Question for Short Debate
To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they have plans to revise their requirements for those who apply for United Kingdom citizenship or nationality.
My Lords, I appreciate the opportunity to bring up the question of residency and access to the United Kingdom, and to ask the Government to look again at the requirements of those seeking UK citizenship: residency conditions; evidence of their good character; English language ability; and a matter that I have raised in the past, the Life in the UK test. A friend from Texas took this test several months ago. These were the questions she was asked: first, whether Elizabeth I handled her Parliament badly or had good relations with the legislature; secondly, whether UK citizens were renowned for backing individual liberty, intolerance, inequality or extremism; and thirdly, was it true or false that in 2002 Sir Winston Churchill was voted the “greatest Briton of all time”.
I should like to take the Minister up on an offer he made during Questions in February to meet interested groups in order to devise a more relevant and practical set of questions. As he will know, Dr. Thom Brooks of Durham University makes a number of recommendations for change. First, the handbook should make it clear which sections are to be tested. It contains about 3,000 facts—far too many for anyone to memorise—and the whole matter could easily become a pub quiz. There are inconsistencies and omissions that need to be rectified. The Government should decide what the rationale is for the test. Is it to be a stumbling block or a ladder in the immigration process? It appears totally unfair that it is used as part of the Government’s plan to reduce immigration. That is not what the test is there for.
Many of the current questions could be omitted. It does not help us at all to know when wives were granted the right to divorce their husbands. Let us make the test far more local: on the basic history of the community where the applicant lives, on where local schools, pharmacies and hospitals are, and so on. It would be interesting if we set up a parliamentary citizenship quiz—perhaps the Commons versus the Lords—on the Life in the UK handbook. If it succeeded here, we could then roll it out across the UK to see how many long-serving, ordinary UK citizens could answer the questions asked. Perhaps the Minister could set up a ministerial team to tackle these questions. The answers to irrelevant questions should play no part when one is making decisions about a person’s suitability for citizenship. I ask again: where is the necessary information about the NHS, how to report crime, or which subjects are taught to our children? We have to have someone looking at this new set of questions, and perhaps Dr Thom Brooks could do just that.
In 2008 the noble and learned Lord, Lord Goldsmith, said of the test that it created a deep impression of unfairness among those who had to sit it. I agree with him but I would go further. I suggest that an accurate impression of the UK’s current immigration system is one that is deeply unfair and riddled with inequalities. I know many folk representing immigrant societies, trying to help them in their present situation, and the general impression is that the whole situation is shambolic.
There is much talk about how we must attract the brightest and the best. Is that done by restricting our immigration further? I have a Bill before the House to reduce from 12 months to six months the time within which those seeking asylum in this country will be able to work. Is it by indefinite detention? Is it by reassessing the family migration rules? These can be barriers but they can also be bridges.
Only 26 of the 193 countries in the United Nations have an average personal income of more than £18,600, which is the sum called for before people can take up their place in our community. You see families with far less than this. In Nigeria the average income is £1,022 and in India it is £935. We are setting impossible targets. How on earth can people raise this sort of money? How can they send their children to somewhere where they can fulfil their dreams? We rely so much on people from India, Nigeria and other countries in order to run our National Health Service. I looked at the list of consultants in the three north Wales general hospitals and a third of them come from outside the UK and outside Europe. If we had these sorts of limits when they were struggling in their own countries, our health service would have gone a long time ago. There could be a very real crisis and if we establish them now and insist on them, that crisis is waiting for us in the future.
Today’s new Immigration Bill, of which I have had a brief view, makes nonsense of the dreams of the past. When the Statue of Liberty was erected, what was written on it? It stated:
“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free”.
In the UK today we say: “Stay where you are. The barriers are up; the bridges are destroyed. Forget the hopes and dreams for yourself and your children”. Of course, if you are a wealthy entrepreneur, you can buy residency here if you have £20,000 or £50,000 or £200,000—you can buy your citizenship in the UK—but if you are a little child, with tremendous potential, in one of the African countries, hard lines. The world will never benefit from what you could contribute.
On 25 March the Prime Minister said that he wanted the brightest and the best to come here, but what chances are there for so many? Do we not have an opportunity here to provide them with an opportunity? One thing we could do is to improve at an early stage our links in twinning with schools in places like Africa. There is a lot that can be done and perhaps in the new Immigration Bill we will be able to take up that opportunity.
