In the 2019 Conservative leadership election, Boris Johnson claimed: “I want everybody who comes here and makes their lives here to be and to feel British”. But government policy is effectively telling hundreds of thousands of children the exact opposite.
The children in question, born here to parents with leave to remain, like me, or born abroad but resident here for most of their lives, like our Prime Minister, are growing up in limbo in the country they call home instead of enjoying their full citizenship rights.
There are between 85,000 to 215,000 children with a legal entitlement to British citizenship who have ended up undocumented due to the extortionate registration fee. Through no fault of their own, they will go on to experience real difficulties in later life as a result, subjected to the same hostile environment measures that caused so much suffering to members of the Windrush generation. Many young people may not even realise they do not have citizenship until they try to travel, get a job, rent a home or are suddenly asked to pay international fees for their university education.
If the £35 fee introduced in 1983 had risen in line with inflation, it would be £120 today. Instead, it is now £1,012 and one of the highest such fees in Europe, doubling in the last decade alone. We are charging British children ten times more to claim their citizenship rights than their counterparts in Spain, France, Belgium, Denmark and Sweden.
Of the current fee, the Home Office reports that £372 accounts for administrative costs and freely admits that the remaining £640 is pure profit. Research by Citizens UK shows that between 2017 and 2020 alone, the government has made a £102,749,216 profit from these child citizenship fees.
When I challenged the Prime Minister on this practice earlier in the year at PMQs, the Prime Minister said there were “costs that must be borne by the taxpayer” and that citizenship was “a prize”. The courts have consistently disagreed with the Prime Minister’s stance, with the Court of Appeal recently upholding the High Court’s ruling that this fee was unlawful and ordering the Home Office to reconsider it.
On questions of citizenship, it’s clear that the government knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. For these children, British citizenship is a legal entitlement, not a prize or an investment. Instead of endlessly appealing, they should accept it’s wrong to set fees so high that it blocks families from applying.
Most of the children priced out of citizenship come from households facing higher levels of hardship and poverty. Many are from Black, Asian and ethnic minority backgrounds. Some come from families slapped with the ‘no recourse to public funds’ condition, preventing them from accessing basic services.
The government continues to justify these fees on the basis of fiscal responsibility but it’s absurd that they believe an effective levy on poorer households is a sustainable way of financing their immigration system. Above all, there’s nothing responsible about creating a situation where children are deprived of their rights for want of money.
It’s also a scandal that many looked after children are emerging from our care system without British citizenship. These children have been entrusted to the care of the state. The state has a responsibility to get the best outcomes for them.
I regularly speak to young people in my constituency who face feelings of worry, alienation and social exclusion as a result of being denied citizenship. The harm of being denied your citizenship rights in the only country you truly know cannot be overstated. It’s not just about the societal barriers you face, it’s about the psychological impact of being constantly treated as a second-class citizen.
You can’t put a price on belonging. Yet that’s exactly what this government continues to do. With the return of the nationality and borders bill, we have a chance to change this. My amendment to the legislation would cut the registration fee down to cost price, scrap it completely for looked after children and compel the government to produce a report on the impact that fees have on children’s right to citizenship.
These children are as British as anyone else. It is immoral and unjust that they continue to be blocked from citizenship and subjected to humiliating treatment as a result. If you grow up in the UK, British citizenship should be your right – not a privilege you pay the government large sums of money to bestow.
This article was first published on Labour List on the 7th December 2021.