David Cameron has been accused of stigmatising Muslim women after he announced plans to help them learn English and warned that migrant spouses who fail language tests may have to leave the UK.
Announcing the plans on Monday, the prime minister suggested the language classes for Muslim women could help stop radicalisation.
Cameron said a £20m fund would provide classes for all women struggling with English, but he highlighted 38,000 Muslim women who could not speak the language and 190,000 with limited skills in it.
Separately, there would be a new regime meaning those on a five-year spousal visa would have to pass language tests after two and a half years in the country or face having to leave.
“After two and half years they should be improving their English and we will be testing them,” the prime minister said. “We will bring this in in October and it will apply to people who have come in on a spousal visa recently and they will be tested.”
Cameron stressed that he was not blaming those who could not speak English because “some of these people have come from quite patriarchal societies and perhaps the menfolk haven’t wanted them to speak English”.
He said there was no causal link between radicalisation and language skills but non-English speakers could be “more susceptible” to extremism. “If you’re not able to speak English, not able to integrate, you may find therefore you have challenges understanding what your identity is and therefore you could be more susceptible to the extremist message coming from Daesh,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
However, he was quickly criticised for singling out Muslim women as the main group that needed help. Andy Burnham, the shadow home secretary, said Cameron risked “doing more harm than good” in a desire to grab headlines.
“His clumsy and simplistic approach to challenging extremism is unfairly stigmatising a whole community. There is a real danger that it could end up driving further radicalisation, rather than tackling it,” he said.
“Linking women in the Muslim community who struggle with the English language to homegrown extremism only serves to isolate the very people Cameron says he is trying to help,” he said. “Liberal Democrats support English language classes for anyone regardless of race, religion or gender and blocked these plans to cut funding for them in coalition.”
Cameron was also criticised by Sayeeda Warsi, the Tory peer and former party co-chairman, who said it was a good policy to encourage language skills to help people get a job, help with homework, manage finances, and get a driving licence, but questioned the link to counter-terrorism.