“Make practical civic contribution part of the citizenship test”

Posted on 9 October 2012

Making civic action part of the process to secure a British passport won support in the Demos and British Future immigration Dragons’ Den at the Conservative party fringe in Birmingham, as a small but positive symbol of integration and contribution, but there was strong opposition to selling off economic migration visas by price or to giving explicit priority to Christians in the asylum system.

The immigration and integration Dragons Den was hearing ideas about what the Conservative party might put in its 2015 manifesto on the theme of immigration and integration.

Demos researcher Max Wind-Cowie proposed that “the citizenship test should not just be about when universal suffrage was introduced, or how long it might take to collect your Job Seekers Allowance. I would introduce not just a theoretical test, but also make spending fifteen hours doing some compulsory social action part of the citizenship process. Can you imagine a driving test in this country in which all you had to do is show that you can understand road signs?” said Wind-Cowie.

Immigration integration Conservative party conference

David Goodhart, Director of Demos, said that it was a mainly symbolic proposal “but it is an important proposal nonetheless.” Kris Hopkins, MP for Keighley and Ilkley, was sceptical, wondering if the proposal undermined the voluntary value of social action, and so did not support it.

Lord Popat of Harrow thought it a good idea, but one that might represent box-ticking, and which would be expensive to administer and quality-check.

“It is more expensive than sitting people down in front of a computer screen and saying if you get the answers right then you are a British citizen. But I don’t think we put enough time, effort and resources into helping people to integrate into our society…It would cost us money. I want to spend that money,” said Wind-Cowie.

But the proposal was criticised as “patronising” by one conference attendee. “What about those British citizens who have never done a day of work and have never done a day of social action either. Why is it just for the immigrants?” they asked.

Wind-Cowie said that those who were “offering a lifelong commitment, who are marrying us, if you like” would make a special effort to demonstrate that commitment.

“Is the purpose of the policy to reassure British people that people do integrate; or to help people to integrate, or is it both?” asked Gavin Barwell, MP for Croyden Central. “As a reassurance policy I think it works. I am less sure it works as an integration policy,” he said, suggesting English fluency was the “necessary condition” to make integration possible. Kris Hopkins agreed, saying that it was his duty as an MP to challenge people who had come to the UK and didn’t speak English, especially if they “condemned their own children to not learning English.”

“I’ve got 2000 kids in my constituency, 98% of them from a Kashmiri Muslim community where less than 15% of them get five GCSEs. It is not just about learning English. It is also about the level of English [which is needed to get decent qualifications]. I’ve got a bloody right to challenge those parents,” he said.

Sanctuary for Christians

Journalist Ed West made a pitch highlighting the plight of persecuted Christians in the Middle East saying that it would be “humanitarian and self-interested” for Britain to offer them sanctuary. The story of the Hugeonots is central to the British immigration story, yet our policy today ignores the communities who most resemble the Hugeonots, the Christians of the Middle East facing the grim prospect of “discrimination, violence, unemployment and hopelessness.”

West’s proposal to give preference to Middle Eastern Christians was rejected by the Dragons, who argued that claims should be made within the existing system of asylum for those who are persecuted, though there was support for giving more attention and profile to the issue of Christian persecution in the Middle East.

Writer and broadcaster Jenni Russell suggested that the claims of persecuted Christians should be covered by existing asylum arrangements for those who need refuge, and so was sceptical as to whether special arrangements were needed.

“I am saying they should have preference, simply because they are Christians. You should give preference to those with whom you share a faith. Nobody else is going to back them,” said Ed West of the Telegraph. “One problem is that British government doesn’t recognise Iraq as an unsafe place for Christians, because that would be embarrassing, and it is hard to prove you are persecuted. They are either going to go to the grave or they are going to go to the west,” he said.

That was a view shared by Kris Hopkins. “This is almost like gerrymandering a faith into a state – let’s get some Christians because we’re feeling a bit diluted … If I was a person of another faith, I would think its not quite right,” said Kris Hopkins. He said that Britain should uphold a generous system for those who are persecuted. “I don’t see why there is going to be a great cultural affinity simply because of faith,” said Kris Hopkins, noting that there was support for the principle of sanctuary but also concern about population and the pace of change. “The idea of bringing two million people in – and don’t worry because they are Christians. I think there would be a bit of a twitch about that,” he said.

“You are proposing a return to the idea of Christendom. Britain is probably no longer a sufficiently Christian country to do that,” said David Goodhart.

But Lord Popat did back the proposal. “I am a Ugandan Asian. We came here for sanctuary. We were non-Christians, and a majority were Hindus. We came and settled very well. We were very lucky to have very good advice from the British Board of Jewish Deputies,” said Lord Popat, arguing that this showed a British history where those from other faiths could integrate well. But he was the only Dragon to support the proposal: “This is a Christian country. What message does it send to other faiths? Well, if a Christian country wants to help Christians, well what’s wrong with that?”

There was general support from audience members for Christians facing persecution, as part of the tradition of refugee protection, but the proposal for an explicit faith-based preference was rejected by a significant majority.

Let the market decide?

Ruth Porter of the Institute of Economic Affairs proposed that “we should use the price mechanism when limiting immigration,” as had been proposed by Nobel prize-winning economist Gary Becker. If the government was committed to capping the number of economic migrants from outside the EU, this was the most effective way to “attract the most economically active migrants with a real commitment to this country,” she said, also raising revenue, which might be £600 million a year if 20,000 skilled non-EU migrants paid around £30,000 each.

Jenni Russell regarded the proposal as “completely appalling – I have rarely heard anything so reprehensible in my life. It completely equates somebody’s willingness to contribute to Britain with how much money they have in their bank account – and the two have nothing to do with each other,” she said, citing the example of Russian oligarchs who might have made their money by dubious means. “What you are talking about is virtually the commodification of a human being. I wonder how far this goes. Do we start bar-coding immigrants, and give them a sell-by date. These are human beings. Talking about people in purely economic terms. There is something vulgar about it,” said Kris Hopkins.

David Goodhart said he would support “an additional levy that makes companies pay for intra-company transfers, which is one of the holes in the cap,” or potentially put unfilled quota places out to auction to raise funds hypothecated to English language lessons. But he doubted that the link between financial resources and commitment held: “The idea is that you pay some money to get into the country and that somehow turns into a great love for the country. It might do the opposite, and create a rather bolshie consumerism. I paid all this money – and when did you last win the World Cup?” he said

“The question is not who would most benefit from coming here. The question is who would most benefit the country by coming here. We want a migration system that is filling genuine skills shortages, not just to go to the highest bidder for one of the golden tickets,” said Gavin Barwell, rejecting the proposal, which won only a handful of votes from the audience with a large majority against.

A short clip of Max Wind-Cowie making his pitch: