Luke Stanley: Somewheres, Anywheres – and Somewhere Elses. How to help migrants learn English.

4 Sep

Luke Stanley is Policy Adviser to Lord Hague of Richmond and Parliamentary Researcher to Anthony Mangnall MP. He writes in a personal capacity.

Towards the end of the nineteenth century, L. L. Zamenhof, a doctor in Warsaw, embarked upon an ambitious goal. To foster harmony between different nations, Zamenhof created a new common language, Esperanto, that he hoped the whole world would one day learn as a secondary language. Reflecting on his hometown in later life, he wrote:

“In Bialystok the inhabitants were divided into four distinct elements: Russians, Poles, Germans, and Jews; each of these spoke their own language and looked on all the others as enemies. In such a town [one] … sees at every step that the diversity of languages is the first, or at least the most influential, basis for the separation of the human family”

Zamenhof’s dream of a universal secondary language never came to fruition, but his goal underscores an important truth: for communities to be connected, they have to be able to talk to one another.

After Brexit, there has been a renewed effort by experts to reknit our country’s social fabric and bring together “Somewheres” and “Anywheres”. However, this national debate has largely overlooked how to help fully integrate the “Somewhere Elses” – migrants born overseas – into our society by supporting them to learn English.

Given the likely impact of the outcome in Afghanistan on flows of refugees, policies to address English language barriers will be more important than ever.

Aside from the impact on society, failure to address language barriers and help fully integrate new migrants also comes with high economic costs. Studies by the University of Aberdeen and Demos have shown that migrants with better language English skills are more likely to be employed or economically active than those with less proficiency for English.

Poor English skills can also limit an individual’s civic participation and access to public services. Numerous studies and reports have concluded that language barriers may be one of the factors contributing to the disproportionate toll that Covid has inflicted upon ethnic minorities.

So how common is low proficiency in English among migrants? Unfortunately, the data in this area is very poor, with the latest reliable survey the 2011 Census. This recorded that, of the four million people across England whose main language was not English, 844,000 (20 per cent) could not speak English well, including 134,000 (three per cent) who could not speak English at all.

Local areas with the highest proportions of poor English speakers per head of population were concentrated in London and Leicester. We will have to wait until analysis of this year’s census is released to get an up to date picture of language skills across the English population.

That said, more regular data is available on the number of children who have a different first language than English (DFL children), although this data does not distinguish between bilingual and children who cannot speak English. This year’s release shows that there are 1.6 million DFL children across England, 19 per cent of the school population. But more interesting than their overall number is their concentration across the country. Analysis of data for the individual schools shows that of the total number of DFL children across England, over 40% attend a school where they account for a majority of the school.

So what can be done to help adult migrants improve their English skills and support greater social mixing between school children of different linguistic backgrounds?

First, given that the Department for Education’s 2019 review of English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) provision found that the cost of a course was one of the main barriers to potential learners, the Government could consider creating a ESOL loan scheme. Although the Government does already cover the cost of these courses for the unemployed, an undergraduate-style student loan scheme for ESOL could help support in-work migrants seeking to improve their English proficiency, in order to progress to a better paid job.

Second, more can be done to support informal, community-led “conversation clubs” that migrants often attend alongside official ESOL classes. Last June, an evidence review by the Learning and Work Institute concluded that a lack of classroom space was a “key barrier to delivering quality provision”. A lack of physical infrastructure for community programmes is not a problem unique to English language clubs with many other civic and voluntary activities struggling for space. The Government should therefore carefully consider the proposal from Onward for a Social Spaces Act to introduce an automatic permission for long-term unused assets to be converted for community use, including conversation clubs.

Finally, the Government should explore options for boosting social mixing through schools, wherever possible. While the UK’s national school linking programme, which has connected over 500 schools and helped more than 20,000 school children take part in community cohesion activities, has been a great success, the Government could consider expanding this programme further.

Of those asked in the British Social Attitudes Survey 2013, 95 per cent respondents said that to be “truly British” you must be able to speak English. Only by redoubling our efforts to help migrants learn English can we ensure that our country does not come to resemble Zamenhof’s Bialystok, where different communities live side-by-side without ever speaking to one another.

The Mordaunt affair. If there’s a ban on Ministerial engagement with the MCB, it must be enforced.

22 Feb

The Sun reported today that Penny Mordaunt has been rapped by Downing Street for meeting with the new Secretary-General of the Muslim Council of Britain.  Thereby hangs a tale, or perhaps a puzzle.

Number Ten emphasised to ConservativeHome recently that “the Government’s position is that we don’t engage at all with the MCB” [Downing Street’s italics].  That doesn’t seem to have been the case under Theresa May.

A written question from Lord Blencathra in 2018 asked why Home Office officials met with the MCB “to discuss the possibility of Home Office re-engagement” – in other words, to have talks about talks.

This does not of course mean that Ministers met with the MCB during the May Government.  Though Liberal Democrat ones certainly did so during the Coalition years.

Then again, those Ministers may well have been acting in a personal capacity – to borrow the kind of language that Charles Farr, the former Director of the Government’s Office for Security and Counter-Terrorism, used about David Cameron’s Munich speech.

At any rate, the answer to Blencathra’s question was that “the Government meets with a wide range of organisations in order to safeguard individuals, families and communities from the harmful impacts of extremism and radicalisation”.

“These organisations must be prepared to show leadership, point to solutions and challenge and confront extremist and terrorist ideologies and narratives whatever form they take.”

Downing Street itself drew our attention to that reply when we asked on what terms if any a ban applied, and the suggestion is that the Government is dissatisfied with the MCB on that front.

