Thom Brooks is a Reader at Durham Law School
The Life in the United Kingdom citizenship test has become an integral part of British immigration policy for almost a decade. One million tests have been sat since its launch in 2005 and about 150,000 people sat the test in 2012. Passing the test is a requirement for permanent settlement and citizenship. The test is composed of 24 questions to be answered on a computer in 45 minutes. Applicants must answer 18 or more questions correctly to pass.
Back in June, I launched a new report revealing serious problems with the Government’s new Life in the UK test published this spring. These problems included a shift from practical trivia to the purely trivial along with some curious inconsistencies. For example, immigrants are no longer required to know the number of MPs in the House of Commons, but they are still required to know the number of elected representatives in the Welsh Assembly, Scottish Parliament and Northern Ireland Assembly. Immigrants no longer need to know about the NHS or educational qualifications, but they must instead know the approximate age of Big Ben’s clock and the height of the London Eye in feet and meters.
But what about women?
Another serious problem is gender imbalance: where are the women? The Government boasted that the new, current test would be the first to include British history. The new test handbook has a lengthy chapter covering this subject celebrating the lives and deeds of various figures and key events. Dates of birth and death are given for nearly 30 men in this chapter, but only four women such as Margaret Thatcher. Neither of the Queen’s birthdays is included. No women artists or musicians receive any mention. No woman poet has lines noted for memorization: only poems for men are included and there are about half a dozen.
This problem does not seem accidental. The Home Office announcement of the new test’s launch celebrated the inclusion of artistic and cultural heritage in the test by naming 9 men. No women were mentioned. I was asked at my report launch about the many scientific advancements contributed by women which are not included in the handbook and its test. These include a list of great British inventions and developments in science during the 20th Century. Over a dozen men are noted from Alan Turing to Sir Tim Berners-Lee. No women are mentioned. Again. This is shocking not least because there is no absence of women who deserve equal treatment. One example is Dorothy Hodgkin, the winner of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1964. Another example concerns art. The test requires immigrants to know Turner Prize winners such as Damien Hirst and Richard Wright, but not Tracey Emin.
The problem of gender imbalance does not end here. The new test handbook has removed information previously available in earlier handbooks about childcare, the NHS, maternity leave and schools. These are all issues and topics relevant for many of us in our everyday lives which makes it all the more puzzling why such omissions and inconsistencies have been permitted to take root.
Other imbalances in the test
I do not contend that gender imbalance is the only such imbalance. There are others to be sure. Nor are these the only omissions. It is striking to find lines of poetry from several writers, but none from Robert Burns or mention of several leading British painters without including L. S. Lowry.
Small steps in the right direction
Curiously, there are also some movements in the other direction. For example, the test handbook has a section on ‘fundamental principles’ over three pages. All but the first two paragraphs focus on the subheadings ‘equal opportunities’, ‘domestic violence’, ‘female genital mutilation’ and ‘forced marriage’. Their inclusion is welcome even if this could have been improved.
Furthermore, the test handbook includes five telephone numbers to be learned. One is the HMRC self-assessment hotline. Another three are to the receptions at the House of Commons, Welsh Assembly and Scottish Parliament so that immigrants might book a tour to see these representative institutions. (The handbook omits mention of the Northern Ireland Assembly phone number.) While the handbook does not include 999, it does list the National Domestic Violence helpline. It is debatable whether any telephone number beyond 999 should be required, but it is surely a step in the right direction that domestic violence is included along with a contact telephone number.
All in this together?
The Government says that we’re all in this together. Well, we’re not all included in the citizenship test – or at least not equally. This raises serious questions not only about the use and purposes of such a test, but also the Government’s commitment to equality for all. The test might be only a few months old, but it’s already past it sell by date. Gender imbalance in the Life in the UK citizenship test is a problem that must be addressed.