I think of the vans that went out—they were actually lorries more than vans. The Home Office paid for posters. How effective were they? In the Commons today, it was revealed that only one person took advantage of that offer: one person from Pakistan. There was nobody else. Despite all the cost and the unease produced by the posters, they had such little effect.
This morning, I heard Mrs May trying to create a hostile environment for undocumented migrants in the UK. In an earlier debate, the noble Earl, Lord Attlee, said that denying asylum seekers the ability to work makes it difficult for them to integrate into our society, which is what we want.
I suggest that the whole culture and attitude is one that we must deplore. It is the new attitude. I imagine that when the Welsh dairymen came here more than 100 years ago, they were not really welcome, and that there was hostility. “Taffy” was one insult for the newcomers.
In 1938 the Daily Mail headlined its story: “German Jews are pouring into this country”. It went on to print:
“‘The way stateless Jews from Germany are pouring in from every port … is becoming an outrage. I intend to enforce the law to the fullest’. With these words, Mr Herbert Metcalfe, the Old Street magistrate, yesterday referred to the number of aliens entering this country through the ‘back door’—a problem to which the Daily Mail has repeatedly pointed”.
That was in 1938. The attitude was hostile. Where did it end? It ended in the Holocaust.
The response in 2013 can be much better than that. We should ask the Minister to look again at the contents of this test, and at the whole raft of immigration legislation.
Before my noble friend rises, perhaps I may remind noble Lords that this is a time-limited debate, with contributions limited to six minutes. If any speech exceeds that, it will eat into the Minister’s time, and the time of the opposition Front Bench, so I would appreciate it if noble Lords could keep to time.
My Lords, I feel that I am a strange person to be speaking in this debate because I am not a British citizen. I have thought about it a few times, but in the days when I thought about it the Australians would have revoked my Australian citizenship. Because I was here before the immigration laws, I had the right of abode. However, I can tell you that that right has become a bit of a nightmare, because you have to renew it every time you renew your passport. You are required to send in an unbelievable number of documents, all in their original form, including my husband’s parents’ birth certificates, his birth certificate, our marriage certificate—there is a whole list—and they must all be in their original form. Some of them are now so old that if I live long enough to get another passport, I am not sure that they will be in any state to be sent to the office.
I have spoken to the department about this. The man dealing with it is in Liverpool. He said, “I can’t imagine why we have to have originals every time”. Clearly they do not want someone forging all the documents, but Germaine Greer told me that when they told her that they required 10 documents a year and that she had been here for many years and therefore needed 40 documents, she told them that she could not produce 40 originals, and in the end gave up and became British. I thought that it was interesting that that seemed to be the easiest way out; but surely it would be easier to say, “Once we have a document, we will keep an official record of it”. I can see that you have to be sure that someone is not forging documents, but these things should be simple and they are not.
Nationality is an interesting thing. I have helped some people here get British nationality. One woman from Colombia had been illegally here for 27 years. In the end, we were very fortunate. Originally she came legally as an au pair. You did not have to have a visa but came as a guest of the people who invited you to come and be part of their family. I know that well because at one time I ran an au pair agency. I was at home with my own children and could not get anyone to help, so I set up the agency and discovered that all you had to do was invite someone. This woman was fortunate because in her then illegal years she had looked after the parents of one of the very well known Lords here. She told me about this man—“Sir” someone—but it never occurred to me that he was a famous Law Lord until she brought a photo. Then we were able to get going, he supported her, and she got her right to be here. She legally stayed here for five years 20 years ago. However, the five years have to run since you received your permit to be here. Now she has two more years to go, and I want to live so long to help her.
She resents terribly, and so do a lot of other people, all the people who come in, supposedly as asylum seekers. They go to the same English classes and are not interested in learning anything at all. All they want is to be here. A lot of people who want to become British citizens feel cheated because they feel there are quick ways in which people are getting in without any of the bookwork that was referred to—learning.
Now, my right of abode, apart from anything else, costs more than my Australian passport. The other situation I found through the woman I helped is that of moving the goalposts. I have raised this at meetings that Mrs May has attended. You arrive here at a time when there is four years or six years to wait or whatever it is. By the time you present yourself, it has moved up two more years. By the time you have waited another two years before you can apply, it has moved up another two years. So in cases that I came across, applicants from Latin America had found that the goalposts had moved three or four times. That does seem to be very unfair.
A few other matters should be mentioned because time is very short, such as retention of passports. I know that there is a big backlog but people who are here on specialist visas are highly talented people who we want. Their passports are taken to some department and hung on to up to for a year before they are returned. No matter how big the backlog, something has to be done about that. If they need to go abroad during that time, they have to apply to get their passports back. They can get them back, but then they go back to the bottom of the queue and start another year. It should be possible to have the equivalent of what they used to give out in cinemas, a thing that let you reserve your place, and you could leave and go back in. I think there are so many departments all involved in citizenship—the Border Force, the Passport Office, the Post Office for your passports—and so many tests, many of which are quite unrealistic. It is time that people looked at the actual wording of these forms and simplified them so that people could understand the procedure and the ball game did not change by moving the goalposts.
My Lords, listening to the noble Baroness, it seems to me that one thing that is absolutely certain is that anyone who, at the end of the day, is still in the game and wanting to be a British citizen must be really committed to that objective. I was tempted to think, as I listened to the noble Lord, Lord Roberts, who is an old friend on these issues, that I should just get up and say—in the Welsh tradition of non-conformism—“Hallelujah!”, and sit down. However, the issue is too important for that. I want to make just a couple of observations.
I am always impressed how, within a broad sweep of history in Britain, each wave of immigration has added to the vitality of our life. There are difficulties, but it takes time. If we are determined to narrow ourselves down into a small group of people and to limit ethnic variety, geographical and other backgrounds, we will be shooting ourselves in the foot because previous generations have made a tremendous contribution. One looks at the public services. We encouraged people to come and be part of us. My God, there are large parts of the public services that would never have survived if those people had not been here and provided their service and in many ways become cheerful, positive members of our community. Yes, there are difficulties, and it is no good looking at these things just in terms of five or 10 years—we need to look at them for longer than that—but, looking at the broad sweep of history, I am certain that the outcome will again be positive.
We should look not only at the public services but at higher education, in which I am involved as a university member of court and an emeritus governor of the LSE. Some members of our ethnic minorities, as we like to call them, are doing incredibly well in higher education and are adding to the quality and prowess of our society. What is all this about? Is it about putting obstacles in the way of citizenship or is it about encouraging people to become citizens without bearing a grudge or feeling exasperated, having been through a sensible, rational process of learning how you become a citizen? We used not to have all these arrangements. I think that it is clear to anyone outside that they are not about learning about citizenship but about limiting the number of people who obtain citizenship. We need to separate out these issues. I do not believe that it is possible to have an open-door immigration policy leading to citizenship; that is just not rational or possible. Ideally, it would be lovely but it is just not possible. However, what we should not do is aggravate and alienate people as that leads to dissension and frustration. That is not a good way to create harmony and achieve the best possible outcome. The process should be open and just.
I am very worried about the financial barrier, as is the noble Lord. If it is a mix, it is a mix. What may seem hardly petty cash to many Members of this House is a very heavy cost indeed to many ordinary people in our society who play a constructive part in our community. What are we doing with that? As regards the test, what I worry about is how we will assist integration, harmonisation and the future well-being of our mixed society if we indulge in hypocrisy. I ask noble Lords to please go to an average football match, cricket match, commuter train, airplane or place of employment and say to people, “You claim to be a British citizen. How many wives did Henry VIII have?”. How many unquestioned members of our society would be able to say how many wives Henry VIII had just like that? However, we expect newcomers to our society to answer questions that we know a large number of people in all parts of our social system would be unable to answer.
The noble Lord, Lord Roberts, put my next point extremely well. It seems to me that if we are to have a citizenship test—in many ways I wish that we did not have to have one—it should ask questions about the character of our society. It should ask imaginative questions which test people’s understanding of our society and the stresses and strains within it rather than simply asking technical questions. My wife has spent her professional life teaching history at an advanced level. When she heard the question about how many wives Henry VIII had, she hit the roof. She said, “What does that tell us about the story of British life and British citizenship?”. It is not an essential dimension. From that standpoint, I ask that we please do not base our policy on hypocrisy.
My Lords, my noble friend Lord Roberts has a proud record of supporting the rights of people who are entitled to British citizenship. I am grateful to him for this opportunity to talk about citizenship. He has seen the Long Title of the forthcoming Immigration Bill, but he cannot tell me whether it contains anything about citizenship. I understand that it does not, and that after several years in which there have been no Bills to revise citizenship, we are again not to be given an opportunity in this Session.
