English Language Teaching: Refugees

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 5:02 pm on 24th October 2017.

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Photo of Stuart McDonald Stuart McDonald Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Immigration, Asylum and Border Control) 5:02 pm, 24th October 2017

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I, too, congratulate Dame Caroline Spelman on securing the debate. One of the issues that has been most badly neglected since we became all-consumed with Brexit is the refugee and migration crisis, so the opportunity to debate one small aspect of how we respond to that crisis and how we go about helping refugees to integrate is very welcome. The right hon. Lady made an excellent speech, as did my hon. Friend Alison Thewliss and Paul Blomfield, both of whom are experts in this policy area.

Three or four main points have emerged from the debate. First, Members have been unanimously positive about the impact of learning English on promoting integration and allowing refugees to rebuild their lives. Secondly, we have heard criticism of the Government’s lack of a strategic and joined-up response, with a particular focus on funding. Thirdly, we have heard a range of ideas for what a better response and strategy might look like. If I get the chance, I may mention that although learning English is hugely significant, it is just one part of a broader range of policy issues that need to be addressed if the Government are to be seen to be taking the integration of refugees seriously enough.

There is such consensus about the first issue that I do not need to say too much about it. It is obvious to us all that, overwhelmingly, refugees want to rebuild their lives, to be part of the communities that they find themselves in and to continue with their education and find good work. That is almost impossible without a decent level of English. The right hon. Member for Meriden mentioned a variety of reports that come to the same conclusion, from the Casey review to the report by the all-party parliamentary group on refugees, “Refugees Welcome?”, and the all-party parliamentary group on social integration, which has expressed similar views. In short, learning English is a matter of empowerment. It is good for refugees and it is good for the communities in which those refugees live.

Let me turn to the call for a more coherent and joined-up response from the Government. There are different aspects to that critique, but the one that has been mentioned most often is funding. As Refugee Action pointed out in its May 2016 campaign Let Refugees Learn, refugees

“have great determination and desire to learn English” but are finding it harder to access ESOL classes because of funding reductions that have resulted in shortages of provision, waiting lists and other barriers to participation, particularly for women. That organisation subsequently gave evidence to the all-party parliamentary group on social integration and reported waiting lists stretching to more than 1,100 people. There have been reports in newspapers of three-year waiting lists in parts of London.

Hon. Members have already gone through the different pots of funding that have been announced at various times, but that is offset by the overall 50% or 60% funding cuts to ESOL provision. The hon. Member for Sheffield Central used the word “disjointed”, which is absolutely appropriate. Whenever there is one step forward on funding, there seem to be two or more steps back.

We should be clear that investing in ESOL now means making savings later. If we invested in ESOL now, we would not have to spend as much on interpreters, there would be fewer missed medical appointments and less reliance on social security benefits, and more taxes would be paid through work—another point that the right hon. Member for Meriden made. That is all indicative of a lack of a joined-up strategy. As has been pointed out, there is a strategy in Wales, and there has been one in Scotland for 10 years. That strategy, which was refreshed in 2015, sits alongside the broader New Scots integration strategy for refugees and asylum seekers, which is currently being refreshed. That we need an equivalent strategy at Westminster has been well established during this debate. Such a strategy is long overdue, and I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say about that.

What would a better ESOL integration strategy look like? First, it is important that any strategy seeks to ensure integration from day one, as the hon. Member for Sheffield Central said. ESOL experts have long said that people’s motivation to learn tends to be at its highest, and provision tends to be most effective, immediately following their arrival in our country. If people do not learn English then, they learn to cope with not being able to speak the language to any significant degree and, having realised that they can get by without it, just tend to muddle on regardless.

Secondly, as hon. Members have said, it is vital that the whole panoply of possibilities for learning English is available so that we can tailor learning to every person’s needs. Obviously, people’s ability to learn and their personal circumstances are incredibly different. The example of parents—particularly mothers—has already been given; childcare provision has to be involved there. We have to co-ordinate all the different responses and use all the technology that is now available.

We are not here to write the Government’s strategy. There have been a lot of good ideas, but the fundamental point is that a strategy is needed. We look forward to hearing what the Government have to say about that.