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English Language Teaching: Refugees

Volume 630: debated on Tuesday 24 October 2017

I beg to move,

That this House has considered English language teaching for refugees.

As a linguist who spent the early part of my career living abroad, I know all too well how isolating it is for someone if they do not speak the language of the country in which they are trying to live and operate. Today, we are here to focus on the fact that being able to communicate in English in this country is absolutely key. In its report “Safe but Alone”, Refugee Action highlighted the inability to speak English as being one of the single most important causes of isolation and loneliness among refugees.

As Klajdi, a refugee interviewed by Refugee Action, said:

“What is most important is language. If you can speak the language you can make friends with your neighbour.”

Without English, refugees find it incredibly difficult to work, study and volunteer. They are effectively excluded from activities that would result in their becoming a connected member of their local community. People need language skills before they can progress, and a shared language enables integration, productivity and community cohesion.

The Casey review clearly highlighted the link between English language and integration, identifying English as

“a common denominator and a strong enabler of integration.”

More recently, a report produced by the all-party parliamentary group on social integration concluded that English is necessary

“to access employment opportunities and to build a diverse social and professional network.”

The report also recognised that speaking English is critical

“to social mobility in modern Britain.”

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on securing this debate. Does she agree that speaking English is also incredibly important for intra-family relations? I recently met several refugee families in my constituency. The children spoke excellent English, because they went to school; the parents, with some exceptions, found English extremely difficult. That must sometimes cause a few problems within families, as well as in other contexts.

Without a doubt it does. As nearly everybody in the room will appreciate, if a parent cannot speak the language of the country in which she is living, she will certainly not be able to help her children with their homework. There are real, practical disadvantages that come with either parent not being able to speak the language in which the children are being taught.

I congratulate the right hon. Lady on securing what is a timely debate. Following on from the comments of the hon. Member for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy), I am sure that the right hon. Lady will find in her surgeries that we often rely on the children, who can speak English, to interpret for their parents. Often the children are very young and do not understand exactly what they are being told. So the language is vital from that point of view.

There is also a shortage of classes. I hope the Minister will tell us how he intends to address that when he winds up. We should acknowledge that the Government have made about £10 million available for language courses for Syrian refugees.

The hon. Gentleman is right about that. Our constituencies are cheek by jowl. Sadly, in some situations in my surgeries I have been quite disturbed by what young children are hearing or having to explain to adults. Parents who do not speak English are in a painfully difficult position if they cannot get the help that they need and find someone to interpret for them. That is the situation that we want to address today.

At this moment in our history, encouraging greater community cohesion could hardly be more important. The recent European referendum caused quite a lot of community tension and has left many people feeling more separated from those around them. Following the vote, reports of hate crime and racist abuse dramatically increased. For many, the prevailing narrative of the last year has been one of division and discord, regrettably. Now the Government must ensure that the UK becomes a more inclusive, tolerant and united country in which to live.

May I raise a point on behalf of training providers in my constituency, such as Sutton academy? It asked me to raise the importance of making resources available to provide good training. As the right hon. Lady says, good training provides community cohesion, among many other things.

Training is part of it. The hon. Member for Coventry South (Mr Cunningham) has just referred to the additional £10 million that the Government are providing to teach English. If refugees are to be trained, the first step is to train them in a language that they understand. Basic English learning has to be the start point; the training that they need to get a job is stage two. Resources are needed for both.

As the Second Church Estates Commissioner, I cannot miss the opportunity to point out that the Archbishop of Canterbury has said that we must be

“builders of bridges and not barriers”.

That is all of us; that is why we are here today.

English for speakers of other languages—known as ESOL—classes are essential to enable contact and integration, which is critical for building stronger communities. It is therefore essential both for the wellbeing of the refugees and for the population of our country as a whole. We must remember that ESOL funding has improved for some specific groups. In September last year, the Home Secretary pledged £10 million over the next five years in additional ESOL funding, available to refugees who arrive under the vulnerable persons resettlement scheme. Additionally, in July this year, the Home Secretary announced that the Syrian VPRS was to be expanded to include all nationalities affected by the Syrian conflict, because we know it has had an impact on the wider region.

I agree with everything that my right hon. Friend is saying. I wonder whether she has any ideas about how we can make the provision of English language training effective. In Oxfordshire, I found that a number of people went into the training and a few years later were no better at speaking English—they just used it as an excuse to socialise and get out of the house.

Language classes are a start point for those who have experienced the awful isolation that one feels when unable to even speak the language. However, it is also really important to get out of the house, for example to do the daily shop, and practise speaking the language, because practice makes perfect. That is where community groups have an incredibly important role in complementing the language classes, because once someone has got it, they have to use it or lose it. That has certainly been my experience.

Other resettled refugees who arrive in the United Kingdom under long-established gateway protection programmes—about 750 people a year—do not, however, necessarily receive the additional support that is being provided for those affected by the Syrian conflict. Crucially, nor do the majority of refugees in Britain who arrive not through resettlement schemes but as asylum seekers. A majority of refugees therefore cannot access the funding.