There are some residual problems left over from measures agreed by Parliament in 2002 onwards to equalise the transmission of citizenship between fathers and mothers, with which we have dealt before. Citizenship is automatic for children of a British father, but it requires registration while the child is a minor when it is the mother who is British. If the mother forgets or dies, the right is forfeited. This could be rectified by providing that, where the mother has not registered the child during the child’s minority, she has the right to register herself on attaining her majority.
Another example was given by Wesley Gryk solicitors. It concerns a client, Mr A, who was born in Bermuda in the 1950s to a mother who was then a citizen of the United Kingdom and Colonies. She became a British Overseas Territories citizen on 1 January 1983 by virtue of Section 23(1) of the British Nationality Act 1981 and a British citizen by virtue of Section 3(1) of the British Overseas Territories Act 2002. The Home Office says:
“There is no registration option for people who would have become British Overseas citizens or British Dependent Territories citizens on 1 January 1983 if women had been able to pass on citizenship before that date and who, as a result, might now have had entitlements to British citizenship under other provisions”.
However, Mr A’s cousins, the children of his mother’s brothers and similarly born outside the UK, are now British citizens. That is a clear case of gender discrimination in the operation of British nationality law and ought to be corrected.
Another anomaly that has been raised several times is the status of the Chagos islanders. If they had not been kicked out of their homeland by our Government in the late 1960s, their descendants would by now have become British citizens. Descendants born here are still British, but those born overseas, mainly in Mauritius, are not. In some cases, a member of the family who is British may come here, but can only bring in members of his family if he can demonstrate that the dependents will have no recourse to public funds immediately on arrival. This results in split families and in British citizens being permanently exiled because they cannot or will not leave their families.
The Immigration Law Practitioners’ Association proposes that Chagos islanders born in exile should be able to register as British citizens if they have a single parent, man or woman, who was born on the islands. The same right should be extended to children of those who registered as British citizens under Section 6(1) of the British Overseas Territories Act 2002.
There is the whole question of stateless persons, for whom the UK restated her commitment to the 1961 convention at the 50th anniversary UN event in Geneva in December 2011. However, a British citizen born outside the UK and British Overseas Territories is British by descent and therefore unable to transmit his or her citizenship to the next generation or bring the children to the UK without surmounting major obstacles. In addition, there are the children of people living in a foreign country who acquire British citizenship after the birth of their children, where the state of residence prohibits the acquisition of its nationality to the children, often on racially discriminatory grounds, so the children are then stateless.
Finally, I need to mention the British overseas citizens who renounced their Malaysian citizenship when advised falsely by solicitors that they could then claim full British citizenship. After they found this was wrong, they languished here stateless, destitute and without the right to work for many years. After much correspondence and many meetings with the Minister for Immigration, he said that he had negotiated an agreement with the Malaysians for these people to return there and reclaim their former Malaysian status. When pressed for details, the Minister wrote yesterday saying that the persons concerned will be allowed a five-year residence pass to return to Malaysia, and that at the end of that period they could apply for permanent residence. However, he did not say how much longer they would have to continue stateless or explain what conditions they would have to satisfy before they could regain their original citizenship. The Minister says that he will publicise the arrangements only after at least a couple of successful returnees have demonstrated that the process is running smoothly, but even if that happens, I imagine that most of the people concerned would sooner have another five years of statelessness here in this country than return to Malaysia and face a 10-year period of statelessness there.
My Lords, I am very grateful to be speaking today and I thank the noble Lord, Lord Roberts, for securing this important Question for Short Debate. I am myself an immigrant to the United Kingdom, having come here in the late 1960s to set up a business. I started with very little except for my drive and ambition, and a determination to succeed. I worked hard and grew a successful international business that now has a wide range of foods in most of our major supermarkets. This success was possible because of the opportunities that the UK provided, and I remain proud and grateful to be a UK citizen, able to take advantage of the opportunities that this great land gives everyone. It is a wonderful aspect of life in the UK that, if you come here and work and integrate into society, you will have the opportunity to become a British citizen. So it saddens me and makes me angry to see some people trying to abuse these opportunities. We must cherish and protect our citizenship from those who come here but do not intend to work hard and contribute or, worse, those who come here to do harm. We must also ensure that our borders are monitored properly and that we know exactly who is coming in and going out of the country.
