Human rights

Human rights lawyers condemn English tests for spouses coming to UK

Lawyers advising Liberty say that making spouses pass English language tests to enter the UK could be discriminatory.

Home Office plans to introduce an English language test for those coming to Britain to marry UK citizens could breach human rights and race relations laws, according to leading human rights lawyers. A legal opinion by Rabinder Singh QC and Aileen McColgan, of Matrix Chambers, said the decision to impose the test from November has more to do with reducing the number of immigrants to Britain than minimising abuse.

The lawyers warned that the introduction of pre-entry tests amounts to a breach of the right to family life under human rights laws. They also said it is likely to be discriminatory to require someone with a degree in English from India to take the test but not someone from California who speaks only Spanish.

The Matrix legal opinion was commissioned by the human rights group Liberty. Its director, Shami Chakrabarti, warned that the opinion would form the basis of a high court challenge if the tests, which will affect more than 25,000 spouses a year, go ahead. "We have warned that pre-entry English tests are discriminatory and unlawful – a view now endorsed by one of the foremost barristers in the country," said Chakrabarti. "If the government persists with this half-baked, pre-election, Border Agency policy, it will face embarrassing litigation unworthy of a coalition built on fundamental freedoms. If necessary, we will be the first in line to prevent genuine families being broken up."

The proposal to introduce pre-entry English language tests for those coming to Britain to join a spouse or civil partner on a spousal visa was first put forward by Labour ministers two years ago to encourage integration, help newcomers get work and make clear to migrants the importance of learning English.

The tests apply only to those who come from non-English-speaking countries. The top five nationalities of those coming to marry UK citizens are Pakistan (8,570), India (5,110), Bangladesh (2,780), US (2,110) and Thailand (1,776).

A Home Office equality assessment in July last year acknowledged that the test could have a negative impact on those coming from countries with little access to English language courses, so it was decided to give those coming to marry two years in which to learn English. Spouses will be required to reach a "basic" level of English that can be reached after 40-50 hours of tuition. But in June this year coalition ministers decided to bring forward the introduction of pre-entry English language tests from next summer to this November.

Singh and McColgan said the move could lead to the breakup of families in cases where spouses cannot pass the test because of the lack of available English courses, or their inability to fit lessons around work or family commitments, age, illness or disabilities.

The UK Border Agency said exceptions will be made in cases where migrants have physical or mental impairment, but added that these will be rare. The Matrix legal opinion also argues that those coming from non-English-speaking countries will be put at a disadvantage compared with those who cannot speak English but come from the US or other majority English-speaking countries.

(Published by Guardian - September 29, 2010)

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