Unintentionally, that can mean that one Syrian refugee who is in the UK through the resettlement programme can access high-quality English language teaching, while another Syrian refugee from the same street in Damascus or Aleppo cannot. The need of one of them to learn English is no greater than the other’s, but they may have an extremely different experience and then a different set of economic opportunities in our country.

The policy for adult learners is the responsibility of the Department for Education. Most ESOL is financed through the adult skills budget, administered by the Skills Funding Agency. However, the funding for ESOL that is available through those avenues is no longer ring-fenced. The seven new mayoral combined authorities, plus the Greater London Authority, will assume responsibility for ESOL in their area from September next year.

Andy Street, my local West Midlands Mayor, has said something important on that subject:

“The West Midlands is one of the most diverse regions in the world, and as such we face many challenges in trying to integrate different groups and communities into our society…Speaking English is the most important part of integration and no-one in the West Midlands should be left without the opportunity to learn English.”

We need to hear all Mayors in combined authorities show that they really understand that.

The right hon. Lady is quite right; her constituency is near mine, so she will know that in general terms the west midlands has been valuable in terms of integrating people. She will also know that Coventry, for example, has a very good reputation for integration. People of all different nationalities have settled there over the years—I think there are about 50-odd different languages spoken—so that dimension of the problem is clear. The other important factor is that we have never allowed a ghetto system to develop in the west midlands. If we isolate people out of fear, the danger is that they congregate together, but do not actually integrate into the community. They need the language as a common denominator to do that.

The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point, which is at the heart of Coventry’s bid for city of culture. Coventry is a city of peace and reconciliation, but one where we reach across diverse communities in the city to make sure that people do not become isolated. I sincerely hope that Coventry will win the bid.

In November 2016, the Government also launched the controlling migration fund, which aims to mitigate the impact of immigration on local communities. It includes a pot of £100 million over four years for which local authorities in England can bid. ESOL is one of several themes eligible under that fund, yet local authorities are under no obligation to fund ESOL projects.

In the March Budget, the Chancellor announced new money for English-language training as part of the midlands engine programme. The Government announced that they would provide

“£2 million to offer English-language training to people in the midlands whose lack of ability to speak English is holding them back from accessing employment.”

What are the stumbling blocks? Theoretically, refugees in England are eligible for fully funded ESOL provision on the condition that they have attained refugee status and meet the necessary income requirements. However, ESOL funding in England has decreased by 55% in real terms in recent years. More than half of ESOL providers who were interviewed said that their ability to provide high-quality classes had worsened over the past five years, and nearly half said that people were waiting an average of six months or more to start lessons. One provider had 800 people on their waiting list and another said that learners could wait three years to be assigned to a course. Those timescales have adverse effects on the mental health of refugees, who are likely to be experiencing social isolation. The longer they have to wait to get an English-language class that enables them to learn the language and break that isolation, the harder it becomes.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on securing this debate on such an important topic. She is setting out very powerfully the argument in favour of enabling those who have come to this country to integrate, which is particularly important for women in many of those communities. She started with an analysis of the vote in June 2016. We know that fears about immigration were a powerful factor affecting the way that many people voted. Does she agree with the conclusions of the Casey review, which showed that 95% of people living in this country think that to be considered “truly British”, a person must be able to speak English? This is not just about the integration of communities, but about people living here—often white Brits—welcoming those who come here. The longer they are not integrated, the more the problems can escalate.

I could not agree more, and I agree with Dame Louise Casey on that point. It is a two-way process. The settled community here must reach out to the newcomers, make them welcome and recognise their contribution and the great benefit they bring to our society and economy, but for that to happen we have got to speak the same language.

Women in particular are vulnerable to the isolation that results from not being able to speak English. At present, women face even greater barriers. Research conducted by the University of Sussex this year found that women, older refugees and those with poor health face particular challenges, are most likely to struggle to learn English and are most at risk of isolation. Without a basic grasp of English, women find it exceptionally difficult to live empowered and independent lives. Many come to rely on extended family members to communicate for them, which leaves them particularly isolated and without a voice of their own. Dame Louise Casey highlighted that issue, which requires dedicated and targeted action.

One of the biggest barriers to women accessing ESOL is the lack of childcare. Currently, 77% of ESOL providers are unable to offer childcare, which is frequently cited as a reason why women are not able to get to language classes. A higher proportion of women are single parents or have caring responsibilities in their family. Limited childcare provision has a greater impact on women and tips the balance even further against them. I welcome the Government’s commitment to spend £2.3 million over the next four years to fund schemes that remove barriers such as the lack of childcare facilities. They are also being innovative and are looking at new approaches such as teaching English alongside crèches and playgroups, and providing family learning events to help adults who are unwilling or unable to leave their children to learn English. That is a positive start to tackling this area of disadvantage, but further action is required.

In January 2016, the Prime Minister announced a one-off £20 million fund to provide English tuition to Muslim women, with the aim of combating radicalisation. It is a welcome initiative, but we need a similar fund to give women who are refugees equal access to ESOL.

