Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Bill

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Simon Hughes: Including Committee members.

Mr. Malins: Indeed. The hon. Gentleman says that members of the Committee may also learn something overnight before it goes out of their heads. The point is that the Committee is trying to do its best. Of course, we all applaud any attempt to tell people who want to become a British citizen that they should have sufficient knowledge about life in the United Kingdom—we will talk about language later. It is important to learn about life because that is the way in which one can play a proper part in society. If one does not have an adequate, basic or sufficient knowledge of life—if that is what the Minister wants to call it—in this country, one is at a great disadvantage in the work place and in the normal social mix that we should all have with others. There is nothing like having something in common to talk about regarding one's country or its standards. Social intercourse is of great importance.

The amendment is probing, and if I were to summarise my views I would say that its thrust is sensible. The principle behind the amendment is sensible and would be supported by Conservative Members. The wording in the Bill that provides that the applicant

    ''has sufficient knowledge about life in the United Kingdom''

could, and should, be improved. I hope that after the Minister takes more advice, she will move a new clause on Report that is better phrased and less wide.

People who apply for British citizenship do a proud thing. It is such a major action that applicants should be encouraged. Although I may return to this subject during the clause stand part debate, I am anxious to ensure that any tests—I hope that we will hear all about them—will be applied sensitively and not

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harshly, otherwise genuine applicants could find it impossible to succeed.

Angela Eagle: I hope that I will be able to fill in some details, although I will not be able to give the Committee every last detail of how we intend the powers in the clause to be used after we produce the language and citizenship tests. I shall deal with each amendment in detail, although I note that the hon. Members for Southwark, North and Bermondsey and for Woking tabled probing amendments rather than amendments that they wish to press at this stage. I accept that it is legitimate that the Committee should wish to have more of a view about what is in the Government's mind with regard to how these tests will work. Phrases such as,

    ''sufficient knowledge about life in the United Kingdom''

get put into primary legislation to give appropriate leeway for experts in education and tests to provide an appropriate curriculum for the level that we are seeking. We do not wish the test to be hugely onerous, so that it is seen as a great barrier to naturalisation and the acquiring of citizenship, nor do we wish it to be a perfunctory tick-box test that does not actually mean anything.

I suspect that there will always be individuals who will swot for a test. Whenever people are faced with a test, such as the driving test, they sit down and do the homework for it. That is not a reason for not having a test.

The language requirements in clause 1 are not new: they are in the British Nationality Act 1981. We are not proposing to change them very much, but we want to apply them, as they have not been consistently applied.

People know how citizenship is acquired at present. The process ends up with the swearing of an oath in front of someone—often a solicitor—for a fee, and the delivery of a folded certificate through the post. I do not know whether it is sealed in a plain brown envelope, but it might as well be, for the amount of celebration and public recognition of the acquiring of citizenship that comes with it. In clause 1, the Government are trying to recognise in a much more collective way the acquisition of British citizenship, and we want it to be celebrated publicly in a ceremony, which is provided for in a later clause.

The idea is to have a public and communal recognition of and welcome for newly naturalised citizens that is similar to the practice in countries such as Canada, the United States of America and Australia. For many years, they have understood the value of such public recognition, and we have decided that it is a benefit publicly to recognise the value of acquiring British nationality, rather than merely sending a document through the post in a plain brown envelope.

The tests of knowledge of life in the UK and of the language are not intended to be exclusionary, and I hope to be able to put to rest some of the worries that various non-governmental organisations have expressed about whether those tests will be used to exclude people. It is not intended that the tests will be hugely expensive, so that they will be exclusionary and

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benefit those who are wealthy, rather than those who are not.

Mr. Malins: It is early days, but has the Minister any idea yet about the sort of fee that might be involved and how it might be paid by the poor?

Angela Eagle: Well, it is early days. Our intention is that the language classes and the knowledge of life in the UK classes should not have a cost, so they should be available. We are in the middle of a mapping exercise to see what courses are currently available in further education colleges, particularly language courses, and to see how they could be augmented to facilitate the final coming into being of the powers in clause 1. It is no good requiring people to undertake tests if we have not made available the courses for them to take.

