New nationality legislation will create a class of subjects not citizens.
The one thing which can be said for the empire was that anyone who was born anywhere in its far-flung corners was legally British by birth. True, various stratagems were employed to prevent these imperial subjects from settling in the mother country, but at least they were recognised as belonging to the UK, and Commonwealth citizens retained the words ‘British subject’ in their passports even after they achieved citizenship of newly independent ex-colonies. The inclusive model of British citizenship survived in the ius soli, the entitlement of anyone born in the United Kingdom to its citizenship, until its partial removal in the British Nationality Act 1981.
The model of citizenship set out in the new Borders, Citizenship and Immigration Act is as far from that inclusionary model as it is possible to get. Citizenship under the new law will have to be earned, and ‘failure to integrate’ ranks with criminal conduct as a reason for withholding the privilege of citizenship.
In fact, of course, those not born on British territory who wanted to naturalise as British citizens have always had to jump through hoops of residence, intentions, character and language proficiency. None of that is new, although according to the ministerial hype accompanying the Act as it went through parliament, citizenship followed five years’ residence as night followed day under the old system. And since 2002, candidates for citizenship (and since 2007, all who seek permanent residence) have had to pass ‘Life in the UK’ tests, and dual nationals can have British citizenship revoked for various forms of undesirable conduct. So the government’s new earned citizenship measures are not exactly drawn on a blank canvas.
What the provisions of the new Act do is to increase the period of residence required before citizenship can be applied for, from the current five years to eight years (and from three to five if citizenship is sought by someone related to a British citizen), but allow earlier applications – after six and three years respectively – from those participating in some (as yet unspecified) form of voluntary work. Additionally, the ‘good character’ test in the Act is to be broadened – presumably by ministerial regulations – to include failure to integrate into British society.
The consultation paper
But the Act is only the beginning of a process which will involve selection not just for citizens but for anyone seeking to stay in the country more than temporarily. The consultation paper accompanying the Act makes it clear that anyone who wants to stay in the UK permanently will be expected to take the ‘journey to citizenship’. It will no longer be an option to obtain ‘indefinite leave to remain’ and not seek British citizenship. The would-be resident will have to obtain ‘probationary citizenship leave’, and the proposal is for a rigorous selection process at that stage. No longer will those who have been in the UK on a work or business permit for five years obtain permanent settlement provided they are still in the same job or business. The proposal is for a points-based ‘probationary citizenship leave’, so that to obtain permanent settlement, they would have to earn a certain number of points, based on such assets as earning potential; special artistic, scientific or literary merit; qualifications; shortage occupation; English (above existing requirements); and having lived and worked in a part of the UK in need of further immigration, eg Scotland. The paper adds: ‘Points might also be deducted for failure to integrate into British life; for criminal or anti-social behaviour, or in circumstances where an active disregard for UK values is demonstrated.’ (This ‘active disregard for British values’ would apparently include participation in lawful demonstrations such as those against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, since according to Home Office minister Phil Woolas, in an interview on the Radio 4 Today programme on 3 August, it is reasonable to expect higher standards of ‘adherence’ from would-be citizens than from citizens.)
The points-based system will give the Home Office a far greater degree of control over the numbers obtaining settlement in the country, enabling officials to lower or raise the number of points needed, making permanent residence easier or more difficult to achieve, according to political or economic expedience. By the same token, it introduces massive uncertainty into the lives of lawful migrants who work in the UK and wish to settle down here. They will be ‘on probation’ for years – a status which encourages obedience, compliance with unfair or exploitative working practices, political, social and cultural conservatism. In short, what the government seeks to achieve through the Act and the proposals designed to flesh it out is a class of subjects, not citizens.