Today marks one year until Brexit. This time last year the Government triggered Article 50 following a vote to leave the European Union that was overwhelmingly driven by scepticism among voters towards Britain’s current immigration system. While immigration is mostly beneficial to the UK economy, there is some concern that the social impact of immigration may be less beneficial, and this social impact may be causing the scepticism among voters. This concern led to the Government, two weeks ago, publishing its social integration green paper.
Britain has long been a multicultural country. However, since World War Two the number of immigrants choosing to settle in the UK has increased substantially. The passing of the 1948 British Nationality Act (since repealed) gave individuals from across the Commonwealth the right to live and work in Britain. While the EU’s freedom of movement allowed all EU citizens the same rights.
However, the increasing number of immigrants has led to concern that integration and cohesion in British communities is being eroded. Two weeks ago, on March 14, Sajid Javid, the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government announced the Government’s new Integrated Communities Strategy green paper.
The green paper drew upon Dame Louise Casey’s independent review into opportunity and integration. Casey’s review exposed the lack of integration, social and economic exclusion, and inequality in British society. Two key factors which contributed to these results were religion, and English proficiency.
Casey’s report found that 760,000 people aged 16+ in England (1.8% of the population) could not speak English well or at all. In addition, Pakistani and Bangladeshi groups are underrepresented as compared to other ethnic minorities within the professional workforce, and Muslims had the lowest median hourly income among religious groups.
Casey connected the low levels of English speaking to lower levels of employment as well as inequality and harm within British society, the statistic is even worse for women than for men. The Equality Statement for Integrated Communities Strategy Green Paper stated that, “English language proficiency is identified to be a diver of integration in the relevant literature - it is a fundamental to social mixing, trust, education and employment potential”.
It is the English factor which has captured the public’s attention. Although the green paper details numerous methods for integration, English has become centre-stage. Perhaps, this is because, as the paper states, “87% of people with English as their main language felt they belonged strongly Great Britain compared to 79% of people without”; therefore, knowledge of the English language both helps foster integration into British society and enables employment.
The Sun newspaper was very critical of the Government following the release of the Green Paper, believing that Casey’s recommendations were ‘watered down’, and became largely ineffective. The Sun claimed that according to Casey, the problem of integration stems from the Government “failing to handle the downside of mass immigration. Instead, segregation along religious and race lines has spiralled and worsened the pull of extremism.” Therefore, the Sun and others from the Right would like to see the original policies proposed to mitigate these problems, such as swearing-in of British values for public office holders, English speaking targets, and a homeschooling council. Perhaps most importantly, the green paper slashed Casey’s recommended £200 million budget to a mere £50 m.
The slashing of the Budget has been denounced on all sides. Opposition MPs were outraged by the proposal, claiming the Government to be perpetuating their old negative stereotype: “the party of the hostile environment and go home vans”. Specifically, the Opposition became outraged at the emphasis on English as an integration tool given the Coalition Government’s history of cutting funding for English programs by 60% since 2009-10. Claiming, if English is such an important part of British culture, why was the funding cut?
Other criticisms, echoed in a letter written to The Guardian, argued the Government could not ask people to learn English without offering free classes. Unfortunately, with cuts to local government, “funding for free English classes went up in flames.”
Martin Parsons praises the Green Paper’s divergence from Casey’s review on the issue of extremism. Particularly, respecting freedom of religion whilst denouncing extreme terrorist actions-- a line which Casey’s review blurs. This is important as both publications emphasise religious schools and religious practices, such as shari’a law, as obstacles in integration.
On this note of differentiating religion and religious extremism, Chuka Umunna MP, and chair of the Integration All Party Parliamentary Group, praised Sajid Javid for the understanding that “integration is a two way street, and he doesn’t fall into the trap of conflating integration with counter-terror”.
British society has a perceived integration problem, which the Government has identified and attempts to resolve. So far many of the policies suggested by the Government relate to English language courses. However, the Government faces criticism here since the Conservative Party previously presided over cuts to English course funding for migrants during the Coalition Government. The Government has stated that its integration program needs to have the ability to evolve. However, it still remains unclear how the Government will seek to integrate our communities outside of English lessons.
The Government launched an open consultation for the Integrated Communities Strategy green paper, responses to the Green Paper can be submitted here.
Sharon Sethna is a research assistant at Bright Blue