British Tests for Immigrants

“We are freeing countries of different religions and cultural backgrounds and making it possible for them to get back home and rebuild their countries. I have no sympathy whatsoever with young people in their 20s who do not get back home and rebuild their country and their families.”

British Home Secretary David Blunkett, 18/09/02

Compulsory citizenship tests for immigrants have taken a further towards becoming a reality with British Home Secretary David Blunkett’s announcement of the creation of an advisory group headed up by Sir Bernard Crick – emeritus professor of politics at Birkbeck College London – which will set “life in the United Kingdom” naturalisation exams. The group will also advise on the “method, conduct and implementation” of the “life in the United Kingdom” test and submit suggestions as to how best promote language skills and practical knowledge about Britain.

Explaining the rationale behind the setting up of the advisory group, Blunkett said:

“We want British citizenship to embrace positively the diversity of background, culture and faiths that living in modern Britain involves. The Government is also concerned that those who become British citizens should play an active role, both economic and political, in our society, and have a sense of belonging to a wider community.”

The group–which consists of a number of government appointed experts in citizenship, integration and education–will also design the content of the so-called citizenship courses (to include British politics and culture and an exam on British life) and accompanying ceremony which will include the swearing of a formal oath of allegiance to the Queen and a pledge to uphold democratic values and respect for human rights. The first citizenship ceremonies are slated for September 2003.

The Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Bill will also require all citizenship applicants resident in Britain for at least three years to demonstrate a certain standard of English, Welsh or Scottish Gaelic (yes, you read right).

Sheffield’s most prominent entitlement cards for all advocate–more of which later – claims that these moves are in recognition of the significance of being awarded British citizenship (“The government intends to make gaining British citizenship meaningful and celebratory rather than simply a bureaucratic process”) and not a retreat to the dubious thinking which informed Conservative peer Norman Tebbit’s notorious “Cricket Test”. Disputing criticisms that his culture exams are but a pale re-tread of Tebbit’s Law (Tebbit famously claimed that immigrants from the commonwealth only considered themselves British when there wasn’t an international cricket test series to be contested), Blunkett defends his latest citizenship gambit, claiming that “it has to do with an understanding of the society, of the world that you are coming to.”

The watchwords of this initiative then are “inclusion”, “community” and–especially popular with the policy wonks this one–“social cohesion”. It goes without saying that critics of the plan have failed to embrace the generosity of spirit which informs the heart of Blunkett’s new inclusive message.

Angry missives to the letters pages of the ostensibly liberal press have been scribbled posthaste in an attempt to derail what more cynical minds might call the Home Secretary’s “fish and chips test”. One angry Guardian reader cruelly dismisses the beleagured Home Secretary’s plans, preferring instead to put a metaphorical stick in the spokes of the advisory group before it has even begun its work proper (12/09/02):

“As a Brit who has lived abroad for years, I would fail David Blunkett’s “life in the UK test” (Blunkett establishes advisory group, September 10). And I won’t swear allegiance to the Queen. The pledge to uphold democracy and human rights sounds OK. That’s the bit Blunkett would fail.”

Whatever the rights or wrongs of this spirited republican’s refusal to swear allegiance to the Queen, the writer shows some prescience in predicting that Blunkett would fail to uphold democracy and human rights. The fact of the matter is that he already has failed. On September 11, a high court judge ruled that Blunkett–whose modus operandi as Home Office Secretary seems to be to directed towards outdoing the the number of gaffes of his accident prone predecessor–acted unlawfully by deporting an Afghan family who had took refuge in a West Midlands mosque to Germany.

Ignoring medical reports that removal of the mother and her children would result in a deterioration of their mental health, Blunkett argued that the family’s human rights claims were “manifestly unfounded”. West Midlands police used a battering ram to take the parents from the mosque in July. The judge ruled that the medical evidence “emphasises the care that is required in this type of case to ensure that the secretary of state makes any decision based on a sound basis of fact”.

