Community Cohesion

– in the House of Commons at 2:24 pm on 23rd March 2007.

Alert me about debates like this

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.— [Claire Ward.]

Photo of George Galloway George Galloway Respect, Bethnal Green and Bow 2:31 pm, 23rd March 2007

I begin with this evening's Evening Standard headline, "East Enders 'need English to win Olympic jobs'", by its Olympics correspondent. The article begins:

"A call was made today for an English language academy to be set up in the East End to help local unemployed workers benefit from the Olympics.

A London Assembly report warns that thousands of jobs may fail to materialise, despite pledges to use the 2012 Games as the catalyst to transform one of the country's poorest areas. A third of Newham residents have no qualifications and the lack of basic English skills is a large problem with the high number of economic migrants and refugees...Today's report says English language training is a 'critical piece of the jigsaw' to ensure that local unemployed workers can access the new posts."

Or we could take the BBC's website this morning, which, under the heading, "Locals 'could miss Olympic jobs'" said:

"East Londoners face 'real risks' of missing out on new jobs created by the Olympics, the London Assembly has warned...108,000 people of workable age in the Olympic boroughs are unemployed...The London Development Agency said ensuring Londoners benefit from the Olympics was a 'priority'."

Again, it highlights poor English among local workers as being critical to the problem.

There has rarely been a more perplexing paradox or bizarre contradiction than the Government's policy of charging for English courses for speakers of other languages from September. Over the past few years, a range of social ills—from the riots that erupted in Bradford, Burnley and Oldham in 2001 to the so-called radicalisation of the Muslim community—has been blamed by Minister after Minister, at least in part, on the failure of groups of citizens to acquire proficiency in English. Indeed, Minister after Minister has beaten a path to east London—so often, that they are unable to answer my parliamentary questions about how often they have been there—to lecture the local people on the concept of Britishness; to lecture them on the need for integration; to lecture them on the dangers of ghettoisation.

I do not hold with that crude argument, but it poses a problem for the Minister. If the Government believe that a lack of ability in English contributes to something as grave as terror plots being hatched in Britain, why on earth are they making it more difficult for people to join English for speakers of other languages classes from September? For that is what introducing charges and ending the principle of universal access will mean. It always means less take-up. It used to be part of Labour's ABCs that means-testing means less take-up, but that is exactly what the Government now propose for students seeking to study English for whom it is not their first language.

Working tax credits—the Minister knows something about them—are a case in point. The Minister intends to use entitlement to working tax credit as a criterion for exemption from the charges. So the Government's policy is to make access to English classes dependent on a successful application for benefits that itself demands a high level of competence in English. "Catch-22" is the literature that springs to mind.

A few weeks ago, a large number of my constituents and those of other hon. Members, such as the Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, Jim Fitzpatrick, who also has responsibility for London, and people from Newham and elsewhere in the east end lobbied Parliament. It was quite a sight and sound, with many immigrant people, including some of the poorest people in London. Most of them were women, including Muslim, African and east European women, who spelled out heartrending pleas—I shall refer to some of them later—to the Government to think again on this issue.

In my constituency, 70 per cent. or nearly three quarters of the people studying at admirable colleges such as Tower Hamlets college will no longer be able to afford the classes after September and will have to drop out. The college will lose 20 full-time posts, if the charges are imposed, on top of the 35 full-time posts that were lost last year. The Government are imposing a £27 million cut on adult education across London and the axe will fall on those precious, vital courses for people who want to be more British. Some Ministers, such as the Leader of the House, go around demanding that Muslim women take off their veils, but this measure will keep some of those very same women behind a veil of ignorance.

Ministers say that such provision is expensive. It is expensive at £1 billion, but we are not short of billions of pounds. We just voted in principle last week to expend £25 billion up front—£75 billion over the lifetime—on a new nuclear weapons system. We will spend £10 billion on the Olympic games in the east end, where east enders will not be able to get a job, according to the London assembly, because of their poor English skills. It goes without saying, of course, that we are spending billions of pounds on war. We have also just given a large amount of money away to the richest companies and corporations in this country through the cuts in corporation tax introduced by the Chancellor in the last few days.

Such provision is expensive, but ignorance is more expensive. What is the price of the alienation, marginalisation, isolation, anger and frustration produced by the ghettoisation of many people who cannot, despite their best efforts, learn the language of the country in which they now live, in which their children were born and are growing up, and in which they will continue to live? They are not people who are here today, gone tomorrow. What greater ghettoisation could there be than to ghettoise people behind a veil of ignorance?

It is extraordinary that Nazma Begum, my constituent —[ Interruption. ] I hope that the Minister will listen to the words of Nazma Begum at least, although she has not listened to a word that I have said so far. Nazma Begum says:

"Dear Mr. Galloway,

I am writing about the money for ESOL classes.

In a multicultural society we need a common language so that we can communicate with each other effectively. Communication is important to build a good society. English is important for a mother because education begins at home. People can't afford to miss the opportunity of learning the English language. A lot of women are unemployed in this borough.

Without English it would be impossible to find a job.

Please help us save ESOL.

Yours sincerely,

Nazma Begum."

Jinette Nsanzugwimo, an African woman, wrote:

"I am writing about the plans to pay for English classes. I am unhappy about this because I don't have the money to pay.

I am not working, because I have small children, and I need to learn more English. I need help from you. I am on benefits now, but if my partner gets a job we will have to pay and I will have to leave.

Please help us save ESOL."

I shall read just one more, from Nargis Bahar who says:

"This letter is to tell you how I feel about the plans to end free ESOL. I feel English language is more important because I cannot help my children with their home work. I am different with my children. I cannot explain everything. I feel a gap with my children and me.

Please do what you can to fight the government's plans."

It is bizarre, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The Government correctly seek community cohesion in the country, to bring us together, and correctly identify that the lack of a common language for people living in the country is a problem that can lead to many things. We hear often that the security services and the police, for example, are unable properly to relate to some in the communities where problems might be germinating. One of the reasons is the wall, the ghetto, the veil of ignorance of the English language, especially among parents and especially among women. In those circumstances we should be increasing the budget to make sure that everyone living in our country has the opportunity to learn English, but instead we are cutting it, and that just does not make sense.

The cut represents about £1 million from the budget of large colleges all over the country. Every large college will lose virtually £1 million, with job losses among the admirable teachers—yes—but even more important than that, consigning significant numbers of people to having to drop out of the English classes that they greatly value and love.

For goodness' sake, with the problems in places such as Oldham, Bradford and east London, where language gave us the reason for raising the issue of veils, for example, with separateness, with not wanting sections of our community to accentuate their separateness, what could do more to break down separateness and bring us all together than ensuring that the country invested in classes for people to learn English? It is frankly bizarre, it is grotesque and unbelievable that the Government, who have so often in east London and elsewhere waved their Union jacks and beaten the drum of Britishness, should be consigning a section of the British population to ignorance in this way—£1 billion for 500,000 people, not all Muslims, not all Africans, not all black.

Everybody knows about the way our community is developing: immigrants from eastern Europe, central Europe, Africa, Asia, the middle east—some are refugees, but others are migrants who have been given permission to stay here and become citizens, and are aching for the opportunity to learn our language, which is our greatest treasure. It is the language of Shakespeare and our greatest national asset. We ought to be shouting it from the rooftops. We ought to be going round looking for people so that we can drag them into colleges and give them the benefit of learning this wonderful language. Instead, this penny-pinching cut will force ghettoisation and marginalisation on the very people we claim we want to integrate into our society.

My last point relates to the introduction of means-testing and what used to be the ABC of Labourism and of social democracy. I know that the Minister is going to say that some people will qualify if they apply and if they can fill in the forms correctly, and that, if they apply for working tax credit and can get through the eye of that needle, they will somehow be able to apply for relief from the charges. I promise her—she must know this in her heart—that substantial numbers of poor, immigrant women will not be able to get through the eye of that needle. Some 70 per cent. of my constituents have said that they will have to give up their courses in September. That is a cruel and unnecessary act on the part of the Government and, even at this eleventh hour, I beg the Minister to see sense and think again.

Photo of Yvette Cooper Yvette Cooper Minister of State (Department of Communities and Local Government) (Housing and Planning) 2:46 pm, 23rd March 2007

I congratulate Mr. Galloway on securing this debate. I assure him that I have listened carefully to the points that he made. I do not agree with the way in which he characterised Government policy in this area, but I will attempt to address many of the points that he made. I should make it clear that we believe that the use of English can only have a positive effect on community cohesion. It is particularly important to underpin not only communities and community relations but opportunities, and in particular the opportunity to work.

