Chuka Umunna’s assertion that migrants need to learn English to avoid living parallel lives is most disconcerting. I heard this assertion over two years ago from less savoury quarters and was moved to comment on it at length. I won’t repeat what I said, as tempting as it is, you can read that for yourselves. When Sajid Javid proffered a similar point in 2014, I was embarrassed to see a man from an ethnic minority background with his feet firmly under the desk waving a stop sign to immigrants following in the same path as Javid’s family. It is not the first time I had heard a person of colour saying that new immigrants to the nation must meet a standard that they themselves had not been set, and it won’t be the last time either.
What irks me this time is that it is Labour minister making the assertion and it irks me on several levels. Let me explain. I am painfully aware, as a Labour voter, of the pressure the party is under to be something new, to reincarnate under a messianic leader and to be a credible opposition to a government that has had very little contest in the time it has taken to sort out who’s in charge at Labour HQ. But is this where the Labour Party is going? Did someone send a memo that said Nigel Farage is doing okay with voters in the north and I think we should put out statements that sort of sound like him?
One of the problems with Chuka Umunna’s declaration is that he is a bit late to the party. The Casey Review was commissioned over a year ago by the Prime Minister and Home Secretary, with a remit to investigate integration and opportunity in isolated and deprived communities. The review was released in December 2016. In its 199 pages, it outlined the reasons why learning English if you are new to the country is a good idea. It outlined clearly and with a sense of compassion that life is much harder for immigrants that do not speak English. No one can argue with that.
Take this and the fact that government policy on requirements for immigrants to speak English to be able to gain citizenship or leave to remain seems to be fairly clear – and I am left wondering: why bring this up now, Mr Umunna? Visit www.gov.uk and check the pages on immigration. It’s there. There’s a 15-page list of where you can take the tests to prove your English proficiency before or after you arrive.
So who is Chuka Umunna talking about? What kind of migrant? Refugees? The government have declared they are exempt from the requirement. Transient economic migrants? How do you enforce compulsory classes on a transient population? Established communities living parallel lives, then. I would argue that it would be even harder – and more expensive – to enforce language classes on high-ethnic minority concentration areas such as Bradford. Not because I think people would be unwilling. Immigrants do want to be able to communicate. But there isn’t a solution to that until somebody coughs up the money it would take to cover it. And who is going to explain that to austerity Britain, already chomping at the bit, that tax payers’ money is being spent on funding for immigrant language classes? I would volunteer, but I’m too busy trying to work out how to provide a quality education to students while the Conservative government merrily chips away at the finances.
Crucially, how do you make it happen when two years ago funding for ESOL delivery was slashed – in fact, when funding for ESOL has halved since 2009? I doff my hat to Sajid Javid for finding £20 million for ESOL for Muslim women, who are less likely to learn to speak English than other newcomers. But it doesn’t fix the gaping hole in ESOL funding. It’s still staring at us, while we stare at already marginalised communities and demand that they learn to speak properly.
That’s why Chuka Umunna’s lack of clarity makes me uneasy. That and the fervent desire to hear a leader say something refreshing and new about the society in which we all live and work. Focusing on immigrants speaking English, without a clear funding plan and without having considered the current government’s stance on this, seems a little pointless. Dear Labour Party: give me more than rehashed UKIP fodder, with a side of Conservative Javid.
Originally published as ‘It Costs Money to Teach Immigrants English, Mr Umunna’ on Huffington Post UK