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English for Speakers of Other Languages

Volume 689: debated on Monday 26 February 2007

rose to ask Her Majesty’s Government what provision they will make for the teaching of English for speakers of other languages in England in the next academic year.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, this debate is about the provision of English for speakers of other languages (ESOL) in the financial year from this summer. I should declare the interest that my wife is an ESOL teacher.

This debate is timely; there will be an important lobby on Wednesday, which has been organised by the University and College Union and many other bodies on behalf of the “Save ESOL” campaign. I pay tribute to those who organised this campaign and the many people around the country who expressed considerable concern about the Government’s proposals. I thank those noble Lords who want to speak in this short debate. I will listen with great interest to the Minister’s reply.

This is a many-faceted and complex issue. I shall put my own slant on it based on the area that I know best: the Pendle and Burnley area in east Lancashire. What is proposed? The Learning and Skills Council, with the Government’s support, proposes to restrict access to free ESOL classes from this summer. The suggestion is that, apart from those who will be excused fees, people should pay 30 per cent of fees this year, rising to 50 per cent in 2010. ESOL classes lead to examinations under the Skills for Life programme at five different levels: the entry level, E1, which is for beginners; E2; E3, which is the benchmark for the citizenship test; and levels one and two, at which stage one might be able to take GCSEs. They are about speaking, listening, reading and writing; in other words, they are about basic language skills, which are the key to so many things that make a full life possible, and which the Government say they believe in.

What are the Government’s beliefs in this regard? They have a belief in citizenship: it is very important to be a full and active citizen in this country and for people to be able to communicate, and that means fluency in English. They believe in the integration of individuals in the communities in which they live and work and in the integration of communities. Five or six years ago, after the disturbances in some northern cities, there was much talk about parallel communities. We had the Cantle report, the Ouseley report and the report from the Burnley taskforce and the noble Lord, Lord Clarke of Hampstead. The underlying tale in the reports was of the dangers of allowing communities to develop, live and exist separately from the wider community.

In the Pendle and Burnley area, we have a large south Asian community; it is a very traditional community in many ways but it has a great deal to offer. If left without any positive action, it is likely to suffer from the parallel communities problem. Along with those aims and objectives, there is the overriding aim of social cohesion. All those are fundamentally linked to the acquisition of language skills.

Who will miss out under the Government’s proposals? It will vary a lot in different parts of the country. My understanding is that Nelson and Colne College, in the area where I live, is planning for a 50 per cent cut in ESOL numbers next year. Low-paid workers will miss out. They may be migrant workers or members of ethnic-minority communities on the minimum wage or below—plenty of people are paid less than the minimum wage—or part-time workers, who may be paid the minimum hourly wage but have a take-home pay each week that is a lot less.

The second group of those who will miss out, on which I want to concentrate, is non-employed people—people without jobs who are not unemployed. Many are women who used to be called housewives; nowadays a more politically correct description appears to be “carers in the home”. This involves women who work in the home and keep the family and the home going but who do not have a job—they have never had them—and are therefore not entitled to benefits. There are also older men who may have come to this country 30 or 40 years ago to work night shifts in the mills. Those nightshift workers were almost all Asian and did not need English to work. They are now cut off from proper participation in the wider society because of their lack of English. There are also asylum seekers, whom my noble friend Lord Avebury will discuss. Our experience in Nelson is that the ability of asylum seekers to go to ESOL classes from the moment they arrived was a very important part of encouraging and enabling them to live in the local community.

I want to talk in particular about women. In many ways this is a feminist issue. The Nelson-Colne experience in the past few years is that an increasing number of women of all ages have attended ESOL classes. Some of them are young marrieds, fresh over from the Indian subcontinent; others are mothers who have been here for 30 years, have never found the opportunity or necessity to learn English but have now plucked up the courage to go to ESOL classes. Unfortunately, a traditional aspect in south Asian communities in such areas is that, if those women have to pay, they must get funding from the rest of the family because in many cases they have no money of their own. Given the choice of sending young or older women, or young men—who may have come from south Asia and lack English but who need that ability to get a job—they will choose the young men. Many of these women have been very brave: they have overcome the great reluctance—and, in some cases, opposition—of many of the men folk in their families to go to these classes. The future is bleak for that group.

I want to refer to two initiatives among many in my part of the world. The Briefield Women’s Group, run by Councillor Naseem Shabnam, a colleague of mine, is a multicultural group, half of whose members are white and the other half Asian. It is a real breakthrough. It is a local campaigning and social group in the small town of Briefield.

