THE “prohibitive” cost of applying for British citizenship is creating a “sub-class” of people and risks undoing work on integration, the General Synod heard on Monday.
After hearing personal testimonies about the impact of the fee, described as “immoral” and a cause of “injustice and exploitation”, members voted unanimously in favour of raising the issue with the Government and in Parliament.
The motion, which asks the Church’s Public Affairs team to “investigate the issues” and “make recommendations” to the Government, originated in the diocese of Birmingham, where clergy are regularly asked to provide references for people applying for citizenship.
Many of those who were eligible to apply for citizenship were working in the low-pay sectors of the economy, because their uncertain status made well-paid employment more difficult to obtain, Ben Franks said, introducing the debate. “Many people save over years to pay for their applications. There are also those whose difficult situation leads them to go into long-term, high-interest debt from unscrupulous lenders to do so. . .
“Those who do not apply for citizenship but maintain leave to remain are caught in a status limbo . . . This creates a sub-class. It risks undoing the work we do in promoting integration 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. . . We are convinced that citizenship should be about loyalty, not wealth.”
People aged 18 or above can apply for British citizenship by naturalisation if they have lived in the UK for at least five years, or for three years, if they also have indefinite leave to remain as a spouse or civil partner of a British citizen. They must prove their knowledge of English and pass the “Life in the UK” test. Children may qualify for either automatic of discretionary “registration” as British citizens, depending on the nationalities and country of birth of their parents.
The current application fee is £1282 for each adult and £973 for each child. These increase on an annual basis, without being brought before Parliament for comment or debate. In 1991, the fee for naturalisation was £170, reduced to £150 in 1996. In 2016 the Home Office estimated that its expenditure for dealing with an application for citizenship was £272.
The Bishop in Europe said that he was “staggered” that the Home Office had been allowed to charge such “disproportionate fees”.
The Team Vicar of Central Wolverhampton, the Revd Sarah Schofield, said that she had become 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.
Carolyn Johnson, a barrister in family law from the diocese of Blackburn, said that it was “arguably immoral” that the Home Office was profiting from registering a child’s entitlement. She urged the Church to help children to become “enfranchised, motivated, and proud” members of British society.
Captain Nicholas Lebey, a Church Army evangelist in south London, described how a “small mistake” could forfeit the fee. He had been shocked when his own two-year-old son’s application was rejected, despite having followed Home Office guidance.
“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 his diocese, 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 from Exodus 22 (“Do not mistreat or oppress a foreigner. . .”), and said: “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) compared the fee to the wall proposed by President Trump in her home country of the United States. “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.”
Sir Tony Baldry, a former Conservative MP and Second Church Estates Commissioner, was sympathetic to the motion. The Government had granted indefinite leave to remain to many people who nevertheless remained “stateless”, together with their children. “That cannot be in the best interests of public policy.”
Applications for British citizenship increased by 13 per cent in the year ending March 2016 to 152,239 but were 34 per cent lower than the peak of 232,262 in 2013.