They say a week is a long time in politics, never mind a year. But it is now a year since Dame Louise Casey published the results of her review into levels of integration and opportunity in our nation.
It has been a topsy-turvy political year, typified by the highs and lows of the general election and the unfolding disaster that is the government’s approach to its Brexit negotiations. However, there has been one constant during this period: the sense that we are becoming increasingly divided as a nation, and that we must take action to increase levels of social integration in communities up and down our country.
I believe that it’s crucial that the government should take a strategic and proactive approach to fostering integration and cohesion in our country. For months, there have been mutterings that the government is set to publish a national Integration Strategy. However, the longer there is no movement, the more I worry that this work is being slowly edged towards the long grass. This sentiment was recently echoed by Dame Louise herself, who commented at a conference last month that she believed the work “has been tucked away in the all-too-difficult filing cabinet”. I don’t agree with absolutely everything in her report, but I do believe its publication was timely and valuable.
Home Office statistics published in October back this up. They reveal that there has been a 29 per cent increase in recorded hate crimes, the biggest percentage increase since reporting began in 2011/2012. We are a country increasingly ill at ease with ourselves. The reason this work is seen as all-too-difficult is because it requires us asking challenging questions about who we wish to be as a country. Pre-existing and emerging societal cleavages – whether of geography, culture, ethnicity, religion, income or education level – have been brought into sharp focus by recent political turbulence. We need a concerted effort from our political leaders to build bridges across these divides; to restitch our fraying social fabric.
As chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Social Integration, I have spent much of the last year hosting parliamentary evidence sessions and meeting with citizens to discuss these issues. Throughout the course of this process, we came to a number of conclusions, some of which overlap with those reached by Louise Casey.
For example, English language provision should be a right for all. In her report, Louise Casey emphasised the importance of a shared language for the promotion of integration – and the APPG, in our Integration not Demonisation report, laid out how this could work in practice through the introduction of a national strategy for English language learning. The government, local authorities, colleges and businesses must work together in order to ensure that all our citizens, both long-standing and newly-arrived, have the right to learn English and in turn access all the opportunities our society has to offer. This will mean more investment but, as Dame Louise noted, we must act too to challenge the cultural barriers which prevent women within Pakistani and Bangladeshi communities from accessing English classes.
The Casey Review identified the need for localised plans for areas in which, for example, incidences of hate crime are particularly high or knowledge of the English language is especially low. This locally-led system, underpinned by a policy framework and standards set out in Whitehall, is the right approach. This was borne out during visits I made with the APPG to communities in both Halifax in West Yorkshire and Boston in Lincolnshire – areas which have very different, but equally acute, integration needs, flowing from their distinct historical and demographic characteristics. Local authorities should be empowered to shape integration interventions to reflect their unique local circumstances, and supported through the introduction of an Integration Impact Fund.
Dame Louise was also right to recognise the power of meaningful contact between people of different backgrounds, and the importance of social mixing initiatives which aim to facilitate these interactions. Her report highlighted the way in which effective social mixing can reduce prejudice, and increase trust and understanding between people from different backgrounds. She highlighted schools and youth social action initiatives, such as National Citizen Service, as key spaces for young people to come into contact with those different from them. The government must bring forward plans to promote social mixing within and between schools, and to support youth charities to better facilitate interaction between people with different experiences of life.
I am certain there really is a copy of Louise Casey’s report containing these ideas, and many more besides, sat in a government filing cabinet somewhere. For it to be left there is simply not good enough. David Cameron announced the Review way back in July 2015 – almost two and a half years ago. There is growing political will across political parties for policy measures to heal our increasingly divided nation, and growing impatience at the lack of movement.
The government must recognise this and realise, whilst they may feel progressively more hamstrung by internal Brexit division, that these two questions are not distinct from one another. Leavers and Remainers alike were unlikely to know many people, if any, who voted the other way in the referendum. This reality must be at the forefront of the government’s mind as it moves in to 2018. There is much work to be done at home alongside the negotiations taking place in Brussels. The government’s response to Louise Casey and a concerted effort to tackle social division and polarisation must be at the forefront of its domestic agenda.