Informal ESOL learning groups run by volunteers, faith groups and community organisations across the country offer a vital service for refugees—not least because they are an informal way to put into practice what has just been learned in a class—but they can only complement formal ESOL classes, not replace them. First, refugees need the certification that comes with completing formal English-language learning to enter employment or further study. Secondly, to become proficient in a language, people need both conversation practice and formal professional teaching on grammar and structure. That said, I believe that the Government can join up the informal ESOL provision in our country. There is currently no means of identifying and sharing the innovative ideas and good practice that are to be found at by grassroots level. Although regional ESOL co-ordinators are starting to map informal and formal provision for the first time, we need central co-ordination to bring it all together and maintain it.

In recent years, Government funding has been targeted at specific groups such as Syrian refugees and Muslim women, but that short-term project funding has not been accessible to the majority of refugees entering the country. Indeed, for many, access to English classes has become more difficult. Investing in ESOL makes sound economic sense. The cost of two years’ ESOL classes for each refugee will be fully reimbursed to the taxpayer after an individual’s first eight months of employment at the national average wage. I hope the Minister will consider creating a fund to help all refugees learn English and ensuring a minimum of eight hours of lessons per week for the first two years that a refugee is in England. That would require an investment of about £42 million a year, but it would take into account the current scale of need outside the vulnerable persons resettlement scheme.

It is evident that a clear ESOL strategy for England would give greater direction in this area and would enable a proper assessment of need to be undertaken. It is always helpful to set clear objectives so we can measure progress against the targets. This is a devolved matter. Scotland published its own ESOL strategy in 2007 and Wales did the same in 2014.

We must ensure that women have full and equal access to ESOL. For women, there can be unique challenges to resettlement, so it is critical that we enable them to develop a strong voice for their ultimate benefit and empowerment, which would lead to more education and employment opportunities. We must ensure access to childcare facilities and continue to invest in this area. The Government’s forthcoming response to the Casey review and the new integration strategy will give us an ideal opportunity to invest in ESOL and acknowledge the key part it plays in ensuring successful integration and community cohesion, unlocking the enormous potential that the refugees who come to our country have to boost our economy and bring together communities in a post-Brexit Britain.

Order. This hour-long debate will finish by 5.30 pm, and Dame Caroline has the opportunity to sum up the debate as the last speaker. I am obliged to call the Front-Bench spokespeople before then. The guideline limit is five minutes for the Scottish National party, five minutes for Her Majesty’s Opposition and 10 minutes for the Minister. That means that I have to call the Front-Bench speakers no later than seven minutes past five, which gives the two Back-Bench speakers, if they are fair to each other, 10 minutes each. That is not a formal time limit, but if you both want the full time, it is 10 minutes each. It is going to be ladies first. I call Alison Thewliss.

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Hollobone. If my voice holds out, I will be doing well to reach 10 minutes.

I am delighted to be able to speak in this debate, because I am proud that Glasgow, the city I am glad to represent, welcomes refugees. That is a cross-party commitment: a Labour administration first put a banner above the door of the City Chambers, and it has been honoured by the Scottish National party administration and all of us who represent the city. It is not just the elected officials but the people of Glasgow who have taken it to their hearts. For example, Selina Hales founded Refuweegee, which encourages people in Glasgow to give a welcome pack to refugees coming to the city including, among other things, a letter from a local person welcoming them to the city. It is a brilliant initiative, and other cities should take it up.

It is important that we do not just say that we want to make people welcome, but follow that through with deeds and practical action to make people feel at home. Imagine a person fleeing a situation of chaos, violence and fear—perhaps persecution and torture. It has been a long and difficult journey to sanctuary, but they are now in Glasgow—they had never heard of Glasgow before. It is raining. There are unfamiliar sights, smells, and they cannot understand the language, not least because the little English they understand does not seem to be what the people around them are speaking. We must not forget for a second how challenging that can be, not just because English—particularly Glaswegian English—can be hard to master, but because those people have come far and experienced so many things beyond our ken in coming here.

St Albert’s Primary School in Pollokshields recently put together a wonderfully moving theatre piece with Baldy Bane Theatre in the Tramway called “Unpathed Waters, Undreamed Shores” to bring the school community together in exploring exactly what that journey might feel like. Multiple languages were used, reflecting the diversity of languages used in the school, and expression through dance and images. My favourite part of the performance by far was when a table where food had been shared was pushed away and a ceilidh began. As the music and dancers whirled, I saw a parent from the school standing at the side of the hall agape in amazement at the spectacle. It was clearly new to him. To see our traditions through the eyes of someone new gave me pause for thought—how best do we welcome people, and what do we show them about our country? How do we encourage them to share and take part?

Helping people to improve their English is absolutely crucial to integration. Without it, people cannot speak to their neighbours or find their way in their new home. I am glad that the SNP Scottish Government have underpinned the commitment to welcome refugees with a strategy—the document is entitled, “Welcoming Our Learners. Scotland’s ESOL Strategy 2015-2020”—and with funding of some £1.46 million in 2015-16. That is a renewed strategy, continuing one that has been going for some time.