Despite finding in the family’s favour (“As a result of an unlawful act, this family have been removed from this country when they should not have been”), the high court ruled on September 12 that they would not be allowed back into Britain to appeal against the deportation. Instead, Blunkett brokered a compromise with the court which means the hearing will now be conducted via videolink. The government–very graciously–will foot the bill to send lawyers and medical experts to Germany (doubtless, Blunkett has not yet been made aware of the plethora of budget airline flight deals currently on offer between Germany to England). Of course, Blunkett is only honouring a recent tradition of hapless British Home Secretaries who cannot be considered to have broken their ministerial duck until they have been reprimanded by the courts.

In his initial rebuke of the secretary of state, the judge claimed that a Home Office letter issued on August 13 refusing the family an injunction to appeal against their removal contained significant discrepancies between the immigration status and rights of residence they would receive on removal to Germany. Assurances that they would not be housed in a reception centre and that they would receive full settled rights in Germany also proved false.

On arriving in Germany, the family were put in a reception centre before being moved to a refugee camp. Moreover, the family had not been accorded “settled status”; meaning that the father could not work and that they had access to only the minimum level of German social security and medical benefits. Say what you will about the sitting member for Sheffield Brightside – you cannot deny that he takes his responsibility as keeper of the flame of Home office blunders seriously.

The illegally deported family’s QC has claimed that preventing their return to Britain perpetuates the injustice of their removal and that a videolink would be “contrary to an effective appeal”. Qualifying his decision to conduct the appeal by video, Mr Justice Baker said, “I’m satisfied that with the safeguards that have been offered by the secretary of state, it is not necessary to direct the return of this family to this country for the hearing before the adjudicator.” In the unlikely event of the unfortunate family’s appeal being successful, they could do worse than beginning to brush up on their “British Life Skills” – a few old episodes of Coronation Street and Eastenders might just do the trick.

Despite all the lofty talk of “community cohesion” and “social cohesion” being bandied about and claims that the kites first flown in the Secure Borders, Safe Haven White Paper are an attempt at addressing the underlying cultural problems which sparked by last year’s riots in the north of England, the real message underpinning the proposed measures is a warning to other asylum seekers that Britain is not an easy option. The Home Office is, naturally, disappointed by the temerity of the judge’s decision:

“It is the home secretary’s view that this will create such a precedent that every illegal immigrant and failed asylum seeker will cite psychological damages to frustrate the proper operation of asylum laws.”

Finally, we get to the heart of the matter (and it has nothing to do with David Beckham, Eastenders or the Spice Girls). A raft of asylum and immigration legislation and measures make clear in no uncertain terms that the government’s policy is one designed to further restrict the flow of asylum seekers into Britain. A number of employment legislation sops have already been made to the French in the form of amendments to the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Bill. Displaying a talent for pulling numbers out of thin air in much the same way that magicians pulls rabbits out of hats, Blunkett set a figure of 30,000 failed asylum seekers to be removed annually.

This has subsequently been revised, as Blunkett conceded to the Commons home affairs select committee this week that “”It was not achievable in terms of any other country in the world or in terms of our current processing ability at that time.” The latest in a long line of very public climbdowns has regrettably failed to temper his rhetoric or his legislative zeal. A consultation paper on identity cards – whose primary aim is the detection of illegal immigrants–has also been issued. The children of asylum seekers will be forced to receive their schooling in the new accommodation centres being built to house asylum seekers while they wait for their applications to be processed. This of course has nothing to do with the number of successsful high profile campaigns to overturn the removal orders of families with children who became fully integrated into their host communities. Children in mainstream education might pass the Great British fish and chips test–those living in accommodation centres can forget it.

The Employment concession which allowed asylum seekers to apply for permission to work after six months of the date of their asylum application where they have not received an initial decision within that period was revoked with immediate effect on 23 July 2002. Defending the measure, the government claimed that the provision was no longer relevant as most initial asylum decisions are made within six months. Anyway, the employment concession acted as a “pull-factor” to other would-be asylum seekers. The Refugee Council has criticised this development as a retrograde step; pointing out that the current average waiting time for an initial asylum decision is in fact 13 months (and a further 26 weeks for appeal).

Moreover, they argue that the decision to scrap the right-to-work rule was taken in order to quell French concerns about the lack of British work and residence controls. The Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Bill will also give the government the power to remove the “cash only” option which currently allows asylum seekers to apply for subsistence only support from the National Asylum Support Service. Despite assurances from Westminster that such a step would only be taken once accomodation centres – designed to replace the current dispersal system – have been successfully piloted, a leaked Downing Street memo shows that the government is still considering removing the “cash only” option this Autumn.

