Marrying someone from abroad – how easy will it be for them to take the new English test?
John Perry researches and writes on housing, migration and refugee issues for the Chartered Institute of Housing and HACT. John was Director of Policy at the CIH for twelve years until 2003, before moving to Nicaragua, where he co-ordinates projects with low income families, including a housing project.
There was a lively debate in the MRN blog when Home Secretary Theresa May announced she was going to make prospective spouses coming to the UK take a test of English before they can qualify for a visa. I joined in the debate myself. As well as my professional interest in migration, I’ve got a personal one – my wife is from Nicaragua, and originally needed a visa to come to the UK.
My wife is now fluent in English and has dual citizenship, but she would have found it extremely difficult if she had been required to take the test before she left Nicaragua, back in 1994. Then and now, the quality of English courses in her home town is not high, and they are usually taught by people with Miami accents. The courses, by local standards, are also far from cheap.
But UKBA has now announced how the tests will be done. Does the announcement offer any reassurance? I thought I’d test the process out myself, assuming I was back in the position I was in sixteen years ago. First, I checked out the list of providers. I have to say they look like a pretty mixed bunch. Some of their introductory material for candidates is not easy to understand. Here’s a sentence from one guide to the courses available:
‘The General Training Component stressed on the basic essential English language skills in a wide range of framework of the social and educational environment’.
What on earth does that mean? Also, it’s far from clear from the list who provides services in particular countries.
Anyway, not to be deterred, I pressed on. I sent emails to ten of the test providers, including ones that appeared likely to offer the tests in Nicaragua or somewhere nearby. I got replies from five of them, of which two were positive. This is where things became more complicated.
One reply was from Cambridge University’s ESOL centre. They have a widespread network of test centres, but they don’t have one in Nicaragua. The nearest is in neighbouring Costa Rica. But apart from the cost of a flight or bus and a hotel, Nicaraguans need a visa to visit Costa Rica. Added in with the cost of the test, and assuming a visa was obtained, I guess taking the exam there would cost my hypothetical spouse at least £500 – to be repeated, of course, if she failed first time. Has UKBA checked to see if the test is available without crossing borders to do so?
Then there is the issue of the level required. UKBA asks spouses to pass the most basic test, known as level A1. Cambridge doesn’t offer this level of test in Costa Rica, the nearest is A2, which involves reading and writing as well as speaking. So the hurdle is set higher than it needs to be.
But could she take the correct test in Nicaragua? The only provider to have a test centre there appears to be Pearson Education. They offer the test at one of the main universities. But the test level is much higher – B1 – the level needed by students wanting to take academic courses in England. I tried the test myself. It is a three-hour, computer-based test, and even the instructions are quite sophisticated. In the speaking test, you have to repeat into the computer rather complicated passages. Here’s one:
‘The development of easy-to-use statistical software has changed the way statistics is being taught and learned. Students can make transformations of variables, create graphs of distributions of variables, and select among statistical analyses all at the click of a button. However, even with these advancements, students sometimes still find statistics to be an arduous task.’
Phew, quite a tongue-twister to read in the allotted 40 seconds, even for a native English speaker. I gave up and concluded that, sadly, my prospective wife would not have got her visa.
I tried to imagine what my situation would be if my hypothetical spouse had been, say, in her fifties, and not used to travelling abroad, taking tests, using computers and visiting universities (a pretty common position for older men and women in Nicaragua). How would she have coped with all this? Would, indeed, the marriage have taken place at all!
It is difficult not to conclude that the Home Secretary sees no reason why Brits should marry people from outside Europe or from non-English speaking countries. After all, the hurdles are already formidable, even without the test. The cost of visas is now astronomic; they require internet access and need to entrust their passports and birth certificates to couriers, and there is no guarantee that (having irretrievably made your payment of £644) your application will be approved. Then there is the cost of air fares and – once in the UK – the need to start learning English so as to take and pass the Life in the UK test after two years, to get indefinite leave to remain.
I calculate that – were I to be in the position I was in sixteen years ago - I’d now need over £2,000 and a very highly committed potential partner, just for her to be able to get the documents to board the plane and get through border controls at Heathrow. How does this square with equality legislation, which is supposed to mean that government does not discriminate against people because of (for example) their age or disability? Were the proposals subjected to an equality impact assessment? – it seems highly unlikely and if so it hasn’t been published, as is required. Finally, how does all this square with the human right to family life? I wonder if there is someone with a more direct interest than mine, who will test the requirements in the courts?