IN ITS drive to get net migration below 100,000 per year, the government has made it drastically harder to gain British citizenship. The number of foreigners getting British passports plummeted from 194,370 in 2012 to just 123,229 last year, following a tightening of the rules for bringing over family members and a steep increase in the cost of applying.

The most common reason that submissions are rejected, however, is a rather vague one. Since 2012 the number of applications thrown out under a “good character” clause has doubled (see chart). In 2016, the most recent year for which data are available, this was the cause of 44% of all refusals.

What constitutes bad character, in the eyes of the Home Office? Committing terrorism will do the trick, official guidelines explain. But so might receiving a police caution, skipping a tax bill or “recklessly” accruing debt. Immigration lawyers believe most of the increase in rejections is down to stricter consideration of minor offences. In one case, a Botswanan who had served in the British army failed the character test because he had broken the speed limit on a motorway (the decision was later reversed in court). Solange Valdez-Symonds, head of the Project for the Registration of Children as British Citizens, an advice service, reports an increase in youngsters being turned down because of minor offences committed by their parents.

Yet the definition of bad character is extraordinarily broad. The guidelines list characteristics that “should not normally, of themselves, be relevant”, including drinking, gambling, divorce, promiscuity and “eccentricity, including beliefs, appearance and lifestyle”. But, they go on, somewhat ambiguously, applicants may be rejected if “the scale and persistence of their behaviour” has made them “notorious in their local or the wider community”. The Home Office was unable to say how many of the 5,525 people rejected for their character in 2016 were turned down for being persistently and notoriously promiscuous. Lawyers say notoriety is very seldom invoked.

Still, for a department under intense pressure to get migration numbers down, the vague character clause offers a simple way to increase rejections. Officials can turn down a candidate if they have any unspecified “doubts about their character”. For applicants, it can make the process an expensive lottery. And after the events of recent weeks, many might wonder whether the Home Office, of all departments, is well placed to judge others on their good character.