MUSLIM women who fail to improve their English language skills could be deported as part of a drive to build community integration and counter extremism, David Cameron said today during a visit to Leeds.
The Prime Minister warned that not speaking the language adequately could make people “more susceptible” to the recruitment messages of groups like the self-styled Islamic State (IS) - though there was no “causal link”.
And he said it was “not acceptable” that women in parts of the UK were not allowed to leave their homes without a male relative and faced sex-segregated school governors meetings.
Mr Cameron visited the Makkah Mosque mosque in Hyde Park, Leeds, and the Shantona Women’s Centre project for Bangladeshi women in the city’s Harehills district to highlight his new proposals.
Speaking during the visit, the PM warned: “The evidence is that there are some 40,000 women in our country who really don’t speak any English at all and, perhaps altogether, some 190,000 with very poor English.
“I think it’s quite right to say to people who come to our country that there are many rights that you have here - it’s a fantastic country to live in - but there are also obligations that we should put on people who come to our country, and chief amongst them should be obligations to learn English because then you can integrate, you can take advantage of the opportunities here and you can help us to build the strong country that we want.”
Asked about the threat of deportation, Mr Cameron said: “What we’ve said is that if people come here on a spousal visa, to be a husband or a wife, we’ve now said they have to learn English in order to get that visa. But after two-and-a-half years, halfway through the programme of getting settlement, they should be improving their English and if they don’t do that then they can’t be guaranteed to be able to go to the full stage and retain their visa.”
Downing Street said women arriving in the UK under a spousal visa are currently expected to have English skills at the internationally-recognised A1 beginner level - roughly equivalent to a native-born child starting primary school.
Under the PM’s proposal, the women would be expected to have reached the A2 - elementary - level after two-and-a-half years and B1 - intermediate - after five years.
At the same time it was announced that a £20 million language fund was being set up to help end what Mr Cameron called the “passive tolerance” of separate communities which left many Muslim women facing discrimination and social isolation.
Women who come to the UK to join husbands will face tests after two and a half years - with failure meaning “they can’t guarantee they will be able to stay” even if they have children, Mr Cameron said.
“You have to be able to speak a basic level of English now to come into the country as a husband or a wife.
“We have made that change already and we are now going to toughen that up so halfway through the five-year spousal settlement programme, there will be another opportunity to make sure your English is improving.
“You can’t guarantee you will be able to stay if you are not improving your language.
“It is tough. But in the end it is not enough just to say the Government is going to spend more money and it is our responsibility. People coming to our country, they have responsibilities too.”
He said: “I am not blaming the people who can’t speak English. Some of these people have come to our country from quite patriarchal societies where perhaps the menfolk haven’t wanted them to learn English, haven’t wanted them to integrate.
“Where there is segregation, it is holding people back, it is not in tune with British values and it needs to go. We need to be more assertive.”
Mohammed Shafiq, chief executive of the Ramadhan Foundation, said: “David Cameron and his Conservative Government are once again using British Muslims as a political football to score cheap points to appear tough.
“There are three million Muslims in this country and the Prime Minister chooses to focus on a very small minority of extremists when clearly the majority of British Muslims reject extremism.
“The Ramadhan Foundation has been clear for many years that we face an increased risk from terrorism and an ideology of hatred. The best way to confront it is to build support within Muslims and support the work done across the country, and not lashing out and denigrating Muslims.
“The irony of the Prime Minister calling for more resources to help migrants learn English when his Government cut the funding for English classes in 2011 has not been lost on many people.
“This was a right-wing, neo-con Prime Minister delivering more of the same disgraceful stereotyping of British Muslims.
“Rather than focusing on the positive contribution of our faith and community, he focuses on the extreme minority of issues which clearly is not representative.
“Many in the British Muslim community will reject this neo-con agenda and continue our work in confronting extremism and terrorism without the support of the Conservative Government.”
Shadow home secretary Andy Burnham said: “In his desire to grab easy headlines, David Cameron risks doing more harm than good.
“His clumsy and simplistic approach to challenging extremism is unfairly stigmatising a whole community. There is a real danger that it could end up driving further radicalisation, rather than tackling it.
“The Prime Minister is right to talk about empowering women but his emphasis should be on women of all faiths and none. His commitment to English classes is welcome but people will ask why his Government has spent the last few years cutting funding from these vital courses.
“Tackling extremism is the greatest challenge of our age. We are willing to work with the Government to get it right.
“But it is a deep-rooted and complex problem and requires a more sophisticated approach than we have seen to date and a stronger sense of partnership with the Muslim community.”
Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron said: “This announcement is dog-whistle politics at its best.
“David Cameron cut the budget for English language classes in August last year by £45 million. Now the Prime Minister is dressing up a massive cut as a £20 million funding commitment.
“Linking women in the Muslim community who struggle with the English language to home-grown extremism only serves to isolate the very people Cameron says he is trying to help.
“Liberal Democrats support English language classes for anyone regardless of race, religion or gender and blocked these plans to cut funding for them in coalition.”