The UK citizenship test is closer to a bad pub quiz than a rite of passage. It has to be rewritten

For many migrants, taking the test is not something you do to learn about the UK, but an expensive £50 hurdle aimed at trying to trick applicants from being able to stay

Thom Brooks
Thursday 27 August 2020 08:35
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A group of eminent historians signed an open letter in an academic journal accusing the government of misleading applicants for citizenship sitting the Life in the UK test. This test must normally be passed by anyone seeking permanent residency or wanting to become British.

The historians argue the test is “fundamentally misleading and in places demonstrably false” in places, like claiming the end of the British Empire was “orderly” when it was not.

This is not the first time that academic historians have criticised the portrayal of Empire in the current test handbook, published in 2013 under David Cameron. But this latest call for change is a timely reminder of the wasted opportunity the test has become for too long.

I know this problem well. After passing the test in 2009 and earning citizenship two years later, I was the first to call on Cameron’s government to overhaul the test. My research found it had become so outdated that a full set of randomly assigned questions could be sat where every “correct” answer was factually untrue.

Unfortunately, Cameron’s government expanded the number of test questions to about 3,000 random facts, designed more for a special citizenship programme of Pointless than a rite of passage. Instead of getting all facts right, the test simply had more facts. Gone was the requirement to know how to dial the police, but mandatory was the need to recall the height of the London Eye – in feet.

As Number 10 became a revolving door, with each leader claiming to take migration and integration more seriously than the previous occupant, the citizenship test became an afterthought – unless, of course, you had to pass it. It’s the only citizenship test that I know that few of its citizens can pass, and that makes you wonder what it’s really designed to do.

As parliament’s doors were closing for the summer recess, a flurry of belated replies to MP questions was published with the expectant hope no one would much notice.

Ministers defended the test, saying that it serves an essential purpose in ensuring new migrants have learned to integrate. When asked for evidence, immigration minister Kevin Foster had to admit that, in fact, the Home Office couldn’t be bothered to assess what effect the test has actually had on migrants, such as promoting British values or otherwise improving integration.

I can save them the time. My own research found that for many migrants – misleading or false questions on history aside – taking the test is not something you do to learn about the UK, but an expensive £50 hurdle aimed at trying to trick applicants from being able to stay. It’s no welcome mat.

It was very disappointing to learn in these replies by Foster is that there have been over 3,785 complaints leading to 3,720 refund requests from 1 September 2014 to 30 June 2020. Clearly, many new potential citizens are not impressed. But what was surprising was seeing over £150,000 has been paid out in successful refund requests.

That’s not a sign of a well-functioning system, or taking our borders seriously. Also buried in these rushed replies was an astonishing admission that no one at all has ever faced arrest or deportation for failing to satisfy lawful residency requirements when opening a bank account. The reason is – wait for it – the Home Office has not once asked the banks if anyone has tried and it does not require banks to notify them. This isn’t a hostile environment, but an incompetent mess.

It’s time the Home Office took citizenship seriously again by relaunching the test root and branch, changing it from a bad pub quiz to something more relevant. And instead of decreeing a new test from some Whitehall bunker by spads who have never immigrated and don’t know the first thing about the process they continually make worse through political meddling, let’s have a cross-party group lead a new test with public meetings, remotely or in person, to strip out the partisan history and ideology and create something useful.

And if we can get it right, who knows? Maybe more citizens can score better on their own test. It’d be a step in the right direction.

Thom Brooks is professor of law and government at Durham University and author of Becoming British

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