There is a list of requirements that you must comply with before you can apply to become a British citizen. In the short time available, I want to talk about one of these requirements: that people must be of good character. Let me quote from the UK Border Agency website on what it means to be of good character:
“We consider you to be of good character if you show respect for the rights and freedom of the United Kingdom, have observed its laws and fulfilled your duties and obligations as a resident”.
Being of good character, as the UK Border Agency states, means fulfilling your duties and obligations as a resident. Those duties and obligations include working hard, paying taxes and giving something back to society. I have spoken before in this House on the need to ensure that we protect the values and freedoms of the UK. Immigration controls are an essential part of how we do that. We need to ensure that the requirements for gaining entry and citizenship to the UK are strong and robust enough to work as they are intended to.
For example, a number of noble Lords have spoken before about the ineffectiveness of the citizenship test. I agree; how can knowing at what age you can be asked to serve on a jury or where Father Christmas comes from possibly show whether you are of good character or even understand the values and culture of this country? These questions tell us nothing about the character of the person. We should be asking people to demonstrate their commitment to the UK’s values and we should be expecting people to have at least a reasonable command of the English language and the prospect of a job waiting for them. Can the Minister tell us if there are any plans to review the citizenship test once again in order to make it more applicable? At the moment, the test is made up of questions about a range of obscure facts that do not have much to do with the day-to-day experience of living in the UK. Citizenship is something that is attained by birth or earned over time. It is then retained by being a contributing member of your community. Allowing and embracing immigration ensures the future of our dynamic and interesting country.
Perhaps it would be more helpful if the citizenship test focused on people having a knowledge of our laws, customs, history and culture, and also accepting our way of life. It should be focused on the practical things that immigrants should know to help them navigate living in Britain. Someone’s level of historical knowledge should not be a determinant as to whether they are a good or a bad citizen. What matters is the character of the individual, not only their general knowledge of the British Isles.
It is my belief that we must enforce these requirements much more strongly. There are too many people coming to the UK who expect the benefit but not the hard work that goes with it. They take advantage of our system but forget their obligations. If people cannot prove their good character through their family, friends and behaviour, they have no right to be here. Why not ask people to state their beliefs and how these concur with the values of the UK, or even to explain what they will contribute to the United Kingdom? The vast majority of immigrants to this country come here to make a better life for themselves and their families, and they bring a lot of knowledge and experience which help this great country to grow and prosper. We should welcome hard-working immigrants who wish to become British citizens, and we should make the Life in the UK test focus on real questions of how to navigate living in the UK rather than asking questions that most indigenous Britons may have difficulty in answering. I thank noble Lords for listening to me and I look forward to hearing more on this essential debate.
My Lords, international students account for almost half of current immigration into the United Kingdom. I wish to focus on the impact of UK immigration policies on the student population, postgraduate and staff. I declare two interests. From 2007-11, I was president of the British Accreditation Council, which, during those years, acted along with the British Council as the principal accreditation agency for Tier 4 entry into the United Kingdom, assessing colleges and offering education to foreign students against very stringent criteria. In 2011, this role was taken over by two other agencies—the QAA and ISI. This was a costly reorganisation and it has effected little change, with both those agencies reaccrediting 99% of the colleges which we had accredited originally. This is relevant because if the Government are to effect their aspirational cap of no more than 100,000 immigrants a year into the United Kingdom, there is a real risk of a significant further reduction in the number of foreign students. The other interest that I declare is that I am high steward, or deputy chancellor, of Cambridge University which both attracts substantial numbers of foreign students, especially postgraduates, and needs to attract researchers and teaching staff from overseas.
As we all know, in 2011 the Home Secretary broke up the UK Border Agency as unfit for purpose. It has been replaced by the Border Force. This successor agency is now headed up by Sir Charles Montgomery, who is currently appearing before a number of parliamentary Select Committees. He is already grappling with the demands of his agency, demands of such complexity and tenacity, including the establishment of e-borders, that I am not surprised that his predecessors heading up the Border Force did not stay for very long. Sir Charles Montgomery is, however, crystal clear on the strategic aims of the Border Force. As he said before the committee, they are to provide security and to promote British prosperity. There is, to put it mildly, a creative tension between these two objectives. Security is, of course, the priority and must be provided, although how best to do this, given the complex multifaceted terrain of insecurity, will continue to vex not only the Border Force but all our security agencies. But Sir Charles’ second strategic objective of promoting British prosperity is also vital, and this is my focus.