Refugees and asylum seekers who have been granted a form of leave to remain, such as humanitarian protection, do not have to pay fees for ESOL courses in Scotland. They may also be eligible for help towards their living costs, for example from colleges’ discretionary funding and from the childcare fund. Asylum seekers who are waiting for a decision on their application are also eligible for free ESOL courses, as the right hon. Member for Meriden (Dame Caroline Spelman) said. There is no waiting period, and they may be eligible for support for travel and study costs.

ESOL provision in Scotland is also offered by a range of other providers, including in community-based settings, voluntary organisations and in the workplace. In my wonderfully diverse constituency, there are many providers of English language teaching, not just for refugees but for the full range of new Glaswegians. I was quite taken aback at the huge range of classes available on the Learn ESOL Glasgow website—so many communities are hosting sessions: Pollokshields community centre; Govanhill neighbourhood centre; Gorbals, Pollokshields and Govanhill libraries; Toryglen community base; Guru Granth Sahib gurdwara; the Youth Community Support Agency, specifically for young people; the Marie Trust and the Glasgow City Mission, which often deal with people facing homelessness; Glasgow women’s library and other specialist women’s groups; groups in Garnethill; and groups run by the fantastic Radiant and Brighter, which works towards getting people into employment. That is not even all the classes offered, but just the tip of the iceberg.

St Mungo’s Academy has been running classes for parents and carers to give them further opportunities to develop their English language skills through an evening ESOL class, which challenges the issue of children learning English but parents perhaps not. Instructors from Glasgow Clyde College provide targeted support for those learning English for the first time and for those improving their skills with a view to furthering their education or getting into employment. Those learners can then obtain a recognised Scottish Qualifications Authority qualification on completion of the 10-week course. In this past year there was a 100% pass rate. There is also a higher ESOL, which is a good standard, and the numbers taking it are growing. I pay tribute to Janet Cardle and Jessica Longo, who are the teachers at St Mungo’s Academy taking that on.

Nan McKay Hall has also been providing English language teaching for at least 14 years now, in the wee community hall in Pollokshields. The service is very much in demand. The beauty of a community base, as opposed to the formality of a classroom in a college, is that the learners become well integrated into their community. Nan McKay Hall works closely in partnership with Glasgow Clyde College, which provides the tutors. I am sure it would not be out of order to thank Wendy, the students’ kind and patient teacher, whom they really take to their hearts. They have a lot of love for the time and patience she takes with them.

On Friday, after my surgery, I asked the staff at Nan McKay Hall to tell me more about the classes. They said the classes worked well because people became friends—they were not just coming into the class and leaving. Nan McKay now has people on its board who first entered the hall to join the ESOL class. People have gone on to other educational classes, computer courses and art classes, to be very much part of the life of the community. The community hall runs trips to the seaside and various different places. A whole range of people use the hall and ESOL class attendees are part of the trips too. Those are brand-new Glaswegians from Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Poland, Greece, Sudan, and many more places besides, alongside senior citizens who have lived nowhere else but Glasgow. They are all going away and enjoying the best of Scotland together. That is an absolute credit to that community and to those types of initiatives.

That is the kind of model we need to look at. We have seen cuts to ESOL in England and other places, but we have invested in it in Scotland because we know that we cannot afford to leave any of those communities behind. They have so much to give to Glasgow. They are glad to be here, they want to be part of the community and learning English is key to making that happen.

I join with others in congratulating the right hon. Member for Meriden (Dame Caroline Spelman) not only on securing the debate but on the powerful and comprehensive way in which she scoped the issue. I also congratulate the hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss) on the wonderful way in which she described what it must be like to be a new arrival in our country and the journey that people follow.

I represent one of the Sheffield constituencies, and my city became the first ever city of sanctuary in 2007, when we made a powerful statement that we wanted to welcome those fleeing persecution and war throughout the world. Since then, we have participated in many programmes and have an increasingly diverse city. I am proud that our move was followed by, I think, 90 similar initiatives in towns and cities throughout the country.

As the MP for the heart of Sheffield, I have a number of constituents who are asylum seekers and refugees. I have seen the hugely empowering impact of English language teaching. Those who run the city of sanctuary project in Sheffield advise me that learning English is the most common request they receive from new arrivals at the city’s welcome project. As the right hon. Member for Meriden has pointed out, learning English enables refugees to navigate life in the UK, to deal with the various and sometimes complex systems that they will have to come into contact with, and to live more easily and independently.

I will be very quick. Does the hon. Gentleman agree with me that learning the language creates respect for difference, which is one of the fundamental factors in dealing not only with some of the causes, but with the root causes of racism?

The hon. Lady makes a useful intervention and I certainly agree with that. I was going on to make the point that learning English is critical to integrating more effectively into communities. We need to see integration as a two-way process: the responsibility is not simply on those who arrive to integrate; we have our contribution to make to ensure that they can integrate most effectively.

