Over the past five years there have been some fundamental changes made to UK immigration laws. Perhaps the most visible changes have been the introduction of citizenship tests and ceremonies and the new points-based immigration system for those wishing to come to the UK to work.
New laws currently being assessed mean that, in the coming years, further substantial changes will be made to the way in which foreign nationals may become eligible to live in the UK or to gain citizenship.
Current UK Immigration Law
Most UK immigration law is currently derived from the 1971 Immigration Act. Over the years this law has been amended or added to by numerous other Acts of Parliament to reflect the changing needs and concerns of society. The result has been a complex system of laws which can lead to confusion and error. The Government’s intention is to simplify immigration law so that it is more transparent and efficient.
The Borders, Immigration and Citizenship Bill
Consultation and debate on the proposed new immigration law began in 2007. Whilst new laws can take some time to come into effect in the UK there is a sense of urgency surrounding the need to tighten and rationalise UK immigration law.
The Borders, Immigration and Citizenship Bill was formally introduced to the UK Parliament on 14 January 2009. The proposed new law will be debated by both the House of Lords and the House of Commons before being finalised and may come into force later in 2009 or in early 2010.
Becoming a British Citizen
One of the principal intentions of the new law is to change the way in which foreign nationals may acquire British citizenship. Even after the introduction of citizenship tests and ceremonies it was still felt by many that citizenship has been too easy to acquire: that all a foreign national has to do is to spend a sufficient amount of time in the UK. The new law encourages all immigrants to seek British nationality but emphasises the concept that foreign nationals must earn the right to acquire citizenship.
Rather than being entitled to citizenship after five years’ residence, it is proposed that the path to full British citizenship will begin at that point. Foreign nationals may then be granted probationary citizenship but could have to wait up to a further five years before becoming full British citizens. Applicants may be able to speed up the process by doing voluntary work or contributing in some other way to life in the UK. It is also proposed that immigrants should pay into a fund which will be used to help local communities cope with the negative impact of immigration.
Immigrants who fail to make an effort to immerse themselves in British life or who commit crimes whilst in the UK will find it much more difficult to acquire citizenship than under the current laws.
Powers of the UK Border Agency
The UK Border Agency was introduced in April 2008 and took over functions previously carried out by various other agencies including UK Visas, the Border and Immigration Agency and HM Revenue and Customs. A single agency was introduced to strengthen the UK’s ability to combat immigration and customs fraud, smuggling and to fight the ongoing threat of terrorism.
The proposed new law would give the UK Border Agency even greater powers to police the UK’s borders. An increased use of biometric data on people travelling to the UK and the power to vet passengers before they travel are amongst the tools that will be used to prevent immigration-related crime.
Protecting the Welfare of Children
The new law includes a specific duty for the UK Border Agency to protect the interests and welfare of children in performing its immigration functions. However, the duty contained in the Borders, Immigration and Citizenship Bill is limited to children already in the UK – and therefore does not impose a duty where the UK Border Agency deals with children prior to their arrival. In addition, some commentators have expressed regret that the proposed new law does not address the issue of detention in the UK of the children of asylum-seekers.