Paytriotism. Becoming British is a costly business
FOREIGNERS pledging their allegiance to Queen Elizabeth in Fife, near Edinburgh, are rewarded, along with British citizenship, by a mug emblazoned with a puffin and the words “Fife the kingdom of life”. Those doing so in Gateshead receive a medal while in Cornwall new Britons are handed a lapel pin in the shape of a Celtic knot, fashioned from local tin. Such trinkets, however, come with a hefty price tag. Securing citizenship is expensive, both in comparison with the past and with the tariffs elsewhere. Its costliness is one indication of Britain’s ungenerous attitude towards those who want to settle in the country for good.
Becoming a citizen is a lengthy process, as it is in many places, with myriad hurdles and fees along the way. Someone applying for residency on the basis of being married to a Briton, for example, must pay £649 on two separate occasions for two two-and-a-half year visas (plus the same for any dependants) to begin their residency. In addition, as of this month migrants from outside the European Economic Area must pay a £200 annual “health-care charge”. They must then fork out £1,500 for “indefinite leave to remain” (which was free before 2003 when a fee of £155 was introduced) before being allowed to apply for citizenship.
The charges thus mount up to several thousand pounds before foreigners reach the final stage, naturalisation, which in itself has become ever more pricey. Between 2005 and 2015 the fees for naturalisation rose from £200 for one adult to £1,005. The price for a family of four has risen to £3,508, almost two-and-a-half-times higher than in 2010. And not forgetting £50 for a citizenship test.
The government concedes that the fees for processes such as naturalisation far outweigh the costs. In 2014 the Home Office estimated its expenditure for dealing with an application for naturalisation to be £144; at that time would-be Britons paid £906. The government argues that the high price helps to cover the costs of immigration and border control more generally. Such fees offset, for example, tourist visas to Britain which cost visitors less than they do the government. When it came to power the coalition government scrapped a fund designed to offset the impact of immigration on areas most burdened. The cash had come from a £50 levy imposed on various immigration applications. The levy has remained in place though it is unclear exactly what the money is now spent on. The Tory election manifesto promises, with few details, the creation of a similar fund.
Go back a couple of decades, however, and naturalisation cost virtually nothing, says Thom Brooks, a professor of law and government at Durham University and an expert on citizenship. The rocketing costs since then reflect the fact that the process has become more onerous since the terrorist attacks of September 11th 2001, argues Mr Brooks, and the fact that the government realised that British nationality could be a useful money-spinner.
But soaring fees do little to discourage foreigners from applying, he suggests. Changes to the law or the application process are a greater deterrent. Around 126,000 foreigners were granted British citizenship in 2014, down from almost 208,000 in 2013, the highest number since 1962, when records began. The peak was probably prompted by a swell of applications ahead of the introduction of tougher language requirements towards the end of 2013. The fall in 2014 also reflects a large decrease in the number of grants of settlement (permanent residence) which created a smaller pool of newly eligible applicants for citizenship.
The disparity in the cost of naturalisation between countries is stark (see chart), reflecting in part differing views of the costs and benefits of citizenship. It can be seen primarily as a benefit to the migrant, suggests Madeleine Sumption of the Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford. After all, citizens are allowed to vote, they cannot be deported and certain jobs are limited to nationals. A British passport gets holders into many countries visa-free. By that account, charging a premium for these personal gains makes sense.
But citizenship can also be seen as a public good from which the host country profits. Desiring citizenship can indicate immigrants’ integration into society and can further facilitate it, says Ms Sumption. Becoming a citizen may cultivate loyalty to a country and its values. On that view, levying a lower rate is wise to avoid discouraging new nationals. If foreigners can get a job which (legally) gets them in the door and they then behave well, America—which puts a lower price on naturalisation than Britain—welcomes them as citizens. America wants migrants to see themselves as part of the national story rather than a separate isolated class, says Mr Brooks. Britain, by contrast, prefers to squeeze its would-be citizens for all they are worth