14 June 2019

To build a cohesive society, we must all speak the same language

By Neil O'Brien

Here’s a surprising thing that a number of the contenders in the Conservative leadership race have in common.  Several have direct family experience of what it’s like to be an immigrant to the UK.

Boris Johnson’s grandfather was a political refugee from Turkey.

Dominic Raab, is the son of a Czech-Jewish refugee who fled the Nazis.

Sajid Javid’s father came from Pakistan to drive buses in Rochdale.

They all benefited from being welcomed into the British family.

I believe controlled immigration and more action to promote integration are two sides of the same coin. I believe we need less immigration exactly so that we can have more integration.

But whatever you think about immigration, we also need to ensure real integration for people who call Britain home – for example, by making sure that everyone has the opportunity to learn English and feel truly part of our society.

Successful integration is essential to build strong communities and ensure people realise their full potential. Being able to speak English is central to enabling refugees granted safe haven in our country to contribute to their new communities, enter work and make friends with their British neighbours. Being able to speak, write and understand our language unlocks the door to employment, studying and gaining independence.

In today’s Britain, it is essential that all can speak the same language. In these polarised times it’s of even more importance than usual to focus on what unites us, and nothing unites more than language. We want to build a confident, uniting culture and avoid fragmentation as Britain becomes more diverse.

I can see it in my own constituency on the edge of Leicester.  If we are going to make shared Britishness mean something in a more diverse society, then we need to start by get everyone (literally) speaking the same language.

English language classes are vital to promote social cohesion, and support people into work, and many positive steps have been put in place by the Conservative government to support refugee integration. In 2016 £10 million of funding was given for English for people arriving under the Syrian Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Scheme, more recently the 2018 the Integrated Communities Green Paper sets out a roadmap to ensure that everyone can go as far as hard work will take them and recognised the need to boost people’s English language skills to enable them to go far.

But despite this good progress, there’s still more to do. Many refugees are delayed from contributing to their communities as they wait months before starting English classes due to waiting lists and variable or patchy local provision.

Refugees want to learn English so that they can start to rebuild their lives; find work, study, volunteer and become part of their new communities. Without English, many refugees experience terrible loneliness and isolation, and they aren’t able to fulfil their potential or take responsibility their own integration. Loneliness can affect anyone and, as well as being horrible, has terrible implications for people’s health and wellbeing.

The evidence shows that those with low English language levels are less likely to be in employment, something that disproportionately impacts on women.  Recent research carried out by Refugee Action finds that due to their levels of English many refugees lacked confidence and felt they were not able to take up work because of their language skills. Parents reported being unable to take up classes due to a lack of childcare and many refugee women are presented with particular barriers.

In my own constituency we have a centre for refugees.  I am acutely aware that access to English classes is essential in finding employment, overcoming loneliness, meeting new people, and navigating the variety of services that people need to use as part of their everyday lives – including the health system, schools, and transport services.

I’ve been struck by refugees passionate gratitude to Britain and their desire to contribute to our society in return. They want to  work, to help people, and to learn. But I have also been struck by the many barriers that stop those refugees from doing so.

The desire to work and contribute are not only commendable but are also inherently Conservative values. The public agrees with us – new polling shows that 91 per cent of the UK adult population thinks that it is important that refugees who come to the UK learn to speak English and the vast majority support plans to invest in services to support refugees’ language skills.

Yet currently many refugees who embody these values in their desire to contribute are unable to do so. So in this year’s spending review lets back a drive to make sure everyone in this country can speak English.

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Neil O'Brien is MP for Harborough.