Sajid Javid, the Communities Secretary, has endorsed Louise Casey’s idea that all public officials should swear an oath of allegiance to British values and thereby take responsibility for promoting integration. Casey made the proposal, the only one the government has endorsed so far, in her report into British integration last month.
Javid is most likely taking up this suggestion because he thinks it is free. But of course, nothing is free. If the 5.3m people working in the public sector take half an hour out of their day to traipse to an office, recite an oath and then go back to their desks, over £47m will have been spend paying their wages while they do so. Ironically, that’s slightly more than the £45m the government cut from English language classes for migrants a few years ago.
Unlike English language classes for migrants, the government has little evidence that such oaths could have any impact on integration. For years migrants who naturalise as British citizens have had to take an oath. But the government has not done any analysis of whether this has led to changes in behaviour. Indeed, some studies suggest that non-voluntary oaths have a negligible impact on behaviour, and only affect those already disposed to agree with them. While defending our commitment to tolerance, decency and the rule of law is important, it seems far-fetched to think the magic solution is getting some public officials to recite an oath. Casey further proposed in her report that all new migrants to Britain should have to make a similar oath of allegiance. We await Javid’s view on this broader, second oath.
Casey’s review raised some serious questions for the government. She pointed to the existence of pockets of parallel communities who have barely any engagement with the rest of British culture. She noted that, in parts of the Muslim community in particular, there are serious concerns at sexism and female repression that would not be tolerated in mainstream society. In a country where immigration and integration are such febrile political issues, Casey set out the clear duty on the government to act. Unfortunately, it does not look as if oaths will do the trick.
Research soon to be published by IPPR looks at socially excluded Muslim women in the town of Bedford. It finds that their integration is blocked by family members’ concerns around Westernisation, deeply low levels of self-confidence, poverty and lack of targeted services. Out in the real world, beyond the gesture politics of Whitehall, people are making things work. Small judicious adaptations can overcome obstacles. For example, holding women-only sessions at a local swimming pool means women are able to secure family members’ consent to attend. When they go together, they build networks and build their confidence, a prerequisite for taking the first steps of integration (like applying for a job or visiting a doctor). Changing the style of parents’ evenings make the experience less intimidating for mothers afraid to engage with authority figures. This builds trust and confidence that means different groups can engage with each other.
It isn’t rocket science, but it is hard work. The national narrative on migration is eroding trust between communities that some groups have laboured to create. Government cuts to English language provision make the process much harder. Casey has identified a real problem. But it is unlikely an oath will resolve it.
Chris Murray is a research fellow on migration and integration at IPPR. @ChrisMurray2010