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 www.hopisen.com.

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Far from being a leftwing radical, Jeremy Corbyn is slouching towards Milibandism

Most of the Corbynite agenda can be found in the pages of Britain Can Be Better, the party’s 2015 manifesto.

A pair of boxing gloves hangs in the office of Benoît Hamon, the Socialist candidate for the French presidency – not because the diminutive left-winger faces a fight to keep his party relevant, let alone in government (some surveys show him in fifth place), but because of his affection for Muhammad Ali, whose poster adorns one of the walls of his sophisticated, modern office. During his against-the-odds run for the Socialists’ presidential nomination, he likened himself to Jeremy Corbyn, as did his opponents. Though the comparison added a note of optimism to his long-shot bid, now that he is ensconced at the top of his party it is Corbyn, rather than Hamon, who is flattered by the comparison.

A casual observer of Hamon’s open-plan headquarters in Château d’Eau, a gentrify­ing area near the centre of Paris, might mistake it for the home of a tech start-up rather than that of a party that is more than a century old. Someone visiting Corbyn’s offices at Norman Shaw South in the Palace of Westminster, or the Labour Party’s headquarters a few minutes down the road, would have no such difficulties.

Although the demolition of its Miliband-era offices forced the move to the new digs, Labour’s organisational structures and campaigning approach remain firmly rooted in the world that Ed Miliband built. The offices of the leader of the opposition, too, are little changed since Miliband vacated them.

It’s not only the buildings that have a Miliband-era look to them. Labour’s policies do, too. For all that Corbyn is battered in the right-wing press for his “hard-left” past, his present is mired in the programme of his predecessor.

Most of the Corbynite agenda can be found in the pages of Britain Can Be Better, the party’s 2015 manifesto. A pledge to ban zero-hours contracts appears on page 27. A commitment to undo the Conservatives’ reforms to the National Health Service is on page 34, and a pledge to ensure parity of esteem for physical and mental health treatment is on the following page.

To address Britain’s housing crisis, the party leader has pledged to build 200,000 homes, the same commitment as Miliband and Theresa May made. On immigration, meanwhile, Labour remains mired in its Miliband-era rut: desperate to avoid upsetting the half of its coalition that likes immigration or the half that opposes it, the party settles for offending both with an incoherent mess.

Corbyn’s Labour has a more expansive ­fiscal rule allowing it to spend more on infrastructure than the Labour of Miliband and Ed Balls would have done but, on taxation, the party has moved significantly since the era of Balls – to the right.

The promise of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership bid was “a new kind of politics”. Corbyn’s claim to be to the left of what came before him rests largely on his career before becoming leader and his rhetoric, rather than the programme that he has advanced since becoming leader.

Here, Corbyn’s allies point to the oppo­sition of much of the Parliamentary Labour Party. Hamon, too, has to navigate a political elite that mostly backed his defeated opponent Manuel Valls, but has carved out a distinctive policy platform offering a universal basic income and pledging to legalise both cannabis and euthanasia.

The Labour leader’s office, meanwhile, can no longer claim to be understaffed. Ed Miliband had a staff of 25. Corbyn has one of 28, with four posts still to be filled. Although Miliband’s journey ended in electoral defeat, his leadership was at least an incubator for ideas about the future of the party, admittedly sometimes to the extent that his office more closely resembled a seminar room than a platform to seize power in a general election. There are serious thinkers in the current leader’s office, but the whole is less than the sum of its parts.

Corbyn has proved to be a more adept player of the game of Labour politics than his opponents as far as retaining the leadership is concerned, and yet he cannot be said to have been a success in terms of transforming the Labour Party. A minister from the Tony Blair years describes Corbyn’s victory as a necessary “course correction” from the excesses of the latter years of New Labour and the arid unity of the Miliband era, but the truth is that Labour’s plane remains on the same trajectory that it was on when Corbyn took the controls.

Beyond the leader’s office, Labour’s left flank has shrunk under Corbyn. Fourteen of the 35 Labour MPs who signed Corbyn’s nomination papers could be described as sharing his politics. Today, the Corbynite caucus numbers just 13, as the late Michael Meacher, an eloquent supporter of Corbynism, has been succeeded in Oldham by Jim McMahon, a rising hope of the party’s right. If Clive Lewis, who is still regarded as the left’s best asset by many activists but is currently on the outside as far as the leadership is concerned, is counted out, the Corbynite caucus goes down to 12.

The struggles of Labour’s French cousins and, indeed, of most centre-left parties everywhere – the centre left has won just seven elections in the EU since the financial crash – show that the party’s problems do not begin or end with Corbyn. But, two years in, it is difficult to see which of those problems are improving under him and easy to identify the ones that are getting worse.

On the periphery of the Corbyn project, there is worthwhile work being done on the digital economy and the party’s structure; the latter has not been the subject of deep thinking since 1997. Yet those green shoots are likely to remain neglected until the leader’s successor, whoever that may be, inherits, just as Corbyn did from Miliband, a party that is weaker at Westminster than it was when he or she found it. And that, regrettably, is the optimistic scenario.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

This article first appeared in the 30 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Wanted: an opposition