Let me start, as others did, by thanking Dame Caroline Spelman for securing this debate and for her powerful points about why this issue is important and about the obstacles that we face.
I also want to acknowledge the many other Members who have contributed to the debate. Everyone seemed to make similar points; we seem to be on the same page. Members mentioned the impact on children of their parents not speaking the language and the importance of language training so that people are not isolated. My hon. Friend Paul Blomfield hit the nail on the head when he mentioned the lack of a national strategy. I hope that we will hear a bit more about that.
Speaking English is one of the first and most important steps to integration for a refugee. Apart from the Casey review, the all-party parliamentary group on social integration, the all-party parliamentary group on refugees and a report by Refugee Action have all demonstrated the importance of ESOL courses and the vital need for investment. Learning English is a gateway to work, study and getting to know your neighbours. It is also instrumental to refugees’ mental health, staving off isolation and loneliness. The vast majority of refugees want to learn English and in theory they are eligible for fully funded ESOL classes. However, the reality is not matching up to the theory. As we have heard before, there are long waiting lists—in some cases three years long—and many refugees cannot access the classes they are entitled to.
The Casey review identified some of the difficulties faced by women from minority backgrounds in accessing English language courses. This is another point that has been highlighted. Three quarters of ESOL providers have either no provision for childcare or not enough for the needs of most learners, which disproportionately affects women’s ability to attend classes. The overwhelming message is that is a lack of funding is the biggest issue for ESOL providers. Two thirds of providers told Refugee Action that an increase in Government funding is the one thing that would most improve their ability to provide a high standard and quantity of ESOL classes.
The Conservative Government’s actions have been a classic case of rhetoric not lining up with reality. At the same time as the former Prime Minister was calling for migrants to learn English, the Government were cutting funding for courses. From 2009 to 2016, funding for ESOL classes dropped from £203 million to only £92.5 million: a 60% cut. Where we have seen extra funding, it has been tiny compared with the cuts that ESOL has already faced. The extra £10 million over five years for ESOL provision announced in 2016 was to be used only for Syrian refugees resettled through the vulnerable persons resettlement scheme. While that was welcome, why are the Government seemingly only interested in integrating one group?
When David Cameron announced £20 million for Muslim women to learn English, his announcement had the potential to do more harm than good. By tying language classes for Muslim women to the fight against radicalisation, the Government’s clumsy, simplistic approach managed to stigmatise a whole community rather than encourage integration. It was also of no benefit to refugees. The Government say that they value and promote integration, while at the same time slashing funding to one of the most important branches of it.
What should we do? A Labour Government would make further education courses free at the point of use, including ESOL courses. As we do not have a Labour Government, Members in the Chamber have made a strong case for specific investment in ESOL classes for refugees. As the Minister considers his response to the Casey review, I urge him to invest in ESOL funding for refugees, to ensure that women have equal access to classes, and to let the Government’s actions live up to the rhetoric they have been peddling for years.