Marriages may be made in heaven but, in future, they could as easily be unmade by Britain's immigration authorities on grounds of linguistic incompatibility under plans announced by Home Secretary Theresa May on Wednesday.

Starting this autumn, spouses and partners of British citizens wishing to join them would be required to demonstrate a basic command of English language before they are allowed to enter Britain.

The new rules, applicable only to citizens from outside the European Union, would affect mostly people from South Asia, especially the Indian subcontinent which accounts for much of the migration linked to marital ties.

Immigrant groups called the move “discriminatory'' saying it would “tear migrant families apart''.

“The issue here is that the right to marry and found a family is a basic human right and is it proper, is it right, that that right to marry should be made conditional on passing a test in English? Our view is that it shouldn't be,” said a spokesman for Migrants' Rights Network.

Defending the plans, Ms. May said these were aimed at promoting “integration'' and helping immigrants settle in more easily into their new life.

“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….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,'' she said.

The erstwhile Labour government had planned to introduce the changes next year but the new Conservative-Lib Dem ruling coalition has brought them forward amid plans to put an annual cap on immigration from non-EU countries.

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