A key element of our strategy to increase race equality and community cohesion is the development of strong and positive relationships between people from different backgrounds in the workplace, in schools and within neighbourhoods. In that context, the ability to understand and converse in a common language is obviously hugely important for all members of society. An inability to communicate in a common language can lead to lost opportunities, division, misunderstanding and isolation.

Knowledge of English increases both employment prospects and the ease with which people can carry out their day-to-day life in this country. It has an impact on access to public services, but also, critically, on the chances of being able to get a job and to secure income for the future. Research commissioned by the Home Office shows that a person's chances of getting a job are enhanced by over 20 per cent. if they have a reasonable command of English—the standard we now require for citizenship. Among unemployed ethnic minorities, about 15 per cent. believe that a lack of language skills is a barrier to finding employment. Clearly, we take the issue seriously.

The Government actively promote language proficiency. Since 2001, we have invested over £1 billion in English for speakers of other languages. Over 1.8 million ESOL learning opportunities have been taken up and over 160,000 learners have achieved a first Skills for Life ESOL qualification. Over the period since 2001, funding and enrolments for ESOL provision have tripled and demand for ESOL provision has substantially increased. That rate of growth means that the Department for Education and Skills has increased the provision and investment in English for speakers of other languages. It has also looked at reprioritising the funding towards those who are in the most vulnerable and disadvantaged groups. That includes those who are out of work through a lack of skills, and settled immigrant communities who are facing challenges when it comes to integration.

The Department for Work and Pensions recently set out support plans for people in this country who have struggled to get a job because of poor English. Individuals who are eligible for jobseeker's allowance or who are in receipt of income-related benefits will continue to access free ESOL courses through standard Learning and Skills Council provision. From April, Jobcentre Plus advisers will work with jobseekers to agree steps to overcome the language difficulties that prevent them from getting a job. In addition, there are 15,000 places for Jobcentre Plus customers on new targeted provision from the LSC.

The hon. Gentleman claimed that we were cutting funding for English language training and did not take it sufficiently seriously, particularly as regards employment opportunities, but also in respect of wider opportunities relating to integration and access to services. The Government have taken the importance of English seriously. The fact that we have increased—in fact, trebled—funding in the relatively short period since 2001 indicates the importance that we attach to the English language. He will be aware that the Commission on Integration and Cohesion has made consideration of the role of the English language a key part of its work. As it has made clear, it intends to bring forward final recommendations in the summer, after it has worked up proposals in more detail. We will want to study its recommendations carefully before making any decisions, and we will respond formally to the commission, too.

We have to recognise that increases in demand for ESOL provision have resulted in pressures on waiting lists for courses in some areas, and in overall pressure on adult learning programmes that cover adult literacy and numeracy skills and other adult employability-level qualifications. That is why the Department for Education and Skills chose to review ESOL spending and announced changes, which are to take effect from August 2007.

Photo of George Galloway George Galloway Respect, Bethnal Green and Bow

I am extremely grateful, given the shortage of time. I welcome the promise to weigh carefully the commission's recommendations over the summer, but will the Minister accept two brief points? First, jobcentre workers have stated, through their union and their professional association, that they are not the best people to teach English to the people who want to learn it. The further education colleges are the professionals in that regard. Secondly, I appeal to her as a feminist woman to accept that many women, such as the wives of restaurant workers in the east end of London, who are not in receipt of benefits and whose children are older, simply do not fit the criteria for support that she outlined. It is those women who will have to give up the classes. The classes are not a course, but an investment. It is in our interests, not just in theirs, that such people should learn English.

Photo of Yvette Cooper Yvette Cooper Minister of State (Department of Communities and Local Government) (Housing and Planning)

I want to come on to the subject of spouses who may not have the necessary evidence when it comes to funding issues, because the DFES looked into that subject. However, it is important to put the issue against a backdrop of continued and increased investment in English for speakers of other languages, and, as I said, we should consider the issue more widely as part of the Commission on Integration and Cohesion's work.

On the jobcentre point, Jobcentre Plus simply operates a referral system that directs people towards professional provision. Obviously, we do not expect jobcentres to run courses; clearly, the courses need to be run by the professionals who have expertise in doing that.

May I now deal with the detailed proposals from the Department for Education and Skills, and its approach? It conducted an extensive consultation, and it has received representations from many Members of Parliament—certainly many London MPs—which it considered in great detail together with the wider representations that were made. It has conducted, too, a race equality impact assessment, including consultation with stakeholders.

