Alberto Costa: There are too many barriers to Britishness. Post-Brexit, it’s time for a more welcoming citizenship policy.

10 Dec

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.

Benjamin Obese-Jecty: It’s time the Government did right by Commonwealth veterans

25 Jun

Ben Obese-Jecty is a former British Army Infantry Officer and stood as the candidate for Hackney North and Stoke Newington in the 2019 General Election.

As we approach Armed Forces Day on the last Saturday of June, the nation will have the opportunity to celebrate our service personnel and show gratitude for the role they play within our society.

Though our operational footprint has reduced significantly over the past half-decade, the Army’s role in the Government’s coronavirus response has seen an uncharacteristically high domestic profile not seen since their mobilisation for the 2012 London Olympics.

The British public holds an affinity for the Armed Forces that is an integral part of our national identity. But over the past two decades as the Armed Forces have struggled to meet recruitment targets it has increasingly relied upon service personnel from the Commonwealth to reduce this manpower deficit. The Royal British Legion puts the number at in excess of 6000 personnel, with circa five per cent of the Army’s strength alone comprised of soldiers from the Commonwealth.

Whilst these personnel face the same hardships and hazards on operations as their British colleagues, those who leave the Armed Forces do so without the automatic guarantee of residency or citizenship of the nation for which they have served. Following several high-profile instances highlighting the pitfalls of the process for Commonwealth veterans, it is vital that we seek to redress the disadvantage that the current system places upon them.

In the United States, non-US citizens become eligible for naturalisation following an honourable discharge from military service. The cost to those who have served is a mere $85 administration charge in return for full US citizenship.

Upon joining our Armed Forces, personnel from Commonwealth countries are granted ‘exempt immigration control’ status. However, it ceases to apply immediately upon discharge. The recent court case brought by eight Fijian veterans against both the Home Office and the Ministry of Defence has revealed the administrative complexity for those former service personnel who wish to remain in the UK following the completion of their service.

Given the current focus upon racial inequality, and the similarities with the Windrush scandal that it evokes, the Government has an urgent need to address this longstanding issue less it becomes a topic that expends yet more political goodwill. But how can this be achieved?

Current rules state that Commonwealth veterans qualify for Indefinite Leave to Remain (ILR) after four years’ service, but in order to action this they must immediately apply to the Home Office upon discharge. Many Commonwealth veterans have found this opaque and not made sufficiently clear during the discharge process.

It would be both more efficient and inclusive to automate the application, making it a standard step of the discharge process, one that can be made opt-out rather than opt-in and ensure that no veterans are left without having exercised their option whilst still in uniform.

The issue is further complicated by a five-year residency requirement that excludes military service prior to 2014, owing to exemption from immigration control and potentially leaving some former service personnel outside the criteria. Addressing the gaps in this structure will ensure that all veterans have been given due consideration.

During the aforementioned court case a spokesman for the MoD stated that the department “makes clear to foreign and Commonwealth recruits into the forces the process by which they and their families can attain settlement in the UK, and the costs involved”. Whilst that may be the case, the £2389 per person cost for ILR is significant and confers no advantages or prioritisation for military service, in stark contrast to the costs of attaining full US citizenship.

Given that this disproportionately affects Commonwealth personnel from the lower ranks who may struggle to meet the costs involved, we should seek to waive these fees in return for their commitment to having served the country.

There will be those who have not pursued the legal right to remain in the UK following service due to the prohibitive costs they stood to incur. From my own experience, leaving the Army and embarking on a new career without the familiarity and structure of the military is a daunting enough prospect without the unnecessary additional hurdle of regularising your immigration status. To do so at a cost of thousands of pounds, via either a loan or use of their resettlement package, sets our Commonwealth veterans at an immediate disadvantage that could easily be mitigated.

Lastly, we should seek to broaden the scope of the changes to those who have already left the service; those who through choice, owing to the prohibitive expense, or administrative oversight, have been left without the status of ILR either here or in the country of their birth. Whilst we can do little to atone for the inconvenience and disruption caused to those who have been forced to return home, we can offer those eligible the opportunity to reapply retrospectively under the criteria outlined above, and allow them the opportunity to fulfil the potential plans they had prior to leaving.

Additionally, we should also consider how we can facilitate reimbursing those who have already had to outlay the fees required to stay. Given the comparatively low numbers of those affected, the gesture of goodwill would go some way to allowing our Commonwealth ex-service personnel to start their post-service careers on an equal footing with their fellow former servicemen and women without the burden of incurring a financial penalty for the privilege.

The status of Commonwealth veterans has been addressed by MPs on a number of occasions. Johnny Mercer, the Minister for Defence, People and Veterans, has been forthright in bringing veterans’ issues to the fore and ensuring that they are given the correct focus. However, there are still significant inequalities in how we treat some of those who pledged to defend this country.

As Conservatives, our admiration and respect for the Armed Forces goes hand-in-hand with the values we wish to uphold. As a Veteran I would like to see those I have served alongside given the same opportunities that I have enjoyed in forging a new life for themselves following their military careers.

There is arguably no greater service to the nation than defending it as a member of our Armed Forces. We owe those who have served, at the very least, the same basic privileges that they have risked their lives to defend.