In Nelson, there is a very exciting regeneration project called the Whitefield Regeneration Partnership. It is regenerating an area of rundown and old terraced houses, many of which are empty, in a heritage-based way in a mainly Asian area. It is innovative and exciting and it will be tremendous. Lesley Chisnell-Helm, the secretary of the Whitefield Community Forum, which is the residents’ group, has recently been organising meetings of Asian mothers from the local school and playgroup. These people are excited and have very strong ideas, which are not necessarily the same as those of the men folk from those families. Those are just two groups among many where women are beginning to take part in the community. They are beginning to break down the barriers not just between the communities but within their own community. However, they need language skills to do that and, without such skills, this kind of initiative is impossible.

Some people referred to language-isolated communities. There are certainly many language-isolated households where the common language is not English and where the television is often tuned to a satellite station that does not broadcast in English. It is vital that the women in these households learn English. It is linked to many of the Government’s general objectives and to the education of very young children. If more English were spoken, including by mothers, these children would not start with the handicaps that they have when they go to school, and indeed they could take part in the education of the older children.

Learning English is also important for children’s health and well-being, the regeneration of areas, as I have suggested, integration and cohesion, and friendships across the cultural divide. It is essential that individual friendships develop between people in different communities but, if there is no common language, that will be impossible.

I want to finish by asking the Government some questions. First, have they carried out an assessment of the likely fee levels, and how much are they likely to vary from college to college? Is £300 for 30 weeks, at four hours a week, the kind of level that people might be talking about? Secondly, what proportion of existing students is likely to get the full fee remission? It must be possible to know that because we know who the existing students are. Thirdly, what research have the Government done on the elasticity of demand following the introduction of ESOL fees? In other words, what do they believe the drop-out rate will be? Fourthly, what research have they undertaken into the willingness of employers of migrant workers to pay fees for ESOL classes? Finally, what is the expected increase in class sizes under the new system, which I gather will take place, and what effect do the Government think it will have on the quality of provision?

I want to read to noble Lords an examination answer from an E3 student in response to being asked to:

“Write an email to a friend who is coming to England and wants advice on learning English”.

The answer read:

“Hello ... Don’t worry. I started to learn English when I was 10 years old from my school. When I had finished my school I only remembered one poetry.

ABCDEFG

John is hiding far from me

Looking here, looking there,

I can’t see him anywhere

Is hiding

When I came to England, I went straight to the learning centre. For myself was very easy to learn words, but difficult grammar.

Now I want to write, what Walt Whitman (USA) told about language:

‘Language is not an abstract construction of the learned or of dictionary-makers, but is something arising out of the work, needs, ties, joys, tastes of long generations of humanity, and has its bases broad and low, close to the ground’”.

That really describes the present system of ESOL provision. It is broad and low; it is close to the ground. The student ended by saying, “Take care”. I ask the Government to take a little more care with the ESOL provision in this country.

My Lords, my noble friend has convincingly demonstrated the proposition that he put to your Lordships at the beginning of his speech: that the acquisition of language skills is fundamental to social cohesion. That is certainly the case in my noble friend’s area, where ESOL provision has been, and should continue to be, the key to the social cohesion of his constituency.

However, as my noble friend said, I want to focus, in particular, on the decision to stop ESOL for asylum seekers. I consider this a particularly unpleasant idea which is based on false assumptions and is detrimental to the public interest. The Minister, Bill Rammell, in his Guardian article of 16 January headed, “We cannot sustain current levels of funding for ESOL provision”, justified the withdrawal of tuition from asylum seekers over the age of 19 on the grounds that taxpayers’ money should not be used to support the learning of English by people who are expected to leave the country. At the same time, he extolled the IND’s success in determining 80 per cent of applications within eight weeks, half of them leading to refusals.

According to the latest Home Office statistics, the number of asylum claims has been falling steadily since 2003, so these applicants are not responsible for the,

“massive increase in demand for free ESOL tuition”,

to which the Minister referred in that article. Both the smaller numbers and the speeding up of determinations will have reduced the cost of ESOL tuition for asylum seekers, although the actual figure is 69 per cent of applications determined within eight weeks, not 80 per cent as the Minister claimed, and the figure has been going down.

Roughly, 20 per cent of the applicants are given leave to remain and another 20 per cent succeed on first appeal. In all, something like half of all applicants are allowed to stay here by the time they have been through the whole process and not 30 per cent, as alleged by Mr Rammell on the BBC programme “The Learning Curve” yesterday evening. So, if all asylum seekers were equally likely to end up permanently settled in the UK, half the spending on free English tuition for them would be not only reasonable but imperative if they are to put their talents to full use for the benefit of themselves, their families and the host community. By giving successful applicants a head start in the job market, we have been helping them to contribute to the economy and to repay, through their taxes, the cost of the services that they receive.

