepared for your Life in the UK test with the only official handbook on which the Life in the UK test is based. This essential handbook contains all the official learning material for the test and is written in clear, simple language—making it easy to understand.” The official website states: “You’ll be tested on information in the official handbook for the Life in the UK Test—you should study this book to prepare for the test.”

467.One might therefore have expected that the book would be, not just “clear, simple … easy to understand”, but accurate, and including only material which someone living in this country should know. Applicants might be forgiven for believing that they could be tested on anything in the book, and should therefore be familiar with it all. The reality is otherwise, as Box 8 demonstrates.

Box 8: “Life in the UK”: some criticisms

412 413

  • Although most of the many factual errors in earlier editions have been removed, there are still some errors (e.g. on the number of Parliamentary constituencies), and matters are stated as facts which were correct at the date of publication, but which might reasonably have been expected not to be accurate for long. An example is the statement that Margaret Thatcher was still alive, which sadly was true for only two months after the book’s publication.
  • The book includes several hundred dates. Given the purpose of the book, applicants might believe they could be tested on them, but in fact they seldom appear in tests.
  • One of the sample questions asks: “The UK was one of the first countries to sign the European Convention in [followed by a choice of four dates, one of which is 1950]”. The implication is that there is only one European Convention. In fact there are 224 treaties on the Council of Europe list, 68 of which have a title beginning “European Convention”. The Human Rights Convention, which presumably is the one they have in mind, is one of the few not to include “European” in its formal title.411
  • There are trivia, like the height of the London Eye in feet or who started the first curry house and what street it was on,412 which few British citizens would know, and few would think it important for aspiring British citizens to know.
  • There are inconsistencies. For example, no mention is made of the UK Supreme Court, but there is a mention of most lower courts.
  • On the other hand, the current edition no longer requires knowledge about the NHS, educational qualifications, the subjects taught in schools, how to report a crime or contact an ambulance, and other everyday knowledge all new citizens should know.

468.Professor Brooks was scathing in his criticism of the book, stating: “The test is regularly seen as the test for British citizenship that few British citizens can pass, with many migrants seeing it as an opportunity by the Home Office to extract increasingly more expensive fees through a test of random trivia meant to make more fail.”414 We agree. The current test seems to be, and to be regarded as, a barrier to acquiring citizenship rather than a means of creating better citizens. Box 9 gives the views of some who have participated in the test.

Box 9: Views on the Life in the UK Test from research by Dr Leah Bassel

  • For many, this was an intimidating and fearful process. For example the Life in the UK handbook was described as a “big massive book, I am really scared of it” (Sudanese woman).
  • Participants mentioned the difficulty of the questions on history and culture.
  • Much of the knowledge that can be gained from the citizenship test process and that participants identified as useful–e.g. how to access services–has now disappeared in the most recent version of the test and preparation materials.
  • Those who were most vocal about the test as a ‘waste of time’, a ‘necessary evil’ and a ‘money grab’ were highly educated, affluent and from English speaking countries.
  • Some participants … did not necessarily endorse the test process as a good mechanism for transmitting this knowledge because of the cost, stress and effort involved.

Source: University of Leicester, The UK Citizenship Test Process: Exploring Migrants’ Experiences (August 2017):

469.Professor Brooks advocates a comprehensive, official review into the citizenship test. He points out that it is intended to enable and foster integration, yet there has been no review following any of the three editions published since 2005 into whether this has been achieved. “The failure to consult, review and get feedback from naturalised citizens who have undertaken and passed the process is alarming.” He suggests setting up an Advisory Group or Commission to look at the test. We see merit in this proposal.415 A small body which could examine what the test is seen to have achieved, both by those who have taken it and those who have not, would be in a good position to suggest how it might be improved.

470.Matthew Ryder, the Deputy Mayor for Social Integration, Social Mobility and Community Engagement of the Greater London Authority, told us that he had commissioned an analysis of the test. He wondered: “Is it becoming just a memory test? Are the questions becoming too formulaic? Are they questions that those of us who are citizens born in this country would be able to answer?”416 We believe this might form the basis of work covering more than just London.

