UK Citizenship Test — [Sir Christopher Chope in the Chair]

– in Westminster Hall at 11:00 am on 22 November 2023.

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Photo of Wendy Chamberlain Wendy Chamberlain Liberal Democrat Chief Whip, Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Work and Pensions) 11:00, 22 November 2023

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered the Life in the UK citizenship test.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher. I want first to talk about my constituent, Kate Jeffery. She is an Australian by birth, and she married her husband in Banbury in 1992. They returned to Australia shortly thereafter and then came back to the UK—her husband’s home—in 2017. They have settled here, and Kate has built her life here. I am happy to say that she has now decided to make North East Fife her home; it is a lovely home.

When the time came for Kate to apply for indefinite leave to remain, she did so on 26 April, almost eight months ago. In making that application, Kate also applied for an exemption from the “Life in the UK” test due to her dyslexia, which is so severe that it means she can never study for or take the test. She did this with the formal written support of her GP, which is no mean feat, considering the waiting time to see GPs these days.

This, sadly, is where things started to go wrong. In June, her exemption was refused on the grounds that GP support did not count as evidence of a diagnosis. Kate started to worry about her right to remain, so she reached out to my office for assistance, paid out of her own pocket for a private diagnosis and sought legal advice. Evidence in support of Kate’s application was sent by my office and her solicitor to the Home Office on multiple occasions between June and August, but no acknowledgment of receipt was provided, and there was no trace of that evidence when we rang for updates. We knew that at least one set of the documents was received—it was sent by recorded delivery—but still we had no progress.

After chasing throughout September, my office finally received notification on 25 September that the documents had been uploaded to the Home Office system on 15 August, so we all had a moment of temporary relief that this ongoing situation would be over. But, unbelievably, at the start of this month Kate was contacted by yet another caseworker at the Home Office who asked again for the same supporting documents to be sent. This is a farce and an utter failure, both in ensuring that leave to remain applications are dealt with consistently and in providing a basic good customer service level.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health)

I commend the hon. Lady for bringing this debate forward. Many people have described the UK citizenship test as a “bad pub quiz”. The questions asked are incredible, and many people born British would not even pass the test, including you and I, Sir Christopher. Does the hon. Lady agree that for someone to understand our United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, we need to focus more questions on the inclusion of the devolved institutions, such as the operation of governmental systems and how they support integration and community in the UK? She is outlining her constituent’s case very well.

Photo of Wendy Chamberlain Wendy Chamberlain Liberal Democrat Chief Whip, Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Work and Pensions)

I am grateful to the hon. Member for his intervention. I will come on to speak about the House of Lords Justice and Home Affairs Committee report last year and the Government’s commitment to review the test, but I agree: there should not be a test of history or obscure facts. It should be a test that helps people who are applying for British citizenship or indefinite leave to remain to better integrate into UK society.

As Jim Shannon said, we know that the “Life in the UK” test has serious flaws, and the Home Office knows it too, because of the inquiry I referenced by the House of Lords Committee, which concluded in June last year. Accessibility of the test for applicants with long-term physical and mental conditions, like Kate, was one of the specific issues highlighted. The Committee found that the threshold for exemption from the test is very high. That is understandable, but although the Government claim to have adaptations available to accommodate individuals, no information on those adaptations is available to applicants. Worryingly, although the purpose of the test is to promote social cohesion, all it does is test people’s ability to learn and repeat a lot of information. Many people struggle with that, and when we talk about education, we say it is a bad thing.

The Government’s response has been disappointing. In response to the House of Lords Committee’s report, they gave a letter from the former Minister with responsibility for safe and legal immigration simply stating that test applications are driven by candidate requests, rather than the other way round. In the first instance, that might sound positive: “We don’t constrain you; you tell us what you need.” But—and it is a big but—for those who are not familiar with the system, who are scared of losing their right to be here and who already face barriers to the process as a result of their disability, all that does is put up another barrier. Instead of making it easier for people with disabilities, the Government are making it harder because of that disability. It is completely subjective and dependent on a logical Home Office case handling process that, as I have outlined, does not seem to exist.

