Home Secretary Jacqui Smith today put forward a scaled-down version of a 'points for passports' citizenship scheme floated last summer. Under plans announced to Parliament today, non-EU immigrants would be faced with a pre-citizenship probationary period involving a deal of conspicuous joining in, and they may not have a lot of choice if they want to stay in the UK after their visa expires.
"You will not be able to languish in limbo [or, as it was formerly-known, the UK]," said Smith. "Once your period of temporary residence comes to an end you will need to apply for the next stage or leave." Here, the devil will be in the detail of how Smith proposes to apply the system. If it will simply be the case that you're out if your permit expires and you don't renew it, then that is the theoretical situation today. If however Smith intends to force people to either leave or apply for citizenship after, say, five years working in the UK, then it could have considerable ramifications.
Fairly large numbers of people are currently perfectly happy working in the UK/limbo without applying for citizenship, but Smith is unhappy about their happiness, and wants a larger proportion of them "moving to full British citizenship," hence the stick.
Under the planned regime, the citizenship process will involve being resident for five years, then going on to a probationary period of at least a year. But without measurable public-spirited joining in, the probationary period would be three years. The joining in itself would mean "getting involved in their communities through volunteering", charity fund-raising, running sports teams or playgroups or becoming a school governor. Historically, there has been a shortage of school governor volunteers - soon, there won't be.
Making the volunteering compulsory is also being considered, while those receiving a prison sentence will be barred from citizenship. Those guilty of minor offences will have their probationary period extended.
The proposed system, put forward in the Green Paper Paths to Citizenship, will add another deck of complexity for the Borders & Immigration Agency, and clearly has plenty scope for gaming. But probably not as much as the plan put forward by Ruth Kelly and Immigration Minister Liam Byrne last year, in A Common Place (no, not Basildon), a pamphlet for the Fabian Society.
Here, Kelly and Byrne proposed a full-scale points "system of earned citizenship" where points could be deducted for anti-social behaviour, fly tipping, dangerous driving and various minor offences. Good works would earn you points, as would investing in the UK, bringing skills and earning large wages, thus contributing more taxes:
"If a highly skilled migrant proved to be a great success in the labour market (demonstrated by high wages and therefore larger tax payments) or could show they set up a flourishing business, or brought into the UK substantial new investment, they might earn credits at a rate that would allow them to settle after two years, instead of the five years we set as standard."
The pair did not specify how much investment would be necessary to cancel out the effect of, say, a driving conviction.
Citizenship Smith's plan, however, seems to have rejected the 'buy your way to a passport' aspect of Kelly and Byrne, and set the minimum at six (five plus a probation year) years. Will the 'no special treatment' policy be applied evenly to Russian oligarchs and football managers who fail to learn English and join the PTA? That remains to be seen. ®