Blunkett: British Asians should speak English at home

Arifa Akbar
Monday 16 September 2002 00:00

David Blunkett, the Home Secretary, has once again inflamed Britain's Asian community by expressing controversial views on how immigrants ought to speak English in their homes.

He said this would benefit immigrants and enable Asian families to "participate in wider modern culture".

In an essay for Reclaiming Britishness, a book to be published today, Mr Blunkett said that speaking English at home alongside the mother tongue would help immigrants "overcome the schizophrenia which bedevils generational relationships".

A Home Office spokeswoman last night defended his remarks in the book, which is published by the Foreign Policy Centre, a think tank launched four years ago by Tony Blair.

She insisted that Mr Blunkett was discussing integration and "would never tell people what to do in their own homes". She said: "He is not seeking to dictate people's private lives."

Last year, Mr Blunkett sparked controversy in the wake of the riots in Oldham and Burnley by proposing a so-called "British test" for would-be immigrants. Details of the test, planned to be introduced in the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Bill, are being worked out by an advisory group.

Earlier this year, he upset the Asian community by attacking the tradition of arranged marriages.

In the essay, Mr Blunkett has written that citizenship had to be about "shared participation – from the neighbourhood to national elections". He remarked: "That is why we must strive to connect people from different backgrounds, tackle segregation, and overcome mutual hostility and ignorance."

He outlines the practical benefits of speaking English for fresh immigrants and those who are more settled in the British community. He wrote: "Of course, one factor in this is the ability of new migrants to speak English – otherwise they cannot get good jobs, or share in wider social debate. But for those long settled in the UK, it is about social class issues of education, housing, jobs and regeneration, and tackling racism. However, speaking English enables parents to converse with their children in English, as well as in their historic mother tongue, at home and to participate in wider modern culture."

Mr Blunkett highlights the fact that English is not spoken at home in some 30 per cent of Asian British households, according to a recent citizenship survey.

Some British Asians responded angrily to Mr Blunkett's words yesterday. Shahid Malik, a Labour party national executive committee member, said Mr Blunkett was dictating traditions and practices to Asians.

He said: "David has been targeting the Asian community, saying where they should marry, now it's what they should speak – tomorrow it will be what they can eat."

Ahmed Versi, editor of The Muslim News, said the latest comments were "especially insulting" because they had been cast specifically at Asians. He also defended the right to speak the mother tongue in the home.

"I don't think he would say this about French, German and Spanish speakers who have that as their first language.

"The point of learning the mother tongue at home is that they don't learn it at school and it enables children to speak to their parents and grandparents."

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