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30 October 2019

Citizenship policy: Can we all agree?

Rosie Evans

ROSIE EVANS: To navigate this uncertain political period, we need to develop a strong, unified approach to migration policy more than ever before.

Union Jack

You don’t have to look far to find news stories about the increasing polarisation in our society - Leave versus Remain, Labour versus Conservative, London versus the rest of the UK. And amongst these examples, the debate about what our immigration system should look like is often highlighted as a “wedge issue” - driving people and politicians apart.

But whatever you feel about Brexit, the current political situation has highlighted the need for a significant re-design of our migration system. Through the Resettlement, Asylum and Migration Policy Project (RAMP) we’re working cross-party to do just that, establishing a wider, cross-party, common-sense approach to migration policy. And citizenship is an area where there is potential for reform.

There are many reasons why citizenship could provide scope for political consensus, but I offer two suggestions here. Firstly, as policymakers look for the language around which consensus can be built, citizenship offers a comparatively simple concept within the complex migration debate. In practice migration policy is not an easy whole. It is often fragmented. Is it about ensuring we have enough doctors and nurses? Is it about free movement within the EU? Is it about humanitarian crises? Is it about students and higher education? Migration policy also requires considerable technical knowledge and experience. People joke that there must be only a handful of people who understand the immigration rules because of all the changes made via secondary legislation. However, citizenship as a concept is about two key questions: who should be a British citizen, and how? And these are questions we should be re-visiting in a post-Brexit era.

Secondly, citizenship sits at the nexus of values that we prioritise about immigration. Research done by British Future found that the British public prioritise contribution, control and fairness in immigration. This research was echoed by the public reaction to the Windrush crisis, where people who had clearly positively contributed to society for many years, often working within the NHS or in other areas of the public sector, were at risk of deportation, despite having the right to stay in the UK and identifying as British. Citizenship policy reflects some of these values. The high bar to attaining it through residency criteria, language requirements, the Life in the UK test and character test necessitates contribution from those who want to become citizens and is tightly controlled. We need to ensure that the process is fair and transparent and is viewed as such.

The scope for political consensus has a wide reach. Citizenship is attractive to many across the political spectrum – it can appeal to our sense of patriotism, our pride in being British, our belief in the need for migration control, as well as to our focus on rights, protecting those who are vulnerable, and our desire to ensure access to public services for all. However, to deliver consensus from politicians and policymakers across the political spectrum, we need to find policies which balance contribution, control and fairness, which involve some level of compromise, and find shared language to communicate citizenship and its place in the immigration debate which fosters broad appeal. And we need to work together, cross-party, to build trust and understanding.

Whilst acknowledging the importance of citizenship and its relevance to the migration debate, we should also be careful not to dilute its value and usefulness by trying to make it do too much. We must find other immigration routes and policies around which political consensus can be built, to ensure we have a migration system which is fit for purpose.

So, can we all agree what that system should look like? The good news is that there is an opportunity for a cross-party party approach. My experience through working on the RAMP project has shown that cross-party working can be effective when you create a shared agenda, build mutual trust and then gradually and reliably work to implement changes. For citizenship specifically, a possible place to start could be a route to British citizenship for EU Citizens after Brexit. There is also the potential to reform other aspects of policy, including how Home Office immigration decisions are made, developing easier pathways to citizenship for British Nationals Overseas, looking at options to reduce high visa fees and improving the user experience of the citizenship application process.

We are at a time where there are opportunities to do this: Brexit requires that at least part of our migration system must change; the newly elected government post December 12 will need define its own vision for immigration. To navigate this uncertainty and the likely speed of change required, we need to develop a strong, unified approach to migration more than ever before.

Rosie Evans is the Director of Strategy and Development at the Good Faith Partnership, a social consultancy which amongst other projects, delivers the Resettlement, Asylum and Migration Policy (RAMP) project. 

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