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
When Sajid Javid, the first Asian Secretary of State, talks about assimilation and immigrants learning to speak English, I do not naturally object to anything he is saying. His assertion that respecting a British way of life means “things like trying to learn English” seems sound, if a bit vague. My family, for the large part, did just that and expected their children to do the same. Conceptually, it’s a great idea.
My parents, East African Asian and first generation immigrants, spoke English pretty well as they came from former British colonies. My grandparents, older, more set in their ways, found it more challenging. Assimilation was an idea, a process that I absorbed without really thinking about what it meant politically. I grew up in a predominantly Asian community, choosing to speak English all the time, refusing to go to Gujerati school because my uncle was the teacher and I was too embarrassed to attend, having my friends call me a ‘coconut’ (brown on the outside and white on the inside) – these were all part of my every day experience. I became an English teacher. About as assimilated as you can be, I suppose.
I wonder though, and I may be wearing something of a cynical hat, how much of Sajid Javid’s statements are really about the value of language learning to families who arrive on our shores. In a political climate in which UKIP’s Nigel Farage openly scaremongers about Romanian families coming to live next door and possibly stealing from you, you can almost imagine the conversation at Tory headquarters. How does a mainstream political party join in the populist rhetoric on immigration and yet not be seen as a group of fascists or loons? I know, let’s send an Asian man to say it and then it won’t be seen as such a bad thing, because if the Asians are saying it, it’s okay right? Right? Dave, are you still listening?
So forgive me if I’m not seeing this for what it is – apparently an attempt by the Conservative Party to protect Britishness. It reads a little bit like pre-election UKIP neutralisation, a little bit like ‘easy for me, therefore easy for you’ lazy politicking and also a little bit like internalised oppression.
I teach English to London’s melting pot. I know the value of learning to speak the language of the country you are in. Not because speaking a different language is somehow an insult to the country you have chosen to live in, but because it is useful to be able to communicate with education and medical professionals, especially if you have children.
Recently, I set up English classes for parents of a particular ethnic group at my school as I identified that many parents from this group, and in particular, mothers were finding it difficult to communicate with teachers. Parents’ evenings were hard work and came with much embarrassment for all involved, children included. I found a member of support staff who was TEFL trained and finally found some money for her to teach English, after school was finished for the day, to a group of parents. The take up was fantastic and parents were enormously grateful for the opportunity. It proved to me what I already knew, that immigrant families are keen for the opportunity to learn and will take it when offered. My school made a small step in encouraging participation in society by doing something practical, by providing a solution. You see, Mr Javid, as someone who also believes that speaking English is important in England, I put my money where my mouth is.
What occurs to me is that in all the rhetoric, Sajid Javid has forgotten something very simple. Where is the government funding and access for keen families and individuals to learn English if they should wish it? While the will may be there from immigrant families, the financial ability to attend classes may not be. Schools could be, like mine, a hub for community learning, but there are staffing and funding implications for this. As a qualified English teacher, who knows how important it is to the parents of my students to speak English, I do not have the funding or the power to offer them a way to communicate. None of this has been addressed in Sajid Javid’s’s speech. What is worse is that his speech somewhat relies on the fact that people may not remember the Conservative government cut funding to ESOL classes in 2011, meaning fewer immigrants could access these classes for free. There will be people who ask why newcomers should have access to English classes for free. Well, people, you can’t have it both ways. I imagine, when it comes down to a choice between using limited family income on food, clothing and essentials, or English classes so no one around you feels uncomfortable when you speak your own language instead, it doesn’t take a genius to work out which route newcomers take.
There is a real opportunity here to do something extremely positive for new communities in the UK. I guess this is not just a Conservative issue; I am yet to hear any politician, mainstream or otherwise, provide a real solution to this age-old problem. Instead of just telling us from what seems like a fairly privileged position what you think about speaking English in England, you could use your influence to provide funding, possibly to schools that already have the premises and in many cases, the staff, for ESOL classes for the immigrant parents of the children. You could support the work of schools who already provide language classes for parents and the local community. If you are going to send an Asian man to deliver this message, you could have him explain how his family did it – and what resources they used to access the English language.
It would certainly take the fear and scaremongering out of the politics and serve to identify the political wheat from the chaff – parties that want to affect real change, not just pontificate on it.
Channel 4’s controversial new show, deemed ‘poverty porn’ by social commentators, TV reviewers and critics, is an uncomfortable, uncompromising experience. Having watched two episodes now and having felt a little bit grubby afterwards, I have questioned not only the motivations of Channel 4 in airing something that has solicited such negative attention, but my own motivation and inability to turn it off. What is it about the show that makes it compelling?
Critics have slated the show as being a vehicle of ridicule for the residents of James Turner Street, citing their lack of awareness of how they were going to be portrayed on the show. 4.3 millions viewers have tuned in, commenting loudly on social media using the hashtag #benefitsstreet. Certainly, a problematic aspect of the show is the level of aftercare for the residents, considering the negativity the show has attracted. It also glosses over some of the reasons why the families living on James Turner Street live the way they do, allowing the public to make their own assumptions – a dangerous gambit. Owen Jones has been particularly critical. I have engaged in several debates about whether it is ethical to watch the show at all – after all, what is the benefit of Benefits Street?
