Immigrants coming to Britain to marry or join their partner will soon be asked to take an English language test first, the Government announced today.
All non-European migrants will have to demonstrate basic communication skills that enable them to deal with everyday life before receiving a visa.
The measure, due to come into force this autumn, will apply to spouses and unmarried couples who are already in Britain as well as overseas applicants.
Anyone wishing to come to Britain must first demonstrate they can speak English at the same level required for skilled workers admitted under the points-based system.
The introduction of an English language test was one of four key elements of the Conservatives' election manifesto.
Prime Minister David Cameron said he wanted to promote the integration of newcomers into British society. But his deputy Nick Clegg questioned similar policies under Labour and highlighted how Britons may struggle abroad if other nations implemented tests.
Home Secretary Theresa May said: "I believe being able to speak English should be a pre-requisite for anyone who wants to settle here.
"The new English requirement for spouses will help promote integration, remove cultural barriers and protect public services.
"It is a privilege to come to the UK and that is why I am committed to raising the bar for migrants and ensuring that those who benefit from being in Britain contribute to our society.
"This is only the first step. We are currently reviewing English language requirements across the visa system with a view to tightening the rules further in the future.
"Today's announcement is one of a wide range of measures the new Government is taking to ensure that immigration is properly controlled for the benefit of the UK, alongside a limit on work visas and an effective system for regulating the students who come here."
The prospect of English language tests for migrants heading for Britain was raised several times by the previous administration.
In 2002, the then home secretary David Blunkett announced proposals for tests on language and the ways of British life. Citizenship tests were introduced but English tests for foreign spouses failed to win backing and were quietly shelved.
The new plans mean a spouse coming from outside Europe must provide evidence they have passed an English language test by an approved provider.
Visa applicants in these circumstances must already meet a range of criteria before being allowed to enter the UK under current rules.
All applicants must show their marriage or partnership is genuine and that they can support themselves financially.
Whether people are married in the UK or overseas, the non-UK partner must apply for a two-year settlement visa to come and live in the UK as a spouse.
At the end of the two years they can apply to the UK Border Agency for indefinite leave to remain.
Last year some 38,000 visas for spouses were granted and a further 21,000 people were granted indefinite leave to remain.
The move is likely to have a particular impact on Britain's Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi communities, who make up a large proportion of these figures.
Isabella Sankey, of Liberty, labelled the news "disgraceful" and said some people may be unfairly penalised.
She said: "While a good command of English is clearly beneficial for someone settling in the UK with their partner or spouse, making this a prerequisite to entering the country is disgraceful.
"What happens to the happily married British citizen with a non English-speaking spouse who returns from abroad to care for elderly parents?
"Surely a common-sense approach would acknowledge how much easier it is to learn English once in the UK."Reuse content