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

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How did I, obsessed with non-places, not know about the Trafford Centre?

My wife had booked us all in to a showing of the latest Bond film at the IMAX Cinema at the Trafford Centre. “Why the Trafford Centre?” I taxed her. She looked at me as if I were a complete ass, but refused to enlighten me. 

Last year I bought a copy of J G Ballard’s last novel, Kingdom Come, a dystopic tale of the near future in which bored suburbanites descend into anomic violence as they retreat inside a giant shopping mall. Predictably, I bought my copy at the Bluewater shopping mall in north Kent, on the outskirts of London. Bluewater held the title of Britain’s biggest shopping mall for a number of years and it is surpassing large: a huge circular corridor that has become a destination. I asked a police officer where the Waterstones was and discovered she was a good old-fashioned bobby-on-the-beat – her beat having been, for seven years, to walk slowly around and around . . . Bluewater.

But I wasn’t fettered by Bluewater’s surly gravity, any more than I was galvanised by rampant consumerism. Novel purchased, I took a cab over the soaring Queen Elizabeth II Bridge to Essex, where I alighted at Bluewater’s twin establishment: the Lakeside shopping mall in West Thurrock. I headed for the Lakeside branch of Waterstones, where I . . . well, you guessed it: I returned my copy of Kingdom Come. This surreal little exercise was undertaken for the BBC Radio 4 documentary Malled: Sixty Years of Undercover Shopping, and I’ve detailed it here purely in order to illustrate this point: I have more than a passing interest in shopping malls.

This is why the events of a fortnight ago, when Family Self went up to Manchester for what is termed, I believe, a “city break”, seemed quite so bizarre. My wife had booked us all in to a showing of the latest Bond film at the IMAX Cinema at the Trafford Centre. “Why the Trafford Centre?” I taxed her. “It’s in Trafford, which is five miles from the city centre.” She looked at me as if I were a complete ass, but refused to enlighten me. My revelation came later, when we were wandering the rococo halls of the Trafford Centre, marvelling at the lashings of gold leaf applied to the serried columns as our soles slapped on the Italian marble flooring. My wife couldn’t believe that one such as I, obsessed by what the French philosopher Marc Augé has named “non-places”, didn’t know about the Trafford Centre.

But I didn’t – it was a 207,000-square-metre hole in my map of the world. I knew nothing of the bitter and protracted wrangling that attended its inception, as successive planning applications were rejected by ever higher authorities, until our Noble Lords had to step in to ensure future generations will be able to buy their schmutter at TK Maxx and then sip their lattes at Starbucks without having to brave the harsh Lancashire elements. Did I feel small as my savvier spouse led me through these storied halls? You bet your waddling, wobbling, standing-still-on-the-travelator bum I did. How could I not have known about the great central dome of the Trafford mall, which is bigger – and statelier – than that of St Paul’s? How could I have been unaware of the Orient, Europe’s largest food court, with its seating for 1,800 diners, served by a plethora of exciting outlets including Harry Ramsden’s, Carluccio’s and those piquant bun-pushers, McDonald’s?

Actually, the Orient completely bowled me over. The Trafford Centre’s imagineers point to the nearby Manchester Ship Canal as influencing this wholly novel and utterly weird space, which is formed by a sort of Möbius strip of 1930s ocean-liner design, being at once superstructure – railings, funnels, tables arranged to simulate the deckchairs on a sun deck – and interior. However, nothing like this ever cruised by Runcorn. Not that I object to this, any more than I objected to the cluttered corridor full of orientalism – noodle bars, sushi joints, all-you-can-eat Chinese barbecues – that debouched from it and led us back into the weirdly glistering main retail areas, with their ornamental griffins and neoclassical columns bodged up out of medium-density fibreboard.

The Trafford Centre’s imagineers also make great play of design features – such as the aforementioned griffins – that are meant to tie the humongous mall to its hinterland (these are the heraldic symbols of the de Traffords, who used to own hereabouts), and to the north-east’s proud industrial heritage. But this is all ornamental balls; the truth is that the Trafford Centre’s ambience is so sumptuously wacky, it could quite reasonably be twinned with Las Vegas.

While the rest of the family went in search of retail opportunities, I watched the Mancunians process. It occurred to me that if there were any influences at work here – besides the Baudrillardian ones of hyperreality and simulation that underpin so much of the contemporary built environment – it was the presence of a large British Asian community. The only people who didn’t look out of both place and time, wandering about among all the gilded pomp and crystalline circumstance, were women wearing saris, shalwar kameez and burqas. Tracksuit bottoms and hoodies just didn’t cut it – although, I concede, come the breakdown in civil society anticipated in Kingdom Come, this pseudo-sportswear will come into its own as the perfect pillaging outfit.

Next week: Lives of Others

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Terror vs the State