Seen from the government’s point of view, the pathway to citizenship for immigrants to Britain should be as tough as possible. Since Theresa May became Home Secretary, a host of measures has been introduced to make the route from arriving to citizenship harder than it has ever been. The cost of citizenship in Britain is now almost £1,300.
That’s more than five times more than in Germany or Australia, and three times more than in America. This is part and parcel of the government’s project to reduce net migration. To get net migration down, the thinking goes, you need to stop people from coming in, and encourage those here to get out. Making the prospect of permanent settlement more unlikely should achieve both.
To reduce net migration, the government is seeking to "break the link" between arriving in the UK and settling here permanently. Those who come on a skilled worker visa, or as an international student, now have no guarantee that they will ever become citizens. Even for those who do make it, it takes six years at a minimum, and frequently much longer. To some extent, that makes sense: not every student or temporary worker should feel that they can stay here forever and become citizens.
Unfortunately for the government, this approach comes with a cost. The international migration of talent is a defining feature of our age, but the lack of certainty in the naturalisation process, for a long chunk of their career, risks putting off those with world-class skills.
The risk of one day having to leave means there can be no security in putting down roots and investing. Furthermore, a key benefit of naturalising as a British citizen, particularly for this type of immigrant, is the opportunity to travel that a British passport brings. Not only do you gain full EU free movement rights (for the moment at least), but a British passport ranks as world’s best in bringing visa-free access to 137 countries, and smoother access to many more.
For the highly-skilled working in global industries, the dividend of this, for their work and personal lives, is hard to underestimate. A study by the Economist Intelligence Unit suggested that the very rich care more about freedom to travel than they do about the tax and regulatory environment when they migrate.
Attracting global leaders in a field is key to an economy like Britain’s. World-class industries, like the financial sector in the City of London, Cambridge’s sciences hub or the video games industry in Dundee are critical to Britain’s economic future. Yet the toughness of our citizenship regime encourages them to look elsewhere.
At the other end of the scale, for many legal immigrants working on low wages, particularly if they want to naturalise as a family, the price of citizenship is prohibitively expensive. Moreover, it exposes them to discrimination.
The government has devolved immigration checks, with landlords and employers now liable for the immigration status of those they rent to and employ. Faced with an unfamiliar passport, some will err on the side of caution, passing over a hard-working immigrant in favour of someone with a more easily recognisable British or EU passport.
Many legal migrants will be relegated substandard housing and off-the-books work. This is not only bad news for the migrants; it hampers cohesion and stokes unease about undercutting. Secondly, to be eligible for citizenship an immigrant must speak English, pass a Life in the UK test and have committed no serious crime.
The relentless focus on the net migration target has meant the government has so far paid scant attention to these questions. But there are some opportunities coming up. Louise Casey, the government’s integration tsar, will soon be reporting on how to improve cohesion.
The Prime Minister recently spoke out on promoting English-language learning. If the government really wants to make the migration system work better, they would do well to focus on opening pathways to citizenship for those who would really benefit from it.