I was really pleased to hear the hon. Gentleman say that. Does he agree that in the national debate about immigration the words that are never heard are “community cohesion” and “integration”? He represents a big university, as I do, and we have many international students coming to be part of our towns and cities, and there are people coming for much longer, but settled communities feel challenged by that. What we are hearing today to a degree is that speaking a common language is a really important part of building strong, cohesive and long-lasting communities.

I could not agree more with the right hon. Lady on that—as indeed on many other things. The importance that she places on integration and effective community cohesion is endorsed by Dame Louise Casey in the review that she is conducting on behalf of the Government. That enables refugees not only to integrate but, through integration, to become valued members of our society and to make a real contribution to it. We are talking about people who in many cases bring many skills and have much to contribute to our country. Learning English is the key to releasing that potential, for them and for those of us in the host communities.

The Government recognise the importance of that. In September 2016, when they put £10 million into ESOL teaching for newly arrived Syrian refugees—as the right hon. Member for Meriden mentioned—the then Minister, the hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Mr Goodwill), said it was

“to help refugees learn English and integrate into British society”.

Furthermore, as the right hon. Lady and her colleague, the right hon. Member for Loughborough (Nicky Morgan), pointed out in an excellent piece in The Times today, the Prime Minister in her first year as Home Secretary said:

“We know that speaking English is key to integration.”

Why the need for this debate if there is so much cross-party consensus? I think it comes down to a question of funding, although not simply funding. Refugee Action concluded last year in its report, “Let Refugees Learn”, that funding reductions

“have resulted in shortages of provision.”

However, the fragmentation of provision and the lack of a clear strategy also limited opportunities.

The right hon. Member for Meriden was right to highlight and to welcome those pockets of money that have been made available to support ESOL teaching. In July 2015, however, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills cut £45 million from 47 colleges that taught 47,000 students, and between 2009-10 and 2015-16 the Department for Education cut £113 million from ESOL funding.

Although I accept the right hon. Lady’s point about refugees’ entitlement to funding, asylum seekers are not eligible for free tuition from statutory sources. Free classes are informal and, as the brilliant community project in my constituency, Learn for Life Enterprise, has found, greatly over-subscribed. There is a real patchwork of local provision. The report by Refugee Action revealed that 45% of prospective ESOL learners have to wait an average of six months or more to access classes, and that there have been cases of people waiting up to three years. It found a waiting list of more than 6,000 people across 71 providers. A further problem, which the right hon. Lady highlighted, is the lack of childcare provision, which affects women in particular.

The report also found that the different strands of ESOL funding are disjointed. The right hon. Lady acknowledged that there are different practices in the different nations that make up the UK. England is lagging behind Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and even Manchester—if it can lag behind a city. They have all developed strategies for ESOL teaching. We need a strategy that will ensure that all refugees receive free and accessible ESOL provision. Analysis by Refugee Action indicates that two years’ provision would cost £3,200 per refugee, which is a relatively small price to pay for the benefits that they and we will receive from that investment.

The lack of a coherent national strategy and the underfunding fail the refugees who come here to rebuild their lives, and as I said, it is an incredible waste for us as a country to fail to give them the opportunity to fulfil their potential. I hope that the Minister will indicate whether the Government’s response to the Casey review will address the lack of a national strategy for English language teaching, as well as the underfunding. The response should not simply focus narrowly on tackling extremism but recognise the necessity of ESOL provision for integration, for tackling isolation and for unlocking the potential of those who come here to contribute to our communities.

We now come to the first of the five-minute Opposition Front-Bench speeches. I call Stuart C. McDonald for the Scottish National party.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I, too, congratulate the right hon. Member for Meriden (Dame Caroline Spelman) on securing the debate. One of the issues that has been most badly neglected since we became all-consumed with Brexit is the refugee and migration crisis, so the opportunity to debate one small aspect of how we respond to that crisis and how we go about helping refugees to integrate is very welcome. The right hon. Lady made an excellent speech, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss) and the hon. Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield), both of whom are experts in this policy area.

Three or four main points have emerged from the debate. First, Members have been unanimously positive about the impact of learning English on promoting integration and allowing refugees to rebuild their lives. Secondly, we have heard criticism of the Government’s lack of a strategic and joined-up response, with a particular focus on funding. Thirdly, we have heard a range of ideas for what a better response and strategy might look like. If I get the chance, I may mention that although learning English is hugely significant, it is just one part of a broader range of policy issues that need to be addressed if the Government are to be seen to be taking the integration of refugees seriously enough.

There is such consensus about the first issue that I do not need to say too much about it. It is obvious to us all that, overwhelmingly, refugees want to rebuild their lives, to be part of the communities that they find themselves in and to continue with their education and find good work. That is almost impossible without a decent level of English. The right hon. Member for Meriden mentioned a variety of reports that come to the same conclusion, from the Casey review to the report by the all-party parliamentary group on refugees, “Refugees Welcome?”, and the all-party parliamentary group on social integration, which has expressed similar views. In short, learning English is a matter of empowerment. It is good for refugees and it is good for the communities in which those refugees live.

