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15 October 2019

Unsettled status: why it's time to talk more about citizenship

Mark Kleinman

MARK KLEINMAN: A more positive and open approach to British citizenship is worth trying

Citizenship and migration

3.5 million EU citizens have chosen to make Britain their home, and the UK government has said its EU Settlement Scheme will give them the certainty that they can go on living their lives here “broadly as now” once we’ve left the EU. But what does this mean in practice?

The first complication is that the scheme does not guarantee all current rights, and could be subject to future changes once the UK has left the EU, with the European Court of Justice only retaining a role for eight years after exit. EU citizens will have most of their existing rights preserved under settled status – but they are not completely the same rights as an EU citizen residing in an EU member state. And the scheme is not currently designed as a pathway to UK citizenship. Those with settled status are able to leave the UK for up to five years and retain their status, but to apply for citizenship an individual must have lived in the UK for at least five years before their application, and not have spent more than 450 days outside of the country. So, if someone with settled status wants to gain citizenship, they will need to meet the citizenship requirements, and they may not be aware of what these requirements are. 

The deadline to apply for “settled status” is 30 June 2021, or 31 December 2020 if the UK leaves without a deal. But what rights will EU nationals have if they don’t have their status confirmed by either of these deadlines? If only 5% of EU nationals don’t apply for settled status or are refused, there will be an additional 175,000 people in the UK left in limbo. They will have gone from being EU citizens exercising full citizenship rights in a member state with court protection, to being undocumented, illegal workers. This has the potential to become a Windrush-style scandal.

In the event of no-deal, the situation would be further complicated for EU citizens. Recent suggestions that freedom of movement could be “ended” by 31 October 2019 in anything other than a technical sense seem fanciful. While these changes would affect future rather than current EU migrants, the requirement for not only border officials, but also employers, landlords, public service providers and others to distinguish between those arriving before or after certain dates clearly has the potential to cause confusion, anxiety and injustices. 

How can we avoid these and other problems with the EU Settlement Scheme? In this context, the recently announced independent inquiry into UK citizenship policy, chaired by Alberto Costa MP and coordinated by British Future is very timely. The inquiry aims to foster debate about citizenship policy and will set out practical proposals for citizenship reform that would be capable of securing cross-party support. In a new policy briefing, I look at whether immigration policy should be moving towards creating a closer tie between settled status and citizenship, as part of a revitalised approach to how people become British citizens.

The UK could make a citizenship offer to EU citizens, at a reduced cost, and without the need to have 12 months’ permanent residence or settled status. A similar offer could be made to other long-term residents who currently are without citizenship. In the Conservative leadership campaign, Michael Gove said that he favoured an offer of British citizenship, without cost, to all EU nationals resident in the UK prior to the June 2016 EU referendum.

As recommended by the Institute for Government and others, it is also time to simplify the thousands of pages of immigration rules that have become unwieldy and sometimes unworkable, and to strengthen the currently weak scrutiny of immigration legislation. Significant change to the immigration system should only be implemented via primary legislation.

A more positive and open approach to British citizenship might help to solve some of our current issues. It might even offer scope for cross-party consensus, given that the idea of citizenship can appeal to pride in being British and belief in the need for migration control, as well as a focus on rights and a desire to be a relatively open economy and society. 

To date, citizenship has played a surprisingly small role in the migration debate in Britain. But we are now at a key moment for raising its profile as part of a pragmatic and politically deliverable solution to help solve some of the current difficulties we face as we prepare to leave the EU.

Mark Kleinman is Director of Analysis and Professor of Public Policy at the Policy Institute, King’s College London

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