‘Britain never encouraged my Italian parents to become British’

Posted on 4 September 2019

The chair of a new cross-party inquiry on citizenship policy, launched this week, told Prime Minister Boris Johnson at a private lunch last week that the UK should do more to encourage EU and other nationals to take up British citizenship.

Speaking at the launch of the citizenship inquiry, hosted by British Future, Alberto Costa, Conservative MP for South Leicestershire, said:

“Last week I had lunch with Boris Johnson in Downing Street, to push on the issue of EU citizens’ rights. And when we discussed my parents he asked ‘Why didn’t they become British?’ and I said ‘It’s never been any Labour or Conservative government’s policy, ever, to encourage people to naturalise… if anything, the fee discourages them.

“Our fee’s around £1300, it’s high. And the new Prime Minister wasn’t very aware of that fee and how it discourages people – and I’m certainly pushing within government to get that waived, at least starting with EU nationals.”

Costa will chair the inquiry into citizenship policy, which will conclude by the end of this year and cover issues including the cost of citizenship and eligibility criteria, the ‘Life in the UK’ test and content of citizenship ceremonies, as well as broader questions of the meaning and aims of UK citizenship policy.  He added:

“I want to see the British Government encourage the take-up of citizenship, for those that want to come here, for those that are here from a different country, who want to contribute and be part of our great society.

“And that’s why I pushed earlier this year, at least starting with EU nationals but I’m quite happy to see it rolled out, of waiving the fee or reducing it.” 

Costa also spoke of his own upbringing, growing up in Glasgow in the 1970s with two Italian parents:

“The 1970s was a different era from today. I was the only child at my state school from a foreign background. I was bullied. I was called every racist name you can imagine.”

“But my mum was a fan of all things monarchical, so when the Queen celebrated her silver jubilee, there was I as a six-year-old child waving the union flag.”

“To me today being British isn’t about carrying a passport… it is respect for the rule of law that has developed over centuries. We are a beacon of light to the world on democracy, on human rights and on accepting the rights of minorities and those that come into the UK to join us.”

The panel also heard from Ilse Mogensen of The3million, who described herself as a ‘newly-minted’ British citizen, having gone through the citizenship process quite recently.  She was critical of how little information EU citizens are given, in the EU Settlement Scheme process, about pathways to citizenship – though she also added that citizenship is no panacea for EU citizens and may not appeal to all of them.

The audience also watched a new short film from the first input to the inquiry, a deliberative event bringing together ‘new citizens’ and others who were born British, to discuss the meaning and content of citizenship policy.

Author Robert Winder offered a broad sweep of the history of citizenship noting that it is, by its very nature, exclusive. In the 20th century, he said, the whole push on citizenship has been to restrict it. And while there need to be rules; the challenge is ensuring that they are fair.

Jill Rutter of British Future, who will act as Secretary to the inquiry, said that the inquiry will also look at good practice across the UK and around the world. In Durham, she said, registrars have involved local primary school children who came to the ceremony, learned about the process and made a presentation about the history of Durham.

In Norway,” she added, “where the cost of citizenship is lower, it’s a tougher process in terms of eligibility but you have the choice of attending a course with Norwegian teenagers, and passing the Norwegian Social Studies Test as your citizenship test, so it’s common knowledge for 17-year-olds about to attain the age of majority and new citizens.

The inquiry has issued an open call for evidence, with submissions closing on 18 October.

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