471.Given the evidence we received on the inappropriateness of the current edition of Life in the UK, we are pleased to see that the Green Paper states:

“The government will review the Life in the UK test, which those seeking to live permanently in the UK must pass, and whether it could be amended to strengthen its focus on the values and principles of the UK which we expect all people to live by. As well as testing knowledge of life in the UK when someone applies to settle permanently, we believe it is important that newly arrived migrants are prepared for the responsibilities and opportunities of living in modern Britain, and that they have early opportunities to mix with people from other backgrounds and to participate in community life.”

However, the Life in the UK test cannot be improved without completely re-writing the book of that name, something the Green Paper does not mention.

472.The Government should set up an advisory group to conduct a comprehensive review of the citizenship test, focusing on the key knowledge that supports citizenship in various forms, including becoming an active citizen. Knowledge of the working of bodies like local authorities and the NHS is essential, and the group should include representatives of these bodies.

473.The advisory group should revise the book on Life in the UK to focus on the knowledge required for active citizenship. Sections of the book on British history should concentrate on those parts that played a key role in the development of the Shared Values of British Citizenship.

The citizenship ceremony

474.The great majority of UK citizens do not have any celebration of their citizenship at any time of their lives. There are occasions, such as those associated with Royal weddings or with the London Olympics in 2012, mentioned by a number of our witnesses, which promote great pride in being a citizen of the UK, and others, mainly sporting events, which engender pride in citizenship of one of the constituent countries of the UK, but no celebration of citizenship as such. Such a ceremony does however form the final stage of the naturalisation process. In their evidence the Government stated: “We also view the citizenship ceremony as an important part of the process of becoming a British citizen. It allows a successful applicant to commit their loyalty to their new country, often in front of family and friends.”417 Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth endorsed this: “I was initially very wary about it … but now I have seen people who have experienced the citizenship ceremony and, for them, it was an enormous rite of passage.”418

475.The only formal part of the ceremony required by statute is the making of an Oath:

“I, [name], swear by Almighty God that, on becoming a British citizen, I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Second, Her Heirs and Successors according to law.”

An affirmation may be made instead of the Oath. This is followed by a Pledge:

“I will give my loyalty to the United Kingdom and respect its rights and freedoms. I will uphold its democratic values. I will observe its laws faithfully and fulfil my duties and obligations as a British citizen.”419

476.We visited Westminster City Council to watch a citizenship ceremony performed by the Lord Mayor of Westminster and his officials, and to talk to them and to some of those acquiring citizenship, and their families. More details are given in Appendix 5. The Lord Mayor conducted the ceremony himself. We were impressed by the ceremony itself and the way it was conducted; it plainly also impressed those taking part. But, as a number of witnesses have told us, these are very low key events. Professor Brooks wrote:

“Rarely is there any mention in the local or national press that citizenship ceremonies take place at all–and certainly a complete lack of political leadership in recognising and celebrating the achievement of new citizens. This is no way to treat or welcome new voters with full rights of citizenship into our shared community. It only seeks to alienate and push people apart.”420

477.In written evidence the Mayor of London wrote:

“Citizenship ceremonies in other countries are much more high-profile, and there is an opportunity to improve ceremonies both for new citizens and wider society. On Australia Day, each year thousands of people in towns and cities across the nation make the pledge of commitment to Australia and become Australian citizens. Australia Day gives all citizens, new or old, the opportunity to openly reflect on what it means to be an Australian citizen and celebrate the rights and the values they all share.421 Canada has handed some of the ownership of citizenship events to the community. Many community groups have a strong interest in Canadian citizenship.”422

There are already pilot schemes in London where ceremonies recognise the existing social action contributions of new citizens.423 These will help develop best practice guidelines which might be followed elsewhere.

478.This point was also made by the Citizenship and Civic Engagement Group of the Faculty of Humanities of the University of Manchester.424 We agree that a case can be made for giving greater publicity to citizenship ceremonies.

479.We believe that the group we recommend setting up to review the citizenship test should also seek feedback from those who have been involved in citizenship ceremonies, and consider how greater publicity and impact might be given to them.

