Figures released this March by Oxford University’s Migration Observatory showed that in 2014 125,800 people were naturalised as British citizens. This was the lowest figure since 2002 and represents a reversal of the recent trend. The figure was 40% down on the numbers granted citizenship in 2013 when a record 208,000 grants were made.

The reduction is largely attributed to the reduced pool of those entitled to claim citizenship – a reduction in grants of settlement from 242,200 in 2010 to 154,700 in 2013 is identified as a key factor. A reduced number of 5% of applications were rejected, partly as a result of improved document screening processes.

There was some public outcry late in 2014 when it was claimed that the good character aspect of applications was not being thoroughly applied. Criminal record checks were identified as having been overlooked. In the wake of this the criteria for what constitutes ‘good character’ have been tightened up. Specifically, the list of what constitutes ‘undesirable behaviour’ – and thereby disqualifies an application on the basis of good character – has been extended to include illegal entry, assisting illegal migration and evasion of immigration control. Clearly this goes some way beyond formal criminality.

The practical effects of this redrafting of the rules is that it will take anyone claiming refugee status in the UK up to ten years to qualify for citizenship. This is a considerable move beyond the current six-year stipulation. The legal position of such changes in relation to Articles 31 and 34 of the UNHCR Refugee Convention is seen by some as questionable, although no formal challenge has as yet been lodged on this basis.

The Migration Observatory figures also show that 50% of citizenship grants were made to foreign nationals who satisfied the five-year residency and one additional year’s settled resident requirements. The bulk of the remainder was made up of spouses or civil partners and dependent minors.