Language-testing spouses for visas is discriminatory

Making spouses take language tests for visas goes against the principle that family unity is central

You're in a bustling street market in Salvador, Brazil. You look up, and there she is. Your eyes meet, your heart skips a beat. It's love at first sight.

You are lucky enough to date, to marry and to have a child together. Unfortunately you happen to lose your job, and so you return to the UK to take up clerical work.

Fast-forward a few months to the autumn of 2010. You assume you can bring your wife and adorable one-year-old with you. There's one problem -- your wife grew up in the countryside in Maranhão, one of the poorest states in Brazil.

She lived on less than a dollar a day for most of her life. She has no formal education and cannot speak English. You're on a small salary. You already have to prove to the immigration authorities that you've got enough money to support and accommodate her, your child and yourself.

You struggle to scrape together the £1,000 or so needed for her English tuition and test fees. She studiously attempts to learn the language for eight months, but fails her test.

She retakes the exam several months later after yet more costly English classes, but fails again. It's been one and a half years and you've been living without your wife and child who still cannot join you. There is no end in sight.

This would be a perfectly ordinary example of how the coalition government's pre-English language tests for visas can be expected to impact upon those applying to join their British or settled spouses or partners.

Double jeopardy

The tests are officially justified in benign terms -- it's apparently all about "integration" and removing "cultural barriers".

Andrew Rosindell, the Conservative MP who appeared on The Politics Show over the weekend, was a little more upfront about the measures. Observing that the measures would lead to a 10 per cent reduction in applications, and therefore cut immigration numbers, he considered this to be a "good thing" and, indeed, one of two aims behind the measures. But however you look at these proposals they are open to serious objection.

Perhaps the ugliest aspect is the sheer discrimination and elitism that underpin it. The tests don't apply to spouses who cannot speak English from within the European Union.

For those to whom they do apply -- who happen to be drawn disproportionately from Asia, in particular south Asia -- it is very clear that the poor are most likely to suffer, as they are the least likely to be able to afford English lessons.

Given that family-based migration tends to be feminised, and that educational opportunities are gendered across the globe, it is highly likely that women will be disproportionately affected by all of this. Those with learning difficulties and mental health problems will also suffer.

The Netherlands recently introduced a similar scheme that has already been subject to international criticism by the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination. The exemption there for "western states" was considered to have been discriminatory and inconsistent with international law.

But even from the point of view of efficacy in facilitating migrant integration, the measures are seriously lacking. First, how an earth can migrants who are prevented from coming to the country seriously be expected to integrate in the UK? The experience of the Netherlands shows any delay in family reunification/formation is likely to delay integration.

Further, as the proposals apply only to one small subsection of the migrant community in the UK, they are inherently limited in their reach, and therefore their ability to enhance integration is seriously compromised.

Moreover, these individuals are already subject to language and cultural testing at a more exacting level shortly after their arrival in the UK. Spousal testing in fact takes place within 24 months after arrival.

Disintegrated

If anything, these measures will in the long term hinder integration. They will only reinforce erroneous stereotypes held by some sections of the host community that migrants on the whole don't wish to learn the English language or be part of the UK. From the point of view of migrants, the discrimination and hardship that the measures will subject them to will delay the development of the sense of membership of a society that is a precondition for integration.

The experience of the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants is that most migrants do in fact learn the language and actually want the opportunity to do this but oversubscription for classes, and the costs of learning tend act as significant barriers.

A far more effective and proportionate way of addressing any deficiencies in the English-language skills of migrants would be to remove restrictions that prevent many migrants who arrive in the UK from learning the language at an earlier stage. This could be done through charging fees at more affordable home prices, rather than overseas rates, which tend to be prohibitive.

Further, the £50m the government proposes to spend on implementing this scheme could be better invested in expanding already oversubscribed English language classes.

This would give all immigrants -- and all others with less sophisticated written and spoken English skills to boot -- the opportunity to improve.