Photo of Gregory Campbell Gregory Campbell Shadow DUP Spokesperson (International Development), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

I congratulate the hon. Lady on raising these issues. Does she agree that the review also needs to take account of the case I have raised many times of people in Northern Ireland who were born just over the border in the Republic, but have been Northern Ireland residents, taxpayers and voters for decades and who are still asked to do the test? That is ludicrous, given the duration that they have been UK citizens.

Photo of Wendy Chamberlain Wendy Chamberlain Liberal Democrat Chief Whip, Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Work and Pensions)

I find that quite shocking. We are so many years on from the Good Friday agreement, which gave residents and citizens of Northern Ireland the right to be part of both countries, and that is a key issue around social cohesion. I find it quite shocking that the Government have not sorted that out. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for continuing to raise that issue, and I hope the Minister will respond to that.

Other barriers to accessibility were set out in the House of Lords Committee’s report. They do not directly affect my constituent, but given that the Minister is here to give us an update in response to the report, they are worth touching on.

Photo of Tim Farron Tim Farron Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making an excellent speech. Given that the objective of the citizenship test is to test and encourage the integration of people coming to this country, and that there are tens of thousands of people languishing as asylum seekers, most of whom will, on past evidence, be granted refugee status at some point, is it not a terrible waste not to allow them to work? That would help contribute to their costs and, therefore, save the taxpayer money, and would help them to integrate by developing better language skills and being part of their community so that when the test comes, they are more likely to pass it.

Photo of Wendy Chamberlain Wendy Chamberlain Liberal Democrat Chief Whip, Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Work and Pensions)

My hon. Friend knows that we and our party are aligned on that: we should give people the right to work while they are waiting for their applications to be processed. If nothing else, it would reduce the burden on the state and take away some of the stigma, of which we have sadly seen too much in recent immigration debates. It would also start the process of integrating into our country. The person on the journey that my hon. Friend laid out might end up, many years later, taking a “Life in the UK” test, and I hope that the ongoing systemic issues that I have highlighted can be resolved before then.

Let me move on to some of the other barriers to accessing the test. The House of Lords Committee heard evidence of test centres having only male staff to carry out searches of candidates. I am sure everyone here would agree that that is unacceptable. There was evidence of test centres being inaccessible by public transport and of centres being oversubscribed, which meant that applicants have to make long journeys far from their home. That makes the test even more off-putting and, arguably, even more expensive.

Concerns were also raised about the test’s contents, which other hon. Members have highlighted, and the “Life in the UK” handbook. In its response to the House of Lords Committee in September last year, the Home Office stated that it intended to set out a timetable within 12 months for a review of the test. It was the weakest of commitments—the Home Office announced that it would do something at some point within a whole-year period—yet it seems to have failed to deliver even on that. I very much hope the Minister will give us an update on the timetable for that long-promised review. The Home Office promised to look at ensuring the accessibility of centres, but I cannot see that any changes or updates have been made. It was also mentioned that the Government were considering a remote testing pilot. I would be grateful for an update on that, particularly given that they seem to be really keen on digital by design in other areas of policy.

Even in that response last year, the Home Office failed to take seriously the Committee’s recommendations, particularly when it came to making sure that disabled candidates have the same access to the test as everyone else. Why has the Home Office not considered citizenship courses to remove the need for a test? Why did it refuse to provide guidance on the sort of adaptations available? Why is the burden of proof so high that my constituent could not rely on evidence from her doctor and had to pay out of her own pocket to see a specialist? Kate cannot help but feel, and I agree with her, that she is being discriminated against by the Home Office and that her application has been made deliberately harder because of her dyslexia.

