On the face of it, the idea unveiled by Iain Duncan Smith, Secretary of State for Works and Pensions, is sound. Any immigrant seeking benefits will have to prove that his English is good enough to find a job in Britain.
But in fact the proposed law is so lacking in intellectual rigour that it’s well-nigh unworkable. It’ll be scuppered by its own holes even before the EU punches new ones.
I’m not going to comment on the near certainty that the European Commission will probably block this law (it has the power to do so, you know). Before the proposal even gets that far it’s likely to be killed by the devil residing in the details.
Question 1: What kind of job are we talking about? A psychiatrist and a bus boy both need to use English to earn a crust, but the linguistic demands they face are different.
An immigrant Bulgarian shrink is as unlikely to seek employment in a gastropub as a Bulgarian bus boy is to open a consultancy in Harley Street. Will the English test they’ll have to take be individually skewed? Somehow one doubts that.
In other words, tests differ, and how they differ must depend on the end they’re designed to achieve. Are they supposed to let as many as possible in or to keep as many as possible out?
For example, the English test for foreign doctors in the USA clearly falls into the second category. I used to help a few Russian physicians prepare for that exam, and I can say with absolute certainty that at least half of native-born Americans would have failed it.
I remember one question (out of hundreds). “Choose the right word: John is one of those people who [a) like, b) likes] order.”
It’s hard to see how providing the correct answer would simplify querying patients for diagnostic purposes. And how many native speakers, including doctors, would answer this question correctly? One percent? Two?
Question 2: Would the Social have enough employees qualified to administer such a test?
Fair enough, most will smell a rat if, when asked what his name is, a swarthy chap replies, “Jop sicker allowvance.” But what if a deeper probe is required?
Most social workers I’ve ever met would have failed the second-year English test at a Moscow secondary school circa 1970. Are they now expected to check the proficiency of those who may have passed such tests?
Methinks they’ll have to make many judgment calls they aren’t qualified to make, leaving the government open to accusations of discrimination. Any half-competent lawyer would salivate at the thought of such easy cases.
The doctors’ test I mentioned earlier was discriminatory in that it demanded that new arrivals be more familiar with the nuances of English grammar than could have been reasonably expected from the natives.
But any test checking the knowledge of more than 750 words in this country would be equally discriminatory: the benefit seeker would be expected to have a wider active vocabulary than a large and growing proportion of native Englishmen.
It’s hard not to notice, for example, that most foreign footballers who’ve played in this country for more than a couple of years have a better command of English than most of their English colleagues. Nor do they have to swallow hard every other word to stop themselves from using desemanticised obscenities in TV interviews.
Will their benefit-seeking countrymen be expected to be at that level of proficiency on arrival? If not, what level are we talking about? And how soon after arrival?
Too many difficult questions and too few easy answers spell a legal quandary. It’s all much too complicated for words, and the legal complexities will be such that we’ll have to import swarms of foreign lawyers to cope with the overflow.
KISS (Keep It Simple, Stupid) is a time-honoured principle, and in that spirit I’d like to offer a modest proposal guaranteed to simplify matters.
There’s no need to administer convoluted tests checking the applicants’ linguistic prowess, their job-seeking history in the home country and here, their length of residence and what have you.
Instead we should introduce this simple rule: No foreign national is entitled to any UK benefits, including access to the NHS (other than in emergency cases).
It would be tedious to list all the ensuing gains. These would be considerable for our public (and therefore private) finances, immigration rate, demographics, culture, social life – you name it.
One thing is begging to be mentioned: crime rate. In the last 12 months almost 20 percent of all Romanians currently residing in the UK have been arrested for various crimes. Extrapolating this proportion to the likely absolute number of expected arrivals from Romania and Bulgaria (the two poorest countries in the EU), one gets that hollow feeling somewhere between the oesophagus and the stomach.
Not too much suspension of disbelief is needed to see that acting on my little proposal would limit immigration. This can’t be a bad thing, even though we all know (or are supposed to know on pain of punishment) that immigrants from places like Romania and Somalia enrich British life no end.
I wonder what the EU would have to say about that. Well, actually I don’t. I’d just love to see Barroso roll on the floor frothing at the mouth.