While the case for the value of immigration to our economy is well made, including by the CBI, the value of immigration to Britain’s economy by the international student education sector is much less well known. This sector contributed £17.5 billion last year and BIS quite rightly wants to increase this by 20% in coming years. It is not only the revenue raised but the significant value added, in skills, research and teaching, as testified to by the universities. Cambridge University, for example, is somewhat frustrated by the residential qualification for a visa application, which applies to T4 entrants with their dependants. We are losing very important people to universities abroad because the dependants cannot come here if the course is under 12 months long.
Therefore, we encounter a truly dangerous dilemma: if the Government are to achieve their overall cap of 100,000, they will have little option but to further curtail international student immigration into the UK. I urge great caution on the Government in this matter. We need international students—economically, intellectually, academically. Striking the right balance is not only a challenge for the Home Secretary and for the Border Force, it is also a challenge for our society because we will harm ourselves if we succumb to the rhetoric of an island fortress submerged by waves of immigration—rhetoric so beloved by some of our newspapers and politicians.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Roberts, on his persistence with this issue, and welcome his efforts to secure today’s debate. The excellent speeches we have heard do great credit to your Lordships’ House. The noble Lord, Lord Taylor, and I have had a number of debates over the years we have been in our respective positions on the issue of immigration and citizenship, and that reflects the public and political interest in this issue. It also highlights the great responsibility of government.
The timing of today’s debate is interesting as it is against the backdrop of this week’s news that the Government’s “ad van” campaign on immigration was banned, not because it was an ill-judged political stunt but because the facts it deployed were wrong. Then there is the highly critical report by the independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration on the chaotic failings of the e-borders programme. The Government have refused to allow the Home Affairs Select Committee to see that report in full. Then today we have the publication of the Immigration Bill. After the comments by the noble Lord, Lord Roberts, I look forward to seeing what amendments he puts forward to that Bill.
Those events set today’s debate in the context of the wider interest and show how difficult and complex these issues can be. Clearly, it is a key government responsibility to ensure that immigration is good and beneficial to the UK and its citizens. I think that the noble Lord, Lord Noon, used the phrase “of good character”. In the case of asylum, the Government are under a moral imperative; the Minister has made that clear on a number of occasions, and I thank him for it. However, the Government have a right—I think that the noble Lord, Lord Noon, referred to this as well—not to grant citizenship, or leave to remain, to those they consider will not contribute appropriately or will pose security problems.
I want to put that in context and to make just two points. One is about responsibility and policy. We should recognise that when we talk about immigrants we are not talking about a cohesive, identifiable group but a whole range of people of different nationalities who for one reason or another are seeking permission to live, and possibly work, in the UK. They include students—as the noble Lord, Lord Watson, mentioned—together with people involved in businesses, and workers and families. There is the separate issue, which concerns us all, of those who enter the country illegally and have no right to live here.
It is therefore right that we have a genuine debate about the kinds of immigration that we need and can sustain. Policies on this issue must be evidence-based and define the boundaries and the benefits or the disadvantages to the UK. Like the noble Lord, Lord Watson, I struggle with the Government’s test of success as being a fall in the level of net migration. It is a crude measure which, bizarrely—I am sure this was not the Government’s intention—means that if more UK citizens leave the UK than immigrants enter the UK, the Government will have succeeded. The noble Lord, Lord Watson, highlighted an alternative way the Government could achieve their aims which I think would be equally damaging to the UK. That is not success, and the Government’s current policies can lead to all kinds of problems and concerns. The Minister has heard this many times during questions and debates in your Lordships’ House in relation to universities and businesses. For example, the Government’s approach does not even start to address the different kinds of immigration, and the different impacts they have for the immigrants and for the country.
The other crude measure that gives me cause for concern—I have raised this with the noble Lord before, and other noble Lords have raised it—is the income threshold for British citizens who want to sponsor their spouse or family to live with them. I say at the outset that I fully agree that if an individual wishes to bring their family to settle in the UK, they should never assume that they will have state support. That is why there is already an absolute requirement for them to show that they have sufficient funds to support their family. There could have been greater clarity around that because it requires discretion and investigation on the part of entry clearance officers. We do not propose greater clarity there, but a blanket threshold that does not take into account any other relevant factors will not have the effect that the Government intended.
