THE cost of applying for British citizenship was debated on Monday morning in a motion bought by the Birmingham diocesan synod.
Introducing the debate, Ben Franks (Birmingham) explained that the current application fee was £1282 for adults and £973 for each child. A mistake in completing the form, he said, meant that the process must be restarted and fresh fees paid.
The motion called on the Mission and Public Affairs Council and the Lords Spiritual to raise the issue with the Government and in parliamentary debates; and called on churches to lobby MPs and provide support for those applying for citizenship.
“This is not a motion about immigration,” Mr Franks said. “This is about the financial and, to some extent, personal cost of applying for citizenship. We are convinced that citizenship should be about loyalty, not wealth.”
He said that the granting of citizenship made no difference to migration figures. “It is important to be aware that a requirement for applying for citizenship is to already have indefinite leave to remain in the UK; so the prohibitive cost has no function in managing migration. It simply leaves people, particularly people on low or medium incomes, here, but not able to feel a full belonging.
“Those who do not apply for citizenship but maintain leave to remain are caught in a status limbo. They have a right to reside, but are not citizens. As non-citizens, they cannot vote in elections, have more limited travel options, and cannot take up their full civic responsibilities, though by this stage they are earning and paying tax. This creates a sub-class. It risks undoing the work we are doing in promoting cohesion when many hard-working, well-integrated, migrants contributing to the economy and their communities are locked out of becoming British citizens because the application fee is so prohibitively high.”
In a maiden speech, Carolyn Johnson (Blackburn), who is a barrister in family law, supported all four paragraphs of the motion, but particularly the cost for children. The Government should investigate this to make fees affordable, since their citizenship status could have a significant and potentially negative impact on their adult life. The fee for children, as amended on 6 April, was £987, she said, £587 of which was Home Office profit, with “no consideration” of the effect. “This is arguably immoral, and should be challenged by the Church,” she said.
Citizenship allowed children to grow up and take part in their community. The Government should waive the fee for children, without penalty or discrimination. She urged the Church to help children to become “enfranchised, motivated, and proud” members of British society.
Captain Nicholas Lebey CA (Southwark) agreed that citizenship “is a privilege, not a right”, but did not think that it should come at such a cost. He knew how complex and expensive the process was; a “small mistake” could forfeit your application fee of £2000. He had been shocked that his own son’s application had been rejected, and the fee had been lost. He had had to make a new application, and had received help from the Bishop of Bradford.
“How can it be that the system to help people to integrate into society is made so difficult?” he asked. “People end up taking out loans and getting into further debt.”
In Southwark diocese, in Thamesmead, people had given up trying, because it had cost so much. “These people work so hard, and all they want is to finalise their status in this country,” he said.
He had been to the Home Office in several cities, and spent £3000 to extend his visa, and another £1000 on his status. “I hear two words: injustice and exploitation. This is not right.” He quoted Exodus 22.21. Anglicans believed in justice, and should act to transform systems. “Let us speak up for those who have no voice. Let us support this motion, and, through this, help remove the burden for many immigrants in this country.”
Kat Alldread (Derby) said that the motion was “exactly the sort of action that the Church can and should be taking to reform unjust systems”. She had lived in the UK for several years, and had not applied for citizenship, out of choice. Her only regret was not having a vote; otherwise, she felt “lucky” to have been able to engage in community life, though this was not the case for many fellow immigrants.
“The cost is virtually insurmountable,” she said. “This motion is so much more about the practicality. This is a message of principled welcome.”
She referred to the wall proposed by President Trump in her home country of the United States, and suggested that the cost of citizenship in the UK was a similar barrier to welcome. “The people who are impacted have already ticked all the boxes and come over obstacles; the cost is the last wall to scale.”
The voice of the Church was vital, she said. “We can help identify the barriers that stand in the way, and use our influence to bring justice, instrumental change, and, where there is a wall, open a door.”
The Church should send a copy of the debate transcript to the Home Affairs Select Committee, Sir Tony Baldry (Oxford) suggested. The cost of citizenship should be reduced to make it easier for those who would feel “enormous pride” to become part of British society.
The Government had granted indefinite leave to remain to many people, who lived in the UK but were stateless, with their children, he said. “That cannot be in the best interests of public policy. There are good grounds for arguing that citizenship for those who have been here for five years should be easier, not least for their children.”
These people should also have the opportunity to vote.
The Revd Sarah Schofield (Lichfield) became aware of the issue when she spoke to a member of her congregation who was looking ill, and learned that she needed to find £7000 from a part-time, Minimum Wage job to complete the citizenship process for her family. She had also spoken to an engineering student who was looking to move abroad because of the cost of applying.
“At a time when we are trying to encourage a sense of belonging, commonality, and integration, why place obstacles in the way of people who have lived here for years, paid much to the nation. . . ? They have demonstrated belonging.”
As a Near Neighbours trustee, she was aware of the irony that volunteers were trying to build up common life and communality could not afford to buy their way into the nation that they were seeking to build.
The Bishop of Birmingham, the Rt Revd David Urqhart, suggested that the All-Party Parliamentary Group on social integration might be a good channel through which to pursue the issue.
Andrew Williams (Coventry) emphasised that this was not a debate about immigration or migration. “They are already here and speak English and are part of their communities. This is their adopted country, and they want to become citizens. Being British is great, and we should be a welcoming country and want more people to come and join us in this wonderful thing of being British.”
The Bishop of Gibraltar in Europe, Dr Robert Innes, drew attention, in comparison, to the costs of citizenship in different countries. Many in his diocese were applying for citizenship in countries in the EU, and this was “tough” and “you are in a vulnerable position.” He was shocked that the situation in the UK had been allowed to arise.
“To charge people disproportionate fees staggers me. . . I cannot believe we have allowed the Home Office to charge disproportionate fees for people in vulnerable positions.”
The motion was carried by 310 votes nem. con. with no recorded abstentions.
That this Synod:
(a) request the Archbishops’ Council’s Mission and Public Affairs Council to investigate the issues around the cost of applying for citizenship and to make recommendations to HM Government;
(b) encourage the Lords Spiritual actively to seek opportunities to address the level of citizenship fees in debate;
(c) urge parishes to raise the issue with their MP; and
(d) encourage parishes to continue to support those known to them who are struggling with the cost of citizenship fees without incurring debt and to signpost responsible lenders or local credit unions for advice.