Let me turn to the call for a more coherent and joined-up response from the Government. There are different aspects to that critique, but the one that has been mentioned most often is funding. As Refugee Action pointed out in its May 2016 campaign Let Refugees Learn, refugees

“have great determination and desire to learn English”

but are finding it harder to access ESOL classes because of funding reductions that have resulted in shortages of provision, waiting lists and other barriers to participation, particularly for women. That organisation subsequently gave evidence to the all-party parliamentary group on social integration and reported waiting lists stretching to more than 1,100 people. There have been reports in newspapers of three-year waiting lists in parts of London.

Hon. Members have already gone through the different pots of funding that have been announced at various times, but that is offset by the overall 50% or 60% funding cuts to ESOL provision. The hon. Member for Sheffield Central used the word “disjointed”, which is absolutely appropriate. Whenever there is one step forward on funding, there seem to be two or more steps back.

We should be clear that investing in ESOL now means making savings later. If we invested in ESOL now, we would not have to spend as much on interpreters, there would be fewer missed medical appointments and less reliance on social security benefits, and more taxes would be paid through work—another point that the right hon. Member for Meriden made. That is all indicative of a lack of a joined-up strategy. As has been pointed out, there is a strategy in Wales, and there has been one in Scotland for 10 years. That strategy, which was refreshed in 2015, sits alongside the broader New Scots integration strategy for refugees and asylum seekers, which is currently being refreshed. That we need an equivalent strategy at Westminster has been well established during this debate. Such a strategy is long overdue, and I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say about that.

What would a better ESOL integration strategy look like? First, it is important that any strategy seeks to ensure integration from day one, as the hon. Member for Sheffield Central said. ESOL experts have long said that people’s motivation to learn tends to be at its highest, and provision tends to be most effective, immediately following their arrival in our country. If people do not learn English then, they learn to cope with not being able to speak the language to any significant degree and, having realised that they can get by without it, just tend to muddle on regardless.

Secondly, as hon. Members have said, it is vital that the whole panoply of possibilities for learning English is available so that we can tailor learning to every person’s needs. Obviously, people’s ability to learn and their personal circumstances are incredibly different. The example of parents—particularly mothers—has already been given; childcare provision has to be involved there. We have to co-ordinate all the different responses and use all the technology that is now available.

We are not here to write the Government’s strategy. There have been a lot of good ideas, but the fundamental point is that a strategy is needed. We look forward to hearing what the Government have to say about that.

Let me start, as others did, by thanking the right hon. Member for Meriden (Dame Caroline Spelman) for securing this debate and for her powerful points about why this issue is important and about the obstacles that we face.

I also want to acknowledge the many other Members who have contributed to the debate. Everyone seemed to make similar points; we seem to be on the same page. Members mentioned the impact on children of their parents not speaking the language and the importance of language training so that people are not isolated. My hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) hit the nail on the head when he mentioned the lack of a national strategy. I hope that we will hear a bit more about that.

Speaking English is one of the first and most important steps to integration for a refugee. Apart from the Casey review, the all-party parliamentary group on social integration, the all-party parliamentary group on refugees and a report by Refugee Action have all demonstrated the importance of ESOL courses and the vital need for investment. Learning English is a gateway to work, study and getting to know your neighbours. It is also instrumental to refugees’ mental health, staving off isolation and loneliness. The vast majority of refugees want to learn English and in theory they are eligible for fully funded ESOL classes. However, the reality is not matching up to the theory. As we have heard before, there are long waiting lists—in some cases three years long—and many refugees cannot access the classes they are entitled to.

The Casey review identified some of the difficulties faced by women from minority backgrounds in accessing English language courses. This is another point that has been highlighted. Three quarters of ESOL providers have either no provision for childcare or not enough for the needs of most learners, which disproportionately affects women’s ability to attend classes. The overwhelming message is that is a lack of funding is the biggest issue for ESOL providers. Two thirds of providers told Refugee Action that an increase in Government funding is the one thing that would most improve their ability to provide a high standard and quantity of ESOL classes.

The Conservative Government’s actions have been a classic case of rhetoric not lining up with reality. At the same time as the former Prime Minister was calling for migrants to learn English, the Government were cutting funding for courses. From 2009 to 2016, funding for ESOL classes dropped from £203 million to only £92.5 million: a 60% cut. Where we have seen extra funding, it has been tiny compared with the cuts that ESOL has already faced. The extra £10 million over five years for ESOL provision announced in 2016 was to be used only for Syrian refugees resettled through the vulnerable persons resettlement scheme. While that was welcome, why are the Government seemingly only interested in integrating one group?

When David Cameron announced £20 million for Muslim women to learn English, his announcement had the potential to do more harm than good. By tying language classes for Muslim women to the fight against radicalisation, the Government’s clumsy, simplistic approach managed to stigmatise a whole community rather than encourage integration. It was also of no benefit to refugees. The Government say that they value and promote integration, while at the same time slashing funding to one of the most important branches of it.

