Phil Collins and God Save the Queen: the soundtrack to becoming British

there was something for everyone when the Prince of Wales, the Home Secretary, David Blunkett, MPs and local dignitaries gathered yesterday to watch 19 immigrants swear life-long loyalty to Britain.

The brass band played Wet Wet Wet and Phil Collins, there was a burst of Handel and a children's choir led a rendition of the national anthem (words provided on the programme).

There was a smattering of national dress alongside the smart suits and the official regalia of Sir Neil Thorne, the Deputy Lieutenant for the London borough of Brent.

The new Britons - born in 10 countries on four continents - paid £68 each to go through the first British citizenship ceremony at Brent Town Hall in north-west London.

The hall, more used to concerts, weddings and tea dances, was decorated for the occasion with a portrait of the Queen, two Union flags and a European Union banner, which came close to falling off the wall during the event. The slogan "Brent Welcomes Its New Citizens" was projected on a screen above the stage where the Prince and Mr Blunkett sat.

It was a far cry from the days when the gaining of a United Kingdom passport was traditionally accompanied by the thud of a heavy brown envelope on the doormat.

The ceremonies - which also include oaths of allegiance to crown and country - have been designed by the Government to help integrate the new arrivals into their adopted homeland.

The diverse group of new subjects - 16 adults and three children - originated from Poland, India, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, Nepal, Somalia, Kenya, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand.

During the ceremony, conducted by Mark Rimmer, Superintendent Registrar in Brent, they all pledged their "loyalty to the United Kingdom and respect for its rights and freedoms". They also gave an oath of allegiance - some swearing by God and others using a secular form of words - to the monarch and her heirs.

The new Britons, a few in national dress but most in suits and ties, were then invited in family groups on to the podium. Led by Indian-born Mriganka and Aparna Chatterjee and their four-year-old son Rajarshi, the Prince shook their hands and presented the certificates that made their new status official.

He told the group: "It is uplifting and appropriate that we are all gathered here to congratulate you and to welcome you to your country and into your local community.

"I very much hope this ceremony has added something to the significance of acquiring British citizenship and it has reinforced your belief, if indeed any reinforcement is required, that you belong here and are very welcome. I also hope being a British citizen becomes for each one of you a great source of pride and comfort for the rest of your life."

The 15-minute ceremony ended with the singing of the National Anthem, led by the Brent Youth Choir. For guests rusty on the exact words they were printed on programmes handed out to the audience.

Like all high-profile events, it attracted prestigious sponsors - a champagne producer, who provided 20 magnum and 20 ordinary bottles for the occasion, and a local hotel.

As one of the two British boroughs with a non-white majority, Brent was a symbolic choice for the first ceremony. But they will soon become compulsory across the country, with councils given latitude to give them a local flavour, with some 100,000 people a year publicly swearing their commitment to their new nation.

They will replace the previous system of swearing allegiance to Britain before a solicitor and later receiving a certificate in the post.

Critics have complained that the Government is putting the "cart before the horse" by introducing the American-style ceremonies before companion plans for English lessons and a "Britishness test" on the history and values of the UK.

Keith Best, director of the Immigration Advisory Service, said: "The Government has jumped the gun. People will complete their ceremony, which tells them they are a citizen. But they will not know what their rights are as citizens."

But Mr Blunkett told guests the ceremonies would be "the answer to those who fear difference, who fear the diversity which comes with migration of people coming across the world to live in our community and sends a very clear message that those who choose to be part of the family are committing themselves".

THE OATH OF ALLEGIANCE

"I, (name), swear by Almighty God/do solemnly and sincerely affirm that, on becoming a British citizen, I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II, her heirs and successors according to law. I will give my loyalty to the United Kingdom and respect its rights and freedoms. I will uphold its democratic values. I will observe its laws faithfully and fulfil my duties and obligations as a British citizen."

THE CHATTERJEES

Indian-born Mriganka Chatterjee, 32, and his wife, Aparna, 30, who is eight months pregnant, emigrated from India and moved to Kingsbury, north London, seven years ago.

Their four-year-old son, Rajarshi, was born in London, where Mr Chatterjee works as an IT analyst. Mr Chatterjee said the official welcome was an emotional experience. "I am not a monarchist in India or in England but that is not what was important about the day," he said. "It was a historic moment. Taking the oath reinforced my feeling that it was my duty to return something to the country."

The couple want their children to adapt Indian and English traditions but are sceptical of testing for "Britishness". "It could become something you forget as soon as the test is done," Mr Chatterjee said.

THE SEVVERIZS

Pararajasingham Sevverlz, 38, and Sasilatha Sevverlz, 37, fled Sri Lanka in 1985 after being persecuted by the army. Their British-born son is five years old.

Mr Sevverlz, a retail worker for British Petroleum, said he applied for official citizenship to secure the family's long-term future.

He said: "We didn't seriously think about it before but our futures are in Britain and that is where we intend to stay. The ceremony was like welcoming us to Britain and making us feel important."

He added: "If you come to a country and want to be part of its culture, you also have to follow its laws.

"I am not sure about the culture exam. Everyone should be able to keep their own culture but also blend in with British culture. We can do both."

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