Speaking our language

I’m struggling to keep up with David Cameron at the moment. While I was thinking about what to say about his comments about extra English lessons for Muslim women, he’s off complaining about the “bunch of migrants” in Calais. When I meet new clients, I increasingly feel that I need to apologise about more than just the atrocious weather.

Lots of people have already spoken from more intimate experience than I can about the experience of learning English and the importance of one’s mother tongue in a new country (see, for example, Ranbir Singh in Rife magazine).

Nevertheless there are some things a solicitor might add about the current state of English language testing for UK immigration purposes.

  • All applicants for a partner visa must show evidence of meeting the English language requirement. You can meet the requirement by: being from a majority-English speaking country (Antigua and Barbuda, Australia, The Bahamas, Barbados, Belize, Canada, Dominica, Grenada, Guyana, Jamaica, New Zealand, St Kitts and Nevis, St Lucia, St Vincent and the Grenadines, Trinidad and Tobago, and the USA);  having an acceptable degree taught in English, or by taking an approved language test.
  • The only exemptions are for people over 65 and those who have a physical or mental condition that prevents them meeting the requirement.
  • During 2015 the Home Office reduced dramatically the number of approved test providers for English testing. For applicants overseas, the only acceptable test is the IELTS test. The Home Office recognises that in some countries (for example, Iran) there is no provision for testing at all. In others, test centres and learning resources could be hours away, or unaffordable. However, merely having to travel (even to another country) to take a test does not exempt a person from the language requirement.
  • The current list of approved tests and providers is on the Home Office website
  • In their decision in the case of Ali and Bibi in 2015, the Supreme Court held that the English language requirement for the partners of British citizens and people settled permanently in the UK was not unlawful in and of itself. However, there was concern that the rules might be disproportionate – and therefore contrary to rights to family and private life – in a “significant” number of individual cases. Applicants who want to argue they should be exempted must therefore decide whether to risk a non-refundable application, which is likely to be refused in the first instance and require an appeal taking at least a year to decide. For some people this might be an approach worth taking if the alternative is that they will not be able to live with one another at all.
  • For candidates in the UK, the options are slightly better because there are more approved test providers available, within a relatively small area. However, the Home Office’s handling of the ETS scandal shows that tests passed under one regime can lose their validity: many people have found themselves having to take repeated tests to obtain one that meets changed requirements.
  • David Cameron’s proposals are to to require people on the partner visa route to show progression in their English language skills at the renewal stage, after 2.5 years in the UK. For many people this will be achievable, but it is yet another expense and will be a cause of anxiety. It is also a matter of concern that the people for whom it is more difficult are likely to be vulnerable in other ways. Like the recent invitation for sponsors to inform the Home Office when a relationship ends, this requirement could be held over people in abusive relationships (for example if the sponsor is paying for language lessons or testing).

If you have any questions about how to meet the English language requirement please contact me.


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