The novelty of language tests and the problem of political change

Making promises always causes problems for politicians.

Ed Miliband today made a speech on immigration and integration.

It all sounded good to me, so rather than being the billionth Labour blogger saying how great it all is, I wanted to use the speech as a chance to talk about one of my obsessions – the problems making promises creates for politicians.

One of Ed’s policy proposals is that “we should extend the requirements in many professions for English proficiency to all publicly-funded, public-facing jobs“.

This made me pause, because I remembered when it was Labour policy that all migrants should speak English, so I wondered what had gone wrong.

My first memory of a pledge on English Language for migrants came from Tony Blair’s 2005 Dover speech where he said:

“For those planning to stay longer, we will restrict the right of settlement to skilled workers like doctors, engineers, nurses or teachers and will introduce English language tests for those hoping to settle permanently.”

So my memory was faulty. We’d promised English Language tests for permanent migrants, not all immigrants.

Then I remember Gordon Brown talking about something similar in his 2007 TUC speech, saying:

“Let me add for those who come to Britain to do skilled work we will first require you to learn English, a requirement we are prepared to extend to lower skilled workers as well.”

So a slightly different pledge: All “skilled workers” would be required to learn English.

Finally, I thought we’d said something about Language tests in our 2010 Manifesto.

We briefed the Mail that:

“English tests will be made compulsory for all public sector migrant workers, under manifesto pledges to be announced by Gordon Brown today. All workers in contact with the public  -  such as nurses, community support officers, social workers and call centre staff  -  will have to pass a test to get a job.”

Our manifesto said:

“We know that migrants who are fluent in English are more likely to work and find it easier to integrate. So as well as making our English test harder, we will ensure it is taken by all applicants before they arrive. Local councils and other public services should keep funding for translation services to a minimum.

Many public-sector workers are already required to meet minimum standards of English; we will build on this to ensure that all employees who have contact with the public possess an appropriate level of English language competence.”

You will note, I expect, that this is similar to what Ed mentioned in his speech today.

Now, we didn’t get a chance to implement that last promise, so it was the Tories turn to deal with these issues. Last year, David Cameron got headlines saying that “immigrants should learn English”

Perhaps tellingly, the actual text of the speech was very light on policy pledges in that area, just saying:

“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.”

Then the government implemented changes so that the families of immigrants would also have to pass English language tests. Next year, there will be further changes.

All which tells me two things.

First, actual policy is hard and complicated.

For example, you have tests that the Home Office can apply to prospective migrants. These are mostly non-EU migrants and the tests are about how well you can function in a country as a citizen.

Then you also have tests that employers can demand for their staff. These are usually at a higher level. For example, Social Workers have to reach a certain standard in IELTS tests, roughly C1, while the Home Office test will next year be tightened to the much lower B1. (The various standards are explained here.)

If you extend such testing at proficiency level to all public facing jobs, I’d guess you’d immediately be faced with the question of what language level is appropriate for each job. Is it always C1? Sometimes B2? Can A2 ever be acceptable? Variable?

Finally, there’s the fact that Europe is treated differently. There’s no general language requirement to come here, (obviously) and mutual recognition rules mean that enforcing a language test is complex. For example, the GMC says it probably can’t test all doctors for their language skills, but that employers can and should, but that this cannot be a systemic or discriminatory process and that employers cannot use a "One size fits all" test.

So if you imposed a general rule that all migrants had to reach C1 (like doctors and social workers) to do a particular job, you might well get sued by an EU applicant on the basis that not all UK citizens doing that job reach that standard.

This brings me to my second conclusion: All this policy complexity tends to explain why the rhetoric of English language tests sounds both so clear and so repetitively familiar, while the impact in communities feels comparatively marginal.

Different politicians announce lots of things that are going in the same general direction, but which are subtly different – perhaps to deal with emergent problems and complexities – and the impression left is that they’re repeating what was said before, which implies what they’d said before didn’t work anyway, so why should they be believed now?

It’s an outcomes and process divide. It’s pretty clear what outcomes politicians and the public want: They want all migrants to the UK to have a reasonable command of the English Language.  Further, they want those in public roles to have a better command.