I recall a conversation with a gentleman who lived with his parents in the New Forest. He did not earn £18,600. In order to earn that in his profession, he would have had to move to London. In that case, his housing costs would have increased to such an extent that his disposable income would have been significantly less—but he would have fulfilled the Government’s requirements for allowing his wife to enter the country, even though it would have been much more difficult for him to support his family.
On the issue of asylum, the noble Lord himself said that there was no question of the UK not being a safe haven for those who genuinely face persecution in their native country. The example of young Malala from Afghanistan, whom many of us will have seen on “Panorama” this week and who is currently living in the UK with her family, should be a source of great pride. We should take pride in the fact that a woman of this amazing capacity—a quite exceptional young woman—is living, being treated and learning in the UK. Some 70% of people in the UK agree that we should offer asylum to those fleeing persecution.
There are other exceptional cases of people who have risked their lives to help UK interests and who face continued threats now. The Minister will have heard the comments made in your Lordships’ House about the Afghan interpreters who now face threats from the Taliban as our troops withdraw. Of course, the Gurkhas have been welcomed into this country.
The Minister said in your Lordships’ House, in a short debate on the citizenship test, that,
“the whole purpose of the exercise … is … to provide facts on which people can base a life of settlement and, indeed, citizenship in this country”.—[Official Report, 26/2/13; col. 954.]
Other noble Lords have spoken about this. I appreciate that I am getting close to my time, but perhaps I may direct noble Lords to the report from Dr Thom Brooks of Durham University, which makes it quite clear that the citizenship test is not fit for purpose. The Prime Minister failed it on national television. I am sure that I would fail it, and I regard myself as a very loyal and committed citizen of the UK. It is more like a pub quiz or a game of Trivial Pursuit.
I hope that the Minister has found this debate useful, and that we will have many more debates on issues around immigration as the weeks go on. I hope that he will take back some of the concerns raised in the debate today by noble Lords who have only the interests of the UK at heart and are really concerned about the citizenship test and about some of the other barriers that we put in the way of those who will be a great asset and benefit to the UK.
My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Roberts of Llandudno for securing this debate, which has been wide-ranging. Indeed, to some extent we have ranged beyond the strict subject of the debate. I hope that noble Lords will forgive me if I focus to some degree on the essence of the debate, which is nationality and citizenship. I assure noble Lords—it is important that the noble Baroness, Lady Smith of Basildon, accepts this—that the core of the Government’s policy is that the UK should continue to welcome individuals coming to work, study or join their family, and to provide a place of safety for refugees.
Reducing net migration is not about encouraging more Brits to leave than foreigners to come; it is about achieving a sustainable level of migration. All political parties are working towards a consensus on this issue. The Government are succeeding, because the levels of non-EU migration are at their lowest for 14 years.
My noble friend Lord Roberts of Llandudno pointed out that today we have published a number of important reforms to the immigration system through the new Immigration Bill, which is going to be a subject to which we will all be returning, I have no doubt. Everyone who has spoken in this debate, I am sure, will be back to talk through that Bill. It is a Commons starter, so we have got a bit of time to limber up for it. I hope noble Lords will not object if I try to answer specifically the questions and points raised on the questions of citizenship and nationality. They are all set out in the British Nationality Act 1981, so it is quite a long-standing Act. It has not been particularly changed. The citizenship test has changed. The one introduced by the previous Government has been brought up to date. Although there has been some criticism, notably from Dr Thom Brooks at Durham, about that test, it has been designed to make it much more real to the people who are sitting the test, and it has been widely welcomed.
The 1981 Act reflects the principle that citizenship should be acquired on the basis of a close and continuing connection with the United Kingdom. Although there are some registration routes for those who already have a link, and we will perhaps discuss areas where they have worked and where they perhaps do not work so well, the majority of those seeking to become citizens will do so through naturalisation. We are rightly proud of our British citizenship. It is a privilege, not a right. We expect those applying to naturalise as British citizens to have demonstrated a commitment to the United Kingdom through a period of lawful residence of five years, coupled with knowledge of the English language and of our culture, history and democratic government. Those living in Wales, as my noble friend will know, being a Welsh speaker, will already be able to demonstrate a knowledge of Welsh or of Scots Gaelic. Additionally, they should be of good character and, in most cases, intend to make the United Kingdom their permanent home. The Government consider that these remain the right criteria, although changes to particular requirements are planned.
