Caroline Spelman is a former Environment Secretary, and is MP for Meriden.
The Casey review is right to recognise that improving access to English language classes is the most important aspect of effective integration and bringing communities together.
Hopefully, this gem of common sense within Dame Louise’s wide-ranging recommendations published this week will lead to action on this issue.
I’m a linguist by training and after graduating I lived abroad for a few years. I know how alienating it can feel being away from home in a place where everyone is speaking another language.
It is clear that the only way of enabling refugees and other migrants to start contributing to their new communities – by working, volunteering and socialising with their British neighbours – is by ensuring they have access to English classes. Being able to speak, write and understand our language is the key which unlocks the door to employment, studying and so much more.
But refugees, and particularly women, are experiencing huge barriers to accessing suitable teaching, such as long waiting lists and a lack of local provision. These are people we have agreed to give safe haven to.
And as Dame Louise’s report points out Muslim and Hindu women are more than twice as likely as Muslim and Hindu men not to speak English well or at all.
Through my work with the charity Refugee Action, I’ve heard about the isolation women can feel when they can’t speak English and the impact this has on their wellbeing; and sometimes, on their ability to access support and protection when they need it. Speaking English gives women a voice – without it, victims of domestic abuse are unable to speak out and ask for help.
Women face specific barriers such as a lack of access to childcare and long distances to travel to classes. When Job Centre Plus makes referrals to English classes the main claimant in a family is prioritised, which is usually the male household member.
Of course, it’s important that all refugees can access English classes. It’s incredibly hard for refugees to find work if they’re unable to learn English. The Casey review finds that 27 per cent of English learners go on to further learning. There is a clear link between the level of English spoken and the level of qualifications attained, and between levels of English and employment rates.
Denying refugees the opportunity to learn is a waste of their potential and it prevents them fully participating in and contributing to British society. Research by Refugee Action shows the cost of two years’ of language lessons is effectively reimbursed to the taxpayer after an individual’s first eight months of employment at the national average wage.
I’ve heard from refugees how invaluable learning English is to successfully starting to rebuild their lives here. Bayan, a young woman who came to the UK last year under the Government’s Syrian resettlement programme, spoke powerfully about being able to learn English. Accessing these lessons is enabling Bayan to fulfil her aspirations to train as an accountant and socialise with her classmates.
This example shows what can be achieved when refugees have access to English lessons and the benefit it brings our society.
But sadly, this is not representative of the experiences of many refugees who come to Britain to rebuild their lives after fleeing conflict and persecution.
There is widespread recognition across the political spectrum of the social and economic benefits of being able to speak English. I know many of my colleagues on the Conservative benches share my view about the importance of being able to speak English, and my concerns about the barriers to accessing classes.
That English language provision features prominently in the Government’s new Controlling Migration Fund and local authorities in England will be able to apply for funding for classes is hugely welcome.
Earlier this year, the Government announced a £10 million investment so that Syrian refugees resettled in the UK can access English language courses. This is a welcome first step to addressing gaps in provision. But we cannot continue to deny refugees from other war-torn countries the opportunity to learn and rebuild their lives, when their need and desire to learn English is as great as that of their Syrian counterparts.
Dame Louise’s review pulls no punches. However, if action is taken on this key issue, it will begin to serve its purpose of building more cohesive communities. It is a complex problem, but Government funding for English classes and support for the important role of community and faith groups, are both key to making real progress.