That’s all pretty reasonable – so the politicians keep saying this is their aim, and that they will make changes needed to make it happen. That’s yer Narrative, as we say in policy seminars.

But then the actual doing of it all gets in the way, and it’s horribly complicated and frustrating and difficult, and it takes ages and there are all sorts of exceptions and issues, and it all gets wrapped up in different organisations and tests and conflicting needs.

So then the next guy comes along and says basically the same thing all over again, perhaps attacking the current lot or the last lot for not doing it properly, but it all sounds quite familiar, and then a smartarse like me comes along and says “Pfft, nothing new there, you said that before“, which in turn creates even more pressure to sound new and radical and bold.

The only solution I can think of is to make complexity the new cool.

This article is crossposted from Hopi Sen's blog, where it first appeared

The first pledge on English Language for migrants came from Tony Blair in 2005. Photograph: Getty Images

Hopi Sen is a former head of campaigns at the Parliamentary Labour Party. He blogs at

Photo: Getty
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Like it or hate it, it doesn't matter: Brexit is happening, and we've got to make a success of it

It's time to stop complaining and start campaigning, says Stella Creasy.

A shortage of Marmite, arguments over exporting jam and angry Belgians. And that’s just this month.  As the Canadian trade deal stalls, and the government decides which cottage industry its will pick next as saviour for the nation, the British people are still no clearer getting an answer to what Brexit actually means. And they are also no clearer as to how they can have a say in how that question is answered.

To date there have been three stages to Brexit. The first was ideological: an ever-rising euroscepticism, rooted in a feeling that the costs the compromises working with others require were not comparable to the benefits. It oozed out, almost unnoticed, from its dormant home deep in the Labour left and the Tory right, stoked by Ukip to devastating effect.

The second stage was the campaign of that referendum itself: a focus on immigration over-riding a wider debate about free trade, and underpinned by the tempting and vague claim that, in an unstable, unfair world, control could be taken back. With any deal dependent on the agreement of twenty eight other countries, it has already proved a hollow victory.

For the last few months, these consequences of these two stages have dominated discussion, generating heat, but not light about what happens next. Neither has anything helped to bring back together those who feel their lives are increasingly at the mercy of a political and economic elite and those who fear Britain is retreating from being a world leader to a back water.

Little wonder the analogy most commonly and easily reached for by commentators has been that of a divorce. They speculate our coming separation from our EU partners is going to be messy, combative and rancorous. Trash talk from some - including those in charge of negotiating -  further feeds this perception. That’s why it is time for all sides to push onto Brexit part three: the practical stage. How and when is it actually going to happen?

A more constructive framework to use than marriage is one of a changing business, rather than a changing relationship. Whatever the solid economic benefits of EU membership, the British people decided the social and democratic costs had become too great. So now we must adapt.

Brexit should be as much about innovating in what we make and create as it is about seeking to renew our trading deals with the world. New products must be sought alongside new markets. This doesn’t have to mean cutting corners or cutting jobs, but it does mean being prepared to learn new skills and invest in helping those in industries that are struggling to make this leap to move on. The UK has an incredible and varied set of services and products to offer the world, but will need to focus on what we do well and uniquely here to thrive. This is easier said than done, but can also offer hope. Specialising and skilling up also means we can resist those who want us to jettison hard-won environmental and social protections as an alternative. 

Most accept such a transition will take time. But what is contested is that it will require openness. However, handing the public a done deal - however well mediated - will do little to address the division within our country. Ensuring the best deal in a way that can garner the public support it needs to work requires strong feedback channels. That is why transparency about the government's plans for Brexit is so important. Of course, a balance needs to be struck with the need to protect negotiating positions, but scrutiny by parliament- and by extension the public- will be vital. With so many differing factors at stake and choices to be made, MPs have to be able and willing to bring their constituents into the discussion not just about what Brexit actually entails, but also what kind of country Britain will be during and after the result - and their role in making it happen. 

Those who want to claim the engagement of parliament and the public undermines the referendum result are still in stages one and two of this debate, looking for someone to blame for past injustices, not building a better future for all. Our Marmite may be safe for the moment, but Brexit can’t remain a love it or hate it phenomenon. It’s time for everyone to get practical.