In fact, the proportion of spending on those who are likely to be unsuccessful will be much lower than 50 per cent because most of them already are not eligible for ESOL classes. Those who are sent to other EU countries under the Dublin convention, non-suspensive appeal cases—that is, people who do not have a right of appeal in the UK—and those who are fast-tracked are here for much shorter periods and they do not qualify for ESOL tuition at the moment. When you deduct all those categories, the proportion of the remainder who finally get leave to remain is well over 50 per cent, but evidently Mr Rammell’s advisers failed to provide him with that information. So the evidence on which the Government base their case is wrong.

There are also those who, for practical reasons, cannot be sent back to their countries of origin. They include, for the indefinite future, Eritreans, Zimbabweans, Somalis and Iranians. Of course, most Zimbabweans speak good English, but their gripe has been that they do not have access to other types of courses, such as IT, so they should also be deducted from the total of unsuccessful asylum seekers whose participation in ESOL is, according to the Minister, a waste of money.

If there is no prospect in the foreseeable future of removing people who come from other countries, the very least that we can do for them is to help them to speak our language. Bristol, for example, has a large Somali community, among whom ESOL courses in the City of Bristol College are popular. Does the Minister think that it makes any sense to put obstacles in the path of Somali asylum seekers, two-thirds of whom are given leave to remain, while the remainder are likely to gain permanent settlement sooner or later because we cannot send them back?

The Commission on Integration and Cohesion has identified lack of English as,

“a critical barrier to integration and cohesion for new arrivals”.

The Government recognise in their strategy document for refugee integration that English-language proficiency is a key factor in accessing the labour market, mainstream services such as Jobcentre Plus call centres, and successfully integrating into UK society.

In welcoming the decision to continue funding for asylum seekers aged 16 to 18, the chief executive of the Refugee Council says that early entry to English courses is important for all ages if they are to communicate and function effectively, and competence in English means that they are less dependent on support services and better able to make connections with their local community.

Bill Rammell claims that the cuts in ESOL are not intended to save money but to ensure that places on courses are taken by those in greatest need. Excluding destitute asylum seekers from access to our language is mean, inhumane, and perverse and a false economy that will delay the entry of refugees into full participation in British society and the Government should think again.

My Lords, I hope my intervention will be brief. It is based on my experiences, first, as a native English speaker; secondly, as someone who, many years ago, taught English as a second language to multinational groups; and, thirdly, as someone who arrived in a country whose language I could not speak. Speakers before me have indicated how important verbal communication is: if one is to interact with one's fellow human beings, it is essential; it is vital if one is to feel part of a community; and it is vital if one is to understand the society in which one lives, its governance, how to access services and how to be part of the community.

Earlier today, I was struck by the fact that in much of what one is required to do in this country one has to access the internet, which is all in English. As English speakers, we have had it very easy. Many people in the world speak English, but most native English speakers have not had to grapple with not understanding what is going on around them. I wonder whether that is why we are rather poor at understanding the importance of people being able to speak our language when they come to live here.

More than 35 years ago, I went to live in Sweden. I did not know any Swedish and I thought I was pretty lousy at languages. I had passed O-level French, but my ability to speak it was fairly limited. What is it like to arrive in a new environment? It is very disconcerting because there is a lot of noise around you and you cannot even understand where words start and finish. That starts to improve after a while, but it is very isolating and quite frightening. I remember being on the underground in Stockholm and listening to the noises and not knowing what they meant. I also spent a little time living in Germany and know that Germanic rules are very important. In Sweden and in Germany, if one does not understand the language it can be quite disconcerting.

English people are very bad at understanding that. In most of the countries that we visit, people understand English. In Sweden, if I really needed to get to grips with something, wherever I went, someone was able to understand English. In my early days in Sweden, I can still remember trying to find something in their equivalent of Woolworths and tentatively asking the assistant in English, to which she said, “It’s just in the second aisle on the left”. I remember thinking, “Gosh, would that have happened in Woolworths in England?”.

I started to teach English as a second language in that environment. In Sweden, then, as now, one had free tuition in their language. Every week I used to go to the classes, although everyone else went twice a week—I could go only once a week because I was teaching English. That was incredibly frustrating. Having been there for a while, my present husband was getting rather good at Swedish, whereas I was pretty awful. Eventually, I had some time off and so I attended a course for 20 days—every weekday for a month. Swedish courses were free if you were a foreigner in Sweden and, although I started off very haltingly, by the end I was relatively fluent in everyday Swedish.