However, civil servants in some departments have met with the organisation on a variety of issues in recent years – for example, religious slaughter and burials.

So there is a sense that the left hand of government doesn’t necessarily know what the right hand is doing.  The Sun referred obscurely to Mordaunt meeting with the MCB in her capacity as a constituency MP.

We wrote yesterday about the ommission of confronting those ideologies from the Prime Minister’s successor speech to Cameron’s – delivered at the same regular event, the Munich Conference on Security.

This suggested that the Government’s attention to and policing of its own guidelines is not all that it might be.  In which case, it needs to get its act together.

Either there’s a ban on Ministerial engagement with the MCB or there isn’t; either the bar extends to civil servants too, or it doesn’t, and whatever the situation may be, the Government should be more forthcoming about the reasons for it.

And if Ministers go wide of whatever guidelines are judged necessary, it’s three strikes and they’re out.  Or, better, two.  Whatever the Government’s guidelines may be, no-one will take them seriously if it doesn’t do so itself.

P.S: On a related subject, the independent investigation into discrimination within the Conservative Party continues its enquiries.  Since its call for evidence took place last October, we all need to hear from it sooner rather than later.

Benedict Rogers: The Government urgently needs an integration plan for those fleeing oppression in Hong Kong

27 Jan

Benedict Rogers is a human rights activist and writer and a former parliamentary candidate. He is the co-founder and Chief Executive of Hong Kong Watch, co-founder and Deputy Chair of the UK Conservative Party Human Rights Commission and a member of the advisory group of the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China (IPAC). 

On July 1 last year, Dominic Raab, the Foreign Secretary, announced one of the most courageous, generous and heroic expansions of immigration policy in post-Second World War history. With the backing of the Prime Minister and the leadership of the Home Secretary, both of whom deserve credit, he unveiled an offer to millions of Hong Kongers in their hour of need, telling them they could come to Britain, live, study and work here and be on a pathway to citizenship and security.

At the end of this month, in just a few days’ time, that offer becomes a reality. Covid-19 restrictions on our borders, quarantine and flightpaths may delay the flow, but without doubt a large number of Hong Kongers will take up the offer just as soon as they can. The expansion of the British National Overseas (BNO) passport right means that over five million Hong Kongers – those born before 1997 and their dependents – are eligible to come to the United Kingdom, to live here, buy or rent property here, find a job here and be on a “pathway to citizenship” that will enable them to settle here.

In the Home Office’s own terms, it’s a hybrid scheme – part humanitarian rescue, part migration. Those who qualify for BNO are not coming as refugees, but migrants and future British citizens. But some – those born after 1997, who include the most vulnerable young protesters in grave danger of political prosecution – are already coming to Britain too, in search of urgent sanctuary. We must be ready to support them.

The Government’s offer is generous and bold but for the potential of the scheme to be realised, we must now prioritise integration.

When thousands of Hong Kongers arrive at Heathrow and are waved through under the new scheme, what happens next? What preparations are in place for quarantine, how to help them find housing, jobs, schools for their kids, access to a GP? They have no recourse to public funds under the terms of the offer, but there is a need for a welcome pack and an integration plan.

A common misperception prevails that Hong Kongers are all wealthy, super-educated, entrepreneurial and speak great English: so no problem. I lived in Hong Kong for five years and have worked with Hong Kongers for almost 25 years, and I can tell you: most are dynamic, many are entrepreneurial, a good number are educated, but not all speak good English, some don’t have wealth and a few are very vulnerable. Helping them get up on their feet will not be onerous on the taxpayer, and the millions of pounds in capital which may arrive with them will doubtless be a boon, but those who choose to flee oppression in Hong Kong deserve a warm welcome and signposts to help them start their new lives.

We need a plan – from government and civil society. That’s why this week over ten civil society groups have signed a letter to Penny Mordaunt, the Paymaster General, who is coordinating the Government’s response, to call for one to be put in place.

This should draw on the extensive experience that civil society, churches, communities, families and individuals have of welcoming people to the UK: a society where people from around the world have found they can flourish. But government – in Whitehall and at local authority level – need a plan, and some resources, in place.

There should be an information hub for Hong Kongers when they arrive – for the immediate pandemic-related question of where they go for quarantine, and then the short-term question of what arrangements can be made for accommodation.

Then Government and civil society should work together to ensure that Hong Kongers are welcomed, and receive the advice they need to settle in – to find a doctor, a school, a job, a community and opportunities.

Given the chance, Hong Kongers will be a net gain for Britain’s economy and society. As a generalisation and in the long-run, they will be people with a “get up and go” spirit who will start businesses, create jobs and contribute to our professions. They will be doctors, nurses, lawyers, accountants and teachers who will bring talent to our public sector, or small business people who will begin enterprises that will bring dynamism to our economy.

To those in Britain who fear that a migration influx will “steal” jobs, I say that on the contrary they will create them. Some might even be recruited to our foreign and defence apparatus to bring linguistic and intelligence expertise to enhance our national security. The idea of a “charter city” for Hong Kongers, perhaps in the north of England, advanced by Lord Skildelsky, Lord Alton and others, could be further explored. All in all, it’s a moral and humanitarian policy that will result in a net gain for Britain. But only if done well because if implemented poorly – or with no planning at all – it could foster resentment and even Sinophobia.

Whitehall, local government, civil society and communities all have a part to play in welcoming Hong Kongers to Britain. That needs a plan, co-ordination and resources. Mordaunt must call an emergency cross-departmental ministerial meeting immediately, to put a plan in place to ensure that an historic offer doesn’t become an historic disaster.