CHANGES to English language requirements for Australian citizenship should be reconsidered amid concerns the test is too tough, a Senate committee has recommended.
The Coalition-dominated committee believes a proposed English language test, which asks new migrants to demonstrate university-level literacy levels, should be watered down.
Currently migrants don't have to pass an English test but those who were able to pass the citizenship test were considered fluent enough in reading and writing.
The Department of Immigration and Border Protection noted that the current citizenship test requires English equal to Level 4 of the International English Language Testing Scheme (IELTS).
But the Turnbull Government wants to introduce a new English test that asks migrants to achieve a more challenging Level 6 that includes listening, reading writing and speaking skills.
During public hearings, the Australian Council of TESOL Associations noted that Level 6 English was higher than the literacy levels of more than one quarter of Australia's general population.
According to figures obtained in 2012-13, at least seven million Australians were below this level.
Sample tests on the IELTS site includes exercises to write "at least 250 words" in 40 minutes on whether the government should pay for aged care, while another 20 minute question asks for 150 words on a letter of complaint about a roommate.
In the reading and listening sections, participants get a mark out of 40. To achieve a band score of 6 in reading you need to get a score of about 30 out of 40. For listening it's about 23 out of 40.
Participants are assessed on content, organisation of ideas and accuracy and range of vocabulary and grammar.
A reading exercise asks participants to analyse pieces of writing and answer questions about the content.
During the committee hearings there was debate about what "competent" English would equate to, with witnesses pointing out that this could be very different for someone at the Sydney Fish Markets, compared to a lawyer in a courtroom.
In a report tabled on Tuesday, the Senate committee recommended the government clarify the standard for English-language competency required for citizenship, adding that it shouldn't be too high.
"The required standard should not be so high as to disqualify from citizenship many Australians who, in the past, and with a more basic competency in the English language, have proven to be valuable members of the Australian community," it said.
The committee also wants the government to reconsider a two-year ban on citizenship applications for those who fail the citizenship test three times. Extra tests could be done on a cost-recovery basis, which would deter less-genuine applicants, it suggested.
In the financial year 2015-16, of the 102,029 people who sat the test, 3447 failed more than three times.
One applicant sat the test 47 times in the three years between 2013 and 2016. During the same period, 1830 applicants tried to pass the test 11 or more times and 15,401 applicants attempted the test three or more times.
But the department noted that a high number of people pass the current citizenship test on their first attempt because many applicants are skilled migrants.
The report also recommends a transition period for people who held permanent residency visas on or before April 20, with current laws to apply to them.
But some of the more contentious measures were supported in the report, including stronger ministerial powers to overturn grants of citizenship. The new laws would also increase the waiting time from one year to four years for permanent residents before they can apply for citizenship.
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull announced the citizenship overhaul on April 20, with the new measures to be applied from that date.
Labor, the Greens and the Nick Xenophon Team are opposed to the changes so the government will need to do a deal to get the legislation through the upper house.
The government needs 10 of the 12 cross bench senators to pass the bill, making the NXT's bloc of three senators crucial to securing the changes.
NXT senator Stirling Griff wrote in a dissenting report a number of the measures were unfair, unnecessary and risked undermining Australia's reputation as a welcoming and inclusive multicultural society.
"The government has not adequately made its case for many of these reforms," senator Griff wrote.
The party said it was "extremely concerned" about beefed up ministerial powers which override decisions of the Administrative Appeals Tribunal and overturn grants of citizenship.
While the committee found the additional powers were necessary, Law Council of Australia president Fiona McLeod said there was concern about giving the minister more control.
"We didn't see that the extension of those personal powers had any justification and potentially eroded the separation of powers," Ms McLeod told AAP.
Independent senator Jacqui Lambie told ABC Radio before the report's release on Thursday night that she was close to supporting the legislation.
- With AAP
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