Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Bill

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Angela Eagle: I recognise the importance of the questions that my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow raises. He is right to point out that the clause is not intended to send the message that people who are interested in British citizenship are not interested in the language or knowledge of the country and just want to have access now. I accept that there are gaps, which is why we are doing the

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mapping exercise to find out where we may need to strengthen provision in order for the clause to come fully into effect.

I hope that my hon. Friend is reassured by my earlier comments about the Government's intention to ensure that the courses are provided at no cost to the applicant. The amendment refers to child care costs and travel. We shall consider such issues sympathetically. Many FE colleges already have child care facilities. We need to check in more detail as we develop the policy how to accommodate people with children who want to attend classes.

My hon. Friend also made a point that was similar to that made by the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam about informal networks doing extremely good work at the moment in language teaching. I came across an extremely good example—the Communication Workers Union, which is using trade union learning accounts to go into areas in the north-west with large ethnic minority communities to teach Asian women and provide access to language teaching that for cultural reasons they might not be able to access in a formal college environment. Some extremely good work is being done.

Mr. Parmjit Dhanda (Gloucester): I appreciate the opportunity to contribute to the debate, especially as someone with Asian parents, who fails Norman Tebbit's cricket test and supports a football team from the north-west, grew up in west London and is proud to represent Gloucester.

On the point about trade unions, when my mother first came to this country, in the late 1950s and early 1960s, Unison—the National Union of Public Employees, as it was then known—made a huge contribution, as it still does, in training people, ensuring that she learned the language and could subsequently become a shop steward.

The hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam mentioned other institutions in constituencies throughout the land. In my own patch, Gloucestershire Action for Refugees and Asylum Seekers already offers English language courses and works with FE colleges. It is important to continue to tap into the resources available.

Angela Eagle: We certainly want to do that, and we recognise that such informal networks, or trade union networks, can be extremely important with regard to reaching places that the more formal parts of the education system cannot currently reach. To ensure that this is as inclusive as possible, I am anxious for us to support those networks.

With suppliers, the only issue is quality: so long as the quality is there, there is no reason why we cannot have a proliferation of suppliers. Everything does not have to be entirely organised by the local further education college, although it might accredit other suppliers. We are not yet at the stage where we are making detailed decisions on that, but I hope that Committee members realise that we have an open mind on the matter.

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The hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam made some points about people whom he called asylum seekers. We will address asylum when we discuss later parts of the Bill, but there is a distinction between asylum seekers and those who already have refugee status, as he knows. Refugees who have indefinite leave to remain can already undertake the ESOL courses without having to pay, but we do not think that it is appropriate that we should begin to integrate asylum seekers prior to the making of a decision on their status. It is important that we make such decisions as quickly as possible, but we must not mix up what is available in relation to integration for refugees—and I hope that that will be much more effectively organised in the future—and what we intend to make available for asylum seekers who have, perhaps, failed to gain further status. We will debate such matters later, so I do not intend to get into them further now.

If the hon. Gentleman has ever visited the detention centre at Harmondsworth, he will be aware that it offers language teaching. Even as people are about to be deported, we are still making available to them training and education chances that will—we hope—be of use to them, wherever they end up.

Mr. Allan: I have a worry about that point. As we all recognise, under the current system, there are individuals who stay in a community for a long time—well in excess of a year, perhaps—while waiting for a determination of their status, and sometimes there is resentment in that local community that those individuals are not learning languages. There is a perception that they have access to courses but cannot be bothered to take them, whereas the reality is that they do not necessarily have legal access to them. Clarification on that would be helpful for community relations, because sometimes one comes across the worst kind of reporting in the press, claiming that such people are not bothering to learn, when the reality is that they do not have access to learning.

Angela Eagle: I accept the point that we need to differentiate in that way. If I believed everything that I read in the newspapers—much less in scurrilous documents by campaigning organisations that do not have the nation's best interests at heart—I would not be as sophisticated as I think I am.