I am sure the Minister can at least agree with me that the handling of Kate’s case has been beyond poor. Looking at the lost documents and delays alone, there are two possible explanations: either Kate has been discriminated against or the Home Office is just demonstrating general incompetence. It has been five months since the second round of evidence was submitted. There can be no excuses or explanations for what has happened. I always say that if systems and processes in Government at all levels worked as they should, I would not need any caseworkers, and I am sure that others here would agree. We must get to a situation where people do not need to get in touch with their MP for such process issues.

The “Life in the UK” test is the end of a long journey for people such as Kate, who have spent years building their lives and planning their futures here. This is just another brick being removed from the UK’s reputation as a welcoming country in which people can live, work and contribute to the economy. The system is clearly broken and I urge the Government to outline what reforms they will make to the test, which seems to be pretty maligned. In the meantime, I hope the Minister can look at Kate’s case and finally give her some good news.

Photo of Laura Farris Laura Farris Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Ministry of Justice and Home Office) 11:11, 22 November 2023

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher. I congratulate Wendy Chamberlain on securing the debate. I would like to say at the start that I cannot comment on an individual case, but I know that the Home Office will be happy to look directly into the circumstances that she has outlined in relation to her constituent. I urge her not to conflate the issues that have been experienced by her constituent, which do sound irregular, with an indication that the system as a whole is failing.

Since 2003, successive Governments have been clear that all those seeking to make the UK their permanent home should be prepared to integrate successfully in the UK, with both an appropriate level of spoken English and a sufficient understanding of life in the United Kingdom. Indeed, the guidance book that is published to go with the “Life in the UK” test makes repeated reference to respect and commitment to British values. Many citizens would recognise and agree that that should be a fundamental requirement for anyone looking for permanent settlement.

Adult applicants between the ages of 18 and 65 are required to demonstrate that they have sufficient knowledge of the UK—not just our current political systems, but our history. I listened carefully to what the hon. Lady was saying; she was a bit critical about that, but I gently remind her that the past does inform the present. Here we are in Westminster Hall, a building that has gone through the centuries and has told the story of what this great nation really means. I have to say, with respect, that I think it is important that people are cognisant of our great history before they secure permanent leave to remain in the United Kingdom. Citizenship of this country is a privilege, and it is absolutely right that we have mechanisms in place that emphasise the importance of integration.

I want to contextualise some of what the hon. Lady was saying about her constituent. She made two points that I think are worth referring to. She talked about how her constituent has profound dyslexia, possibly veering into what would meet the statutory definition of disability under the Equality Act 2010. We will certainly look at why that somewhat higher threshold for medical evidence was required.

The hon. Lady also made the point that it was somehow surprising that the application had to be made by her constituent herself. I remind her very gently that it is likely that this case would be covered by section 20 of the Equality Act, “Duty to make adjustments”. In any case of this nature, where someone is dealing with a service provider that would be covered by that Act, it is for the person complaining to identify the “provision, criterion or practice”—here, it might be the circumstances of the test—and say why that puts them at a “substantial disadvantage”, before the service provider decides what action, if any, it is going to take. That is the statutory language that applies and it is therefore consistent with that language that the Home Office requires applications to be made on an individual basis.

To give a little bit of context, since 2013 over 1.7 million attempts have been made to pass the test, with 1.2 million people—70% of applicants—passing it the first time. Applicants do not have to get 100%, thank God. If we look even further into that data, we see that the vast majority of people pass the test by the third attempt. Although the test is quite comprehensive and, yes, it goes into history, it is not so onerous that people cannot pass it or that they do not have the right to citizenship because they fail. They are able to do it. There are 24 questions. It is computer-based and multiple choice. It requires those who wish to make their home in the United Kingdom to demonstrate a knowledge of the history, culture and government of the United Kingdom, and of the principles that sit at the core of British democracy.

Those who are taking the test will already have been living here for at least five years. The test therefore focuses on the more in-depth knowledge that is expected of someone who has presumably already sought to integrate within UK society and is committing to the next step by applying for permanent residence or citizenship. I hope that that answers, to a degree, the point that the hon. Lady made about those who are applying for asylum under the auspices of the refugee convention.

