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UK Citizenship: History

Volume 811: debated on Wednesday 14 April 2021


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government when they plan to revise the historical section of the Life in the United Kingdom handbook for people applying for United Kingdom citizenship.

My Lords, the Life in the United Kingdom handbook is for all UK residents who need to meet the knowledge of life in the UK requirements when applying for either settlement or citizenship. New impressions are published regularly to keep it up to date, most recently in February, and plans to review the handbook are due for consideration later this year.

The Minister knows very well the sharp criticisms that professional historians have made of the rewriting of the historical section some eight years ago, changing its interpretation of the slave trade, of imperial history and of domestic political controversies. In the next major revision, will the Government consult outside and cross-party advisers, particularly over the portrayal of Britain’s engagement with the countries from which so many of our new citizens come, such as the United States—my American daughter-in-law has just taken the test—the Indian subcontinent, the Caribbean and Africa?

Yes, I am well aware of the letter from historians; I had an interesting exchange about it last summer with Professor Frank Trentmann, its lead author. Criticism of the history sections of these tests is perennial. The first edition, written by the late Professor Sir Bernard Crick, was criticised by historians, as was the more recent edition, which was published under the coalition Government. We are grateful to the historians for their thoughts. They made some valid and thought-provoking comments that will certainly be taken into account as we review the handbook, but we do not agree with all the criticisms that they made and are wary of history by petition, no matter how eminent the petitioners.

My Lords, in acknowledging the importance of having a robust and fair mechanism by which citizenship is awarded, does the Minister agree that the life in the United Kingdom test should only ask questions of applicants that those who already hold citizenship could reasonably answer? If my noble friend agrees with that, what actions is the Home Office taking to ensure that the questions in place value and reflect the contribution that the applicant may already have made to both their community and British life more generally prior to their bid for citizenship?

My noble friend is absolutely right. People who come to this country and settle here or become citizens make a valuable contribution even before they may take citizenship. The first part of her question allows me to explain that this is a 24-question test with multiple answers. People need to get only three-quarters of them right, and the recent pass rate of 79% suggests that it is a test that people are able to pass.

My Lords, the French citizenship test involves an interview that puts the candidate in an everyday situation; a friend of mine had to imagine that he was buying a washing machine. Does the Minister think the UK test is relevant? Does he believe that the following questions for British citizenship are relevant, and can he answer them? When was the time of growing patriotism? When were the last Welsh rebellions defeated? How many colonies were granted independence in 1947? I look forward to his answers.

My Lords, I believe Standing Orders say that only two questions are allowed in Oral Questions. More pertinently, as I explained, the questions that are put are multiple choice. They are not, as the noble Baroness frames them, designed to catch people out; they are there to encourage people to engage with the story of our nation so far, before they help us to write the next chapter of it. Previous versions of the Life in the United Kingdom handbook did not examine people on the history section, which meant inevitably that lots of people skipped it. I hope she will agree that it is beneficial to check that people have engaged with the glorious past of our country before they help us to write the next chapter, as I say.

My Lords, the Minister talked about a review later this year. I assume that is the review that was announced in October 2018. Can he confirm that it will be a public consultation? In reviewing the test, will the Government look at a report by Thom Brooks, professor and dean at Durham Law School, who, originally being American, took the test himself? He said that people had to learn the height of the London Eye in feet and metres but not about the UK Supreme Court or how many MPs there are. Does the Minister agree that the review must be thorough and radical?

My Lords, the previous Home Secretary announced the intention to review the handbook. As I say, the handbook is constantly reviewed to make sure that it is up to date. We want to consider that more carefully, particularly in light of some of the criticisms and points that have been raised. The noble Baroness mentioned another academic. I understand that Professor Brooks is an adviser to the Labour Party. He has certainly made his representations on the citizenship test well known.

My Lords, the test is not the only barrier that people can face to accessing citizenship. The High Court has recently upheld a ruling that the exorbitant fees that children are charged are unlawful, as they are set without consideration for the best interests of the child. The Home Office has said that this will be reviewed in due course. Has work started on this review, or is the issue still sitting on the shelf waiting to be looked at? Families are left with this grossly unfair charge with no end in sight.

The Government will consider the implications of the court’s judgement carefully and will review child registration fees in the light of the court’s judgment. We believe that it is important to strike the right balance by ensuring that people can obtain status in the UK and access appropriate services, without burdening the UK taxpayer.

Do not our prospective fellow citizens need, above all, a clear account of our constitutional development over the centuries? Without that, it is impossible to understand the role of our much-loved monarchy, of which we are particularly conscious at the moment, our multi-nation state and our parliamentary institutions and take pride in them—which all of them deserve.

I completely agree with my noble friend. The history of this nation is a long, complex and evolving one. It is important that people are given a brief overview of it, so that they can engage with the country as it now is and understand things such as our proceedings here in your Lordships’ House.

My Lords, I am grateful for these answers and glad that this document will be revised in due course. It is a concise, often masterful, précis of some quite complex areas of our history, but surely a confident country can cope with complexity and with where we have failed—it is not just our glorious past. History matters. For example, in relation to the role of the Soviet Union during the Second World War, much of what is regarded as glorious standing alone by the western allies would not have been possible without the role of the Soviet Union, which lost 20 million people. Will the rewriting be open to a wider scrutiny, in order that history is perhaps taken more seriously?

I certainly agree with the right reverend Prelate that a confident country engages with its history in all its complexities, including those parts which might be uncomfortable to recall today. I do not fully agree with the way that he characterises the current text. I do not think it gives a misrepresented view of history; it includes some of the darker moments of our history as well. In the three editions of this document, historians have made their views well-known and long may they continue to do so.

Will the rewriting delete references to ancient battles which caused the deaths of so many innocent people and kings like Henry VIII, who is not an example of how a person should behave if they want to live in the United Kingdom?

I think it is important that we understand history, and monarchs such as Henry VIII were hugely consequential, not least in the establishment of the Church of England. It is important that we know all of these things.

My Lords, there is widespread agreement that the life in the UK test needs thorough revision and updating. It has been repeatedly criticised for its random inaccuracies and the irrelevance of much of its content to life in the UK today. I trust, however, that we will not end up with a document which is even more biased in the other direction. I studied history at Cambridge many years ago, where one excellent tripos was on the expansion of Europe—introduced to counter previous left-wing bias in writing about UK history. When Britain’s involvement in slavery is addressed, I trust it will include the facts that slavery was imported from west Africa and, between 1500 and 1800, 2 million British citizens from the west coast were enslaved by the Morocco of the time—

My question is: who will be writing the revised historical section of the handbook? The open letter from 180 historians looks to have its own substantial bias.

I also studied history at Cambridge, a little after my noble friend, but I think that some of the papers were still the same when I was there. The point he makes illustrates how difficult it is for any single person to write a history that does not spark debate, and the purpose of it is to do just that. History is a process of constant inquiry, of re-evaluation and of reconsidering the past and the lessons it can teach us. The history section of the life in the UK test is a starting point for people to engage with the past before they make their valuable contribution to our nation in its future.