Those experiences, including being a teacher, have led me to believe that if one wants to get the best value out of teaching people English the courses need to be intensive. On an intensive course, one speaks the language every day and does not lose what one learnt the day before. If one attends a course once a week and then returns to one’s own environment and speaks one’s own language for the rest of the week, it does not work so well.

My message to the Government—my noble friends know about the day-to-day problems in England today and I am not involved with teaching English as a second language any more—is that it is really important for people to be part of the community and the culture and to be able to speak the language. If one is serious about it, intensive courses are by far the best and charging people is not the way to go. In Scandinavia and in other parts of Europe, where not many foreign people speak their language, they understand what it is like not to understand the language of the community in which they live and they are far more willing to provide free language teaching. To charge people is a very backward step and one will achieve far better value for money if one provides people with an opportunity to attend intensive courses in English rather than courses that are spread out over a longer period.

I congratulate my noble friend on initiating the debate. It is very important. Quite frankly, I was dismayed when I heard on the news that the Government thought that it was acceptable to start charging people to learn English, when common sense tells us that this is a key point if we are to try to make our communities cohesive.

My Lords, I, too, congratulate my noble friend Lord Greaves on introducing this important debate on the vexed question of the future funding of ESOL classes. It is essential that classes up to the basic level should remain free. It is surely to the advantage of everyone in the United Kingdom that as many of our population as possible speak English; it is in the interests of all aspects of social inclusion and cohesion, in the interests of employers and of the whole workforce, and not least the interests of health and safety. The Government recognise that, which is presumably why, in 2001, they tripled the funding for the Skills for Life programme of which ESOL is a part. ESOL classes have been a runaway success and are now hopelessly oversubscribed in many parts of the country, with up to 1,400 on the waiting list for colleges in London.

In an exchange at Question Time on 1 November, the Minister was emphatic that the charge being made for ESOL classes from August this year, except for those on benefits, will not be prohibitive, but many in the area disagree. A fee of £300 for a six-hours-a-week course is one estimate, as my noble friend said. The timing of this change could not be worse. Only a few weeks ago the Minister for Employment and Welfare Reform said that at least 40,000 people do not have the language skills to get a job and that state benefits might be withheld from those who do not make an effort to learn English. Just two months ago the Leitch report emphasised the importance of up-skilling the workforce. The report says:

“More flexible migration flows increase the need to ensure that migrant workers are fully integrated into the existing labour force and that they are at their most productive. However, for many migrants integration is made more difficult by language barriers”.

There is a huge reservoir of valuable skills among those attending ESOL classes, skills that we badly need in this country.

Also in the news recently has been a huge demand for translation services far greater than in any other EU country. I have recently learnt that the professional translation service is in despair at the haphazard way in which translating now happens, with non-accredited translators regularly being used by the police and healthcare providers in many parts of the country. That is a debate for another day but it is yet more evidence that making the teaching of basic English widely and freely available throughout the country would be cost-effective because translation services are so expensive. As far as employers are concerned, many of those running both large and medium-sized businesses are doing their bit by laying on English classes for their non-English-speaking employees. It is unrealistic to expect a small employer with just two or three employees to do this in a competitive environment where survival is all important.

One consequence of charging for ESOL classes would be a big increase in administrative costs. How will colleges cope when even more of their clients ask for help in claiming benefits to which they may be entitled in order to access free classes? The benefits field is not simple, even to those who speak perfect English. Either the college will have to increase its administrative staff, or it may simply have to turn away those who cannot afford to pay.

In preparing for this debate, I contacted one rural college in the west Midlands and one London college. In the rural area, classes were attended by the large number of seasonal agricultural workers from the new EU accession countries who had decided to settle there. Classes there are being partly funded by the European Social Fund programme for pre-employment training. ESOL classes will therefore remain free until May 2008, and the staff are extremely concerned about what will happen after that. In that part of the world, as elsewhere, there are also informal classes arranged through the churches in the area, often taught by retired teachers, to meet the high demand.

At the London college, the clientele was, interestingly, 75 per cent middle-aged women, including a high number of Kosovans and Sri Lankans as well as eastern Europeans. The college made the point that, last year, funding was cut for the pre-entry and assessment courses assisting those who are often illiterate in their own language, let alone ours, but who are having to be taught with those on level 2; that is, highly educated and articulate people who want to improve their English. Having the two groups taught together has made life difficult for everyone.

