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Monday, July 16, 2001

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MP calls for English test for immigrants

By Hasan Suroor

LONDON, JULY 15. A Labour MP, whose constituency has a large Pakistani and Bangladeshi population, has provoked a controversy by calling for an English language test for immigrants from the Indian subcontinent, especially those coming to Britain for arranged marriages.

However, following a sharp reaction from Muslim religious and political leaders, Mrs. Ann Cryer told THE HINDU that her remarks were not directed against any particular community but it was true that the problem of intercontinental marriages, where people did not know English, was more prevalent among Pakistanis and Bangladeshis. Her constituency of Keighley, near Bradford, had 12 to 13 per cent Asian population, mostly from Pakistan and Bangladesh. She was concerned about widespread poverty and ``underachievement'' among Muslims and said her proposal was aimed at improving their lot. Bringing in spouses who were themselves poor and could not communicate in English added to their difficulties.

Mrs. Cryer clarified that she was not calling for immediate curbs but if things did not improve in the next five or six years ``we will have to introduce a system where immigrants meet a required standard of English.'' Barring citizens of the European Union, who are entitled to free movement within Europe, immigrants ``across the board whether they are from South America or Asia or wherever'' should be expected to have a basic knowledge of English.

She did not contradict the remarks attributed to her in the media but she said they had been taken out of context. She said these were her personal views and were consistent with her campaign to improve the lot of her Asian constituents. Asked what she thought of the strong reaction to her statement, she said she was not surprised. ``Oh, I knew they would say this'', she remarked.

Earlier, Mrs. Cryer was criticised for opposing the practice of bringing into Britain marriage partners who do not understand or speak English and are, therefore, not able to join the mainstream. ``This means you have husbands and wives coming who have not been to school and a very few have more than a smattering of English which means they are bringing that into their own families'', she said.

Her remarks, which coincided with the release of a new report on race relations in Bradford, were denounced by Muslims as an ``interference'' in their community's affairs, and an ``infringement'' of its rights.

A local Tory politician, Mr. Mohammed Riaz, who unsuccessfully contested from Bradford in recent elections, called it ``one of the most ridiculous (ideas) I have come across'' and said the State had no right to tell people whom they should marry. Her proposal, he argued, would push the immigrant policy to ``extremes''. A former mayor of Bradford, Mr. Mohammed Ajeeb disagreed that people from Pakistan and Bangaldesh lacked communication skills, and said that ``at least one person (in the family) will speak English''. Observers, however, confirmed that ``illiteracy'' in English was widespread and this did create communication problems.

Mrs. Cryer called for improving the teaching of English as a secondary language in community centres and said the communication gap arising out of lack of knowledge of English was a serious issue and itnercontinental marriages added to the problem. ``Intercontinental marriages mean that around 50 per cent of the marriages that take place in the Asian community result in an intake of new residents who are unable to communicate in the English language which limits participation in mainstream social and educational activities'', she said, and appealed to Asian parents to review their options on arranged marriages.

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