Watching the show this evening, possibly against my better judgement at the end of a long day, I experienced the gamut of emotions I have come to associate with my Benefits Street viewing experience – a heady mix of disgust, of concern, of anger, of shame (yes, shame for watching!) and of horror as I followed the Twitter hashtag. Perhaps my argument today is a result of an inability to reconcile the desire to watch with the fear that I am part of something hideous – a baying crowd for what is reassuringly ‘Other’. I have to find a reason for the show, to understand it in some way, or I am just part of the circus that accompanies the whole thing.
So, with that in mind, it occurs to me that that the show provides something we do not often experience. For many, the recession is something other people have suffered. Financial hardship is at an arm’s length and we care about it in the same way we care about starving children in third world countries – with a condescending pity. We watch because it is comforting. We are not like those people. I am not like those people.
Yet it courts the worst elements in society. Follow #benefitsstreet and you will see the dregs of humanity, spewing the vilest comments. The inadvertent (or entirely intentional?) result of the show is the turning up of the rock. The show exposes not only the residents of the street, but the rampant prejudices of its viewers. And the viewers have reacted exactly as they must: a middle class, seemingly moderate crowd who bemoan the show’s exploitation of its ‘stars’, whilst keeping a respectful distance. But you see, I’ve had that thought. And I watch with everyone else, with my central heating on and food on a plate because I am not those people on TV. I have something to be grateful for. And I can watch them and follow the viciousness on Twitter because it reaffirms everything I subconsciously believe. I am not those people, on screen or off screen.
Maybe those who have complained about the show are uncomfortable with the truth that it accidentally exposes. We don’t live in a Working Title movie. While we might have believed that the recession meant that some people had to ‘tighten their belts’ and that government cuts meant that some people might be a little less well off, the show shatters any rose-tinted illusions about inequality and the income gap. There are some very poor people and as much as social media and the press may want to point fingers at those individuals to blame them for their own predicaments, it is also clear that the poverty depicted on the show is ingrained – not a conscious choice, but the result of decades of neglect and failures of the state to break the cycle of that poverty.
My worry is that the show is actually too subtle for some watching it. Look closely and you might see the crippling addictions of one its characters, the strange anger of a serial criminal and the self destruction that goes with his behaviour. Look closely and you will see the contrasts presented between different groups of residents in the street. But the reactionary world of Twitter and Facebook, where armchair commentary means you can swing your fist no matter who you punch in the face, is rife with those who have not stopped to consider the smaller points. It is altogether easier for some to utter the immortal words about Romanian immigrants: “Go back to where you came from if you don’t like it here!” Probably whilst making several grammatical errors.
It is easy to level the accusation that Channel 4 are behaving irresponsibly by airing the show because they are providing fodder for the racists and misogynists online and elsewhere. Is it better to play it safe and sugar-coat our national identity so we don’t have to what it can be like on ‘the other side’? Or should Channel 4 show us that we are capable of turning into a baying crowd when faced with an aspect of our society we cannot assimilate into our consciousness?
The vitriol on the hashtag that accompanies the show should be a stark warning to our government. What causes such anger against people less fortunate than others? Have we always been a nation so lacking in empathy that we would suggest ‘bombing’ James Turner Street? When did we become these people?
In many ways, Channel 4 has accomplished something that very rarely happens in the mainstream media. It has managed to create a three way dynamic that forces us to question ourselves. It has asked us to watch ourselves watching the residents of Benefits Street. Now that I can see that, I’m not sure I like what I see.
Is it me, or does Theresa May’s ‘temporary cap’ on immigration sound an awful lot like the latest attempt by BP to curb their little oil spill?
It has only been a couple of months since The Big Tory (liberal democrat) Takeover and already, the deluge – of legislation that provides enough anti-immigrant sentiment to keep the most vitriolic Daily Mail reader happy for the next ten years. “Introducing this temporary limit is necessary to ensure that we don’t get a rush of people trying to come through into the UK before that permanent limit is put in place next year,” said our Theresa. Oh good, I was really worried that some highly skilled migrant workers might come and camp on my doorstep and demand that I quit my job so they can do it for less.
It’s not that I don’t understand the arguments about immigration. Those of you scoffing at my left-wing liberal, bleeding heartness, I can hear you cry: “But we can’t have everyone and anyone leeching off our soft-touch state!” Calm down, dear. I have witnessed many a debate about the burden on our economy, the awkward race relations (including a particularly pernicious disagreement at work about whether any school should be allowed to serve pork, because it might offend someone) and the concerns about ‘integration’. Anyone who has the dubious pleasure of scanning online comments boards attached to news stories will know the phrase ‘soft touch’ makes more than a few appearances. We can’t be a ‘soft touch’, no, that would be terrible! People would take advantage and then where would we be?
I would like to believe that we could live in a state where debates about immigration aren’t fuelled by our innermost fears about identity and belonging. That we could eliminate discussion about migrant workers being denied access to NHS services. I would like to believe that arguments could be made about the idea of the state having a ‘human touch’, rather than being a ‘soft touch’.
Alrighty then. We could just elect a different political party next time.