The Life in the UK Test is random, obscure—and no way to assess the right to citizenship

It is difficult to have confidence in a model of assessment that is so obviously in need of review, says the chair of the Justice and Home Affairs Committee

July 01, 2022
Mundissima / Alamy Stock Photo
Mundissima / Alamy Stock Photo

Do you enjoy pub quizzes? How about this:

Which TWO areas of life are protected by equality legislation?

  1. Choice of clothing
  2. Where you live
  3. Race
  4. Sexuality


Which TWO rights are offered by the UK to citizens and permanent residents?

  1. Free groceries for everyone and a right to a fair trial
  2. Long lunch breaks on Friday and a right to a fair trial
  3. Freedom of speech and a right to a fair trial
  4. Freedom of speech and free groceries for everyone

The Justice and Home Affairs Select Committee in the House of Lords has been looking at the Life in the UK Test which forms part of most applications for citizenship and for Indefinite Leave to Remain in the UK (ILR). Failing the test has significant consequences; in the case of ILR, there’s a risk of deportation, losing one’s livelihood and separation from one’s family. If you’re refused citizenship, you miss out on the rights that go with it and, perhaps above all, the feeling that you belong.

The government publishes a “guide for new residents” and, as a Home Office minister told us, this handbook is the only material that an applicant will be expected to know in their test. So we looked at the two together and found—and spell out in a new letter to the migration minister—that the handbook is “a random selection of obscure facts and subjective assertions.” Obscure, with content referring to the earliest Scottish poetry and where the founder of the UK’s first curry house eloped with his wife. Subjective—and insensitive—in presenting the British Empire as “a force for good in the world” and suggesting that the UK had fought alone against Nazi Germany. And then there were the stereotypical characterisations about roast beef and pantomimes.

No wonder that witnesses described the questions as “trivial,” “outdated” and “undermining British values,” or that an academic told us the question most identified with the UK test related to the appropriate action to take after spilling a beer on someone at the pub.

The questions above are taken from the published practice questions. The test is in multiple-choice format, but contrast them with an example from the equivalent German test:

A woman in Germany loses her job. Which reason for this redundancy is unlawful?

  • The woman has been ill for a long time and is not fit for work
  • The woman often arrives late at work
  • The woman does private business at work
  • The woman is pregnant and her boss knows that

The rights and responsibilities of citizens—active citizens—in the UK can be dealt with seriously without being stodgy or impenetrable or veering into the absurd. There’s an issue too of the UK’s reputation here; the handbook is not respected at home or abroad.

When the requirement was introduced for applicants for citizenship and ILR to show “sufficient knowledge about life in the UK,” there was the option for those with less facility in the English language to take courses, as an alternative. These encouraged participants to pursue further education, helped with language skills and promoted gender equality (they were appreciated particularly by women who had fewer opportunities to engage in social activities). Most importantly, they promoted social cohesion—a crucial objective, at the heart of celebrating new citizens and permanent residents, and benefitting the individuals concerned and our whole society.

We were not surprised that much of the evidence we heard related, unprompted, to overall costs. The complaints were less about the test fee (£50) and the learning materials (up to £23) than significant associated costs: travel (which can be to a distant test centre) and time off work for preparation and the day of the test. More broadly, the Home Office fees for the application itself—thousands of pounds for each individual—make them anxious about making genuine mistakes and can mean selecting who, within a family, should apply when applications for all are not affordable.

Ours is not the first parliamentary committee, over some years, to call for a review of the test. The government tells us it will look at it. But when? This is long overdue. We have told the Home Office we are astonished at the inaction, and that a review with no end date is not adequate. The department should set a date by which the review is to be completed and published.

I’ll end by asking, in the style of practice questions used in the current study guide:

Is the statement below true or false?

The Life in the UK Test in its current format encourages social cohesion and is appropriate to assess whether an applicant has sufficient knowledge of life in the UK to become a citizen or long-term resident.