The "Life in the UK" test has morphed into a barrier to immigration

Where once it was designed to help immigrants integrate, now it just keeps them out.

The Life in the United Kingdom citizenship test has become an integral part of British immigration policy. One million tests have been taken since its launch in 2005. About 150,000 people sat the test last year. Passing the test is a requirement for permanent residency and citizenship. Alternatively, a short course, "English for Speakers of Other Languages with Citizenship", may be completed although this can take much longer and is more expensive. The Life in the UK test takes 45 minutes and it has 24 questions. Applicants must answer 18 or more correctly to pass.

I published the only comprehensive report into the test and its uses for immigration policy in June. The report launch was held in Durham Castle and uploaded on YouTube. My findings were covered in over 275 newspapers and media outlets across the UK and internationally, including Comedy Central and Mock the Week. However, my report was no laughing matter for the government as I revealed the test to be impractical, inconsistent and contain significant gender imbalance rendering it "unfit for purpose" and like "a bad pub quiz".

The Life in the UK test has always included what many of us might consider trivia. Information such as the number of MPs in the House of Commons or how to claim a National Insurance number is not probably known by most British citizens. But the test has gone from a test about practical trivia to the purely trivial. Information about how to contact an ambulance, how to report a crime or how to register with a GP has been removed. Instead, applicants are required to know the year that the Emperor Claudius invaded Britain, the approximate age of Big Ben’s clock and the height of the London Eye in feet and meters. Consider the following dates in the life of Sake Dean Mahomet that must be memorised by rote: birth (1759), first came to the UK (1782), eloped to Ireland (1786), opened first curry house (1810) and death (1851). Furthermore, it must be known that he married a woman from Ireland named Jane Daly, that his curry house was called the Hindoostane Coffee House and it was established on George Street in London. The test has never included so much impractical information before – and the new handbook has about 3,000 facts to be memorised. And remember: only 24 will be covered on the test.

Curiously for a handbook written and approved by politicians, the number of MPs has always been a bit of a problem. The first edition was published in late 2004 and stated there were 645 MPs. This was untrue: there were 646. So why this mistake? The best explanation I found for this was that only 645 constituencies were contested in the 2005 General Election. This was because a candidate in the 646thconstituency – Staffordshire South – had died and so that election was postponed. But there were still 646 (and not 645) MPs. In 2007, the second edition of the test handbook was published. This time the government confirmed the correct number of 646. However, this soon changed to 650 MPs and this change was never incorporated on the test. It was the case – when I sat the test in 2009 – that the "correct" answer to this and many other questions were factually untrue.

The new handbook published this year has solved this problem through omission. Applicants are no longer required to know how many MPs sit in Westminster. Many of us might think this a welcome change: after all, if MPs have been confused about this, why expect the British public to do any better? And why should this information be a requirement for citizenship anyway? Nevertheless, all applicants are still required to know the number of elected representatives in the Welsh Assembly, Scottish Parliament and Northern Ireland Assembly.

The inconsistencies do not end there. Various courts from youth courts and beyond are mentioned, but the UK Supreme Court is left out. Another inconsistency concerns telephone numbers. It may be hard to believe, but the new test handbook requires applicants to memorize telephone numbers. There are five to know and none are 999 or 111. The five include the National Domestic Violence Helpline and the HMRC self-assessment helpline. The final three are the front offices of the House of Commons, the Welsh Assembly and the Scottish Parliament – omitting (forgetting?) the Northern Ireland Assembly at Stormont in Belfast.

The Life in the UK test suffers from serious gender imbalance. For example, the new test includes a substantial chapter about British history. This chapter lists the dates of birth for about 30 men, but only four women. Neither of the Queen’s birthdays is included. No women artists are mentioned: we are required to know Damien Hirst won the Turner Prize, but not Tracey Emin. No women musicians or singers are noted. No women poets have any lines for memorising among the several scattered throughout the handbook. No women are included in a long list of famous scientists and inventors. Nor are these the only strange omissions: LS Lowry is left out and there are no lines included by Robert Burns.

Nor does this gender imbalance appear to be a simple oversight. A Home Office announcement on the day the new test launched commented on how the test now includes a chapter about British history. The Home Office announcement states the importance for immigrants to know the achievements of the people who have shaped Britain – naming nine men and no women.

My report provides 12 recommendations for how the test can be reformed and avoid these problems in future. These include the need for greater care to be taken to ensure greater balance and consistency. I also recommend the need for a public consultation. This is now long overdue. There has been no such consultation since the test was launched in 2005. The test has now undergone three editions with one million tests sat. It is high time some effort was made to re-examine whether the test has lived up to its promise and how it might be further improved. Any such consultation must include engagement with people like me – immigrants to Britain who have sat the test. It is shocking that no public effort has made to consult with those who have sat the test and become British citizens. Many of the mistakes we can find in the test might have been avoided if ministers had experienced immigration first-hand and sat similar tests.

Finally, it is worth reconsidering the purpose of the test. One model is a barrier where the test serves as an obstacle to citizenship. A second model is a bridge where it is more of a formality confirming common membership. Should the test be a barrier or a bridge? For the moment, it is neither fish nor fowl or platypus. To best reform the test, we must ask what purpose we want it to serve. I believe a sensible discussion about this is possible and the positive, widespread coverage of my report gives me hope for the future. If we wait any longer, the test’s problems will only be exacerbated. The time to act is now.

