Why we should grant foreign key workers free British citizenship

Individuals and wider society would benefit from a concrete act of goodwill

December 16, 2020
Time to thank foreign key workers with more than just gestures. Richard Gray/EMPICS Entertainment
Time to thank foreign key workers with more than just gestures. Richard Gray/EMPICS Entertainment

In the UK, as the first vaccine is rolled out, parts of the nation’s initial effort to show solidarity have understandably fallen by the wayside. For nine weeks earlier this year, the UK flung its windows open every Thursday evening to Clap for Our Carers in a collective show of gratitude and in recognition of the immense pressure the pandemic has exerted on key workers.

But with the last Clap for Our Carers many months behind us and Covid-19 hopefully largely on its way out, we must consider weightier gestures to recognise the efforts of foreign key workers who keep our strained public services going. While we continue to place warm and well-intentioned signs in our windows that say “Thank you NHS,” others take bolder steps.

Last month, the Scottish government announced a one-off payment of £500 for health and social care workers in gratitude for their efforts in fighting coronavirus, and the French government has announced that France will fast-track citizenship for key workers. This policy will apply to all foreign key workers, from rubbish collectors to nurses, in recognition of their services during the pandemic.

The UK should adopt a similar measure by giving foreign Covid-19 key workers eligibility for fast-tracked residency requirements, a 75 per cent reduction on their residency application fee and ultimately, the opportunity to be granted British citizenship for free.

This policy stems from recent Bright Blue research which finds that a significant majority of Brits (58 per cent) want to see key frontline workers, such as those in social care or the NHS, receive a large or complete discount on citizenship fees. Additionally, Bright Blue found that a clear majority of British people—55 per cent—support a faster route to citizenship for Covid-19 key workers, including nurses, bus drivers, social care workers and nursery teachers.

But why choose citizenship as the reward for these frontline pandemic workers? There is evidence that newly naturalised immigrants see improved employment opportunities and rising wages. Wider society benefits too: citizens are more likely to engage in civic activity and participate politically.

Additionally, current citizenship fees are prohibitive and have been climbing steadily since 2007. In 2011, ministers announced that fees would be increased markedly beyond the administration costs of handling the applications themselves, in a bid to compensate in part for the effects of cuts to the Home Office’s budget.

As a result, the UK now has some of the highest citizenship fees in the world, with the application costing £1,330 per adult. Indeed, for non-EU immigrants—who also pay a hefty fee to apply for indefinite leave to remain prior to making a citizenship application—the cost of the naturalisation process from start to finish is £3,719. This is despite the fact that the cost to the Home Office of processing a citizenship application is only £372. For each EU adult citizenship application the Home Office sees a considerable profit of £958.

Recent analysis has shown that Covid-19 key workers earn less than non-key workers on average, with 33 per cent of all key workers earning below £10 per hour. Low wages coupled with high fee costs mean that applying for British citizenship is likely an unattainable or distant goal for many.

As such, offering free citizenship to key workers brings tangible benefits both to those who have laboured hard as part of our national response to Covid-19 and also to society at large. A sense of unity brought us together for a brief minute on Thursday evenings to joyously bang pots and pans in the street. It’s about time we followed up by welcoming a swathe of people not born in this country, who have proven themselves true friends to Britain and who make a vital contribution to society.