Blunkett announces immigration reforms

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Immigrants wanting to become UK citizens will have to take compulsory English language tests and an examination on the ways of British life, Home Secretary David Blunkett announced today.

Mr Blunkett will also introduce an oath or "citizens pledge" for applicants to help them embrace British values, laws and customs.

The proposals are at the heart of a radical new package of immigration and asylum reform published today by the Home Office.

"I believe it is fundamentally important that people living in the UK on a permanent basis should be able to take a full and active role in our society," said Mr Blunkett.

"We should value, promote and give real content to the acquisition to British nationality and the process of integration."

There will be US-style citizenship ceremonies when applicants complete their courses so that becoming a British passport holder will not just be a "piece of paper arriving in a brown envelope alongside the gas bill", said the Home Secretary.

The ceremonies would be conducted by registration officers at Register Offices or other community centres or schools.

The new oath will retain a pledge of allegiance to the Queen and her heirs, but will add: "I will respect the rights and freedoms of the United Kingdom. I will uphold its democratic values. I will observe its laws faithfully and fulfil my duties and obligations as a British citizen."

Mr Blunkett said migrants fluent in English were 20 per cent more likely to get work.

"To encourage this we will ask that applicants for naturalisation demonstrate a certain standard of English.

"At the same time we will require knowledge about British society and institutions for those taking on citizenship – helping us secure integration with diversity."

Today's wide-ranging White Paper, entitled Secure Borders, Safe Haven, also proposes setting up new "overseas gateways" where genuine asylum seekers can apply without having to make perilous journeys to enter the UK illegally.

It would be open to "certified refugees in the need of protection" and operated with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, said Mr Blunkett.

He also reaffirmed his commitment to creating a four tier system of accommodation centres to house asylum seekers.

The Home Secretary pledged a 40 per cent increase in spaces at the controversial secure removal centres – where failed asylum seekers are locked up before being put on a plane home – boosting spaces to 4,000 by next spring.

"The new end-to-end system will be properly managed and effectively operated.

"We will cut out abuse at the same time as we provide basic fairness and dignity to asylum seekers.

"Our changes to the process will ensure that claims are dealt with fairly and swiftly, while people who have exhausted the immigration process and no longer have the legal right to live in the UK will not remain here.

"We propose to develop ways in which some refugees will have their claim considered before they reach the UK.

"With these procedures in place they will then be able to travel here in safety and on arrival seek help and protection."

The reforms will also crack down on bogus marriages designed purely to win a British passport.

Mr Blunkett said the probation period for new marriages would be doubled to two years in a bid to sniff out sham relationships.

In 2000, more than 38,000 people were granted the right to live in the UK through marriage.

Controversially, the paper says: "There has been a tradition of families originating from the Indian subcontinent wanting to bring spouses from arranged marriages to live with them in the UK.

"We believe there is a discussion to be had within those communities that continue the practice of arranged marriages as to whether more of these could be undertaken within the settled community here."

Mr Blunkett said: "Fraudulent marriages are a growing problem in our immigration system and forced marriages abuse the rights of women in this country.

"So we need to get tough – changing the rules and following up reports of abuse with enforcement action.

"Our changes will not penalise those in authentic relationships, but provide a longer period to test the genuineness of the marriage and increase the chance of exposing any marriages that are a sham."

The White Paper also gives more detail on government plans to speed up the asylum appeal system by "preventing delay and obstruction". There will be stricter rules on when and how appeals can be launched.

Mr Blunkett's radical proposals on arranged marriage are sure to provoke outrage in the Asian community.

But the Home Secretary today robustly defended his proposal that Asian families should seek suitable spouses from within the British community rather than the Indian subcontinent.

He said: "I don't think there is a case for saying what happens in our country is not our business or that there are parts of our community that are so different, so cut off, that it's only their business.

"I think that's unacceptable in terms of cohesion and citizenship and I think it's deeply patronising.

"I think it is the business of those who have come into our country to question our ways and it is our business to raise issues of relevance with those who are practising a different social norm."

He added: "I'm not suggesting in any way we would ban people engaging in arranged marriages in the South Asian continent, but there's an issue to be debated here given the enormous growth in that community who may wish to develop within that cultural norm.

"We need to be able to encourage people to respond particularly to young women who do actually want to be able to marry someone who speaks their language, namely English, who has been educated in the same way as they have, and has similar social attitudes.

"That seem to me to be a crucial issue in terms of future co-operation and breaking down of terrible tension that exists when people trapped between two different cultures and background.

"I don't think it's unreasonable. I hope I'm doing it sensitively.

"There's nothing that's off-bounds if it's an issue.

"To do so is not only patronising, it's a kind of reverse racism that if you're white and middle class you can't say or do anything at all that might upset someone who's black or Asian, rather than seeing that as something that is contrary to real integration and diversity."