Finally, although it has already been mentioned, I must again make the point that there are patriarchal elements within some minority communities that use women’s inability to understand the English language as a means of keeping them dependent, isolated from wider British culture and oppressed. The introduction of charges for courses makes it easier for the men in these communities to deny economically inactive women the opportunity of enrolling on courses. With free classes, women are currently better able to resist pressure that their needs should not come before those of their husband, children and extended family.

It is surely a false economy at this stage in the life of our country—when the economy is doing well out of migrant workers on one hand and the integration of so many culturally diverse groups is at the top of the agenda on the other—for the Government to cheese-pare by charging for the most basic skill of all: speaking our language. I urge them to think again.

My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend Lord Greaves on introducing this debate on a serious subject. Despite it being serious, I shall start with a joke. What do you call somebody who speaks four languages? Multilingual. What do you call somebody who speaks two languages? Bilingual. What do you call somebody who speaks one language? The answer, as my noble friend Lord Greaves has muttered from his place, is English.

In that situation, it is particularly important that those who want to come and live in our country should have easy and free access to learning how to speak English; we certainly do not know their language. The decision to limit access to free ESOL is one of the most mystifying, contradictory, downright dangerous and short-sighted decisions that the Government have made in their whole term of office. It seems perverse to make English a condition of citizenship and then restrict access to learning it. Do we not want the people who come to live in our country to become active and committed citizens?

The Government have four objectives, on which I shall comment. First, they say they want social cohesion and integration. Secondly, they want to attract migrant workers to fill the skills gap that we are all aware of in our economy. Thirdly, they say they want to reduce the isolation of many immigrant women working just in the home and not the workplace; I agree with my noble friend Lord Greaves that ESOL is a feminist issue. Fourthly, the Government say that they want to reduce the achievement gap between indigenous children and those in certain immigrant communities. Yet they are planning to cut access to the one tool guaranteed to help in all four situations.

For many products, where there is excess demand, the supplier simply raises the price. This soon effectively reduces demand. As we have heard, there is certainly excess demand for ESOL; many colleges have closed their long waiting lists. But ESOL is no ordinary product. It is a basic skill, more fundamental even than the literacy and numeracy on which the Government concentrate, as the queues for courses demonstrate.

Taking those objectives in turn, on integration and social cohesion, the Government are dispersing asylum seekers to all parts of the country, many of which have not had to deal with a lot of migrants before. Deprived of the support of their fellow countrymen, who may have been here longer and learned some English, some migrant families flounder, unable even to access basic services. They do not know their rights, and find it difficult to complete the forms necessary to access benefits.

The Government tell us that those who work should pay for their own courses, and that most asylum applications are processed in eight weeks with 70 per cent of applicants being refused, although my noble friend Lord Avebury carefully disputed those figures. Of course, applicants are not allowed to work while waiting, so why not let them do something useful like learning English during that time? The Government do not know any more than I do which 30 or 50 per cent will be allowed to stay and commence seeking work, so it seems mad not to let all of them prepare for work by giving free access to English teaching while waiting for a decision. Indeed, if we want social cohesion, it is vital that asylum seekers and immigrants are able to communicate with those living in the communities to which they are dispersed. When we can talk with and get to know people, we often find that they are nice, good people who we want to take to our hearts and into our communities, not people to fear and attack. It is important for social cohesion that we give people the opportunity to learn English.

Secondly, the Government need migrant workers to fill the skills gap. Yet only 3 per cent of migrant workers access the tax credits needed to qualify for free ESOL in future, not least because there is a 15-page form to fill in, which would challenge the most fluent of us. We know that eight out of 10 migrant workers earn between £4.40 and £5.99 per hour. They are caught in a trap. Without good English, they cannot gain the qualifications needed to get better paid jobs.

Thirdly, on women and children, many asylum-seeking women or those who have emigrated to this country are not economically active, as my noble friends have said, because they have no English, and therefore work in the home. Because they are not seeking work, they have no benefit entitlement. Even if the family obtains leave to remain, the situation often continues. Women are isolated in their own homes, and are vulnerable to ill treatment by their husbands. I do not wish to suggest that this is a common occurrence, but it does happen. Without English, the woman is trapped. Her children go to school and learn English there. She cannot help them with their lessons; she does not go to parents’ evenings, because she cannot communicate with the teachers; she therefore cannot help her children if they suffer bullying or have special needs that are not being addressed. The children often become interpreters for their parents, an additional burden on a child already struggling with a strange language, a new country and a foreign culture. The Government can surely see that expecting employers to pay is not going to help these women. The academic achievement of their children is also jeopardised if the whole family is not helped to become fluent English speakers.

