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Life in the UK Test

Volume 807: debated on Tuesday 3 November 2020


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have to review the contents of the Life in the UK Test.

My Lords, the Life in the UK test, which is taken for settlement and citizenship purposes, is based on the content of the new handbook, Life in the United Kingdom: A Guide for New Residents. The Home Office reviews the handbook annually and makes corrections and amendments to ensure that the content remains factually accurate and up to date.

I thank the Minister for that Answer. She perhaps knows that, in July this year, some 600 of the country’s historians, including 13 fellows of the British Academy, wrote a letter to the Home Office asking for an immediate review of the existing edition of Life in the United Kingdom, which, as the Minister said, is the set text for applying for British citizenship. They cited historical errors and misrepresentations. Given that the Home Office’s latest plan in response to the Windrush scandal is to develop UK history training for its staff, can the text of this book now be up for urgent and expert revision?

My Lords, I read the exchange between my noble friend Lord Parkinson and Professor Trentmann with high interest. Our history is both broad and deep. We cannot possibly cover every element of it. The test is there to cover society, culture and history as accurately as we can. I understand that it is factually correct, but I recognise the differences of opinion between Professor Trentmann and my noble friend.

My Lords, I support the point just made by my noble friend Lady Bakewell. I want to raise the issue of the financial hurdles facing applicants. I have been told that free ESOL language courses have been significantly reduced and, of course, many applicants cannot afford college courses and are often ineligible for loans. Given these financial hurdles, are the Government giving consideration to the financial problems that applicants face?

The test costs £50 and the handbook costs £12.99. I have recognised before in your Lordships’ House that the cost of citizenship is high for some individuals. In terms of ESOL, I recognise that all these things are a cost to the individual who undertakes them. There is assistance for people who cannot afford to pay the cost. For example, two or three years ago MHCLG provided free English language teaching for people.

My Lords, having seen the Life in the UK test, I have come to the conclusion that many British citizens would be unable to answer many of the questions. Therefore, it is important that the test and supporting learning material should be reviewed regularly to make them topical and relevant. Will the Minister join me in congratulating those people from other countries who work extremely hard to pass the test, resulting in them becoming citizens of the best country in the world?

My Lords, I certainly join the noble Lord in congratulating everyone who has passed the test. I think the pass rate is between 80% and 90%.

I say to my noble friend that, having tried for interest half a dozen of the tests this morning and only failed one, I thought the content was generally correct as far as it goes. It is on the right lines. However, I suggest two tweaks. First, having just 24 questions is not nearly enough. It should be doubled to about 50 and more time given. Secondly, I found only one answer on the rule of law. There should be a lot more, stressing that this is a liberal, democratic country where democracy trumps religion and where we have respect and tolerance for everyone in society—oh, and no riding on the pavement, either.

I thank my noble friend for pointing those things out. I suspect if we took a straw poll of all views in this House the handbook would be very long.

My Lords, I had a look at a lot of it. It seemed to me that it was very good training for taking part in pub quizzes. There is an extraordinary emphasis on a lot of irrelevant history, mainly about people who were white, rich and powerful. I did not see a lot in it about food banks or the laws in relation to planning permission and how to apply for planning permission. The question about what happened to hereditary Peers in 1999 seems bizarre. It seems to me that a thorough revision is required. Does the Minister agree?

Yes, probably. This is intended to be a broad-brush 24 questions on our history as an overview. The test also includes questions on society and culture.

My Lords, I am sure we all have sympathy with those setting these test questions. As we have seen in the Chamber today, everyone will have a view about the suitability of individual questions. Perhaps I can suggest to my noble friend that periodically we undertake a mystery shopping exercise with politicians and civil servants to see how we would all fare in such a test. I hope we would emulate the triumph of my noble friend Lord Blencathra.

I thank my noble friend for that question. It goes to the heart of the fact that we do not all know everything about history.

My Lords, the Life in the UK test is a bit of an obstacle course, requiring A-level English and a detailed knowledge of cultural trivia that, as mentioned, would defeat many of us. My main concern is about the reference to British values as if they were exclusive. Does the Minister agree that values such as democracy, the rule of law, and individual freedom and tolerance are not exclusively British? They are simply key universal values that aspiring citizens are required to respect.

I agree with the noble Lord that British values are common values. However, some of them may not be writ large in some of the countries that people come from. It is important to reiterate our common values—including the rule of law, as my noble friend Lord Blencathra said—in integrating people into British society.

As someone responsible for introducing the first of the Life in the UK documents and tests, I recommend that people should read Professor Trentmann’s article in the Times Literary Supplement. Will the Minister write to me to explain why the Government have not yet accepted the excellent recommendations of the Lords Select Committee, chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson, which dealt with some of the more outrageous anomalies in the present test and the document on which people are tested?

I thank the noble Lord and congratulate him for the first Life in the UK test. I know that the Home Secretary considers all feedback on what should be covered in the test. For example, the referendum on the EU is now covered. I will certainly take the noble Lord’s point back.

My Lords, I know someone who is applying for indefinite leave to remain, and I learned a lot from the interesting guide and other documents. Is it sensible or fair to expect applicants to be able to identify battles of the English civil war, how Cromwell dealt with the Irish rebellion or the names of the unfortunate wives of that old rogue, Henry VIII? Instead of learning about some of the appalling things our country got up to in the distant past, is it not more important for new citizens to understand what they can and cannot do now?

I take the noble Lord’s point, but I do not think that we can erase history. History is both good and bad. The test also covers things such as society and culture. We should bear that in mind.

My Lords, the time allowed for this Question has now elapsed and we move to the fourth Question. I call the noble Lord, Lord Scriven.