Volunteering as a route to citizenship

Jonathan Sedgwick, deputy chief executive for policy and strategy at the UK Border Agency, sets out the case for the controversial scheme

Jonathan Sedgwick
Jonathan Sedgwick

The Government announced last week that there would be a public consultation on the Borders, Immigration and Citizenship Act, which will allow migrants to the UK to gain citizenship in one year rather than three if they can prove they have done some volunteering.

Volunteering organisations have raised concerns about how fast-tracking citizenship will work in practice. But Jonathan Sedgwick, one of the key figures behind the policy, says it will be a boon for the sector.

"This is a win-win situation," he says. "Lots of charities and volunteering groups will welcome more volunteers, and the migrants – who might not otherwise have considered volunteering – will find it helps them to become integrated into their communities."

Sedgwick says he hopes the migrants will volunteer in schools, in museums and on environmental projects. He says the UK Border Agency receives about 200,000 applications for citizenship every year and he hopes a significant number of these will do some voluntary work in order to have their citizenship applications fast-tracked.

"In order to count towards a citizenship application, the volunteering would have to be sustained," he says. "We've set out a minimum commitment of 50 hours over the course of a year."

Sedgwick says the Home Office has also set out criteria to determine the value of the volunteering placements. "It would have to be meaningful to the volunteer-involving organisation and meaningful for the wider community, and it would have to help the migrant to integrate," he says.

It is not yet clear how this would be checked and verified. "With the larger, established registered charities, we'd tend to take their word for it: if they certified that a person had volunteered, we wouldn't require further checks," Sedgwick says.

"But we don't want to limit the benefits of the scheme to these charities, so we will have to find a way of certifying smaller, local groups. Local authorities could play a key role here."

Sedgwick insists the scheme is not an example of the Government using the voluntary sector as an instrument of policy. "The Government won't force charities to take volunteers on," he says. "We believe in a healthy, vibrant voluntary sector, and this is another example of that."

He also denies claims that such a strong incentive will make volunteering appear compulsory. "No migrants will be obliged to volunteer," he says. "It's just that their journey to citizenship will be sped up if they do."

Sedgwick acknowledges concerns that the sector might need additional funding to accommodate thousands of new volunteers. "There are no plans at present to provide more money to volunteering organisations, but if funding proves to be a real barrier we will consider making money available," he says. "One of the possibilities is that charities might be able to apply to the European Integration Fund and the Migration Impact Fund."

For now, however, Sedgwick wants charities and voluntary groups to play an active part in the Government's consultation. "We are keen that the voluntary sector has its say on this scheme," he says. "I would encourage volunteering groups to play a positive role in determining the shape of the policy by getting involved now, at the consultation stage."

Charities and volunteering groups can respond to the consultation online.

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