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British Citizenship

Volume 799: debated on Thursday 3 October 2019

Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the effectiveness of the procedures for acquiring British citizenship.

My Lords, UK Visas and Immigration anticipates that about 178,000 applications will be processed during 2019-20. Following the introduction of streamlined processes, around 80% of applications are now submitted online. As a result, as at August 2019, 99.4% of straightforward applications were decided within the six-month service standard.

My Lords, the Minister will, I am sure, be aware of an official book called Life in the United Kingdom: A Guide for New Residents. First, can she justify the fact that the examples given of eminent British people are almost all men and that, in some respects, women have been airbrushed out of British life? Secondly, a number of questions arise that are supposed to be relevant to life in Britain. I will try her out on one: when was the Giant’s Causeway formed—40 million, 50 million or 60 million or 70 million years ago? Will the Minister care to hazard an answer? Also: when did Henry VIII die—January 1547, January 1557, February 1547 or February 1557? I am sure that these are relevant to life in Britain. Can the Minister answer any of these questions, please?

The noble Lord, who is actually my noble friend, has issued me with a double humiliation. As someone whose father is from Northern Ireland, I am ashamed that I cannot answer his question, but I will guess at 50 million years ago.

That is called the luck of the Irish, my Lords. On the second question about Henry VIII, I really have no idea, but then I am Irish, so maybe I can be granted leeway on that. There are points about the Life in the UK test and how much detail and knowledge we can expect people to have, so I take the noble Lord’s point.

My Lords, I declare an interest as someone who has only recently become a British citizen. That was in the last hour of the last day of the last Labour Government, when they passed an amendment such that a Member of this House could automatically become a British citizen. I do not know how or how often that is publicised, but it is a fact, and I am grateful to the Government for it. Before then, I had to produce a right of abode, which produced all sorts of documents that went back to birth certificates and everything under the sun. I have also helped other people, with the help of a particular noble and learned Lord, who had been Lord Chief Justice. He and I took 10 years to get British citizenship for someone who well deserved it, so I think there is something very wrong about this position. I am not complaining because I was given only a six-month visa when I arrived; at least I was given that. Some people are getting nothing and some are involved in enormously long procedures, but they get something in the end. How many years is it taking? Can it be speeded up in any way?

Like my noble friend, I have tried to assist the many noble Lords who have asked me questions about immigration, citizenship, et cetera. They are complex, and Members of your Lordships’ House have shown me just how complex they are, not least my noble friend. I am glad that her case was resolved, in the end. But it is important that, to become a British citizen, you demonstrate your commitment to this country. Some of our rules have been in place for years, but I accept that there are many different avenues that one might take for the various types of access arrangements.

My Lords, refugee families often have to make repeated applications for leave to remain, before becoming eligible for British citizenship, paying thousands of pounds at each stage, potentially costing tens of thousands of pounds overall—way above the actual cost to the Home Office of processing their applications. Does the Minister accept that the government policy of overcharging positively discourages those seeking sanctuary in the UK? All these people want is to contribute to and integrate with British society.

The Home Office does not make a profit from application fees. The income that it derives is used to fund other vital areas of the borders, immigration and citizenship service. We have always provided refugees with exceptions to the need to pay application fees for leave to remain, in specific circumstances. That might be for refugees or those living in local authority care.

My Lords, 18 months ago, I was pleased to serve on a Select Committee of this House chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson. Many of the issues we are discussing now were dealt with in that Citizenship and Civic Engagement Committee. Will the Minister go back to the new Home Secretary and ask whether we could make progress, both on the issues that were just raised by the Member from the Liberal Democrat Benches, but also on the Life in the UK test? When it came in 17 years ago, I promise your Lordships that it did not include a question on the Giant’s Causeway. Could we look urgently at making it relevant, sensible and usable for people gaining citizenship in the UK?

I assure the noble Lord that I will take back both his point and that of the noble Lord, Lord Paddick. I thank him; we have all been educated this morning, not least myself. I was thinking about the analogy with Trivial Pursuit: if the same questions have been in play for a number of years, this may be an opportunity to update them. I will certainly take that point back.