Three of the key themes that emerged from the consultations to which it was clear Ministers needed to respond were: first, the need to do more to assist asylum seekers who are in the UK legally, and whose claims fail to be resolved in the target period through no fault of their own, or who remain in the UK because of circumstances beyond their control; secondly, the need to look at more support for spouses who do not have access to funding or to family benefit documentation to access the full fee remission; and thirdly, the need to consider workers on very low wages who are not in receipt of working tax credit or other means-tested benefits.

In response to that assessment, the DFES has looked further at the issue. It has made it clear from the beginning that the Government will continue to support learners who are asked to make a contribution by paying 62.5 per cent. of the course fee. Even people who are asked to make a contribution will still find that most of the course fees are supported by the Government. In addition, my hon. Friend the Minister for Higher Education and Lifelong Learning has announced that he is minded to reinstate eligibility for asylum seekers who are in the UK legally and whose claims are not resolved within six months.

In response to the points made by the hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Bow, we are looking at prioritising funding at the local level through the Learning and Skills Council for support for spouses and individuals who may not have access to their household benefit documentation, for example, or who may not have access to their funds, and we agree with the LSC about the need for an approach to evidencing low pay for fee remission purposes to make more possible the flexible use of evidence, perhaps including wider benefits and other evidence, so that the process is easier for workers on very low wages who, for whatever reason, are not in receipt of a working tax credit or other support that might otherwise automatically make them eligible for support for English for speakers of other languages.

We recognise that there are concerns about the importance of English, and we have made it clear how important the issue is in our view. We must recognise, too, that there is growing demand for those services, so it is right that we should ensure that those who are most vulnerable are not denied access to important opportunities to learn the English language and are not simply left on waiting lists because of problems with provision, without being given a fair chance. That is why the approach that the DFES has taken is to try to look at fairness in provision. It does not propose to cut the funding for English for speakers of other languages. Clearly, it is always a matter for local learning and skills councils to review the appropriate priorities in their area, but the Government have made clear the importance of the issue. Within that extremely expanded budget since 2001, Departments must be able to set priorities and make sure that the most vulnerable people are given access to the courses that they need.

Photo of Yvette Cooper Yvette Cooper Minister of State (Department of Communities and Local Government) (Housing and Planning)

I will give way very briefly. The hon. Gentleman will know that I have about two minutes left.

Photo of George Galloway George Galloway Respect, Bethnal Green and Bow

I am extremely grateful. English is my first language, but the Minister lost me. She said that the Government were not cutting the funding—but they are cutting £27 million from London further education colleges, which have to make those cuts. I told the House that 20 staff are about to be sacked in Tower Hamlets college, joining 35 who were sacked last year because of cuts. How can she claim that there are no cuts—unless, as I said, despite being an English speaker, I misunderstood her?

Photo of Yvette Cooper Yvette Cooper Minister of State (Department of Communities and Local Government) (Housing and Planning)

As I said very clearly, the Government's intention is not to cut the overall funding for English for speakers of other languages. However, it is always a matter for local learning and skills councils to decide what the priorities are in their areas. The hon. Gentleman will know that, as I said previously, London Members have had discussions with my hon. Friend the Minister for Higher Education and Lifelong Learning. I am happy to ensure that the hon. Gentleman's points are passed on to my hon. Friend, who has been dealing with these matters.

The Department for Communities and Local Government is keen to ensure that we work with the Department for Education and Skills on issues related to community cohesion and English. If the hon. Gentleman had been clear at the outset that he intended to raise specific issues with reference to English language training, we could have ensured that a Minister from the Department for Education and Skills was available to respond to the detail of his comments. I am sorry if that was an error or a misunderstanding on our part.

Our Department has been working closely with the DFES to ensure that we see the teaching of English and the use of English as important not only for employment opportunities, but for cohesion. We will continue to do so, and we will look carefully at the Commission on Integration and Cohesion's—

The motion having been made after half-past Two o'clock, and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. Deputy Speaker adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at one minute past Three o'clock.

r

If the government prioritises english language teaching, as indeed it should, but then is overruled by local priorities of a different nature, what is the point of discussing this matter at national level at all?
If we vote for a government that puts an investment into higher education but a local department sacks staff, what is the point?

This is the kind of thing that makes us..the voters..disillusioned with the entire national political process.

Submitted by rosemary james