I was pleased to join the Westminster Hall Debate on Immigration and Nationality Application Fees last week. It's an important issue and one which I know can have a huge impact on individuals as they make their way through the UK immigration system.
Of course, charges for people to gain citizenship are by no means unusual. I know from my time in local government when people would come to the town hall to swear their oath, just how how precious it is to people, and that reaching that landmark moment in their lives is worth saving for. I do believe that, generally, fees are rightly high for something which is so valued and which also costs a good deal of money to administer.
However, I understand that cost really can be a significant barrier and I used the debate to highlight the detrimental impact this can have on children, including those in the care system.
From my own experience in local government, I appreciate the challenges local authorities face when applying for citizenship on behalf of the children in its care - running into both bureaucratic and financial difficulties. It is vital that we continue to support refugee children in this country and must not impose additional costs on local authorities who are simply trying to do the right thing by those young people.
More generally, children and families are impacted by the current system and we risk deterring people who would make fantastic British citizens from applying. I called on the Home Office to ensure that, as we move towards establishing a new borders policy, it recognises the value that families add and that supports them on their journey in the system. Fees, whilst necessary, should not be a barrier to making sure that the full range of people who want to come to contribute to our life in the United Kingdom are able to do so.
You can read my full contribution below:
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr McCabe. My hon. Friend the Member for Delyn (Rob Roberts) made some very insightful comments in describing the impact that fees can have on individuals as they make their journey through the immigration system from newly arriving in our country to becoming full citizens. I am pleased to be able to highlight a couple of aspects of that, because it is important that, in the context of global Britain and a different approach to managing immigration, we consider the measures and steps that we need in both our border process and the way we manage citizenship in order to make it a better experience for all.
We should start by recognising that what is often referred to today as the “hostile environment” has developed under parties of all colours in Government, starting in the early 2000s, when people who were seeking asylum began to lose their entitlements to certain benefits. As the Home Office begins to move away from seeking to enforce caps on numbers, and towards a system that is designed to incentivise the right people who want to contribute to our economy to become citizens of the United Kingdom by taking up the offer of citizenship, we would expect to see a range of changes.
Charges for people to gain their citizenship are by no means unusual. In fact, if people wish to get into many other countries and receive a work permit—Canada, the United States, Australia, New Zealand and indeed many European countries—such countries apply a similar system whereby they expect people to pay a contribution towards the costs. Certainly in my time in local government, when I used to see people coming to the town hall for the citizenship ceremony and to swear their oath, it was very clear that they saw this as something incredibly precious that they felt it was worth saving towards and that marked a landmark moment in their lives.
However, there are those for whom the costs are a significant barrier, and I particularly highlight the impact on children and the risk in respect of children who are in the care system, where clearly there is a possibility that this simply becomes a cost that is shoved on to the budgets of local authorities. Certainly in my experience as a councillor in a local authority with very large numbers of refugee children, it would almost invariably be in the best interests of those children to seek to gain citizenship for them. That was often challenging for bureaucratic reasons, especially when there was no documentation available to demonstrate who those individuals were in order to regularise their position, but it was made even more challenging if a local authority was expected to pay significant citizenship charges to achieve that status for them, which was an expectation laid down as a result of the laws of the United Kingdom. I would like to hear from the Home Office that, as we review the way we support refugee children in this country, given that the numbers arriving into the UK have on average doubled since 2015—we are talking about significant numbers of young people in the care of a very large number of local authorities—we will ensure that we do not impose additional costs on local authorities that are simply seeking to do the right thing by those young people.
Both the hon. Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier) and my hon. Friend the Member for Delyn spelt out very clearly what the impact can be on families when a significant number of individuals all need to pay the fee. Similarly, when we consider the impact on children in that situation—mum or dad feel that it is simply too expensive and too difficult to save the money for the fee—we should think about how that might deter people who would make fantastic British citizens from doing it. Again, it would be good to hear that, as part of the consideration of what the future will be for our borders policy, we may have a system that recognises the value that families add, that supports them on their journey through the system and that ensures that the fees, although they are rightly high for something that is incredibly precious and costs a good deal of money to administer, are not a barrier to making sure that the full range of people who want to come to contribute to our life in the United Kingdom are able to do so.