Jack Straw waded into a race row again last night by calling on Asian women to learn English before being allowed to settle in the UK. The Leader of the House of Commons also said there was a “big cultural divide” between Muslims and the rest of British society.
The Labour MP’s comments come just four months after he stirred up fury by calling on Muslim women to remove their veils, describing the garment as a “symbol of separation”.
Speaking at an integration conference in his constituency in Blackburn, Lancs, he said he knew a family who moved to the UK in 1954 but the woman could still not speak a word of English. Mr Straw said: “One of the things we should be looking at is the subject of Asian women speaking English and whether we need to engage them and require them to speak English before they are given a settlement visa.”
He added: “One of the things we need to recognise is that there is a big cultural divide between Muslims and the rest of us, more than say with the Afro-Caribbean community.”
Last night his remarks, fuelling debate just days after Chancellor Gordon Brown called for immigrants to undertake community work before being allowed to stay, met with a heated response. Muslim leaders accused the Government of double standards by cutting funding for English lessons for immigrants.
But he won partial backing from race equality chief Trevor Phillips who said lack of language skills barred women from the job market. “They don’t speak English so they can’t work.”
Hamid Qureshi, chairman of the Lancashire Council of Mosques, said Mr Straw was “misplaced” if he believed learning English was the key to integration.
“The younger Muslim generation speaks English but brings the most hostility,” he said. “Islam teaches that knowledge is important so I would agree that it is important for people to learn English before they come. “My 73-year-old mother can only communicate with broken English and she regrets not learning. But you have to look at people case by case.”
Education officer Anjum Anwar said Labour had slashed cash for English lessons for new arrivals.