Adopting such an approach to language learning, integration and immigration policy would also reflect international law and the principles that underpin it.

Indeed, international consensus on the centrality of family unity to human dignity crystallised as early as 1948 with the UN Declaration of Human Rights. Dog-whistle politics offers no justification to depart from these obligations or the long-cherished principles on which they are based.

Hina Majid is director of policy at the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants.

Special subscription offer: Get 12 issues for £12 plus a free copy of Andy Beckett's "When the Lights Went Out".

 

Getty
Show Hide image

BHS is Theresa May’s big chance to reform capitalism – she’d better take it

Almost everyone is disgusted by the tale of BHS. 

Back in 2013, Theresa May gave a speech that might yet prove significant. In it, she declared: “Believing in free markets doesn’t mean we believe that anything goes.”

Capitalism wasn’t perfect, she continued: 

“Where it’s manifestly failing, where it’s losing public support, where it’s not helping to provide opportunity for all, we have to reform it.”

Three years on and just days into her premiership, May has the chance to be a reformist, thanks to one hell of an example of failing capitalism – BHS. 

The report from the Work and Pensions select committee was damning. Philip Green, the business tycoon, bought BHS and took more out than he put in. In a difficult environment, and without new investment, it began to bleed money. Green’s prize became a liability, and by 2014 he was desperate to get rid of it. He found a willing buyer, Paul Sutton, but the buyer had previously been convicted of fraud. So he sold it to Sutton’s former driver instead, for a quid. Yes, you read that right. He sold it to a crook’s driver for a quid.

This might all sound like a ludicrous but entertaining deal, if it wasn’t for the thousands of hapless BHS workers involved. One year later, the business collapsed, along with their job prospects. Not only that, but Green’s lack of attention to the pension fund meant their dreams of a comfortable retirement were now in jeopardy. 

The report called BHS “the unacceptable face of capitalism”. It concluded: 

"The truth is that a large proportion of those who have got rich or richer off the back of BHS are to blame. Sir Philip Green, Dominic Chappell and their respective directors, advisers and hangers-on are all culpable. 

“The tragedy is that those who have lost out are the ordinary employees and pensioners.”

May appears to agree. Her spokeswoman told journalists the PM would “look carefully” at policies to tackle “corporate irresponsibility”. 

She should take the opportunity.

Attempts to reshape capitalism are almost always blunted in practice. Corporations can make threats of their own. Think of Google’s sweetheart tax deals, banks’ excessive pay. Each time politicians tried to clamp down, there were threats of moving overseas. If the economy weakens in response to Brexit, the power to call the shots should tip more towards these companies. 

But this time, there will be few defenders of the BHS approach.

Firstly, the report's revelations about corporate governance damage many well-known brands, which are tarnished by association. Financial services firms will be just as keen as the public to avoid another BHS. Simon Walker, director general of the Institute of Directors, said that the circumstances of the collapse of BHS were “a blight on the reputation of British business”.

Secondly, the pensions issue will not go away. Neglected by Green until it was too late, the £571m hole in the BHS pension finances is extreme. But Tom McPhail from pensions firm Hargreaves Lansdown has warned there are thousands of other defined benefit schemes struggling with deficits. In the light of BHS, May has an opportunity to take an otherwise dusty issue – protections for workplace pensions - and place it top of the agenda. 

Thirdly, the BHS scandal is wreathed in the kind of opaque company structures loathed by voters on the left and right alike. The report found the Green family used private, offshore companies to direct the flow of money away from BHS, which made it in turn hard to investigate. The report stated: “These arrangements were designed to reduce tax bills. They have also had the effect of reducing levels of corporate transparency.”

BHS may have failed as a company, but its demise has succeeded in uniting the left and right. Trade unionists want more protection for workers; City boys are worried about their reputation; patriots mourn the death of a proud British company. May has a mandate to clean up capitalism - she should seize it.