Prime minister accuses opposition leader of supporting 10 years of previous Labour government’s ‘broken’ immigration system
David Cameron has launched an attack on Ed Miliband’s plans to ensure that frontline staff in publicly funded jobs are able to speak English, in a new battle over the best way to integrate immigrants into British society.
The prime minister was responding to the Labour leader’s announcement on Friday morning that workers in public sector jobs that deal with the public will have to show proficiency in the English language under a Labour government.
Outlining a new set of initiatives which Labour claims will improve social integration, Miliband also said he would tackle landlords who pack new immigrants into overcrowded houses, and ban recruitment agencies from seeking workers only from particular countries or ethnic groups.
His new policies appear to have riled Cameron. Speaking from Brussels, the prime minister challenged Miliband to explain why he had supported past Labour governments which Cameron claimed allowed unchecked immigration.
“They presided over a completely broken immigration system that over 10 years allowed 2 million people net come to the UK – that is two cities the size of Birmingham,” Cameron said.
“What we inherited was a complete and utter meltdown and mess. Theresa May [the home secretary] made an excellent speech this week in which she explained some of the steps she has taken, including closing down 180 bogus colleges.
“The challenge for Ed Miliband is: will you now support these steps that you opposed and for 10 or 13 years refused to put into place?”
In his speech in London on Friday morning, Miliband did acknowledge mistakes made by previous Labour governments, and outlined a three-point plan to aid integration:
• English language teaching for newcomers to Britain will be prioritised ahead of funding for what he regards as non-essential written translation materials.
• A requirement that exists in many professions for employees to have English language proficiency will be extended to all publicly funded jobs in which staff interact with members of the public.
• Schools and parents will be encouraged to share responsibility for helping foreign-born children by including statements on English language learning within home school agreements.
He said: “We can only converse if we can speak the same language. So if we are going to build one nation, we need to start with everyone in Britain knowing how to speak English. We should expect that of people that come here. We will work together as a nation far more effectively when we can always talk together.”
The opposition leader insisted that his focus on the promotion of English was not a “dog whistle” message designed to win over traditional party supporters who were tempted to vote for Ukip or the British National party.
Miliband said Britain needed to fashion a new integration strategy which rejected two opposing views. He rejected the idea that immigrants should assimilate totally by abandoning their culture, and he rejected a traditional view of multiculturalism in which different communities live side-by-side but separately.
Speaking in Tooting, he said: “Some people say that what we should aim for is assimilation, whereby people who have come here do so only on the condition that they abandon their culture. People can be proudly, patriotically British without abandoning their cultural roots and distinctiveness.
“But there is another idea we should also reject: the belief that people can simply live side by side in their own communities, respecting each other but living separate lives, protected from hatreds but never building a common bond – never learning to appreciate one another. We cannot be comfortable with separation. It blocks opportunities, leaving people at the margins. And it breeds ignorance, suspicion and prejudice.”
He admitted the last Labour government sometimes believed integration would happen automatically.
“Too often we were overly optimistic, thinking integration would just take care of itself; that, as long as the economy was buoyant, that services were well run, people would learn to get on together and our common life would flourish automatically.
“The solutions seemed abstract, but the problems were real. We talked about ‘shared citizenship’. But we did too little to tackle the realities of segregation in communities that were struggling to cope.”
Miliband praised the London Olympics as an example of Britain’s ethnic diversity in a speech urging more direct action to further integration.
“If anything was a defining moment of the Olympics, amidst so many defining moments, it was Mo Farah’s victories,” he said.
“And wasn’t that an amazing interview when he was asked: ‘Wouldn’t you rather be running for Somalia?’ and he replied: ‘This is my country mate’.
“That’s why I will be voting for him for sports personality of the year on Sunday,” he said, calling on others to back him.
Sir Andrew Green, the chairman of Migration Watch, said Miliband’s policies on English teaching did not go far enough to tackle problems cause by immigration.
“The net inflow under the last 10 years of the Labour government was 2 million people, that’s the entire population of Birmingham, Manchester and Liverpool,” he told BBC Radio Four’s Today programme.
“I don’t want to be ungracious, but it’s frankly not enough to pop up now and say: ‘We’ll do something about English language teaching’. We’re left with an enormous problem of integration and … these measures are, by comparison with that, pretty trivial.”
Sadiq Khan, the shadow justice secretary, said some nurses and care workers did not have good enough English.
“The care sector’s a good example where you’ve got care sector workers doing excellent work, some of whose English isn’t proficient,” he told the Today programme. “And there’s been a concern expressed – especially by the elderly, who obviously speak and understand English – not being able to communicate with their care sector workers.”
He said language skills were important to help people integrate.
“It’s a simple thing, your ability to talk to your neighbour,” he said. “If you’re a parent, your ability to communicate with the teachers at your primary to see how young Johnny or young Ali’s doing at that school relies upon a good grasp of English.”