Lord Roger Roberts: Pub quizzes are no way to decide citizenship

Lord Roger Roberts today leads a debate in the Lords on the requirements for those who apply for UK citizenship or nationality. Rather than irrelevant quiz questions, he writes here, more important issues about integrating immigrants must be tackled

Lord Roberts of Llandudno
Lord Roberts of Llandudno

UK citizenship, unless you’re a British-born subject and are lucky enough to have been born with it, is a hard thing to come by. A series of requirements must, quite rightly, be met. Amid residency conditions, evidence of “good character” and proof of English-language ability, anyone seeking citizenship must also demonstrate a sound knowledge of life, here in the UK.

As has been firmly established by many critics of the test however, the topics chosen for assessment include some cultural and historical details that many born here, and indeed many that work in the Houses of Parliament, would struggle to answer. Irrelevant, impractical questions should play no part in deciding a person’s suitability for citizenship. Where is the information about the NHS, reporting crime or subjects taught in school? Indeed, Dr Thom Brooks of Durham University has called the test a “bad pub quiz”. Perhaps a national series of pub quizzes is in order – beginning with one in the Palace of Westminster – to see how many Britons pass the test?

As I’ll mention later today in a Lords debate on the requirements for those who apply for UK citizenship, public consideration of these tests should not be limited to its (manifest) practical implications. It has consequences for social cohesion that stretch way beyond the terms of its use. As Lord Goldsmith reported in 2008, the test “creates a deep impression of unfairness” amongst those who have to sit it. Such justified ‘unhappiness’ in the face of inequality can be expected to have a lasting effect.

We must also consider the requirements for naturalisation in light of the UK’s immigration system more broadly. It is a system that is riddled with inequalities. A main obstacle is of course the target to reduce net migration to less than 100,000 by 2015. This focus on net statistics risks obscuring much more important questions about immigration, such as how new migrants can be integrated successfully into our community.

Recent European reactions to the tragic death of hundreds of migrants off the coast of Sicily demonstrates the empathy and pathos that can sometimes surround the topic of immigration. But what if those migrants had landed safely? Those who sadly died were posthumously made Italian citizens; those who survived the ordeal are to fined £5,000 and face rapid deportation.

An approach to policy-making that truly engenders cohesion and forms a united whole must extend beyond the rhetoric. It is not enough to call for a ‘United Kingdom’: the Government must enact processes that facilitate this ideal. This means challenging prevalent half-truths about health tourism and benefit scrounging, and actively combating elements of the immigration system that are riddled with inequities. Only a determination to legislate in a positive and compassionate way, knowing that there are very difficult issues to be tackled – yet acting in a constructive way – can the Government hope to achieve the social cohesion we call for.

Published and promoted by Tim Gordon on behalf of the Liberal Democrats, both at LDHQ, 8-10 Great George Street, London, SW1P 3AE.

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