English Language Teaching: Refugees

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 4:54 pm on 24th October 2017.

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Photo of Paul Blomfield Paul Blomfield Shadow Minister (Exiting the European Union) 4:54 pm, 24th October 2017

I could not agree more with the right hon. Lady on that—as indeed on many other things. The importance that she places on integration and effective community cohesion is endorsed by Dame Louise Casey in the review that she is conducting on behalf of the Government. That enables refugees not only to integrate but, through integration, to become valued members of our society and to make a real contribution to it. We are talking about people who in many cases bring many skills and have much to contribute to our country. Learning English is the key to releasing that potential, for them and for those of us in the communities.

The Government recognise the importance of that. In September 2016, when they put £10 million into ESOL teaching for newly arrived Syrian refugees—as the right hon. Member for Meriden mentioned—the then Minister, Mr Goodwill, said it was

“to help refugees learn English and integrate into British society”.

Furthermore, as the right hon. Lady and her colleague, Nicky Morgan, pointed out in an excellent piece in The Times today, the Prime Minister in her first year as Home Secretary said:

“We know that speaking English is key to integration.”

Why the need for this debate if there is so much cross-party consensus? I think it comes down to a question of funding, although not simply funding. Refugee Action concluded last year in its report, “Let Refugees Learn”, that funding reductions

“have resulted in shortages of provision.”

However, the fragmentation of provision and the lack of a clear strategy also limited opportunities.

The right hon. Member for Meriden was right to highlight and to welcome those pockets of money that have been made available to support ESOL teaching. In July 2015, however, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills cut £45 million from 47 colleges that taught 47,000 students, and between 2009-10 and 2015-16 the Department for Education cut £113 million from ESOL funding.

Although I accept the right hon. Lady’s point about refugees’ entitlement to funding, asylum seekers are not eligible for free tuition from statutory sources. Free classes are informal and, as the brilliant community project in my constituency, Learn for Life Enterprise, has found, greatly over-subscribed. There is a real patchwork of local provision. The report by Refugee Action revealed that 45% of prospective ESOL learners have to wait an average of six months or more to access classes, and that there have been cases of people waiting up to three years. It found a waiting list of more than 6,000 people across 71 providers. A further problem, which the right hon. Lady highlighted, is the lack of childcare provision, which affects women in particular.

The report also found that the different strands of ESOL funding are disjointed. The right hon. Lady acknowledged that there are different practices in the different nations that make up the UK. England is lagging behind Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and even Manchester—if it can lag behind a city. They have all developed strategies for ESOL teaching. We need a strategy that will ensure that all refugees receive free and accessible ESOL provision. Analysis by Refugee Action indicates that two years’ provision would cost £3,200 per refugee, which is a relatively small price to pay for the benefits that they and we will receive from that investment.

The lack of a coherent national strategy and the underfunding fail the refugees who come here to rebuild their lives, and as I said, it is an incredible waste for us as a country to fail to give them the opportunity to fulfil their potential. I hope that the Minister will indicate whether the Government’s response to the Casey review will address the lack of a national strategy for English language teaching, as well as the underfunding. The response should not simply focus narrowly on tackling extremism but recognise the necessity of ESOL provision for integration, for tackling isolation and for unlocking the potential of those who come here to contribute to our communities.