Initiative to get migrants speaking English will not work without funding – particularly as language classes have been hit by cuts
Labour has been agonising internally over how to deal with immigration and integration ever since Gordon Brown’s disastrous encounter with Gillian Duffy, the grandmother from Rochdale who he called a bigot for raising the issue during the 2010 general election campaign.
So Ed Miliband’s speech emphasising the importance of encouraging migrants to speak English and to participate in a wider society is an important moment in the development of a party strategy on integration. It also allows Labour to talk about some of the anxieties raised by immigration without having to get into a political auction over numbers or give substance to accusations that they are “dog-whistling”.
On the numbers, the Labour leader’s talk of the possibly of backing the government’s cap on non-EU migrants is neither here nor there. It is undersubscribed because companies are using other routes to get round it. Miliband is silent on the more important question of whether he will scrap Theresa May’s arbitrary target of getting net migration down below 100,000.
Instead he talks about integration. First it has to be made clear that the Labour leader is not arguing to make it compulsory for every British citizen to speak English. As the detailed text of his speech makes clear, he regards it as a long-term “goal” that everyone in Britain should know how to speak English: “We should expect that of people who come here.” That is quite a long way from compulsion.
The last Labour government went quite a long way down this road. David Blunkett first talked of the need for migrants to speak English. Labour ministers made it necessary to demonstrate a knowledge of English to get into Britain on a work or family visa and as a condition of becoming a British citizen.
Blunkett also introduced citizenship tests and ceremonies while boosting funding for English language classes targeted especially at long-term residents who were trapped in segregated communities because of their lack of English. Much of this flowed from the influential community cohesion inquiry report into the 2001 riots in Oldham, Burnley and Bradford, which identified the “parallel lives” of some of Britain’s minority ethnic communities.
So Miliband’s proposal that some public sector jobs that involve dealing with the public should be closed to people whose English is not good enough, as it is in some private sector posts, is only a small common sense step further down that road. It is also one that will resonate widely, particularly when he talks about care workers visiting the elderly for whom conversation may well be just as important as making a hot meal.
But this can only work if there are affordable English language classes available and they have been a major casualty of the squeeze on public spending. The communities secretary, Eric Pickles, who has published a minimalist integration strategy is to restrict free English lessons to those who are not in work and unable to afford the fees themselves, such as women with children living in closed communities. Simply telling councils to cut back on the spending on translation services won’t fund it. They have been doing less and less ever since Hazel Blears told them to scale back in 2008.
In the last Labour government, Liam Byrne, when he was immigration minister, got a migration impacts fund set up to deal with some of the problems in areas that had experienced the most rapid population growth. But the then chancellor, Gordon Brown, refused to fund it and instead it had to be financed from a levy on all new migrants. It never raised enough to make a difference.
If Miliband is going to have an integration strategy then it must be backed with serious funding otherwise he may find it equally difficult to give a convincing answer to any Gillian Duffy he meets at the next election.