For (New) Queen And Country: The Transition To British Citizenship

Arnold Schwarzenegger (the movie star and ex-Governor ofCalifornia) has been reported as saying that, when he took his oath ofUScitizenship in 1983, he was so proud that he “walked around with an American flag on his shoulders all day long”. For both him and his fellow-immigrants, the ceremony has traditionally symbolised their official acceptance into USsociety. After the completion of the rituals, the participants are usually handed information packs detailing their citizen responsibilities, a copy of the USconstitution, voter registration notification and a miniature American flag. In the UK, however, acquiring British citizenship was until 2004 (in the view of the “About Immigration” website) “ an extremely low-key affair with very little to mark what, for many people, is a momentous day in their lives”. Previously, all that had been required was the swearing of the oath of allegiance in a solicitor’s office and then a wait for the certificate to arrive in the post. It was then decided that “more should be done to emphasize the significance and value of becoming a British citizen” – in particular the introduction of a ceremony along the lines of the USversion that all successful applicants would be required to attend. The first such event took place on 26th February 2004 atBrentTown Hall, north-westLondon, in the presence of Prince Charles and the then Home Secretary, David Blunkett.  In the seven years since then, similar occasions (usually presided over by local, not national dignitaries) have been held almost every week in town halls and registry offices across the UK.

The most recent available Home Office statistics indicate that “the number of persons who attended a British citizen ceremony in 2009 was 149,465, an increase of 62% compared to 2008 (92,305)”. A regional analysis of the figures for 2009 show that 43% of the ceremonies were in Greater London – with Newham Borough at the top of the list (3,585), followed by Brent (3,305), Ealing (3,225), Enfield (2,930), Southwark (2,855), Tower Hamlets (2,820) and Barnet 2,775). The citizenship ceremony held every Wednesday in Wandsworth Town Hall (for around 44 participants each time) has catered for a total of 10,531 people during the period 2009-2011 – the main nationalities of origin being South African (1,479), Pakistani (877), Australian (653), Filippino (647) and Somali (626). The representation from Latin America was:Colombia(164),Brazil(144),Ecuador(111),Argentina(28),Peru(25),Venezuela(23),Mexico(22),Chile(13),Cuba(9),Uruguay(4),Bolivia(3) andCosta Rica,Guatemala&Puerto Ricoone each.  According to UKBA (United Kingdom Border Agency) data, in 2009 British Citizenship was granted (on the basis of meeting residence requirements) to 1,045 Colombians and 905 Brazilians; from Ecuador (545), Argentina (195), Venezuela (220), Peru (215), Bolivia (105), Chile (95), Cuba (90), Dominican Republic (60) Panama (25), Guatemala (20), El Salvador, Honduras, Costa Rica  & Uruguay (15 each), Paraguay (10).

There are signs, though, that the Coalition Government’s declared objective of reducing immigration from outside the European Union (EU) is beginning to have an effect: The number of applicants granted British citizenship has fallen over the past twelve months from 197,845 to 195,410 – after an exceptional 33% increase during the year 2008/2009. There has also been a rise in the number of refusals: 37% (3,650) in 2009 because they didn’t fulfil residence requirements, 28% (2,745) for being considered “not of good character” and less than half of 1% due to “not having taken the Oath of Allegiance in time”. UKBA specify that new British citizens must make arrangements with their local authority to attend a ceremony within 90 days of receiving an “invitation”. The current fee for the procedures involved in obtaining British citizenship is £836 – including the event itself, at which participants (who are allowed to take two guests) have to make an oath of allegiance (or an affirmation, if they prefer “not to swear by God”) to the Queen and her Successors, thereby declaring their loyalty to the United Kingdom and to give a pledge to respect the country’s rights, freedoms and democratic values, to observe its laws faithfully and to abide by their duties & obligations as a British citizen. They are then encouraged to join in a rendering of the first verse of the National Anthem – the words for which are available on the “Lifeintheuk.net” website. Those people attending the ceremony inWalesmay – if they wish & are able – deliver their oath (“Liw Teymgarwch”) or affirmation (“Cadamhau Teymgarwch”) and pledge (“Adduned”) in Welsh.

When the new system was first implemented, there was some media speculation that the Scots would insist on using one of their own national anthems (“Flower Of Scotland” or “Scotland The Brave”) and the Welsh likewise with “LandOfMy Fathers”. North Ayrshire Council, however have stated that the general rule north of the border is to comply with Home Office guidelines, albeit with occasional variations to the ceremony – for example, featuring a full choir or bagpipes. ManyUKlocal authorities delegate the taking of the official photos – especially the instant when each new citizen is presented with their certificate by the (Deputy) Mayor and Registrar – to private companies. In the case of Wandsworth, ”Click Print Photos” (who also carry out the same function in four otherLondonboroughs) charge £15 for one photo, £20 for two and £30 for three.

To qualify for “naturalization”, applicants who are not married to or in a civil partnership with a British citizen must have been legally resident in the UK for at least five years, have held the status of “indefinite leave to remain” for a minimum of 12 months, intend to continue living in the UK (or to work abroad for the UK Government or a British organization), be of “good character” and show they have acquired sufficient knowledge of the English language and life in the UK – either by completing an approved language & citizenship course or by passing (with around 75%) the “Life In The UK” test, which can cost up to £34. The specified “Journey To Citizenship Handbook” (£9.99p) provides preparation for possible questions such as: “When Is Halloween Celebrated?” (October 31st) and – somewhat more difficult – “What is the name of the official report of proceedings in Parliament?” (Hansard).

There are, inevitably, sporadic abuses of the system. The most notorious case (which received extensive coverage in the “Daily Mail” and “London Evening Standard”) was when “dozens of desperate Chinese immigrants” were said to have paid up to £20,000 to attend what they believed was a genuine citizenship ceremony at the Methodist Church Hall inWestminster. In fact, the officials, guards, some of the audience and the pretend “Home Secretary” were all actors. The fake event was organised by a gang of conmen – who were subsequently sent to jail.

COLIN GORDON

www.colindgordon.co.uk

Filed under: Immigration & Visas | Posted on June 21st, 2011 by Colin D Gordon

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