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.

Alison McGovern
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Forget universal basic income - this is how we can include voters in economic growth

The links between economic growth of the country and that of the people, families and towns have broken. The state can fix them again. 

Economic policy is always boring, until it’s too late.

Pensions. How they are funded, who they cover, what happens if they fail. Boring. Until it was too late.

Mortgages. Who has them, who needs one, who should have one. Boring. Until it was too late.

Finance. Capital markets, their products, their structure, their risk profile. Boring. Until it was too late.

You see the point I’m making. It’s easy to look away from numbers. The data doesn’t necessarily tell us an obvious story. And then one day, a catalyst sparks an unforeseen, if, with hindsight, predictable event, and we all wonder why we didn’t see it coming.

Something similar happened with the Brexit vote. Of course, it was a perfect political storm: an overconfident Prime Minister calls a referendum that he only needs to have to pay off his right flank, safe in the knowledge that the mainstream voters and the leadership of the Labour party will carry him through. Except he forgets that there is someone more despised than even his right flank - him. 

But beneath all of that, the Brexit vote revealed a divided country. Between those who felt that Britain as it was before the referendum offered them a decent enough – if imperfect - future, and those who felt it offered them nothing of the sort. 

Could we have seen it coming? Perhaps we could. Take two graphs.

Real wages are still, today, on average below what they were in 2008, nearly a decade ago. At the point of the referendum, average wages were yet to return to the level they hit eight years earlier. The difference between real and nominal wages is inflation. People have watched prices steadily drift up while their wages have remained stubbornly flat. Not an overnight shock, but a long drawn out crisis all the same.

Vast numbers of pensioners (over 60 per cent of them) voted to leave the European Union, and pensioners incomes have not seen the same fall as incomes for the working age population (in fact they rose by 19 per cent in real terms in the last 10 years). But it is important not to overinterpret the data with hindsight. After all, there are nearly 32m British people of working age. That surely should have been enough to carry the vote, had far too many people had so little reason to back the status quo.

In the years running up to the crucial Brexit vote, the economy was, by and large, moving ahead. But in the case of the most crucial, most noticeable, economic transfer - a person’s wages - the economy was not moving ahead at all. In fact between the crash and the 2015 general election, wages largely only fell, and since then, pay has struggled to make up ground, against a picture of an otherwise ‘growing’ economy.

Worst of all - nearly 4m households in measurable (and therefore known) poverty include someone at work. Of the 17m Brexit voters, some were wealthy retired voters who always hated Brussels. But how many more simply had too little to lose, and couldn’t stand David Cameron?

The problem with all this though, and the reason we didn’t see it coming, is that no one’s life is a graph. I mean, we are all data points. But no one feels like a data point. And people are notoriously bad at providing logical, graph-like, mathematical reasons for their political judgements. "My individual wages have failed to keep pace with growth in the economy at large," said no person on no doorstep, ever. Unhappiness with what is on offer manifests itself in lots of different ways but it isn’t likely to be an analysis of the macro-economy.

We all know of course that people are much more likely to connect with politics (and politicians) emotionally. That is how we make our choices. But our emotions are informed by the facts of our life and are responses to the facts we see. So, whilst the graphs above cannot tell us all we need to know about why Remain lost, they do tell us about some facts likely to impact on the choices we make.

The challenge is to work out how we can change the trends shown on the graph, and how this in turn will affect those who lost out over the past decade. What can be done to repair the link between economic growth and economic growth for all?

This challenge is to create "inclusive growth". Or as I think of it, making sure there is a hard chain which links growth in the economy overall to the growth of wages and incomes of the many. When the country rises, so must all within it.

The hard links in the chain are what should have kept our country together. They are the rules that should have meant that the British economy doing better meant individuals, families, towns, cities all doing better too. You can see from the graphs above that the rules worked between 1997 and about 2005. Our country grew, and we all grew in capacity with it. But then the model stopped working. And 11 years later people were asked to vote for the status quo, even though the status quo was clearly failing the many.

