It shouldn’t be so hard for EU citizens to become British

15 May 2018

The Windrush scandal has prompted the Government to offer free British citizenship to Commonwealth citizens who arrived in the UK before 1973. That was the right thing to do. But it doesn’t go nearly far enough.

There are millions of other people living in the UK legally who have indefinite leave to remain or permanent residence (the equivalent of indefinite leave to remain for EU citizens). The UK should be helping them to become British.

We used to do this. 20 years ago it was normal for someone who had been granted indefinite leave to remain to go on to apply for British citizenship. Not everyone was able or willing to do this, partly because some countries don’t allow dual nationality, but for those who wanted to the process was straightforward.

Now it’s much harder, mainly because it’s incredibly expensive. Applying for naturalisation as a British citizen now costs £1,330 – ten times more than it used to. Many people who are eligible have already paid thousands of pounds in immigration fees. The Home Office makes a huge profit on these fees. A lot of them can’t afford the naturalisation fee. Others can but wonder if it’s worth it, seeing as they already have the right to live and work in the UK permanently.

The result is that we now have millions of people who have made the UK their home and who work and pay taxes but aren’t citizens and aren’t allowed to vote. Commonwealth citizens can vote, but EU citizens can’t vote in general elections and others can’t vote at all. This is wrong. It’s like ancient Athens, where foreign-born residents – metics – made up a large minority of the city’s population but weren’t allowed to take part in its democracy and were discriminated against in other ways. People who can’t vote know that their views don’t count for much. Because of this they may be less interested in what’s happening around them and less willing to get involved. The US knows this and the Department of Homeland Security website encourages holders of green cards to apply for US citizenship. We should do the same.

If the Government isn’t careful EU citizens living in the UK and their children will be part of another Home Office scandal – on a much bigger scale than Windrush. Lawyers have warned that many are at risk of falling through the cracks of the Government’s proposed new system.

One way to avoid this is to help EU citizens become British. A lot of them have no great desire to do this given the way they have been treated – in particular because of the Government’s refusal after the referendum to guarantee their right to stay in the UK. But more of them might consider it if the process were easier.

The Government should cut the naturalisation fee from £1,330 to the amount it actually costs to process the application, which is £372. It would be even better if it was subsidised – naturalisation in France costs 55 Euros – but that’s too much to hope for.

EU citizens face an extra barrier when they apply for naturalisation. Because they don’t get their passport stamped when they enter the UK the Home Office routinely asks them to provide “alternative evidence” of their residence over the five-year qualifying period for naturalisation (three years if they’re married to a British citizen).

This makes no sense. Since November 2015 any EU citizen applying for naturalisation has to obtain a permanent residence document first, and to get a permanent residence document they have to satisfy the Home Office that they have been exercising a right of residence in the UK for a five-year period. When they apply for naturalisation the Home Office asks for similar evidence all over again, and it often refuses applications on the grounds that the evidence isn’t quite what it was after.

Other nationals – US citizens for instance – aren’t asked for evidence of residence in the UK when they apply for naturalisation even though a collection of entry stamps in a passport doesn’t tell you anything about how much time they have spent in the UK. (The UK abolished exit stamps many years ago.) And if someone has signed up to the Registered Traveller service they don’t even get entry stamps because they can use ePassport gates at airports.

The Home Office collects entry and exit information from airlines and stores it on its own Semaphore database for five years so it already has a lot of information about all of our comings and goings. That information together with the evidence provided with the previous permanent residence application should be enough.

Imposing an extra burden on EU citizens discourages them from applying. Many of them know people who have been refused. The Home Office may not intend to discriminate against EU citizens. It could be inertia – a hangover from the time before a permanent residence document was required for naturalisation. Whatever the reason, nobody at the top of the Home Office has bothered to revise the policy or explain why it’s needed. Maybe the new Home Secretary can be persuaded to do something.

Helping EU citizens and other permanent residents to become British is not just good for them. It will help to reduce the divisions in this country which have become so evident since the Brexit referendum. If more EU citizens become dual nationals the lines between who is and isn’t a foreigner will become blurred, which could help to reduce xenophobia. The Windrush scandal has shown that people who are perceived as British even if they weren’t born in the UK are widely seen as having a right to be here. And the Home Office will still cover its costs while being able to point to a reduction in the number of foreign nationals living in the UK. Everyone wins.

An edited version of this article was first published on In Facts on 14 May 2018.

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