The high cost of naturalisation

480.On 6 April 2017 the fee for an application for naturalisation was increased by 30% from £925425 to £1,202. This is paid to the Home Office. On top of this is the £80 fee for the citizenship ceremony which goes to the local authority.426 But in practice the cost of naturalisation is usually much higher. The Greater London Authority explained that:

“long-term residents, including children and young people who wish to get to citizenship currently pay £993 (plus £500 immigration health surcharge) four times over a ten-year period, before applying for indefinite leave to remain costing £2,297, and thereafter the cost of citizenship is £1,282. This totals £9,551 per person for the route to citizenship on top of any legal fees.”427

481.When we went to visit a citizenship ceremony we heard complaints from those attending about the very high cost of the naturalisation process. We were told that some people spend years saving in order to afford naturalisation, while others put off becoming a British citizen altogether because they cannot afford it. Where a family cannot afford the cost of all the members becoming naturalised, it is likely often to be the man who will be naturalised rather than the woman.

482.The administrative costs, and the cost of security and other checks, are certainly considerable, but on average do not approach the sums applicants are required to pay. The Rt Hon Brandon Lewis MP accepted that the fees for naturalisation do exceed the administrative costs of those services, and said: “… the charges we put forward are charges that cover the costs of running the system itself, which includes border security as well as the administration of our British citizenship test.”428

483.The Minister did not say what proportion of the fee was surplus to the cost of the naturalisation process. However the deputy Mayor of London told us that half of the £1,202 fee was profit. For him the key question was “whether we want more people to become citizens or to make a profit from the process?”429

484.If the profit made by the Home Office is anything approaching half of the fee, this can only discourage those qualified for naturalisation from applying for it. The Government should not be placing additional obstacles in their way.

485.It is inequitable that the Government should seek to make excessive profits out of those seeking naturalisation. The fee should be much closer to the cost to the Home Office of administering the naturalisation process, and the cost to the local authority of the citizenship ceremony.

Acquisition of citizenship by registration

486.Indefinite leave to remain is a precondition for naturalisation, which is closely linked to immigration. However British citizenship is not solely attained through naturalisation. Children born in the UK are not immigrants. If they are not British citizens they cannot seek naturalisation until they are adults, but they can register as British citizens. While naturalisation is discretionary, the acquisition of citizenship by registration is a statutory right. The Project for the Registration of Children as British Citizens told us that these rights are not well known and have long been, and continue to be, overlooked or ignored. They said:

“failing to recognise registration rights of children and young people, or to distinguish this from immigration and adult naturalisation, repeatedly leads to situations in which children’s rights are simply overlooked either because their rights are not recognised as independent of parents or guardians or their citizenship rights are never considered; or both.”430

487.Let us Learn is a group of over 850 young migrants, aged 16 to 24 years old, supported by the charity Just for Kids Law. They told us:

“All of us were brought to the UK as children, from over 70 different countries. We have grown up here and are proud to call Britain our home. Despite this and despite the fact that many of us cannot remember our country of birth, we are not legally recognised as citizens of the UK. Most of us have to go through a 10-year process of applying for and repeatedly renewing our immigration status, costing many thousands of pounds, before we are entitled to apply for British citizenship. Throughout the 10 years that this process takes, our continued status in the UK is precarious and expensive to maintain. Until we get to the point of being granted full citizenship, we live in fear that our temporary status (leave to remain) may be taken away from us.”431

488.As we explained at the start of this chapter, whatever the difficulties of the registration process, and however great the need for reform, entitlement to citizenship, whether by naturalisation or by registration, is something we regard as outside the scope of our inquiry. The cost however is not. In addition to the evidence we have just cited, the Project for the Registration of Children as British Citizens told us: “the fee for a child seeking to register as a British citizen is £973, well over the £386 the Home Office states it costs to process a registration claim. This means that at least 60% of a child’s registration fee is purely profit.432 There is no provision for fee waivers and the fee is not refunded if the application is refused.”433

489.Coram told us in written evidence:

“A young person who has leave to remain in the UK on the basis of their family or private life will usually be granted 2½ years leave, and will need to renew this four times, before they can apply for indefinite leave to remain (after which they can apply for citizenship). The costs for a family of four paying to reach settlement is equivalent to a deposit on a house: at current rates the ten year process would cost £33,000 in application fees alone.”434

490.Written evidence from the No Recourse to Public Funds Network highlighted that citizenship fees are a particular problem for low income families which can prevent them from asserting their entitlement to British Citizenship.435 Where children in the care of social services want to become British citizens, this can give rise to costs for local authorities which need to cover their fees.