We will never be able to see the trends until it is too late. We need rules that shape our markets, including the labour market, to achieve an outcome that people can see and feel in their pockets. Analysis of the past is only any good if it can help shape the future. 

It’s not enough to say that somehow our economy is rigged against people, as if this was one great fiddle. Rather, we should remember that policy choices have consequences. 

Now some people suggest that the correct response to falling wages, and precarious work, is some sort of universal benefit, or citizens’ income. But recent Fabian Society research demonstrated that the vast majority of people – about 80 per cent - feel positive about their work even despite the story told here about wages. So even if it were practical for government to raise taxes in order to transfer something in the region of the state pension to every person in our country, it hardly seems like it would be popular. 

If people, in general terms, actually like their work, the problem is then making sure they get paid enough and get promotions. It means recognising what the past decade has taught us: that the growth of the economy must mean economic growth for all within the economy, or else there will be consequences.

So, the question remains: what are the hard links in the chain between the economic growth of the country as a whole, and economic growth of the people, families and towns within it?

Unfortunately, this is where the boring stuff still matters. You can get paid more if you have better prospects. That means a buoyant labour market, and the skills to participate in it.

Now the government say that they are addressing the challenges in our economy by investing in infrastructure, through an industrial strategy. And along with buzzy new ideas like universal basic income (where citizens are guaranteed a certain income), everyone in politics loves announcing campaigns for new railway lines (me included). Trains are big, fast, expensive and showy. But travelling to work by train tends to be the preserve of those who already have a high-skilled job and are commuting some distance. We should worry a little more about those who get the bus to work.

Then take those who work in low-pay sectors like care, retail, hospitality, or construction. Each sector has its own challenges, but one thing that unites of all these sectors is the likelihood of people working in them to be working below their potential skill level. Hopefully our new metro mayors will be able to provide better education opportunities for those at or near the minimum wage. But what about in those areas without mayors? Do they fall even further behind? Skills transfers matter much more for future growth than a massive financial transfer like universal basic income.

And in case anyone should think that I have forgotten, with less than 15 per cent of people in the private sector represented by a trade union, it is little wonder that workers have insufficient power to command better wages. Our labour market leaves too many people on their own, without the strength of collective bargaining to get them a good deal.

Universal basic income fails for another crucial reason. It would fail for the same reason that tax credits were economically effective but open to political challenge. For most people, the part of government, of the state, that they wish to defend are the things they can see, they can touch, emotionally engage with. The hospital their child was born in, that cared for a sick parent, the school they went to, the park they played in with their grandchild. They prefer to earn their wages, and do a job they enjoy. Transfer payments from the state are always harder to defend, as the history books attest. 

So for me, truly inclusive growth means making the most of the institutions we already have – colleges of further education for example – and building new ones like universal quality childcare. Many members of our workforce are prevented from returning to work after the birth of a child, simply because of the cost of childcare. Universal free childcare would allow many more women to go back to work or have the time to gain more skills, should they want to. Moreover, good quality childcare would benefit all of our children by narrowing the attainment gap. These hard links in the chain - the links that ensure that growth in Britain involves economic growth of all of those people and places within it - are, in fact, the institutions of the state. 

These are the platforms Labour governments have built for ordinary people to stand on. But these are the very institutions under attack from current government policy. If we’re going to rebuild the chain, then the government must change tack. We need to develop new ideas and solutions and the all-party parliamentary group on inclusive growth can be a place to bring people together across the party divide. Theresa May has spoken about an economy that works for all. Now’s the time to protect the institutions that can deliver that economy and inclusive growth, before it is too late.

The APPG on Inclusive Growth's 'State of the Debate' event with the OECD, World Economic Forum, RSA and IPPR is on Tuesday 21st February at 6.30pm at Parliament. See www.inclusivegrowth.co.uk for full details.

Alison McGovern is Labour MP for Wirral South.