On a related point, can the Minister clarify the situation of trafficked women in relation to free English teaching?

Like my noble friend Lady Thomas of Winchester, I am concerned that these changes will hit supply. Colleges that operated a nice, simple, full fee remission system will now have to check students’ eligibility. The administrative burden of having to get the money from participants and employers, as well as from the DfES, is already bringing about the closure of courses. Colleges can no longer plan long term when there is no certainty on funding.

I acknowledge the increase in spending on ESOL over recent years, but that is offset by the saving to the country in not educating skilled and unskilled workers who were educated in their own country of origin. We need them here; the cost of teaching them English is a small, up-front investment in the taxes that they will pay and the contribution that they will make to our economy in future years.

My Lords, I too wish to thank the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, for calling this debate. This Question not only highlights the specific issue of how to reorganise the teaching of English to speakers of other languages following the funding crisis, but indicates clearly the challenge in the wider social integration of non-English-speaking people settling in England. Immigration is a central challenge in modern society. The movement into this country of people from foreign countries has been, and continues to be, of great economic and social benefit—but that must be considered in the most constructive, productive and realistic light.

The Question from the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, could not be more timely or necessary. The recent U-turn by the Government on their policy of completely realigning ESOL provision has resulted in a situation where, from the 2007-08 academic year, tuition will only be available to what the Government have determined as priority groups—that is to say, people who are unemployed or receiving income-based benefits. Noble Lords will be aware that those changes were followed by the announcement by the LSC that the QCA are to accredit a new range of ESOL international qualifications that seek to provide English teaching aimed at getting people into the workplace—English at a far more basic level than previously provided in free ESOL training.

The provision of language training for speakers of other languages is beset with difficulties. Surely the central challenge is ensuring that language teaching, which can provide not only excellent economic value for money but reaps enormous rewards in social and community cohesion, is provided at a level that ensures long-lasting results and is sustainably funded. The recent turnaround by the Government makes it clear that current provision is overstretched and in danger of underperforming. That is due, in part, to their severe underestimate of the scale of immigration following the A8 accession. Around the country, it has been impossible for further education institutions to provide the teaching for which the Government so willingly wrote a blank cheque in 2004. Some 510,000 applicants registered to work in the UK following the accession of eight further countries to the EU in 2004. The Minister in another place, Tony McNulty, has estimated that that figure rises to 600,000 including self-employed individuals—and spending in the last three years from central government through the LSC has corresponded to those places. The LSC has spent £279 million funding almost 540,000 places in ESOL.

The situation is at breaking point, a fact acknowledged freely by the Government themselves. The Minister in another place, Phil Hope, stated in response to Written Questions just a few weeks ago that:

“ESOL provision in England is growing at an unsustainable level and there are waiting lists for courses in most key regions, particularly in London … it is clear that something needs to be done”.—[Official Report, Commons, 1/2/07; col. 487W.]

Does the Minister agree with his honourable friend’s diagnosis of the current situation? I should be grateful if he could inform noble Lords whether he acknowledges that the Government have failed to accept the true scale of possible immigration following the A8—and that had they accounted for it then, instead of a funding crisis resulting in off-the-cuff policy and the complete reworking of language teaching that we now face, the last three years could have been better spent providing language on a consistent and sustainable level.

The provision of language teaching is essential, and I am concerned that the next academic year will be just one more in a wave of badly planned policy. How many volunteer teaching schemes are in place? The mother of my noble friend Lady Morris of Bolton was part of a scheme attached to Bolton College allowing individuals to visit private residences to give out-of-hours English teaching. That is a fantastic scheme, one that not only helps with the practical learning of the language but provides a private contact within the local community. I was disappointed to read of the BBC investigation, published two weeks ago, stating that over £100 million of public money is spent on translation services—with £25 million of that spent by local authorities on things like refuse collection guidelines and one-to-one “stop smoking” sessions, to name but a few.

The Government’s own Commission on Integration and Cohesion has called for a change in policy on translation, highlighting the fact that,

“translation services should be there to help people adapt, not replacing the language. If they are provided for too long, they can become a crutch for people to get by without learning the English they need to integrate successfully”.

