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Is Britain about anything other than battles?

The UK citizenship test, stripped of its practical questions, is now seen as part of Theresa May’s ‘hostile environment’, a new study has found.

How old was Mary, Queen of Scots, when she took the throne? Who won the Battle of Killiecrankie? Unless you know the answers, you’re not fit to be a British citizen. Of course you may be one already, but for people who take the Home Office’s Life in the UK test in the hope of getting citizenship, this knowledge is judged essential. The manual for budding Brits was revamped in 2013. Practical questions like how to find a doctor or apply for a job were stripped out. Now it tests the ‘values and principles at the heart of being British’.

After four years there has still been no official government evaluation of the current test. But an evaluation has just been done by Leah Bassel and her colleagues at Leicester University. Not surprisingly, those whose first language isn’t English and aren’t familiar with computers find the online test forbidding. Many migrants question its usefulness and see it as an instrument of immigration control. As a result, many feel negative about gaining citizenship, the opposite of what the government says it wants to achieve.

It’s a feature of Home Office policy-making that it takes little account of the views of those it affects. It may have dropped its ‘Go Home’ vans four years ago, but the ‘hostile environment’ Theresa May declared she wanted for immigrants is being made tougher still. The NHS now examines patients’ passports, with stiff charges imposed on those deemed ineligible for free care. Checks by landlords on whether applicants have the ‘right to rent’, which so far apply only in England, may soon be extended to the rest of the UK. Checks on 70 million bank accounts will start in January. Rough sleeper charities now share data with immigration enforcement teams, helping them carry out deportations.

As with the citizenship test, the ostensible justifications for these measures – such as recovering money for the NHS or identifying “illegal” immigrants – prove to be shallow. More than half of those owing money to the NHS haven’t paid a year later. A third of vulnerable migrants now avoid going to hospital. In theory, landlords should examine some 11,000 documents every day: in the first year of the scheme, just 31 migrants were deported as a result. The checks have fuelled the market for false ID papers.

The “internal borders” the government has created are patrolled by hospital receptionists, bank clerks and buy-to-let landlords. Few know what a Liechtenstein passport looks like, let alone a dud one. They are bound to make mistakes or take short cuts, or simply find it easier to say “no”. Half of private landlords admit discriminating against those without British passports. An inspection report last year found that hundreds of people living legitimately in the UK have been improperly denied bank accounts and driving licenses.

When challenged about the logic of universal credit and other welfare reforms, the government argues that the best way of avoiding the hardships they cause is by getting a job. By the same token, the Home Office should encourage migrants to regularise their status, become citizens and avoid falling victim to immigration checks. But it doesn’t do this. Cuts in support for the voluntary sector have decimated advice services for migrants. Legal aid for immigration cases has all but disappeared. English-language teaching for adults has been cut by 60% in the last six years, so that even approved refugees have to wait at least six months to join classes.

Cost is another huge barrier. The test itself is only £50. But a spouse from outside the EU, for example, is likely to have spent at least £3,700 in immigration fees before taking it, on top of the cost of the language training they may have needed to pass a pre-entry English exam. Once a migrant passes the Life in the UK test, perhaps on their third or fourth attempt, citizenship will cost another £1,282. A UK passport (£72) will mean that in future they can cross both the internal and external borders. That, Bassel shows, is one of the main reasons that migrants take the test – it’s not about learning British values and principles, it’s about making their lives more bearable.

About the author

John Perry lives in Nicaragua and writes about Central America, but also writes on issues about housing and migration in the UK. He blogs for the London Review of Books and Public Finance.

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