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Last Updated: Monday, 12 February 2007, 14:58 GMT
Unemployed 'must learn English'
Job centre
About one million unemployed people are claiming benefits
Unemployed people who cannot speak English will have to show they are learning the language or face losing benefits, the government has announced.

Up to 40,000 jobless people say their poor English is a barrier to finding employment, ministers say - and 4.5m is spent on translators in job centres.

This money would be better spent on teaching them English, they say.

But critics say proposals do not square with other plans to stop free lessons for those who are in work.

Barrier to work

From April, new guidelines will require job centres in England to focus on encouraging the take-up of English courses.

Welfare minister Jim Murphy told a Work Foundation seminar that it was "unacceptable" that ethnic minorities in Britain earned on average a third less than their white counterparts.

He added that, as ethnic minorities became a larger part of the working age population, it was essential everyone could access the labour market.

The government have got it the wrong way round... it's the ones in factories they want to concentrate on
Adam Skwierawaski

Some 15% of members of ethnic minorities cite language difficulties as a barrier to work, the welfare minister said.

"We must utilise the resources we have to redress the balance: to put the emphasis not just on translating language to claim a benefit, but to teaching language to get a job," he said.

But Habib Rahman, chief executive of the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, said it was not just language problems which stopped people from ethnic minority groups getting jobs.

"For all migrants, difficulties with immigration status and racial discrimination, together with the state of local employment markets, may impede their ability to access services, training and the kind of jobs where they can improve their English," he said.

And Keith Best, of the Immigration Advisory Service, said those who were eligible for employment were keen to learn English, but there were not enough teachers and courses around.

'Unjoined-up government'

More than 100 MPs have signed a Parliamentary motion criticising plans to end free entitlement to courses for English - those in work will have to pay a third of costs from this summer.

Liberal Democrat work and pensions spokesman David Laws said it was "ironic" that the government wanted the changes while reducing other English classes.

"What is happening here seems to be the perfect example of unjoined-up government," he added.

How can you take part in society if you can't communicate properly?
Viv Porteus, UK

Shadow work and pensions secretary Philip Hammond said making working migrants pay for classes may end up trapping them in low-skilled jobs, because they cannot afford more tuition.

"We need to help them as well to acquire the language skills that will unlock the other skills they may have and allow them to move on," he said.

Labour's former Minister for Welfare Reform, Frank Field, told BBC Radio 4's World at One that the government should go further.

He said everyone who wanted to remain in Britain permanently should be able to speak English before they arrive.

"Not to insist on being able to speak the language means it's easier for ghettos to develop and, of course, much more difficult once people are here to break out of those ghettos," he said.

Meanwhile, a study by the think-tank Civitas suggests a third of households in the UK rely on benefits for at least half of their income.

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