Clearly, local authorities are compelled to come up with short-term solutions to language barriers in order to preserve what community cohesion there is. Surely it would be more productive to progressively rechannel funding from translation services to the teaching of English for speakers of other languages. We have come a long way from mother-tongue teaching, but this new policy should reflect so much more than a resolution to a funding crisis. What consideration has the Minister given to the fact that if English language provision is curtailed as soon as someone enters the job market with a basic level of English, that person, who is already contributing to the economy, stands to remain at exactly that point? Can the Minister inform noble Lords whether the Government will encourage the current provision that provides the needed results?

Mastering a country’s language is vital to the successful integration of migrants in their communities and in progression to the society as a whole. Dr Darra Singh, the chair of the Commission on Integration and Cohesion, summed that up expertly when he stated at the time of the CIC interim statement that:

“If you can’t speak English—whether you are a new migrant or someone who has lived here for years—you are on a path to isolation and separation”.

This is at the heart of the matter, and its resolution can and should be a two-way process.

My Lords, the House is grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, for raising the important issue of teaching English to speakers of other languages and for the perspective that he brings to the subject from his experience and that of his wife in Pendle and Burnley. As the noble Lord said, nothing is more important to our country than that all our citizens should have effective English-language skills. Without that, we will not create a fair or an integrated society, least of all in an age of substantial migration.

My honourable friend Bill Rammell, the Minister of State for Lifelong Learning, Further and Higher Education, will be paying close attention to this debate, and I will draw to his attention all the points that have been raised by noble Lords. Indeed, he is speaking at the rally mentioned by the noble Lord. Perhaps by saying that, I will encourage even more people to attend. My honourable friend takes his responsibilities in this area very seriously and intends to be present. I am also grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Maddock, for addressing us in English, not Swedish. She would have made her point very effectively if she had tried us in another language, but she enabled me to follow closely what she was saying.

The straight factual answer to the question posed by the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, is that the Government, through the Learning and Skills Council, will make available about £300 million for colleges and other organisations to provide for the teaching of English to speakers of other languages in the next academic year. I cannot be precise about the sum because the final figure will depend on local planning within the overall adult learning budget of the Learning and Skills Council, which will be £2.841 billion for the financial year 2007-08. The figure of about £300 million is about the same as indicative funding available for ESOL this year and last year—there have been no cuts in the budgets—and it represents a threefold increase on the funding available as recently as the financial year 2000-01, when it stood at £103 million. The Government’s bona fides in supporting this important area of teaching are strong, and it is not the case that there are cuts in the national budget.

The concerns in this debate are whether the provision is sufficient and what more we could and should be doing, so I shall address those wider issues. Since 2001, state funding for ESOL courses has tripled, as has the number of people taking ESOL courses. In that time, we have invested more than £3 billion in the national Skills for Life strategy, £1 billion of which has gone on ESOL programmes, thereby helping almost 2 million learners to improve their confidence as English-language speakers. As demand rises further, our aims are to ensure that public funding, which is obviously constrained, is targeted at those with the greatest need and to improve course availability for all those who need ESOL provision.

As the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, rightly said, the demand for ESOL learning has never been greater because significant demographic changes have accompanied our sustained economic growth. Only last month, the Audit Commission published a detailed report, Crossing Borders, revealing the pace at which legal economic migrants have entered the UK intent on securing work and taking advantage of all that this country has to offer. The noble Baroness, Lady Verma, particularly stressed the pressure being brought in this area by people from the A8 accession states. She is right to highlight that issue, but I should stress that they account for less than 12 per cent of total ESOL demand, so it needs to be kept in proportion, but this is clearly an issue that we face.

Migrant workers from the new EU member states make a significant and welcome contribution to our economy, but their demand for language skills has presented fresh challenges for ESOL providers. Rising demand for places on some courses is such that in London waiting times can be as long as two years, while elsewhere 18-month delays are not uncommon.

Moreover, as a recent report by the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education acknowledged, we are still not reaching all the priority learners who face the greatest barriers to employability and social integration. Among our priority groups, for example, are the group mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Greaves—Bangladeshi women, some of whom face tremendous obstacles, including the risk of abuse or being ostracised for venturing out of their homes to attend English classes. It is essential that FE colleges and other providers are encouraged to reach such groups as a top priority for government-funded courses within what is an inevitably constrained budget, despite the threefold increase that has taken place during the past six years.

That is why, together with the Learning and Skills Council, we have reviewed ESOL arrangements for next year. Although we expect funding to continue at broadly the same level as this year, we have made two changes: first, removing eligibility for ESOL places from asylum seekers who will not have the opportunity to settle in the UK; and, secondly, removing universal fee remission irrespective of income.