This piece originally appeared on the LSE's British Politics and Policy blog, and is reposted here with permission.

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Q&A: What are tax credits and how do they work?

All you need to know about the government's plan to cut tax credits.

What are tax credits?

Tax credits are payments made regularly by the state into bank accounts to support families with children, or those who are in low-paid jobs. There are two types of tax credit: the working tax credit and the child tax credit.

What are they for?

To redistribute income to those less able to get by, or to provide for their children, on what they earn.

Are they similar to tax relief?

No. They don’t have much to do with tax. They’re more of a welfare thing. You don’t need to be a taxpayer to receive tax credits. It’s just that, unlike other benefits, they are based on the tax year and paid via the tax office.

Who is eligible?

Anyone aged over 16 (for child tax credits) and over 25 (for working tax credits) who normally lives in the UK can apply for them, depending on their income, the hours they work, whether they have a disability, and whether they pay for childcare.

What are their circumstances?

The more you earn, the less you are likely to receive. Single claimants must work at least 16 hours a week. Let’s take a full-time worker: if you work at least 30 hours a week, you are generally eligible for working tax credits if you earn less than £13,253 a year (if you’re single and don’t have children), or less than £18,023 (jointly as part of a couple without children but working at least 30 hours a week).

And for families?

A family with children and an income below about £32,200 can claim child tax credit. It used to be that the more children you have, the more you are eligible to receive – but George Osborne in his most recent Budget has limited child tax credit to two children.

How much money do you receive?

Again, this depends on your circumstances. The basic payment for a single claimant, or a joint claim by a couple, of working tax credits is £1,940 for the tax year. You can then receive extra, depending on your circumstances. For example, single parents can receive up to an additional £2,010, on top of the basic £1,940 payment; people who work more than 30 hours a week can receive up to an extra £810; and disabled workers up to £2,970. The average award of tax credit is £6,340 per year. Child tax credit claimants get £545 per year as a flat payment, plus £2,780 per child.

How many people claim tax credits?

About 4.5m people – the vast majority of these people (around 4m) have children.

How much does it cost the taxpayer?

The estimation is that they will cost the government £30bn in April 2015/16. That’s around 14 per cent of the £220bn welfare budget, which the Tories have pledged to cut by £12bn.

Who introduced this system?

New Labour. Gordon Brown, when he was Chancellor, developed tax credits in his first term. The system as we know it was established in April 2003.

Why did they do this?

To lift working people out of poverty, and to remove the disincentives to work believed to have been inculcated by welfare. The tax credit system made it more attractive for people depending on benefits to work, and gave those in low-paid jobs a helping hand.

Did it work?

Yes. Tax credits’ biggest achievement was lifting a record number of children out of poverty since the war. The proportion of children living below the poverty line fell from 35 per cent in 1998/9 to 19 per cent in 2012/13.

So what’s the problem?

Well, it’s a bit of a weird system in that it lets companies pay wages that are too low to live on without the state supplementing them. Many also criticise tax credits for allowing the minimum wage – also brought in by New Labour – to stagnate (ie. not keep up with the rate of inflation). David Cameron has called the system of taxing low earners and then handing them some money back via tax credits a “ridiculous merry-go-round”.

Then it’s a good thing to scrap them?

It would be fine if all those low earners and families struggling to get by would be given support in place of tax credits – a living wage, for example.

And that’s why the Tories are introducing a living wage...

That’s what they call it. But it’s not. The Chancellor announced in his most recent Budget a new minimum wage of £7.20 an hour for over-25s, rising to £9 by 2020. He called this the “national living wage” – it’s not, because the current living wage (which is calculated by the Living Wage Foundation, and currently non-compulsory) is already £9.15 in London and £7.85 in the rest of the country.

Will people be better off?

No. Quite the reverse. The IFS has said this slightly higher national minimum wage will not compensate working families who will be subjected to tax credit cuts; it is arithmetically impossible. The IFS director, Paul Johnson, commented: “Unequivocally, tax credit recipients in work will be made worse off by the measures in the Budget on average.” It has been calculated that 3.2m low-paid workers will have their pay packets cut by an average of £1,350 a year.

Could the government change its policy to avoid this?

The Prime Minister and his frontbenchers have been pretty stubborn about pushing on with the plan. In spite of criticism from all angles – the IFS, campaigners, Labour, The Sun – Cameron has ruled out a review of the policy in the Autumn Statement, which is on 25 November. But there is an alternative. The chair of parliament’s Work & Pensions Select Committee and Labour MP Frank Field has proposed what he calls a “cost neutral” tweak to the tax credit cuts.

How would this alternative work?

Currently, if your income is less than £6,420, you will receive the maximum amount of tax credits. That threshold is called the gross income threshold. Field wants to introduce a second gross income threshold of £13,100 (what you earn if you work 35 hours a week on minimum wage). Those earning a salary between those two thresholds would have their tax credits reduced at a slower rate on whatever they earn above £6,420 up to £13,100. The percentage of what you earn above the basic threshold that is deducted from your tax credits is called the taper rate, and it is currently at 41 per cent. In contrast to this plan, the Tories want to halve the income threshold to £3,850 a year and increase the taper rate to 48 per cent once you hit that threshold, which basically means you lose more tax credits, faster, the more you earn.

When will the tax credit cuts come in?

They will be imposed from April next year, barring a u-turn.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.