With Theresa May recently announcing plans to revamp the British citizenship test, focusing more on culture and history, and less on practicalities, the whole citizenship process has been back in the spotlight. Having gone through it myself, I think it might be interesting to offer my experiences, frustrations and comments. So here’s how I found it.
The first thing I should probably explain is why I had to sit the citizenship test at all. I was born in the UK to Indian parents, and have lived in this country for all but a year of my life. This means that I received Indian citizenship by default, but that I was always eligible to apply for British naturalisation. If I’d had the sense to apply before I turned 18, I wouldn’t have had to sit the test. But I put it off too long, and by the time I finally got around to applying I was 19.
The first thing to say about the Life in the UK Test (the existing ‘syllabus’) is that it is not as hard as people make out. Newspapers and websites like to shock people with how low their scores are on sample tests – only 14% passed in one facebook survey. But why would you expect to be able to pass the test without any revision or preparation? The information you need to know to pass the test is clear enough, and if you learn it, the test is straightforward. I think you get 45 minutes to do the test – I only needed five. In terms of difficulty, the Life in the UK Test is about as hard as the driving theory test: if you take it seriously, it should only be a formality.
The big debate at the moment concerns the content of the test. In my opinion, the “stuff on rights” and “practical info” that the Home Office is so quick to impugn is the best bit of the test, the only information that seems genuinely worthwhile to learn, independent of just passing the test. I can totally see the point of making sure that new immigrants (or indeed any citizen) know their rights as workers, how to make use of the health service, how to buy a house, the law on things like drugs and alcohol. On the other hand, the bits of the test that I personally found most objectionable were the bits of trivia – like what proportion of the country is under 18, or how many Christians there are. With these sorts of facts and figures, the impression you get is that you are being made to jump through hoops, doing nothing more than showing that you are willing to make some sort of an effort to win citizenship.
The biggest concern I have with the process of applying for citizenship, one that doesn’t tend to get a lot of public attention is the sheer cost of the process. The naturalisation fee for a single adult is £851, plus an extra £80 to pay for a citizenship ceremony. Even with discounts, that means that an average family seeking citizenship will have to pay nearly £2500 for the privilege. This worries me because fees this high are likely to be beyond the reach of many people, or at least put many off. The idea that you need to be rich to be British is surely a troubling one. Then again, it’s a principle which seems to ground a number of elements of current immigration policy.
As it happens, I wrote to the Home Office to give them some feedback, saying more or less what I’ve said here. To my concerns about the content of the test, they responded that the curriculum had been drawn up by “leading experts in the fields of English language testing, citizenship training, employment of migrants and community development and integration” (I wonder how that compares to the architects of Theresa May’s curriculum?). As for my complaints about the cost of the process, they admitted that fees are “set above cost recovery levels”, in part to contribute “to the cost of doubling our enforcement resources” (charging current immigrants to keep out future immigrants!). However, they also argued that because “British Nationality brings many benefits that applicant’s [sic] value very highly”, it is right to levy a high charge for this valuable service. In other words, they charge high fees because they can, because applicants are willing to pay them. If this is correct, I guess it addresses my worry that high fees put off applicants. However, there remains a question about whether citizenship should be such a money making exercise.
I should probably discuss my citizenship ‘ceremony’ too. None of the official ceremonies on offer were convenient for me, since they all took place while I was away at university. I couldn’t receive citizenship without taking the pledge of allegiance, so I had to pay a little extra and have a personal ceremony, one-on-one with the registrar. While politicians like to describe how moving and emotional these ceremonies are, mine was at best a formality, and at worst a bit farcical. Having vowed my loyalty to the country, we reached the stage of proceedings where they play the national anthem. Of course, the registrar’s office doesn’t typically have an orchestra, so we had to make do with a tinny CD player, trying to maintain solemnity and not look each other in the eye. I’m just glad he only insisted on the one verse.
If I’m honest, this last episode seems to me like an apt metaphor for my feelings towards the citizenship process, taking something that ought to be a formality, trying to inject it with some patriotic fervour, and creating something pompous, preposterous and a bit wearing.
Please don’t deport me….