British citizenship has been granted to nearly one million foreign nationals since Labour came to power in 1997, official figures showed yesterday.
A record 161,000 obtained a UK passport last year, a 15 per cent increase on 2004, and a further 214,000 lodged applications that are now being processed. Similar numbers are likely to have applied this year, on top of 750,000 new citizens already created in the previous eight years.
About half the new citizens in 2005 were people who qualified through being resident in the country for five years or more and around 20 per cent became British through marriage. The remainder were mainly dependant children.
The Home Office said the 64 per cent increase in applications for 2005 was mainly due to people submitting their papers before the introduction of the new “Britishness” test last November.
The rate of overseas settlement in Britain is now the highest ever and is four times greater than in the mid-1990s—reflecting unprecedented levels of immigration.
In the late 1960s, about 75,000 new citizens a year were accepted for citizenship but this fell to about 50,000 after new laws were introduced in 1971.
For about 25 years the annual figure remained near or below this level, falling to a low point of 37,000 in 1997, the year Labour took office. Since then, there has been a spectacular increase, with the rate of growth accelerating every year.
The scale of new settlements is a principal driver behind the increase in Britain’s population, which is expected to grow by five million by 2020 while birth rates fall in other countries.
The Government has said there is no limit to the numbers who can come to this country but ministers have put in place a new points-based work permit system which is designed to restrict long-term settlement to highly-qualified immigrants.
Liam Byrne, the immigration minister, defended the rise. “British citizenship should be recognised and celebrated as a crucial stage in integration into British life,” he said.
However, Sir Andrew Green, the chairman of Migrationwatch UK, said: “Grants of citizenship have quadrupled under the present Government. This is a direct result of their ‘no limits’ immigration policy.
“Immigration on this scale is changing the nature of our society without public consent. It is no longer acceptable.”
A poll yesterday indicated that immigration is regarded as the most important issue facing the country, with more than half of voters placing it higher than health or education on a list of concerns.
The Populus/BBC survey for the Daily Politics programme suggested that almost half of those questioned were “more worried about immigrants coming into Britain from Europe” than those coming from further abroad.
At the same time, however, nearly three in five adults think that “immigrants make a positive contribution to the economy of Britain”.
The figures showed that 30 per cent of the new citizens last year were born in Africa and 19 per cent were from the Indian sub-continent.
The countries with the largest number were India (14,190), Pakistan (12,615), Serbia and Montenegro (9,800) and Somalia (8,305).
People born in developed countries such as Australasia, America and the EU states were less likely to become British citizens than those born in the Third World. More than half of those granted citizenship were under 34.
The latest figures overshadowed asylum statistics showing that the number coming to Britain and claiming to be political refugees is at the highest level for a year. In the first quarter of 2006, there were 7,530 applications, including dependants, mainly from Zimbabwe, Somalia, Eritrea, Afghanistan and Iran.
The figures also disclosed that 392,000 individuals from the eight Eastern European states which joined the EU in May 2004 have come to Britain.
However, overall asylum numbers have dropped substantially since a high point in 2002, when more than 100,000 people sought refugees status. The annual total is running at about 30,000, back to the levels inherited by Labour in 1997.
Critics of the Government’s policy attribute the fall in asylum applications to the fact that more people are finding it easier to enter the country as economic migrants. However, ministers say tighter border controls are responsible.