First, the Government have looked at the way in which applicants for naturalisation demonstrate the required knowledge of language and life in the UK. If a person wishes to make the United Kingdom his or her permanent home and to become a British citizen, it is reasonable to expect that an individual will show, among other things, that they are committed to learning English and have an understanding of British history, culture and traditions. The ability to speak English and an understanding of the traditions and democratic principles underpinning UK life are essential for successful integration.
The noble Lord, Lord Noon, is nodding. There is no better example than himself of somebody who has done just that and contributed so much to British life. This can be demonstrated by taking the Life in the UK test in English, Welsh or Scottish Gaelic, or by obtaining an English for Speakers of Other Languages qualification, which can be at a very basic level. This means that some individuals have been able to naturalise without sufficient English to communicate and integrate with the wider community. The new Life in the UK test, to which there has been much reference today, places the emphasis on British history, culture and democratic government. Despite what some noble Lords have said, the vast majority of feedback on the new test has been positive. I cannot agree that the questions asked are irrelevant or that the test should concentrate on more practical matters.
The test is being taken by individuals who have been in the UK long enough. They have to be resident here for at least five years to qualify for this test and they should know about day-to-day practical issues. The aim of the test is to help new residents appreciate British traditions and understand how democracy developed in this country. The new test was informed by a user survey of 664 people who had taken the previous test. Most respondents were already aware of the practical aspects of UK life, but wished to have more information about history, government and the legal system. The test was designed to meet that request.
My noble friend Lord Roberts said that it should be made clear in the book which sections should be studied. It is intended that the whole book should be studied, but it is made clear that readers need not remember dates, including birth dates, or things of that nature. It is designed to inform, but the companion publication assists individuals in becoming familiar with the type of test that they are likely to face. With any book of this nature, it is possible for some details to become out of date, but we have deliberately moved away from the inclusion of statistics or similar information that could become irrelevant. As I said, the test is generally taken by people who have been in the UK long enough to know about practical issues. The handbook aims to provide information on British history, culture and democracy in an accessible, interesting way. Questions are no longer asked about dates: for example, “When did it become possible for wives to have the right to divorce?”. Instead, the questions are about principles, such as the principle that men and women have equal rights.
Further changes come into force on 28 October. From that date, applicants will be required both to pass the Life in the UK test and to have a speaking and listening qualification in English that shows that they can communicate at an independent level. Nationals of the majority of English-speaking countries will not be required to show a formal speaking and listening qualification. However, they will still be required to pass the Life in the UK test. This revised knowledge of language and life requirement will apply to all applicants unless they are exempt on the basis of their age or physical or mental condition. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Judd, for whom I have the greatest regard, that the whole point of the test is that it should be fair, reasonable and just, as he asked for it to be.
It may interest your Lordships to hear a few figures about how many people have taken the test and what the pass rate was. In 2012, 201,087 applications were decided. Of these, 97% were successful. Clear guidance limits the number of people for whom the test would be inappropriate. Of the 678 cases that were refused, 103 were refused because the applicant had insufficient knowledge of English or life in the UK. The failure rate is very small. The whole point is that candidates should prepare themselves by reading the publications that are made available for them.
We have a number of proposals coming forward in support of the Citizenship (Armed Forces) Bill, which will amend nationality Acts with respect to those serving in the Armed Forces overseas. I can tell my noble friend Lady Gardner of Parkes that the average processing time for a nationality Act application is nine weeks, and in that time it is possible to get your passport if you choose to do so. They just make a note of the details and return it to you; it is not kept.
I am going to run out of time so I will have to write to my noble friend Lord Avebury. He raised a number of interesting issues on which I would like to inform him, including the question of the children of British mothers, Chagossians and stateless persons. I will make sure that that letter is sent to all Members who participated in the debate. I enjoyed the tribute paid by my noble friend Lord Watson of Richmond to Sir Charles Montgomery. If any man can tackle the problems facing the Border Force, it is Sir Charles, and I have every confidence that he will do so. I thank noble Lords and I am sorry if I have been caught out of time. This debate has raised a lot of issues and I have found it very interesting.
Committee adjourned at 6 pm.