A highly controversial crackdown on immigrants accused of abusing welfare handouts is to be unveiled by Home Secretary Alan Johnson this week.
He plans to ban wives brought here, mainly from India and Pakistan, from receiving child benefit and a wide range of other state aid unless they learn English, support British values and do voluntary work in the community.
The move could affect up to 80,000 immigrants who are allowed to settle permanently in Britain each year after marrying a UK citizen.
Many come from remote villages in the subcontinent, have little formal education and cannot speak a word of English. Under existing laws, they are automatically given indefinite leave to remain after just two years.
Crucially, that qualifies them to receive state benefits, even if they never become British citizens with UK passports or learn English.
However, Mr Johnson wants to scrap indefinite leave to remain. He intends to force immigrants who use marriage to get into the UK to take a citizenship test. They will not be allowed to take it for at least five years and if they fail, they will be banned from receiving benefits.
Ministers are braced for allegations of racism from some ethnic-minority leaders but they argue that the reforms are vital to curb racial tensions and benefit scrounging.
A well-placed Government source said: ‘Some British men with Indian or Pakistani backgrounds marry young women from the Indian subcontinent who are close to illiterate and unable to speak English.
‘Once they are here, they have children and can get the same benefits as someone who has lived here for a generation.
‘Some never learn a word of English and remain separate from the rest of the community. In effect, they choose to remain foreigners.
‘Why should they or their husbands worry? They are getting state benefits, and in some cases that is the only reason they come here, or are brought here. We have to put a stop to it.
‘We hope that once we make it clear that getting into Britain does not mean they can milk the benefits system without lifting a finger, it will deter such people from coming.
‘We want people who are committed to being British and playing a full part in our society.
‘We want to stop the ghettoisation of cities like Bradford and Blackburn. It has inflamed racial tensions and led to alienated young Muslim kids being preyed on by Islamist extremists. We all know what tragic consequences that can have.’
The Government has already insisted that all immigrants must show they have some knowledge of English before they are allowed into Britain but the new proposals go a lot further.
There are an estimated one million people living in the UK on indefinite leave to remain. Most come from India, Pakistan, Nigeria and the U.S.
Some come to work for a few years, have no intention of settling here and do not wish to become British.
Many others are spouses who do settle here for good without ever becoming British or integrating in any meaningful way.
They do not need to gain citizenship because they are automatically given indefinite leave to remain after two years, giving them the same right to child benefits, tax credits, income support, free prescriptions, eye tests and other benefits as everyone else.
Under the new rules, such immigrants will be classed as ‘probation citizens’ for a minimum of five years with no entitlement to benefits.
After five years, they will be able to take a citizenship test to gain a British passport. The test includes showing they have done some voluntary work in the UK, understand and promise to abide by the rule of law, pledge not to undermine the British state, understand how local government works and agree to register their children for schools.
If they fail, they will be banned from getting state benefits. They can stay on probation and take the test again, or leave the country.
In practice, officials accept it is not likely to lead to many immigrants returning to their native countries but say that is not the aim.
‘This is not about repatriation,’ said one. ‘Once someone is here and has had children, it is not practicable or desirable to throw them out.’
One couple who would be affected by the proposed change is British-born imam Humaiyun Islam and his 19-year-old wife Safiyah Begum, whom he married in Bangladesh two years ago.
They both now live in Stepney, East London, with their four-month-old son after Safiyah was given indefinite leave to remain.
Islam, 25, said: ‘To be honest, it’s not a bad plan–it’s important that people do learn English but a lot of people will find this difficult.
‘Some people who come to this country from places like Bangladesh are usually uneducated and they find learning another language extremely difficult.’
However, he said there would be advantages if his wife could get full citizenship: ‘She can vote or get jobs if she knows good English.’
Safiyah came to the UK educated to the equivalent of GCSE level and knowing very little of the language, and although she is learning, she has struggled to pick up enough to get by.
‘It is hard to learn English and do all the housework and look after the baby,’ Islam said. ‘Her English has improved but not enough to take a job. We would be in a lot of difficulty if the Government introduced a set deadline.’
The planned shake-up is designed to show that after years of soaring immigration, Labour has finally got to grips with the issue.
Downing Street advisers have been shocked by continuing anger over immigration.
One of Gordon Brown’s senior aides said: ‘Month after month, focus groups show that people think we have done far too little to get on top of immigration. We have to do more or it will cost us dearly in the General Election.’
Trade unions, whose members may lose jobs to cheap immigrant workers, have led calls for more action, prompting former union leader Johnson to take action.
But the Conservatives claim the planned changes are too little, too late.
A party spokesman said: ‘If the Government had listened to us instead of pouring scorn, we would not be in this mess. They tried to silence us by calling us racist and now they have realised that a sensible immigration policy is not racist but common sense.
‘Moderate and responsible figures in ethnic-minority communities recognise this.’
Leader of the Muslim Parliament of Great Britain Ghayasuddin Siddiqui backed the reforms.
He said: ‘It is a good thing that people coming to Britain to settle down should be encouraged to speak English. It is for their own benefit. Any move to facilitate them being part of a wider society should be applauded.’
However, Anjem Choudary, a radical Muslim leader and a lecturer at the London School of Sharia, said: ‘This policy is unacceptable and discriminatory to the Muslim community. Language is a key part of someone’s culture and the Government is trying to dilute our heritage. Newcomers to Britain should be allowed to interact rather than integrate.’
David Cameron has pledged to introduce an annual quota of immigrants, which has been opposed by Labour. In addition, he has said immigrant spouses must be at least 21 years old, to reduce the number of teenage brides being forced into marriage.
Tory immigration spokesman Damian Green said: ‘The most effective way of cracking down on people who abuse the marriage rules for immigration is to crack down on them before they come here. Our proposal would have far more impact in ensuring that anyone who comes here is ready to be fully active in British life.’