20 September 2021

Integration should be top of Michael Gove’s in-tray

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‘I’m just thinking of delivery’, the Prime Minister told his reshuffled Cabinet when it met for the first time on Friday. After 18 months in which the pandemic has dominated, the Government has to deliver on its domestic priorities. In education and health, in particular, ministers must set a new post-Covid course to social recovery.

Arguably, Michael Gove’s renamed Department of Levelling Up, Housing and Communities faces the most formidable in-tray of all. It could become known as the ‘Ministry of Delivery’ too. Gove must deliver on housing supply and resolve the cladding scandal, while giving substance to the ‘levelling up’ agenda across government is crucial to the Conservatives’ electoral prospects. Saving the Union depends on finding a case that reaches further beyond party tribes to the social democratic centre of Middle Scotland.  And there’s one more crucial egg that has been placed in the basket of the most energetic of Cabinet ministers: how to make a success of integration.

The story of integration in Britain is a mixed one, with both successes and shortcomings. It’s generally accepted that ours is a more anxious and divided society than any of us would want, yet we have rarely – if ever – had a proper strategy for integration. Green shoots towards a strategy were evident during Sajid Javid’s time as Communities Secretary, with an Integrated Communities Green Paper  and five Integration Action Areas. But expanding this programme was stalled by the pandemic, and pledges to reverse cuts to English language teaching have yet to be enacted.

Gove’s new, super-charged ministry will now need to kickstart the integration agenda once again. Hong Kong has been the highest-profile example of the Prime Minister’s argument that controlling migration can mean deciding to say ‘yes’ as well as ‘no’. Giving the right to live and work in the UK to up to 3 million Hongkongers has been by far the largest discretionary post-Brexit immigration policy decision.

There is a broad consensus that this is the right thing to do. Attitudes to migration have shifted significantly since 2016, as the latest wave of Ipsos MORI’s Immigration Attitudes Tracker, published by British Future last week shows. There have been no parliamentary opponents at all, in stark contrast to the highly polarised debate about Hong Kong between Norman Tebbit and Paddy Ashdown a generation ago. There is public support across party and referendum tribes too – with over two-thirds of people supporting a new visa offer to Hong Kong, and only 12% opposed.

But that public support may prove contingent on how well migration and integration is handled. Respondents to the Ipsos MORI poll were evenly divided between those who favoured the policy taking all eligible Hongkongers, or having some kind of cap on numbers.

What happens next will have an important impact on both the opportunities available to thousands of Hongkongers and on the experience of the communities that they join – and also on maintaining public consent for the immigration that Britain chooses to keep after Brexit.

Welcoming Hongkongers: how to get it right from the start

Nobody knows how many Hongkongers will come to Britain. The Home Office has a broad estimate of around 300,000 arrivals over five years – though past experience shows how perilous projections and predictions about future migration flows can be. A central reason for the loss of public confidence in the handling of EU migration after 2004 was that the Government did not anticipate, prepare for or respond quickly enough to the scale of arrivals.

If integration is a two-way street, there are strong foundations to build from in welcoming Hongkongers. Many will already understand the rights and responsibilities of those who come to Britain.

So it is important that the UK government has adopted a more proactive stance towards welcoming and integration than towards any previous wave of migration to the UK. But there will be many specific challenges: working out what data to collect; how to share this in real time with relevant stakeholders; and how to ensure that Hongkongers themselves have a clear voice to influence integration policy and practice.

Those who come from Hong Kong will be a diverse and shifting group, reflecting the different reasons why people migrate to Britain: to study and to work, to invest and to seek sanctuary and protection. Some Hongkongers who choose to come here may have strong and established links in the UK, as investors and professionals, with little need for further official support. Others have feel forced to leave their homes, to an unfamiliar place, with little notice or preparation, so have similar support needs to refugees who have claimed asylum. 

Gove should see an opportunity for the Levelling Up agenda here too. National and regional policy must manage the practical pressures well and seek to spread the economic gains of Hong Kong migration. That could help to contribute to regional growth in sectors including finance and technology; and success here would disperse some of the population pressures on housing and services too.

Because the visa offer to those with British National (Overseas) status was a proactive policy decision, the Home Office and Gove’s newly minted DLUHC have the opportunity to work more with economic and civic society stakeholders, building on the positive examples of Syrian resettlement.  Since the Hong Kong decision was made, the Government has also embarked on Operation Warm Welcome for Afghan refugees.

Different groups will have different needs in terms of health (including mental health), language, education and employment. The English language needs of Hongkongers may also differ from other groups of migrants, with less need for basic English fluency. But accessing more technical English for work and professional use may be important to help these migrants make the most of their educational and professional skills and qualifications. Getting it right for these specific groups can shape a more proactive integration effort.

Tailored English language support should, for example, be combined with a new ‘Learning English’ freeview channel. This would help both the Hong Kong and Afghan welcoming programmes, with broader benefits to supporting language learning across groups. It would also assist integration into UK society, both for newcomers and those taking up citizenship later in their journey to settlement.

Welcoming incomers and facilitating their integration into a new society requires a two-way relationship between the welcomers and the welcomed.  If the ‘Ministry of Delivery’ can get this right, it will have a significant influence how Britain thinks about immigration and integration in the decade to come.

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Sunder Katwala is Director of British Future.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.