Tory MP Sajid Javid wants to spend £50m on ESOL lessons to help immigrants feel more integrated. While that might seem like a positive move, he’s ignoring some much bigger problems.

Tory MP Sajid Javid wants to spend £50m on ESOL lessons to help immigrants feel more integrated. While that might seem like a positive move, he’s ignoring some much bigger problems.

Sajid Javid has said he wants to spend £50m in order to fund courses to help immigrants learn English. He says that this measure will help boost integration and bring to an end the marginalisation of women in immigrant communities.

Superficially, the funding and aims seem like a broadly positive step – a rare occurrence in a Tory government. When it is held up to only minimal examination, though, the cracks and deficiencies in the plan are clear. This is a move from the government that serves to highlight the many failures of the past three terms of government (and indeed,  even further back than that).

The coalition and Conservative governments had already used the guise of austerity to slash funding for teaching English as a second language (ESOL). Funding was reduced by £45m, and it’s unclear what has happened with the £20m of new funding for ESOL promised by David Cameron in 2016. Assuming both this £20m funding and a new £50m are used, and are not being double counted, then – accounting for inflation – we are only back to where we were eight years ago.

The census figures show that the lack of ESOL affects 1.5 per cent of the population, which is a relatively low figure, and doesn’t take into account a few mitigating factors. Some of those unable to speak the language will be elderly and supported by their relatives and communities – learning English would likely be of limited use. Others will be children, and ready to learn the language quickly and naturally once they are in the school system.

Investing in courses alone is a misstep, and it ignores a wider problem. Access to the service is not a question just of providing it – there is also the fact that immigrants will take lower paid jobs, and work less convenient hours. This means that having the time and money to get to the courses is less likely in an economy which is oppressive for lower-paid workers. Javid also talks of wanting to get women into classes to liberate them, but fails to acknowledge the huge damage done to women by austerity in other means. Even yesterday, news broke that the government could soon stop feeding children in schools, despite claiming the economy is turning a corner.

Javid fails to acknowledge that immigrants who arrive as adults will have a disadvantage. Unless you’re particularly gifted, acquiring a new language to a fluent level could take many years, as second language acquisition becomes significantly harder as we get older. His example, that as a child he was his mother’s interpreter, ignores that linguistically it’s easier to be bilingual at six years old than it is at 36 years old.

The policy also ignores the particular obstacles faced by asylum seekers. It does nothing to counteract the hostile treatment they are given the moment they are taken on by the state, and it does nothing to solve any psychological or physical stresses that are at the heart of their asylum claims. These can hold back how effective ESOL courses are.

The complexity of further education funding means that asylum seekers often aren’t able to access college courses which would help with integration, because they’re not recourse to public funds. This means thousands of minors and adults spend months unable to access help with learning a language as they await a decision on their asylum claim, living on £37.75 a week or sometimes nothing at all.

The announcement has been delivered in a way that panders to the idea that immigrants are unwilling to integrate into society, but this is not really borne out by evidence. A report in 2017 highlighted that those most unwilling to integrate with people of other nationalities, or of different ethnic groups, are white British citizens. As discussed above, the amount of immigrants who don’t speak English is relatively small. This is a policy announcement that costs only a little cash, and can be used by the far right to reinforce their beliefs that immigrants do not play their part in society.

The report also highlighted that the vast majority – 9 out of 10 – immigrants speak English very well. If integration is really what Javid wants to bring about, then we can expect some focus on asking white Britons to get involved and change their ways. A Runnymede Trust report suggests that as well as funding more ESOL access, structural oppression should be tackled, integration should be promoted and counter-productive policies – that would demonise Muslims, or financially affect women of colour disproportionately – should be repealed. None of this has been adopted by any Tory minister. The myth of reluctance is politically useful, but it isn’t true.

Regardless of Javid’s intentions, and it probably pays to be cynical and sceptical, the effects of this policy may well be negative. It can be taken as a way to legitimise the myth that immigrants in the majority are able and willing to integrate into society, and it mentions nothing of the difficulties put into place of a hostile environment for newcomers to the UK. The continued existence of Yarls Wood, the facile Brexit negotiations, the explicit racism from MPs against Sadiq Khan are just a few strands of evidence that the government and much of society seems to feels hostility towards immigrants and those whose parents or grandparents were immigrants. Problems of integration from these blights go unaddressed – and with such a small economic contribution announced, it seems the government simply wants the status quo to continue.

Follow Jude Wanga on Twitter.

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