Let me take the two issues in turn. First, in respect of asylum seekers, about whom the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, spoke passionately, I have of course noted his views. As he knows, the change has been made in light of improvements to the time that the Home Office takes to resolve asylum claims. The great majority of initial decisions are now made within two months. With a high proportion of asylum seekers ineligible to remain in the UK, the Government believe that ESOL funding is rightly targeted at those learners either granted refugee status or already living in settled communities.

The noble Lord raised the issue of those asylum seekers who are here for longer waiting for their claims to be determined. I can tell him—this deals with a number of other points raised—that we will shortly publish a race equality impact assessment of the effect of the changes, which follows a good deal of consultation with interested parties. We will consider issues raised by the assessment. I can tell the noble Lord that that will include the issue of those whose claims take longer to assess.

In respect of the second change—the withdrawal of automatic fee remission from those who can afford to pay for ESOL courses—let me be frank. We see this as a hard choice but a justifiable one, given the pressures on the ESOL budget and the imperative to focus it on priority groups. On low-waged groups who may find it hard to demonstrate lower income under existing tests, again, I can say that we are considering the matter further in the light of the race equality impact assessment.

However, we believe it reasonable to expect those individuals who can afford it to make a contribution to the cost of their learning. That should not be a prohibitive sum. The Government’s contribution will remain substantial, covering 62.5 per cent of course fees. Those eligible for completely free courses will include the unemployed, the unwaged or the very low- paid, learners receiving jobseeker’s allowance, those on an income-related benefit, or those who claim the higher rates of working tax credit. As I said, the contributions sought from learners—even those who are not in those priority groups—will be a maximum of 37.5 per cent in the next financial year. The noble Lord, Lord Greaves, asked whether the typical course fee for a four-hour-per-week course over 30 weeks would be about £300. I can tell him that that will be the case. Typically, it will be £300 for 120 guided learning hours, but I should stress that that means that the Government will continue to contribute substantially. For the same course, the Government will pay almost £900 as our contribution to the cost of the course.

The noble Lord asked about the proportion of existing students who will continue to receive fee remission. We estimate that about 70 per cent of students will continue to receive full fee remission and therefore free ESOL courses. He asked about our estimate of the drop-out rate. I can tell him that the Learning and Skills Council does not anticipate that that will increase due to the changes because, as I said, 70 per cent will continue to get free ESOL courses and priority groups—those most in danger of dropping out—will be fully covered by the fee remission. Also, we do not expect class sizes to rise, not least because they are so large already, because demand is so great, that we do not expect that the providers would want to increase their size, even if they could.

I state clearly that responsibilities in this area do not reside with the Government alone. Employers and recruitment agencies, many of which recruit in large numbers from overseas, have a responsibility to consider the language needs of prospective employees as part of their recruitment costs and planning. Noble Lords mentioned the report last week of the Commission on Integration and Cohesion. The report stressed the role that employers should be playing in ensuring effective ESOL tuition for their employees. Paragraph 37 states:

“Respondents have also identified the key role that employers can play in providing English-language classes in the workplace, helping new staff to integrate and, in some cases, sharing data with other local partners about population change”.

Employers have clear responsibilities in this area, and I am glad to say that some companies have already developed their own training programmes for staff, which have proved to be highly cost-effective. For example, the bus company First Bus, which was the Skills for Life award winner last year, has already hired more than 1,100 drivers from eastern Europe. The company assesses their language skills and provides training before they arrive in the UK, which the report by the Commission on Integration and Cohesion also mentions. The investment by First Bus in this approach, which includes its own dedicated language school, stands at around £1 million. As a result, the turnover rate among its staff of drivers has dropped considerably.

It is obviously right, however, that lower-income adults should receive priority for fully subsidised courses. As I have stressed, this will continue as of right. The Government appreciate that such training for these individuals is a lifeline, particularly for those who are out of work, as it prepares them to re-enter the job market with extra skills and increased self-confidence. In a survey conducted by the Department for Work and Pensions, a significant proportion of respondents from ethnic minority backgrounds cited poor language skills as a key impediment to employment.

Furthermore, from April, Jobcentre Plus advisers have been instructed to raise the issue of language learning with any jobseekers who are clearly struggling to make themselves understood. Advisers will seek to agree a programme of action with these individuals so that any language problems are effectively addressed. In addition, we are developing, with the support of the Learning and Skills Council, a new £23 million basic skills and employability programme for Jobcentre Plus clients, which includes support for ESOL learners.

We regard this issue as immensely important. I am sorry that I have not been able to respond to all the points that have been made, but I will correspond with noble Lords further to take up points that I have not been able to address tonight. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, for raising this important issue this evening.