The “Entitlement Cards and Identity Fraud” Consultation Paper presented to parliament in July 2002 makes clear that – for all of Blunkett’s inclusionist posturing -the government’s real position on immigration and asylum is an entirely prohibitive one. For “entitlement” read “compulsory”. As the Executive Summary spells out in no uncertain terms, “By giving a clear indication that the holder of an entitlement card is lawfully resident in the UK, a card scheme could be a powerful weapon in combating illegal immigration. The perception that once people manage to enter the country illegally they can work and obtain benefits and public services with impunity adds to the ‘pull factor’ which draws people into organised networks of people trafficking.”

This flies in the face of Home Office conducted research (Home Office Research Study 243 – Understanding the decision-making of asylum seekers, July 2002) based on interviews with asylum seekers which comprehensively explodes the myth that Britain is perceived by asylum seekers as being a “soft touch”:

“There was very little evidence that the sample respondents had a detailed knowledge of: UK immigration or asylum procedures; entitlements to benefits in the UK; or the availability of work in the UK. There was even less evidence that the respondents had a comparative knowledge of how these phenomena varied between different European countries. Most of the respondents wished to work and support themselves during the determination of their asylum claim rather than be dependent on the state.”

The truth of the matter is that the only people who still perceive Britain as a “soft-touch” for asylum seekers are the thousands of Britons grown complacent on a diet of stale Daily Mail editorials which employ militaristic discourses of “invasion” to invoke images of a green and pleasant land beset by hordes of marauding gypsies, tinkers and con artists.

Asylum headlines of the last few years read like nothing more than a “Beginner’s Guide to Folk Demons”: “Refugees are flooding into UK ‘like ants”, Daily Express, 07/11/01; “Britain is top asylum haven”, Daily Mail, 02/02/02; “Bogus refugees treated better than UK citizens”, The Sun, 18/02/02; “Our town’s too nice for refugees they will try to escape, rapists and thieves will terrorise us”, Daily Express, 23/03/02.

A report published in February by the European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia (“Racism and Cultural Diversity in the Mass Media”) concludes that:

“To a certain extent, it appears that immigrants and asylum-seekers now receive the same type of stigmatising coverage, which ‘Black’ and ‘Asian’ minorities received fifteen years ago. This suggests that the criteria for newspapers to include groups within their vision of the British community has changed over time and is now applied on the basis of citizenship, so that British minorities are no longer an ‘outgroup’ but to a certain extent are included in the ‘we’ who are defined in opposition to ‘them’ the foreigners. This highlights that despite a relative level of autonomy, the media agenda in the long term very much follows the political agenda in its evaluation of ‘race’ and immigration.”

49% of people interviewed for a Mail on Sunday (2001) poll conducted by MORI “strongly agreed” that “refugees come to Britain because they see Britain as a soft touch.” 59% agreed with the statement that “a very large number of those seeking asylum are cheats.” The truth of the matter is that asylum seekers are more likely to be the victims of crime and violence than all of the Concerneds of Colchester and Worrieds of Worcester the combined might of the tabloids can conjure up. A report published by the Association of Chief Police Officers confirms that there is no evidence of a higher rate of criminality among refugees and asylum seekers.

Which is surprising – given the numbers of violent crimes suffered by asylum seekers who are all too often housed in already marginalised and disenfranchised communities the length of Britain as part of local council refugee/asylum dispersal programmes. The sort of communities where disenchantment and “bogus refugees treated better than UK citizens” type scare stories (The Sun, 18/02/02) have helped put resentment of asylum seekers at an all-time high. Ill-considered–but beautifully timed!–comments from Foot-in-Mouth specialist Blunkett and Lord Rooker, Minister for Citizenship and Immigration (“most asylum seekers are single men who have deserted their families for economic gain”), probably help too.

