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U.K.: Britain Proposes Culture, Language Exams For Those Seeking Citizenship

The British government has welcomed new proposals that would require immigrants seeking British citizenship to take language and culture tests. The plan follows two other significant announcements on U.K. asylum and immigration.

London, 5 September 2003 (RFE/RL) -- British Home Secretary David Blunkett this week welcomed the recommendations of a government advisory panel that call for immigrants applying for British citizenship to pass a language and culture exam.

Blunkett said he wants new Britons to become what he called "active citizens" who are able to communicate with others and use their right to vote. He said such knowledge also will help immigrants fight racism.

Under the proposals, those applying to become British citizens would have to know basic English, but even Gaelic or Welsh, if necessary. They would also have to be acquainted with British history since 1945 and understand British institutions, such as parliament and the electoral system, the role of the monarchy, and how democracy in general works. They would also be required to answer questions on etiquette and sexual equality, and on how to obtain services such as electricity, water, and gas.

Mark Littlewood is the spokesman for the National Council for Civil Liberties (NCCL). He tells RFE/RL the proposals seem to be the most acceptable from the British government so far.

"We actually give it a cautious welcome. We still have a number of concerns that we'd like addressed, but in principle, I think this could actually be a useful way of integrating people into British society and actually making it easier for them to maximize their life opportunities," Littlewood says.

The panel said classes in English and British culture should be offered free-of-charge ahead of the exam. The exam will be available to immigrants with no criminal past who have lived in the U.K. for five years, or three years if married to a Briton. Failing the tests would not change the applicants' residency status, though it would exclude them from applying for British citizenship again until they pass.

Littlewood says the NCCL hopes the tests will not be more difficult than necessary.

"I think the crucial thing is going to be to ensure that what new citizens -- or applicant citizens -- are put through is not a kind of rigorous test or exam where they have to prove things, but is [instead] a method for them to perhaps improve their English, thereby making them more employable, and to learn a little about actually how the United Kingdom works, which will help them in their day-to-day life and will help them to be fully empowered as citizens in the U.K. So I think it could actually be a useful step forward," he says.

Some have criticized the proposals, worrying that the measures would introduce a kind of "test of Britishness."

Blunkett says only relevant history will be tested, however, adding: "Knowing the six wives of Henry VIII doesn't constitute being a good citizen."

Littlewood says the idea of citizenship classes is useful, even for young Britons without foreign roots.

"The other thing I'd like to see the government do is to make this rather more universal. About one-in-five people who leave school in Britain can barely read or write, and I think that a good number of the 50 million or so citizens who live in the United Kingdom at the moment don't have a sufficiently strong grasp of citizenship and how our political and democratic processes work," Littlewood says. "So I would say, let's actually throw this open to more individuals to engender a sense of citizenship amongst young people in the classroom. That would be a great step forward."

The ideas were first announced a year ago as part of a package of planned legislation on immigration and nationality. There are also efforts under way to introduce group citizenship ceremonies, similar to those in the U.S. and other Western nations.

Blunkett's office is expected to further review the proposals but will likely accept them. Blunkett's endorsement of the citizenship exam was his third immigration-related announcement in less than a week.

A record number of applicants became British citizens last year, rising by 33 percent to more than 120,000. More than three-quarters were from Asia and Africa. This brings the official number of people living in Britain and born outside the country to nearly 5 million, with 3.4 million coming from Asia and Africa and the rest from Europe.

Blunkett also announced that the number of people claiming asylum in Britain fell in the second quarter to just over 10,000, including a 70 percent drop in applications from Iraqis. The total is one-third fewer than during the previous quarter and about half of the same period last year. Blunkett said the government's tougher policies on immigration are working. It has until October to meet its pledge of halving the number of asylum claims.

The second announcement involved the further toughening of visa procedures for countries with a record of abuse of the U.K.'s immigration laws.