Immigrants must learn English, says David Cameron – while cutting funding for lessons

The Prime Minister’s speech indicates that he cares less about integration than about reaching out t

Hot on the heels of his controversial address on multiculturalism in Munich in February, David Cameron is set to deliver another hard-hitting speech, this one specifically on immigration.

He will criticise the "largest influx" ever of immigrants in British history and emphasise the need for immigrants to speak English:

Real integration takes time. That's why, when there have been significant numbers of new people arriving in neighbourhoods perhaps not able to speak the same language as those living there, on occasions not really wanting or even willing to integrate, that has created a kind of discomfort and disjointedness in some neighbourhoods.

There is rather a cruel irony in this, given that the government will be drastically cutting funding for English as a Second Language (Esol) courses from September this year.

Under new rules, free places will be limited to students who are on jobseeker's allowance or employment support allowance – benefits paid to those actively seeking work.

At present, people who receive other benefits, such as housing benefit, income support or tax credits are also eligible for free lessons. From September, this will no longer be the case. State funding for Esol courses within the workplace will also end, leaving employers to pay.

The Institute of Race Relations noted in December:

There is concern that these changes are being introduced with no evidence of prior consultation, and without any assessment of their impact on people from migrant communities.

It is widely acknowledged that English language proficiency is crucial to participation in the labour market, for accessing services, and to functioning independently in everyday life. In consequence, the effects of cutting language provision will be widely felt. Early local impact assessments indicate cuts in core provision of up to 50 per cent.

Newspaper reports of Cameron's speech have focused on a widening gulf in the language used by the two coalition parties on this subject (a senior Lib Dem has described the tone of the speech as "appalling"). However, this basic contradiction indicates that Cameron cares less about encouraging integration than reaching out to the core Conservative vote with hardline rhetoric ahead of the local elections.

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

Getty Images.
Show Hide image

David Cameron’s speech: a hymn to liberalism from a liberated PM

The Prime Minister spoke with the confidence of a man who finally has a full mandate for his approach. 

At every one of his previous nine Conservative conference speeches, David Cameron has had to confront the doubters. Those Tories who rejected his modernisation of the party from the start. Those who judged it to have failed when he fell short of a majority in 2010. Those, including many in his own party, who doubted that he could improve on this performance in 2015. Today, rather than confronting the doubters, he was able to greet the grateful. As the first majority Conservative prime minister for 18 years, he rightly savoured his moment. "Why did all the pollsters and pundits get it so wrong?" he asked. "Because, fundamentally, they didn't understand the people who make up our country. The vast majority of people aren't obsessives, arguing at the extremes of the debate. Let me put it as simply as I can: Britain and Twitter are not the same thing." Labour should pin that line to its profile. 

With a full mandate for his approach, Cameron went on to deliver his most unashamedly liberal speech to date. Early on in his address, he spoke with pride of how "social justice, equality for gay people, tackling climate change, and helping the world's poorest" were now "at the centre of the Conservative Party's mission". A lengthy section on diversity, lamenting how "people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names", was greeted with a standing ovation. Proof, if needed, of how Cameron has changed his party beyond recognition. The former special adviser to Michael Howard, who avowed that "prison works", told his audience that prison too often did not. "The system is still not working ... We have got to get away from the sterile lock-em-up or let-em-out debate, and get smart about this." From now on, he declared, the system, would "treat their [prisoners'] problems, educate them, put them to work." 

There were, of course, oversights and lacuna. Cameron reaffirmed his commitment to a budget surplus but glossed over the unprecedented, and many believe undeliverable, that will be required to achieve it (and which may fail to do so). He hailed the new "national living wage" with no mention of the tax credit cuts that will leave the same "strivers" worse off. His "affordable" starter homes will be unaffordable for average-earning families in 58 per cent of local areas. But it is a mark of Cameron's political abilities that it was easy to forget much of this as he spoke. Like George Osborne, he deftly appropriated the language of the left ("social justice", "opportunity", "diversity", "equality") to describe the policies of the right. Cameron is on a mission to claim ownership of almost every concept associated with Labour. The opposition should not sleep easily as he does so. 

There was little mention of Labour in the speech, and no mention of Jeremy Corbyn by name. But when the attack came, it was ruthlessly delivered. "Thousands of words have been delivered about the new Labour leader. But you only really need to know one thing: he thinks the death of Osama bin Laden was a 'tragedy'". The description of Corbyn as the "new Labour leader" shows the Tories' ambition to permanently contaminate the party, rather than merely the man.

There are plenty of potential landmines ahead for Cameron. The comically lukewarm applause for his defence of EU membership was a reminder of how divided his party is on this issue. But today, he spoke as a man liberated. Liberated by winning a majority. Liberated by not having to fight an election again. Like a second-term US president, he was able to speak of how he was entering "the second half of my time in this job". Tributes to Osborne (the "Iron Chancellor) and Boris Johnson (greeted with a remarkable standing ovation) alluded to the contest to come. But whoever succeeds him can be confident of assuming a party in good health - and more at ease with the modern world than many ever thought possible. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.