Alberto Costa is the MP for for South Leicestershire.
Citizenship, being British, plays a foundational role in our society. It is a shared bond between us. Yet successive Labour and Conservative governments have neglected citizenship policy to such an extent that it’s been hard to tell if its aim has been to encourage people to become citizens or to try to deter them. We are now presented with an ideal moment to put that right.
With Britain having left the EU and with a new, points-based immigration system in place, our Prime Minister has an opportunity, as part of his Global Britain agenda, to be banging the drum for Britishness and a more positive, welcoming approach to citizenship for those who wish to settle and contribute to the UK.
The independent inquiry into citizenship policy, which I chaired for the respected think tank British Future, publishes its report today, setting out practical proposals for reform. Discussing these issues with the inquiry panel – which included fellow Conservative MP Steve Double and Fraser Nelson, Editor of The Spectator, as well as Andrew Gwynne MP from the Labour benches and voices from civil society – has strengthened my belief that we can galvanise a broad consensus for a positive citizenship agenda.
Research for the inquiry found two thirds of the British public agreeing that if someone decides to live in Britain long-term, it is a good thing if they have an opportunity to become British by taking citizenship. So it makes sense that UK citizenship policy should welcome those who want to make this commitment to our country and who pass the various tests of eligibility: speaking good English, being of good character, and knowing about the UK’s customs and culture.
Just as the new points-based immigration system draws on the experience of Australia and Canada, we could learn much from their approaches to citizenship too. The Canadian handbook for new citizens opens with a warm message of welcome from the Queen. However, Her Majesty does not appear in our Life in the UK handbook until page 121. It is a symbolic point – but we could very simply and easily emulate that welcoming, positive tone towards those who are seeking to become British.
If we agree that becoming British is to be welcomed (and I would hope all Conservatives would welcome full integration of those contributing to our country), citizenship should not be placed beyond the financial reach of, for instance, many social care or NHS staff and their families, nor be so complicated that most people can’t apply without a lawyer. If we believe that it can aid integration, we should make it easier, not harder, for children born here to become citizens.
British citizenship is special – but we do not make it special by setting unnecessary barriers. ConservativeHome readers may be shocked to learn that the cost of citizenship in the UK is the highest in the western world. Indeed, the combined cost of applying for citizenship in Australia, Canada, the USA and France still does not add up to the cost of a single application in Britain. The fee of £1,330 is almost four times the cost to the Home Office of processing an application.
As part of the latest Global Britain agenda, as Conservatives we are now seeking to attract the brightest and the best through our new points-based immigration system. A positive citizenship agenda would encourage those whom we are now seeking to attract and who have chosen our country as the place to contribute, settle, raise a family and pay their taxes, to take that extra step and consider citizenship. It should review citizenship policy – covering eligibility, processes and costs – to secure the benefits that citizenship can bring for shared identity and integration.
And at the end of the process when people do eventually become British citizens, we should welcome them and celebrate their becoming British – not hide the events away in some gloomy council building. New, high-profile citizenship ceremonies – held in iconic British locations such as the Palace of Westminster, Edinburgh Castle or Old Trafford – would send a clear message that this is something of which we can all be proud.
Our report goes on to propose an annual, high-profile ceremony where Her Majesty the Queen and the Prime Minister award honorary citizenship to a select number of people who have been outstandingly brave or made a great contribution to life in the UK, either as an individual or because they represent a particular group whose contribution is valued, such as NHS staff or those who helped develop the Oxford Covid-19 vaccine.
Debates about migration, and who can come to the UK, have now been largely settled. It is time to focus on the people who have made their lives here, and on ensuring that a Global Britain embraces those who want to contribute to our shared society. So it is my hope that the Prime Minister, and indeed all of us as Conservatives, will seize this opportunity to take a new, pro-Britishness approach to citizenship, welcoming those who have made this country their home.