Blunkett 'English for passports' plan

Severin Carrell
Sunday 19 August 2001 00:00
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David Blunkett, the Home Secretary, has confirmed he is considering a controversial change to the citizenship rules which would require immigrants to learn English as a condition of gaining a British passport.

Despite the risk of a backlash from MPs in his own party, Mr Blunkett said he supported his immigration minister, Lord Rooker, who claimed on Friday that compulsory English lessons would help migrants find work and improve race relations.

The Home Secretary said he wanted to provoke "a debate" about whether immigrants seeking British nationality should be forced to learn English as part of a wider discussion about citizen-ship and racial integration.

In a statement released yesterday, a spokesman said the Home Secretary believed that understanding English played an "important and central part... in developing good community and race relations, and the chances of obtaining both education and employment".

However, the proposal was condemned by Habib Rahman, chief executive of the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, as "linguistic colonialism". It suggested that immigrants with poor English were to blame for harming race relations.

"The message this would send out would be terrible. It would be very damaging to race relations," he said.

Claude Moraes, the former director of the JCWI and now a Labour MEP, accused ministers of returning to the racist rhetoric of the 1960s. Most immigrants learnt English quickly without being forced to do so, he said.

"This is not the major obstruction to entering the labour market. Race discrimination is," he added. "It's misleading to emphasise language and it's a throwback to the Sixties and Seventies. Compulsion sends out the wrong message."

The Home Secretary's intervention will further fuel a major row brewing with Labour MPs and trade union leaders at Labour's party conference in October, where a raft of controversial proposals on asylum, immigration and citizenship are expected to be unveiled. These could include a "green card" system for skilled economic migrants and limited rights for asylum seekers to work legally.

Union leaders such as Bill Morris, head of the T&G, and John Monks, from the GMB, are already planning to lead a revolt over the Government's policy of giving asylum seekers vouchers instead of benefits.

Despite signals from the Home Office that the voucher system will be overhauled, Lord Rooker and Home Office officials have confirmed that vouchers will be retained. At most, lower denomination vouchers could be issued and shops allowed to give change.

Tony Blair fears that restoring cash benefits will attract more bogus asylum seekers to Britain. But critics claim that the current system, which cost £15.6m to set up, is very expensive.

Mr Monks said: "Vouchers stigmatise asylum seekers in a quite disgusting way. Some supermarkets even have special check-out lanes for asylum seekers. This is reminiscent of apartheid South Africa."

Yesterday a man and woman were rescued 10 miles off Dungeness, Kent, after attempting to paddle to Britain in a rubber dinghy through thick fog.

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