Page last updated at 02:16 GMT, Thursday, 15 January 2009

Citizenship test plans published

By Dominic Casciani
Home affairs reporter, BBC News

New citizens give their views on how they feel about becoming British

Immigrants who want to become British will need to pass more tests to prove their worth under citizenship plans.

The Home Office bill will make foreign nationals go through a period of probation, including learning English.

Foreign nationals waiting to become British will not be eligible for some benefits and will face a wait of up to 10 years to become citizens.

The bill being published later includes greater powers for border officers as part of an overhaul of entry checks.

The Borders, Citizenship and Immigration Bill sweeps aside a decades-old system of nationality based on time spent in the UK.

In its place comes a series of hurdles and tests.

Prospective British citizens would need to have lived and worked in the UK for at least five years and then spend at least one "probationary" year proving their worth.

NEW SYSTEM
Temporary resident: Five years in most cases
Probationary Citizen: Minimum one year
British Citizen: Full rights

This proof will include an ability to speak English, record of paying taxes and involvement in the community, such as volunteering.

The probationary period will lengthen to up to five years if foreign nationals applying to become British commit minor crimes or fail the tests in other ways.

Foreign nationals subject to the probationary period will be denied a number of benefits until they pass the final British citizenship tests. They will also be asked to pay into a special fund to ease public service pressures blamed on fluctuations in immigration.

The probationary citizenship rules do not apply to EU nationals who have a right to live and work in the UK as part of the free market area.

A second bill to follow later in the year will further simplify immigration law to create a single form of permission to be in the UK, along with sanctions against people judged to have broken the rules.

Border officers

The bill unveiled on Thursday also finalises the UK's move towards a single border force, giving officers immigration and customs powers.

At present, the recently-uniformed border officers are either immigration or customs officers - but most cannot exercise each others' powers.

Ministers say merging the two groups of officers will strengthen policing of the border, although union leaders have questioned whether it will dilute skills.

It's important that the over-complicated process of 'earned citizenship' is made more clear and fair
Institute for Public Policy Research
MPs Frank Field and Nicholas Soames, of the cross-party Balanced Migration group, have questioned the plans.

"There are two litmus tests for immigration policy," said the MPs. "First, it needs to tighten up immigration controls so that British unemployed people are given a fair crack at getting jobs.

"Second, it needs to control immigration so that the UK's population does not hit 70 million in 2028. This bill passes neither of these tests."

The Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR), a left-leaning think tank, also predicted the changes would deter some still much-needed economic migrants.

"Migrants become easy targets at times of economic difficulty but introducing yet more tough measures to exclude people could damage our prospects for economic recovery," said IPPR's Tim Finch.

"Not all migrants will want to settle in the UK, but some will. It's important that the over-complicated process of 'earned citizenship' is made more clear and fair."

A spokesman for the Home Office rejected both attacks.

"We have made it clear that the points based system will allow the Government to manage immigration which in turn will help contribute to future population projections and control," said the spokesman.

"The Government is also breaking the link between temporary stay in the UK and settlement.

"The points system will make sure that where we need foreign workers to fill gaps we can get them. Its flexibility means that we can raise or lower the bar according to the needs of the labour market and the country as a whole.

"We do not think there is anything complicated about requiring that newcomers speak English, pay taxes, and obey the law."



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