We are sympathetic to the amendment, but we do not want it in the Bill in this form. My hon. Friend might be surprised to learn that. I assure him that the principle of trying to facilitate no-cost access for people is at the core of what we are trying to organise, but we must be careful about how widely we cast the net with regard to no cost. The amendment refers to travel costs as well as child care costs, and although we are sympathetic to that, I do not want to include it in the Bill at this stage.

Mr. Gerrard: I appreciate the Minister's positive tone, and I am glad that the Government want to facilitate. I am also glad that there will not, in general, be fees for people who undertake courses. That also displays a positive attitude. However, I hope that the Government will consider giving direct support to those organisations and institutions that might be involved in the provision of classes and courses that are relevant to people who are trying to acquire

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citizenship. I know that she referred several times to FE colleges. I am in favour of giving FE colleges things to do. I worked in further education for a long time, and appreciate its value. However, some adults may find them uncomfortable places to attend. We should consider what can be done through adult education, which is the responsibility of local authorities, and through direct help to networks and individual organisations.

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We should provide more training and education for asylum seekers. On a visit to Kosovo a couple of years ago, the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey and I spoke to people who had been asylum seekers in the UK, but who had returned. The clear message was that many of them would have had a better chance on return to their country of origin if they had been able to acquire more skills as asylum seekers. We should not refrain from helping people on the basis that we may be encouraging false integration. However, I accept the Minister's positive points and I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Mr. Malins: I beg to move amendment No. 17, in page 2, line 10, at end insert:

    '(4) The Secretary of State shall by regulations provide for age and other exemptions in respect of the provisions referred to in subsection (3).'

As we said, the clause straightforwardly states the requirement for someone applying for naturalisation to have sufficient knowledge of life in the UK. The amendment merely probes whether there will be any exemptions and exceptions to the provisions. I may have missed something. Will the Under-Secretary clarify whether there are exemptions to the language test under existing legislation, and whether there will be similar exemptions and exceptions to the new requirements? Some who are disabled one way or another may find the Government's test too daunting a proposition, but may nevertheless be outstanding candidates for British citizenship. A sensitive approach is needed, especially for the elderly. Many people come to this country in the afternoon of their lives. As with all examinations, there should be a way of achieving the objective without having to sit the test.

On language, under subsection (2)(ba), I was asked whether the Government have taken note of sign language. We must ensure that those who communicate in sign language are not excluded from the benefits of naturalisation. They should be able to communicate with others in the UK using the common form of English sign language.

We shall no doubt discuss spouses in relation to the language test during the stand part debate on the next clause, as Committee members want to raise one or two related issues. The amendment is designed simply to float the thought that there are those who might merit some form of exemption from the procedures. We do not know what the procedures are, but we know that there may be vulnerable people who need help.

Mr. Allan: I am sympathetic to the amendment, and I want to refer briefly to the position of the older

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relative. As Members of Parliament, we will all have seen people in our surgeries who want to bring in a parent from another country who needs to be looked after in their afternoon years. That is absolutely legitimate. The immigration rules sensibly make provision for those individuals to come over, because it is incredibly heart-rending for someone to have to choose between their career and country of choice and looking after a parent. If we can combine the two, that is excellent.

Such parents are frequently here for a period that allows them to acquire British nationality under the current rules, and there are significant advantages to that, particularly with regard to further travel. For example, the family may want to travel back to the home country to visit various relatives, and if the parent is left with a different nationality, it can be difficult for them to travel. They may not be able to apply for their visas as a group. The parent may have to get theirs on another passport, and the family will not be able to travel together. I would not like rigorous standards for the tests that an elderly person has to pass to apply in those circumstances.

Such people will spend years here, in most cases until they pass on. During that time, it may be that because they are not economically active their personal requirement for integration is not so great. They are here principally to spend time with their families. One can see the logic that says that if the individual will not be particularly active in the community, they do not need the British nationality, but the benefits to the family of their having British nationality are sufficiently high while the harm of allowing them British nationality seems negligible or non-existent.

I hope that some recognition of that is permissible in the rules, so that we will not be telling a 75 or 80-year-old that they must overcome the same hurdles as a 20-year-old who will be spending 40 or 50 economically active years in the UK.

 
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