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Is English test really about integration?

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Mark Easton | 13:45 UK time, Wednesday, 9 June 2010

The home secretary says her demand that foreign wives and husbands of British citizens learn basic English before they come to the UK is about promoting integration. But critics claim there's a more sinister and discriminatory reason for introducing the new rules.

One hand putting wedding ring on another handAs things stand, spouses from outside the EU are allowed to come to Britain for up to two years. By that point they must have passed a "Life in the UK" test, including an English language element, or risk being sent home. The idea is that foreign brides and grooms must integrate or leave.

What the change to the rules will introduce is a test of English before they leave their homeland, regulations that were due to be introduced under existing Labour plans next year.

However, the new Conservative Home Secretary Theresa May has brought forward the changes to this autumn, arguing that "the new requirement for spouses will help promote integration, remove cultural barriers and protect public services".

Given that spouses already have to learn English to a higher standard than is proposed under the new rules, some question whether they can have any additional impact on integration.

The changes will obviously have a very limited effect on those foreigners that Brits choose to marry from English-speaking countries or from countries where the education system ensures most have a decent grasp of the UK's mother-tongue.

The real impact will be felt in those countries where a basic command of English is less common, notably on the Indian sub-continent.

Some suspect the motivation for introducing the rules is to target British citizens with an Asian heritage who traditionally return to their family village for a bride or groom. These usually arranged marriages result in thousands of often poorly educated rural immigrants arriving in the UK, although numbers have been falling.

In 2007, 49,000 foreign spouses came to Britain including 19,000 from the Indian sub-continent [540 KB PDF]. In 2008 the figures were 44,600 and 16,000 [1.06MB PDF]. Last year's total was down to 38,000, a fall of 22% in two years. Figures for the sub-continent are not yet available.

By introducing the new English requirements even more quickly than had been planned, it makes it virtually impossible for rural villagers in remote parts of the Indian sub-continent to pass the test.

When ministers suggest that the visa regulations offer a business opportunity for entrepreneurs to market language courses they may be accused of being disingenuous. There is no way such facilities can be set up in a few weeks and, even if they were, there is no way many impoverished Pakistanis or Bangladeshis could afford them or complete them.

The real issue here is not integration or removing cultural barriers, it might be argued. It is about trying to reduce the economic impact of a legacy of British colonial rule.

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