Unperturbed by the charges of insensitivity laid at his door, Blunkett has sparked further criticism by claiming – in an essay published by the Foreign Policy Centre entitled “Integration with Diversity: Globalisation and the Renewal of Democracy and Civil Society”? that speaking English at home “helps overcome the schizophrenia which bedevils generational relationships. In as many as 30% of Asian British households, according to the recent citizenship survey, English is not spoken at home.”

Ever mindful of being dragged into a war of words with the English Asian communities who have still not forgiven his comments on “sham” arranged marriages, Blunkett qualifies this by saying: “I have never said, or implied, that lack of fluency in English was in any way directly responsible for the disturbances in Bradford, Burnley and Oldham in the summer of 2001. However, speaking English enables parents to converse with their children in English, as well as in their historic mother tongue, at home and to participate in wider modern culture.”

Even the most churlish critics of Blunkett and New Labour would be hard pressed to find fault with the inherent good sense in more immigrants to Britain being able to better speak English. The “schizophrenia which bedevils generational relationships” though? Blunkett’s advisors obviously forgot to tell him that one man’s “schizophrenia” is another man’s “multiculturalism”. Speaking on BBC Radio Four’s Today programme, the Home Secretary dismissed the row caused by his comments as a “silly controversy”. He obviously did not feel chastened by Lord Ouseley’s (former head of the Commission for Racial Equality) condemnation of his chest beating description of those jailed after the Bradford riots as “maniacswhining about their sentences”. Doubtless, Ouseley belongs to the “woolly-thinking, liberal-minded brigade” who invariably attempt to throw a spanner in the works of Blunkett’s latest project.

The rationale behind Blunkett’s frequent bouts of policy sabre-rattling might prove to be perhaps altogether more prosaic. New Labour guru Peter Mandelson and Philip Gould–Tony Blair’s political strategist–warn of the dangers of failing to be seen to be taking a strong stance on immigration in a magazine analysis of recent centre-left political party defeats in Europe. Writing in the Mandelson edited Progressive Politics, Gould claims “it is not the comfortable middle classes who have most to fear from migration, but those at the cutting edge of vulnerability.”

Mandelson’s editorial concurs, adding that “such communities are where left votes have traditionally been concentrated and where the left has for too long relied on fading class loyalties to deliver the vote. Progressives cannot overlook the fears that are associated with this pressure. We need to think through where we stand on migration, and how we manage it, in the world of globalisation, and in the context of Western Europes ageing population.”

Only last week, another prominent Christian Democratic political party leader tried to drum up support on a “less immigration, more integration” electoral ticket. The difference is that CDU leader Edmund Stoiber’s plans were the last desperate actions of a man trying to avert German federal elections defeat. The concept of enforced assimilation into any culture is not only unpalatable but based in questionable assumptions of common cultural national identity.

Blunkett’s laughable citizenship test should be seen for what it really is–a smokescreen which allows the further tightening of already strict immigration and asylum legislation administered by an out of touch Home Secretary who chooses to hide behind a bluff fa?ade of insults and catcalling. It is also the act of a government in no hurry to relinquish power for the sake of a few Sri Lankans and Somalis.

It is no mean irony that the majority of asylum seekers questioned for the “Understanding the decision-making of asylum seekers” Home Office report cited Britain’s reputation as a tolerant democracy that was sympathetic to asylum seekers as being instrumental in their decision to come to the UK.

One optimistic Iranian respondent even went as far as to say, “I feel that England today is encouraging people to come in I mean the government, the Labour government they want the people to come in.”

Mr Blunkett must surely hope to have disabused him of that particular fantasy. Speaking to the Commons home affairs select committee on Wednesday 18 September, Blunkett turned in a bravura display which might even have made George Bush Junior blanch:

“If these people are dynamic and well-qualified, and I don’t dispute that they are, they should get back home and recreate their countries that we freed from tyranny, whether it be Kosovo or now Afghanistan.

We are freeing countries of different religions and cultural backgrounds and making it possible for them to get back home and rebuild their countries. I have no sympathy whatsoever with young people in their 20s who do not get back home and rebuild their country and their families.”

Perhaps the minister for common sense should instigate the liberation of a few more countries from tyranny – there would be no need for citizenship tests and asylum reforms full stop. It really is as easy as A, B, C.

William McDougal can be reached at: