A pre-entry test of people’s English language abilities is unfair, impractical, and potentially discriminatory, Ruth Grove-White of the Migrants’ Rights Network.
Ruth Grove-White is a policy officer at the Migrants’ Rights Network
This week the High Court is hearing a legal challenge to a new immigration rule, which requires people wanting to join their husband, wife or partner in the UK to pass an English test before they can come. The judicial review has been brought by three couples who are arguing they have been unfairly prevented from bringing their spouse here because of the rule, which came into effect on November 29th last year.
One of the appellants has reportedly told the Court the policy is deliberately aimed at keeping out people undergoing arranged marriages, and as such that it discriminates against people from the Indian subcontinent.
This case is a welcome legal challenge to this controversial new rule, and the opportunity to scrutinise whether it represents a breach of fundamental human rights.
Outside the courtroom, the judicial review has also proved to be an opportunity for a wider public debate about whether being able to speak English in the UK is a good thing or not. This is a no brainer: of course people living in the UK benefit from speaking the language.
They will find it easier to get a job, make friends and take part in their local community. People who speak English are in a better position to understand their rights and avoid exploitation. And for people coming here to join their husband, wife or partner, learning English is likely to be an important part of building a life in the UK and reducing their dependency on their other half.
But the real issue under scrutiny this week is when people coming here to join their loved one should have to prove they can speak English, and what support is given to them to do so.
Until last year, there was no English language test for people coming here on a spouse or partner visa from outside the European Union, until they applied for settlement after two years. This gave people wanting to live in the UK with their family time to learn English in an English-speaking environment, before passing a test to prove it.
But new regulations since last November follow a tougher example set by Denmark and the Netherlands. Since then the rules demand spouses and partners pass an English language test before coming to the UK.
Senior government ministers have speculated 10 per cent of visa applications would be refused as a result of the new regulation, apparently viewing this rule as making a contribution towards overall targets to reduce net migration levels. We have been arguing since last year that introducing a pre-entry test of people’s English language abilities is unfair, impractical, and potentially discriminatory.
At the most basic level, it just doesn’t make sense to demand people coming here to join their family speak a language of a country they may never have been to, rather than giving them a chance to learn it when they arrive.
Six months on, with this regulation coming under scrutiny in the courts, accounts we have heard from people indicate couples are already being split up as a result of the pre-entry language requirement. Official figures on this aren’t yet available, but people from a range of countries including Nicaragua, Ukraine and Turkey report real difficulties in taking the test, meaning they have been unnecessarily separated from their loved ones.
There is also a big argument about who this new requirement affects. The argument being put to the High Court is that this regulation disproportionately affects people wishing to bring foreign spouses here from India and Pakistan – an argument supported by figures on family migration which show the most common countries of origin for family migrants lie within the Indian subcontinent.
This sort of impact would be indefensible, whether or not it was intended by the government. But in addition, this new rule also affects plenty of other Brits with foreign partners. I spoke to a woman from Runcorn earlier this week who had experienced real problems bringing her Serbian husband here because of the language test – she was outraged the government was interfering in her ability to live with her husband.
Ultimately, the government says this new requirement is aimed at promoting integration. But what we have seen so far is it is already causing distress and resentment across Brits and migrant communities alike, and may be judged to fall foul of basic international human rights standards.
The government should think again.Like this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by becoming a Left Foot Forward Supporter today.