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18 January 2016

David Cameron’s approach: cut a public service, then demand to know why people aren’t using it

Now, instead of being prevented from learning English by your family, you can instead be stopped by George Osborne. 

By Stephen Bush

David Cameron has another speech today, which is both good and original. The bad news is the parts that are good are not original and the parts that are original are not good.

The good parts, first: that everyone who lives in Britain should learn English. The policy case is fairly open and shut: if you can’t speak English, you can’t access anything but the least well-paying, least secure and least healthy work. Even if you aren’t engaging in the labour market – let’s say that you are a woman doing unpaid care work, either for elderly relatives or, more likely for children – then you still need English if you fall sick, or to navigate Parents’ Evening, or to top-up your family earnings through part-time work.

And we’re all better off if the state pays – at least partially – to increase its skills base, whether that’s among migrant or domestic labour. The volunteer sector finds it hard to step in as the costs of transport and childcare – let alone teaching time – are difficult to meet without state aid.

But this is an old idea. It was a Labour government – that of Harold Wilson, in the 1966 Local Government Act – that first began to seriously provide for English language lessons for Commonwealth migrants, in this case, mainly those from African and Caribbean Commonwealth countries. That funding survived the years of Tory rule before getting a rebrand as the Ethnic Minority Achievement Grant and more money in 1999 under Tony Blair.

There are some similarities between Wilson and Cameron, but increasing Esol ain’t one. Since Cameron came to power, English lessons for speakers of other languages have been cut by more than 50 per cent. In July of last year, the Skills Agency announced that a consequence of the most recent spending review, it would have to withdraw all its funding for English lessons. It remains to be seen if today’s speech from Cameron brings with it any additional money – or even any substantial reductions in six years of cuts to English lessons.

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If it doesn’t, it’s meaningless. If it does, it feels remarkably similar to the government’s treatment of the BBC World Service – exposing it to further cuts before noticing this year that soft power is important and restoring some funding underneath the cover of the U-Turn over tax credits, and yet a further blow to George Osborne’s hopes of meeting his targets.

But enough of the bit that is good, but not original – what about the bit that is original, but not good? Cameron also proposes a new policy lever: that if migrants from outside the European Union don’t learn English, they’ll be deported after two and a half years.

Will it work? What Cameron is trying to tackle is the number of women who are, while contributing unpaid labour in the form of childcare or eldercare, remain shut off from the labour market. The spectre invoked in his speech is a familiar one: of a woman from a Muslim background, who is rarely allowed out, if at all, who cannot speak English.

And yes, the spectre is at least partially real. Just 10 per cent of (predominantly Muslim) Somalian women over 16 are in work, and it at least some of that is due to an enforced restriction in the language skills of Somalian women. It is possible that the sanction of deportation will mean more women will join the already oversubscribed ranks of people looking for English lessons. It’s equally possible that those women will simply vanish from the official statistics entirely, or be deported back and join the already significant ranks of women in places like Somalia who are reliant on financial transfers from relatives working in Britain. 

But it’s not much of an upgrade that women currently prevented from learning English by their families will instead be prevented from learning English by George Osborne.

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