491.We accept that, even in the case of children who have a right to remain in the UK, there are costs involved in checking that they have the right which they assert, and in processing their applications. However in this case too we see no ground for the Home Office charging more than the costs they incur. Moreover, we believe there is a case for waiving the fee altogether in the case of children in care, and those who have spent their entire lives in the UK and are not migrants.

492.The advisory group we have recommended should also consider whether, in the case of acquisition of citizenship by registration, the Government should waive the registration fee entirely for children in care and for children who have spent their entire lives in the UK.

399 Indefinite leave to remain is not a requirement for all applicants; in particular nationals of other EU member states and EEA states have different residence requirements.

400 Home Office, Guide AN: Naturalisation as a British citizen—A guide for applicants (February 2018) para 3.15: [accessed 12 March 2018]

401 Written evidence from Dr Nisha Kapoor (CCE0225)

402 Ibid.

403 Section 41A of the British Nationality Act 1981, inserted by section 47 of the Borders, Citizenship and Immigration Act 2009.

404 Home Office, ‘Applications by minors for registration as a British Citizen’, in reply to a Freedom of Information request (22 January 2015):

405 The exemption applies to Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the Commonwealth countries in the West Indies, but not to any of the African or Asian Commonwealth countries.

406 A problem we have discussed in the previous chapter.

407 Written evidence from Professor Thom Brooks (CCE0227)

408 Ibid.

409 Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics

410 Written evidence from Dr Henry Tam (CCE0012)

411 Home Office, Life in the United Kingdom, 3rd edition (London: TSO)

412 The Convention is commonly known as the European Convention on Human Rights, but its title is in fact “Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms”.

413 Thom Brooks, The ‘Life in the United Kingdom’ Citizenship Test: Is It Unfit for Purpose? Durham University, 2013: . See Home Office, Life in the United Kingdom, 3rd edition. (London: TSO), p. 113.

414 Written evidence from Thom Brooks (CCE0227). See also Thom Brooks, The ‘Life in the United Kingdom’ Citizenship Test: Is It Fit for Purpose? Durham University, 2013: [accessed 4 April 2018]

415 Written evidence from Professor Thom Brooks (CCE0227)

417 Written evidence from HM Government (CCE0255)

419 Schedule 5 to the British Nationality Act 1981, substituted by paragraph 2 of Schedule 1 to the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002.

420 Written evidence from Professor Thom Brooks (CCE0227)

421 Australian Government Department of Home Affairs, ‘Australia Day and the Affirmation’:

422 Written evidence from Greater London Authority (CCE0244)

423 Mayor of London, All of us: The Mayor’s strategy for Social Integration (March 2018): [accessed 12 March 2018]

424 Written evidence from Citizenship and Civic Engagement Working Group (Faculty of Humanities, The University of Manchester) (CCE0171)

425 The fee set under the Immigration and Nationality (Fees) Regulations 2015 at 6 April 2015, (SI 2015/768), Schedule 8

426 The Immigration and Nationality (Fees) Regulations 2017 (SI 2017/515) Schedule 8

427 Written evidence from Greater London Authority (CCE0244)

430 Written evidence from Project for the Registration of Children as British Citizens (PRCBC) (CCE0079)

431 Written evidence from Just for Kids Law (CCE0141)

432 See PRCBC and Amnesty International-UK, ‘Joint Briefings on fees’, (April 2017): [accessed 4 April 2018]

433 Written evidence from Project for the Registration of Children as British Citizens (CCE0079)

434 Written evidence from Coram (CCE0113)

435 Written evidence from NRPF Network (CCE0155)

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