Andrew Thorpe-Apps 1.48pm
In a recent speech in Tooting, Ed Miliband outlined plans to ensure that frontline staff in the state sector are able to speak ‘proficient’ English. It is part of achieving what he labelled a ‘connected nation’ rather than a ‘segregated one’.
“If we are going to build one nation, we need to start with everyone in Britain knowing how to speak English. We should expect that of people that come here. We will work together as a nation far more effectively when we can always talk together.”
The Labour leader is correct in highlighting the importance of comprehensible English. It is a sad reality that the language skills of many nurses and care workers are below par. Frequently, concerns are raised by the sick and elderly that they cannot communicate with their carers.
Language skills are crucial if new immigrants are to integrate into society. Without proficiency in English, how can you communicate with your neighbour? How can you communicate with your children’s teachers? A common language enables immigrants to advance their careers and improve their lives. A life where you can have no social interaction with the majority of people around you is surely no life at all.
Without the ability to communicate across ethnic and racial lines, separation sets in. Separation leads to isolation, and those who are isolated will have no chance at social mobility. Isolation also creates ignorance, suspicion and prejudice regarding other groups.
A good example of the dangers of segregation can be found in Tower Hamlets. Lutfur Rahman, the borough’s independent mayor, has implemented policies which see public funds diverted into Bengali-only drugs projects, arts projects and youth projects. What is more, many of these groups are merely a front for Mr Rahman’s extremist allies – the Islamic Forum of Europe. Incredibly, Tower Hamlets also pays for British-born children, who have grown up speaking English, to learn Bengali.
However, while we should applaud the main thrust of Mr Miliband’s Tooting speech, a note of caution must be urged. This is not the first time Labour have spoken about the need for immigrants to learn English. David Blunkett, speaking in 2004, said that immigrants would have to achieve a ‘minimum standard in English’. Jacqui Smith said in 2007 that immigrants must ‘integrate into our country, learn English and use our language’. As recently as 2009, Phil Woolas stated that ‘immigrants must learn English’.
Yet the last Labour government presided over increasingly segregated communities and allowed entry to vast numbers of immigrants with only rudimentary English. Today, almost one million children in Britain do not speak English as their first language at home. There are also around one million households where no one speaks English at all.
The current government inherited a shambolic immigration system which had long been abused. Net migration under the last 10 years of the Labour government was 2 million people, a figure equivalent to the combined population of Birmingham, Manchester and Liverpool. Theresa May has gradually reformed the system, closing down 180 bogus colleges in the process.
Ed Miliband has admitted that the last Labour government believed integration would happen ‘automatically’. He conceded that, when in government, Labour failed to take voters’ concerns about the impact of immigration seriously. In fact, for much of Labour’s time in office, political correctness was so entrenched that anyone who mentioned immigration was open to accusations of racism.
In his speech, the Labour leader was expected to make a ‘full apology’ for Labour’s failures on immigration and tackling segregation – but apparently he ‘forgot’.
If Ed Miliband genuinely wants to make amends for Labour’s disastrous immigration record, he should drop his opposition to the government’s immigration cap and its crackdown on bogus students.
But the reality is that Labour’s open-door immigration policy was no mistake. It was a deliberate attempt to create a new constituency of grateful Labour voters. To a large extent, it has worked – roughly 80% of ethnic minority voters supported Labour at the last election.
Even if Ed Miliband is genuine in his plans, he is wrong to think that putting more money into English language courses will solve the twined problems of segregation and integration on its own. Also, if history is anything to go by, this sudden focus on the promotion of English may be little more than a tactical manoeuvre to win over disaffected white working-class voters.
Frankly, it is difficult to see how Labour can ever regain credibility in this area.
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