By Paul Goodman
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A draft CLG policy statement on integration…
In a statement to the Commons last June, Theresa May promised "a new approach to integrating our divided communities". Over six months later and as a new year begins, the strategy she pointed towards lies icebound in Whitehall's deep freeze. I have in front of me as I write a draft policy statement from the Communities Department called "Creating the Conditions for Integration", sent as a letter from Eric Pickles to Nick Clegg. The draft is dated from early November. Downing Street sources confirm that no launch is expected in the immediate future.
Although the Home Secretary made the first Parliamentary reference to a new strategy, she is not responsible for it: as she told the House, this lies with Eric Pickles and his department – though Downing Street and the Home Office and would need to sign any agreed policy off, and have not done so to date. Departments other than the Communities Department are concerned about a lack of rigour in the draft – which confirms two of the stories which I wrote last July after being sent a copy of a department preparatory paper called "Creating the conditions for integration".
…Is viewed as not rigorous enough by other Departments
Both this long delay and the gridlock in Whitehall over the strategy raise serious questions about how important integration policy is to the Government as a whole – and whether the Communities Department is the right one to lead it, for all Eric Pickles's experience and expertise in local community relations. Before turning to the contents of the draft paper, it is important to put them in context. Under Labour, which took its cue from the Commission on Integration and Cohesion, these two big themes were treated as different.
In simple terms, cohesion was viewed as what happens locally – in particular, how well people get on together. Integration, however, was seen as what happens nationally – in other words, the need for people to live together as citizens of a common country. Under the Coalition, the term "cohesion" is out and "integration" (as the title of the draft paper confirms) is very much in. I have no set view on which approach is better – and the whole debate can perhaps be dismissed in any event as definitional angels dancing on the head of a verbal pin.
However, one conclusion is inescapable – namely, that there are aspects of integration policy which are simply beyond the Communities Department's reach. One is immigration control: there is a link between uncontrolled immigration and integration problems, but it is the Home Office which is responsible for border policing. Another is teaching people English, or British history: an inability to speak the language clearly or an ignorance of British norms are serious obstacles to integration, but it is the Education Department which has the policy lead.
What the paper says
The contents of the draft policy statement highlight this problem. It sets out "five pillars which define an integrated society":
- Common Ground – a clear sense of shared values and cultural identity.
- Responsibility – positive action to protect shared values and improve local areas.
- Participation – people of all backgrounds taking part in local and national life.
- Social Mobility – people able to realise their potential to get on in life.
- Tackling extremism – tackling intolerance and extremist behaviour.
The department has a partial role in achieving the second, third and fifth of these objectives, but only a tangential one for the fourth and little impact on the first, which is largely a national matter.
"A one size fits all approach to groups based on religion and ethnicity"
But whatever one's view, other Departments have reservations – hence the delay. One complains of a "one size fits all approach to groups based on religion and ethnicity, a difficulty with doing so in any event as responsibility is devolved to councils, and consistency with the Prevent Strategy". This is fair criticism. For example, the section on intolerance and extremism, begins by focusing on "prejudice specifically against Muslims" and "the number of anti-semitic incidents in the UK" – but the analysis which follows is extremely thin.
The paper says: "We will robustly challenge behaviours and views which run counter to our shared values, and marginalise extremists who seek to undermine our society". However, there is no exploration at all of who these might be – Hizb ut-Tahrir? The English Defence League? – and no description whatsoever of how this challenge might be made. There is no reference that I can find to tensions between different minority groups. (For example, between Muslims and Sikhs over conversion.)
What about the effects of crises abroad in Britain?
On balance, it is probably right not to risk inflaming these difficulties by giving them a significance which they may not have. However, that there is no mention at all of the effect of foreign affairs on domestic ones is surprising: the spike in anti-semitic incidents in early 2010 followed the Israeli attack on Gaza, and relations between Hindus and Muslims are potentially vulnerable to events in the sub-continent, such as the terror attack on Mumbai in 2008. The current turmoil in Syria and Iraq – and elsewhere – has implications for relations between Christians and Muslims.
The paper doesn't ignore the challenge of teaching more people English: it speaks of "developing new forms of English language for those who need informal, community-based learning". However, I can't find in it any mention of teaching the narrative of British history in schools, a theme so important to Michael Gove that he made it one of the centrepieces of his speech to the last party conference. None the less, there is a reference to free schools, which "must be inclusive, and must show that they support common ground through values of mutual tolerance and respect".
A working group on Islamophobia proposed
I wrote in July that Pickles wants to establish a "curry college". The Communities Department seems since then to have confirmed this to the Guardian. The policy paper refers to "working with businesses to support British excellence in the Asian and oriental catering sector". I also mentioned a potential Working Group on anti-Muslim hatred. The paper refers to "a Working Group on Islamophobia". (Such a change of title would be unwise.) There is no reference to a public interest test for funding, which there certainly should be. Other ideas and proposals include:
- The Big Lunch, which "encourages people to interact by sitting down and having lunch with their neighbours…the Big Lunch brought 2.4 million people together in 2011".
- An examination of how the citizenship process and 'Life in the UK Test' "can better promote an understanding…of British life and the values and principles which underlie British society".
- People's Proms 2012, "an opportunity to encourage people of all ages to learn a musical instrument, and for communities across the country to come together.
- "Reforms to the immigration and settlement framework will strengthen the requirements of on those want to settle".
- "A programme of work to help build safe and active communities, led by BaronessNewlove."
A risk of Coalition institutional inertia
My take is that there are some good things in the draft, some highly debatable ones (is integration really, as claimed, "a predominantly local issue"?) and quite a few bits that seem to serve mainly to fill out the paper – for example, any connection between extending the entitlement to early education and better integration is very sketchy. The curious proposal in an earlier discussion document to register polygamous marriages – which I revealed here – has presumably been quietly smothered, since the paper doesn't refer to it.
The history of integration policy under Labour developed a pattern. First, a violent incident would take place – such as the 2001 riots in Bradford, Burnley and Oldham, or the 7/7 horror four years later. Second, Ministers would rush out a response – such as the Prevent policy post-2005, large parts of which were badly flawed. Finally, their attention would move elsewhere, and policy tangles would be laboriously unknotted. Thankfully, there has been no comparable terrorism on the Coalition's watch to date, so similar mistakes haven't been made.
None the less, it would be a sorry state of affairs were Labour's frantic over-reaction to be succeeded by Coalition institutional inertia. Integration policy is difficult to manage, full of potential pitfalls, and brings few immediate political rewards. It doesn't have the popular reach of getting claimants off benefits or making schools better. But come riots involving clashing ethnic groups, or conflict in the middle east, it suddenly becomes important again – as it is in its own right. It deserves better than to be lost in the fog of Whitehall's no man's land.