What should we do? A Labour Government would make further education courses free at the point of use, including ESOL courses. As we do not have a Labour Government, Members in the Chamber have made a strong case for specific investment in ESOL classes for refugees. As the Minister considers his response to the Casey review, I urge him to invest in ESOL funding for refugees, to ensure that women have equal access to classes, and to let the Government’s actions live up to the rhetoric they have been peddling for years.

If the Minister would be kind enough to conclude his remarks no later than 5.27 pm, that will give Dame Caroline enough time to sum up the debate.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I join others in congratulating my right hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Dame Caroline Spelman) on securing the debate. I look forward to seeing her and, I think, some of her panel tomorrow for a further conversation about some of these issues. As always when listening to Members, hon. Friends and right hon. Friends around the Chamber, it has been interesting to hear not only the number of valuable points that have been made on this hugely important topic but that there has been almost—I say almost—a breakout of consensus around where we are. I will come back to why I said “almost” in just a moment.

I agree with much of what I have heard this afternoon. A number of hon. Members, including my right hon. Friend, have commented on Dame Louise Casey’s work and the integration strategy, to which we will respond in due course. My experience of working with Dame Louise Casey in my previous roles at the Department for Communities and Local Government is that she is not only a force of nature but someone to be taken hugely seriously, with important points to raise. Her experience and how she has commented in her review on the things we have to look at raise the profile of the subject and make a powerful case. We will respond in due course.

I know that the Minister is personally committed to this agenda, but may I press him a little further? “In due course” is a phrase that Ministers use when they are not entirely sure or are not going to tell the House when the response will be. Dame Louise Casey’s report was published in December 2016. We are now at the end of October 2017. I think we all agree that it is a hugely important report, with recommendations and actions that will take some years to implement. May I press him further on a likely timescale for a response from the Government?

My right hon. Friend is always free to press me for a response. I appreciate her point, but I am afraid she will have to be a bit more patient with me and my colleagues across Government before we respond fully.

We recognise the point made this afternoon that the ability to speak English is a key enabler for integration and participation in society. As my right hon. Friend says, I feel very strongly about that. It is fundamental for someone to be able to play a part in British society and to get on. Being able to speak English is also a necessary stepping-stone skill for those who are resettled here as refugees or granted refugee status on arrival. Once someone has that status, they are given access to the labour market and to benefits and are encouraged to access the provision that is there to support UK residents in developing the relevant skills. The ability to speak English is an important skill.

The Minister mentioned the importance of English for Syrian and other refugees who are resettled here and for those who arrive spontaneously. Will he answer the question asked by the right hon. Member for Meriden (Dame Caroline Spelman) about why access to ESOL and funding are different for those who are resettled and for people who might be from the same street in Syria but arrive here spontaneously?

I will come to that point in a moment. Obviously there is a different process for people whom we have brought here from the region through a scheme and people who arrive here. We have to make sure they are from the region before we go through that process. There is a different approach, for a very logical reason.

Just as we were getting to the harmony of complete agreement, some hon. Members, including the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Afzal Khan), made the point about funding. I gently say to some Members that I have a different view. It is not always about how much we have to spend. We have to live within our means, so it is about how we spend the money we have. That is an important focus. It is not always about finding a magic money tree. I am not sure if his announcement on free education for such people was another spending commitment that Labour will step away from.

We must be able to live within our means. It is important, as hon. Members have said, to pick up on how we are spending the money that is there. My right hon. Friend the Member for Meriden outlined a number of schemes and the funding that is coming through. English language skills provision is funded mainly by the Department for Education and is accessed in a variety of ways. Training has been developed to improve adult literacy and get people into jobs. It is available to the resident UK population to meet their needs, but under Skills Funding Agency rules it is also available to those with refugee and humanitarian protection status, discretionary leave, exceptional leave and leave outside the rules, as well as indefinite leave to remain. They do not have to wait the three years that other migrants have to wait, and their family members are also eligible. That is a good deal.

There is also ESOL, which we have been talking about for much of this afternoon. That is funded by the Department for Education, which invested around £90 million in 2015-16 in those courses, and in doing so supported some 110,600 adult learners. By definition, that is for those for whom English is not their first language.

Does the Minister not recognise that that is something like a 40% decline in the numbers from just three or four years ago? Is that not the effect of funding cuts? It is all very well to say that we need to look carefully at how we spend the money, but those cuts have had a pretty drastic effect.

There is obviously a job we have to do to make sure we direct the funding we have in the most efficient manner to deliver the best outcomes for the people who are coming to this country. I will outline some of the provision now.

I will make a little more progress, and then I will give way.

The courses are delivered by local educational institutions, which usually have a contract to do so through the local authority. Refugees are also able to access Jobcentre Plus assistance in obtaining employment, and the employment assessment that follows may determine that the refugee needs additional help with English. As part of assisting those people to become employment-ready, the jobcentre can also refer them to fully funded English language training. Its aim is to meet the needs of refugees seeking employment in our job market, and also of those who are not seeking employment but have an ambition to learn English to participate in the society around them, as was rightly outlined.