We can have a disagreement about whether those who are at the application stage should or should not have the right to work, but I will simply make three points. It is consistent with all our immigration practices that those who are applying do not yet have the same rights as somebody whose application, whether it is for a work permit or for asylum, has been granted; that is one of the reasons why they are treated differently. It is not irregular that people who are given refugee status are not required to take an equivalent test or are not given the opportunity to learn for it, because usually a grant of asylum is finite; it is not the same as getting indefinite leave to remain, so it is right that we treat those two categories of applicant differently. Somebody could get asylum, remain in the United Kingdom for an extended period, make the application for indefinite leave to remain and then have to take the test in the usual way. There is not differential treatment between those two categories; they are fundamentally different categories.

The hon. Lady talked about a review of the test. I am certainly aware of the House of Lords Committee’s report. I am also aware that the test has been in circulation for some time. It, or at least the guidance for it, is published by the Stationery Office on behalf of the Home Office and is available in paperback, audiobook, e-book and other digital formats. In other words, the training materials certainly are available in accessible formats that somebody with dyslexia or another kind of special educational need would be able to access.

The Home Office’s contract with the Stationery Office includes a commitment to enhance current digital learning materials and develop a new online platform, and the Home Office continues to work with the Stationery Office to ensure that materials are available in a digital format to meet customer demand and support candidates. The release of a new e-learning platform in 2020, in addition to a continued improvement process for the mobile apps based on customer feedback, has helped to drive a shift towards sales in digital format, from 23% in 2018 to 60% last year. The Home Office will continue to work with the Stationery Office to offer innovative digital products that meet customer needs and value for money.

In relation to the House of Lords report, I am aware that the UK handbook was first published over 10 years ago. Although much of the material, particularly the historical aspect, remains pertinent, the Home Office is aware of the need for the content to remain up to date, above and beyond minor amendments and perhaps the improving digitalisation of the training programme.

I recognise that there are strong views on how a review should be conducted, particularly in relation to the scope of the review, who should conduct it and what consultation should be undertaken.

Photo of Gregory Campbell Gregory Campbell Shadow DUP Spokesperson (International Development), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

Will the Minister undertake, in discussion with colleagues, to ensure that the review that is going to be forthcoming will be wide-ranging and comprehensive, to take account of some of the concerns that have been raised today? Then, hopefully, we can see some improvement for the future.

Photo of Laura Farris Laura Farris Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Ministry of Justice and Home Office)

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention; I was coming to that point. I think it is appropriate that I write to the hon. Member for North East Fife once the scope and timeframe for the review is known, so that she is aware. Of course, we will be listening carefully to the points that she has made.

Overall, it is right to say that the “Life in the UK” test is an important element of gauging commitment to integrating and to a permanent life in the United Kingdom. I hope that the irregularities that the hon. Lady has described in respect of her own constituent can be resolved. I do not believe that they are indicative of an overall weakness in the test, which by and large has proved highly successful and which nearly all applicants, in the end, do manage to access.

Photo of Wendy Chamberlain Wendy Chamberlain Liberal Democrat Chief Whip, Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Work and Pensions)

Can the Minister tell us whether a review date has been set, and what the scope of the review will be? It appears that up to this point, the Home Office has not met the commitment that it gave to the House of Lords Justice and Home Affairs Committee last year.

Photo of Laura Farris Laura Farris Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Ministry of Justice and Home Office)

That is a fair question. I am not aware of the timeframe yet, to be completely honest. However, I hope I am giving the hon. Lady a little bit of guidance. I would say that I do not think that it is recognised that there are inherent flaws in the “Life in the UK” test, although the Home Office is completely aware of the recommendations in the Justice and Home Affairs Committee report. It is considering the scope and will do a review, which I have already indicated that I will write to the hon. Lady about, with the timeline and the scope. I think that that is the context in which I should root my answer. I thank the hon. Lady once again for securing today’s debate.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.