One side-effect of the build-up towards the EU referendum, presumed to be due sometime this year, has been a marked decrease in new announcements from Government ministers.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, of course: an endless stream of announcements often indicates that a Government has lost strategic focus and is trying to win the 24-hour news cycle.
Yet David Cameron clearly wants the press talking about more than just the European Union, and has started making a big announcement on Mondays.
In a comment piece for The Times (£) this morning, the Prime Minister has set out his plans to better integrate Muslim women into British life. He writes:
“Last week, I chaired a meeting of a group of brilliant Muslim women role models. And while I heard great examples of so many women who are flourishing in our country, some painted an alarming picture of forced gender segregation, discrimination and social isolation from mainstream British life.”
He then criticises the “passive” mindset that has led to this problem being neglected, and outlines why solving it is important.
In short: it holds women back from achieving their potential and contributing to our economy and society; exposes them to horrific practises like female genital mutilation and forced marriages; opens a rift between minority communities and mainstream British society; and makes young people from those communities more vulnerable to extremist influence.
Moving on, the Prime Minister sets out his “clear and positive agenda” for making progress:
“…we will review the role of religious councils, including Sharia councils. We’re teaching British values in our schools because I want every young boy and girl growing up here to feel proud of our country and properly connected to it. And we’ll end the forced gender segregation, as we issue clear guidance to local authorities to stamp out this practice. We must also make more progress on English language.”
The English language measures are particularly eye-opening, because Cameron proposes not only to toughen the language requirements for immigration to the UK, but claims that failing to improve fluency once on British soil will now “affect your ability to remain in the UK.”
That’s a bold claim, but given the Government’s record with bold claims on migration it’s a little hard to take at face value. Concentrating on enforcing the new entrance requirements seems a better use of resources.
After all, as this piece by Jonathan Portes explains, the children of migrants with poor English are perfectly capable of performing well at school and getting on in British society, and will invariably have better English than their first-generation parents.
Which is not to say that improving the English of those already here isn’t important: the raw percentage of Britons with little or no English may be relatively small, the negative effects can be compounded by their tendency to be concentrated into the same neighbourhoods.
Cameron also cites new statistics which purport to show that 22 per cent of British Muslim women – some 190,000 people – speak little or no English.
The fact that 1,500 British citizens have tried to flee this country to join ISIS in Syria also highlights why the Government’s continued focus on anti-extremism is so important.
The Prime Minister rightly acknowledges in his article that the problems he describes are not endemic to Muslim communities, and recognises that there is a difference between extremism and religious conservatism.
Yet the question remains of how much Cameron can actually do: many of the things he objects to are simply the private, non-criminal habits of conservative religious households. Tackling practises such as chaperoning head-on would be very tricky, and changing the underlying attitudes will take a long time.
Louise Casey, the civil servant who led the inspection into the Rotherham abuse scandal, has been tasked by the Government to publish a report on integration and extremism. We shall have a more detailed picture of the Prime Minister’s strategy when she does.