With regard to some of the questions that were asked about the difference between ''sufficient'' and ''basic'', and what bits of UK life people must have knowledge of, we envisage a fairly general view, rather than one that is restricted to the democratic process and constitution, but it would be wrong of me to stand here and say that we have a curriculum absolutely sorted out. We are putting together a working group of relevant experts from the Department for Education and Skills and the Home Office to decide on some of the detail, and it is clear that that will have to be dealt with in secondary legislation. However, as I have said, the idea is to get a balance between a test that is a huge barrier because it is too difficult to pass, and one that is so perfunctory that it becomes meaningless. We should consider the citizenship classes that are being made available in our schools as we speak.

Ms Karen Buck (Regent's Park and Kensington, North): Many people who have been in this country for some time, perhaps with leave to remain, participate in their communities while waiting for the opportunity to apply for citizenship. That is true of many of my constituents. As the Under-Secretary is sympathetic in principle, will she at least consider the possibility of such a contribution to the community being considered as a contribution to a citizenship qualification?

5.30 pm

Angela Eagle: We have not closed off options at this stage. People do not necessarily have to have a qualification in English if they already have a relevant expertise in it. The ability to speak and understand English appropriately will need to be taken into account. We do not want to force people to do tests for the sake of it, but we want to ensure a more consistent application of the requirement of sufficient knowledge of English to get by. The extra requirements in the clause about knowledge of life in the UK—

Mr. Allan: Will the hon. Lady give way?

Angela Eagle: I will be happy to give way, if the hon. Gentleman will let me finish my sentence. I have probably forgotten what I was about to say.

We are in the process of considering the curriculum for the requirement of knowledge of life in the UK. We

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will be teaching citizenship to our primary school children by September, and there are some crossovers between what we will teach those children and the likely requirements under clause 1. I hope that that will put at rest some of the concerns raised by the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey about the test for people who wish to be naturalised being different from the test for those who are born here and who can get by with less knowledge of their own country. We hope that the introduction of citizenship classes throughout our schools will put that right.

Mr. Allan: I apologise for butting in. I wanted to pursue the point made by the hon. Member for Regent's Park and Kensington, North while it is still fresh.

I made a slightly facetious, but genuine, comment on the nature of testing. Those in education have recognised that a test in the form of an examination is inappropriate for many people. Will the Under-Secretary clarify whether people can be tested through continuous course work, or whether there will simply be a test barrier? I fear that some people will always find that difficult to get through.

Angela Eagle: I said that the test was not intended to exclude, but that knowledge must be demonstrated. The working party will decide the best method of testing. I accept that some people become frightened if they have to sit formal tests. We will consider how sensibly to facilitate people's involvement in the process, and we will propose more focused suggestions in the regulations, which are not appropriate in primary legislation. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will accept my pledge that we are trying to include, not exclude.

Mr. Barker: My hon. Friend the Member for Woking mentioned the systems in Canada and the United States. Will the Under-Secretary confirm whether the Government have considered the models of other countries and learned any lessons? The Opposition are slightly keener on foreign ideas in other areas of public policy than the Government.

Angela Eagle: We are considering those models and have found some variation. Some are too perfunctory, while others are too much like a degree. We must achieve a balance between a test that tests appropriately and is not too much of a barrier, and a tick-box exercise that is just a waste of time as it does not facilitate understanding. The idea is genuinely to welcome new citizens through naturalisation, and to put them through a process at not much cost to themselves, and at no cost for the courses, that will enable them to feel much more a part of the community and have a greater demonstrable understanding of society than they have now. That is what we are trying to achieve.

I am glad that the amendments will not be pressed—I hope that that is confirmed. I accept that they are probing amendments, and I hope that my answers explain the Government's thinking on the details of how the tests will be established.

 
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