There are other sources of available funding for English language training, such as where the local authority feels that migration, whether resulting from more refugees or not, is having a local impact that it wishes to address. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Meriden outlined, the controlling migration fund was set up for that purpose: a £140 million fund with £100 million specifically to help local authorities.

The Minister talks about support from local authorities. Does he welcome the approach taken in Aberdeen, through the work of the Aberdeen Community Planning Partnership, which has helped to resettle more than 60 Syrian refugees who have made Aberdeen their home? For example, a couple fled from their home in Daraa near the border with Jordan and arrived in Aberdeen in March last year. To support their integration into the community, they took up English lessons provided by the city council, involving a volunteer project. The family were so well supported by the local volunteer paired with them, Maria Fowler, that they named their second child after her. Does the Minister agree that such support from local authorities is crucial to helping resettle many people who have fled conflict?

My hon. Friend makes a good point. That is exactly the kind of story we all want to hear. When meeting refugees around the country, I have noticed the disparity of experience with different local authorities. We have communities and local authorities around the country doing some absolutely fantastic work, giving people a brilliant experience and enabling them to integrate into, become part of, and have a valued role in their local community and society. We must do better in sharing best practice. I spoke to the cross-party leaders of the Local Government Association, and I will meet them again later this week to talk to them about how we share best practice better.

The Minister talks about best practice. Earlier, he talked about efficiencies, then he talked about looking at doing things differently. We have no objection to that, but how does he explain the longer waiting lists we are seeing? Is a 60% cut what he calls efficiency and doing things differently?

I will answer that before completing the point I was making. It is more complicated than that. The accounts that we have heard from ESOL co-ordinators are not about over-subscription and waiting lists—they have challenged that to an extent, saying that it sometimes masks the fact that they run open waiting lists. Some people who in theory are on a waiting list have found provision elsewhere, so the waiting list issue can be misleading. However, we are working with ESOL suppliers and providers to see what more we can do.

In that context, and to finish the point I was making, all of us across the House can play a part in our local communities and with our local authorities. When we speak to a large cross-party group of leaders, as I did last week with the Local Government Association, the people in the room are those who are most interested and are generally already doing the work. I thanked them for doing so. The challenge is how to get the message to other local authorities that it can be done, and to get them to learn best practice from others.

I am sorry, but I have already taken a couple of interventions. I will make progress and then let my right hon. Friend the Member for Meriden respond.

The challenge is sharing our best practice to ensure that we are learning from the best and that local government is able to do so in a cohesive way. We have put in funds to recognise the challenge raised earlier regarding issues for women, whether those are childcare issues or, for those seeking to work, commuting and access issues. The challenge is not always just about ESOL provision for those with young children in facilities with childcare, although we are doing that and want to see more of it. There is also a cultural challenge. We recognise that there can be a cultural challenge for women learning with men, and we are working with ESOL providers to find a positive solution.

I think that we should be proud of the work that we do as a country to make sure that people have the best possible welcome and opportunity to integrate, but that does not mean that we cannot do better. I am determined to work with other Departments to find out how we can do better at bringing this together in a more cohesive way to make it simpler to access, as well as sharing best practice.

As we are in the mood for praising organisations, I invite the Minister to praise Baca, a refugee charity in my Loughborough constituency that works with young refugees who are not yet ready to work because they are completing their studies. Does he recognise that the need to ensure that young men who come here, particularly, but also young women, do not lose out on their studies is also an issue?

My right hon. Friend makes a very good point. This is about making sure that we give easier access to people, who may also have health or mobility challenges, which can make it hard for them to have that kind of access.

When I have met refugees, one point they make to me, which was also made in our debate, is that children in school pick up the language phenomenally quickly—especially where they have access to really good provision, such as a few hours a week doing a much more intensive programme, which some people will want to do to more quickly develop their skills. I do not want to give anybody particular a plug, but with online learning facilities in the modern world, we must be capable of looking at how we work with local authorities and providers to give much wider access to those who want to do that kind of informal work—some of our communities and voluntary groups are doing really ground-breaking work on that—then share that best practice in a much better way, learn from it and deliver it more widely.

No, I am not going to take any more interventions.

We should be very proud of what we do, but that does not mean that we cannot be better. I am determined to make sure that we do better and share that best practice better, and that we do everything we can to break down those barriers to access wherever we find them.

We have had a good debate. I thank all colleagues for contributing—particularly the hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss). I liked her point that people of different nationalities become friends for life at these classes. That is life-changing for them.

I also thank the hon. Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) for highlighting the importance of the settled community being able to communicate with the incoming community, so that they can live and work among them, and that that is a two-way process. The hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald)—I probably need elocution lessons to pronounce his constituency right—gave inspiring examples of people who come to Scotland being embraced by communities.

We want to make sure that rhetoric matches reality. I, for one, am really keen to reach out to the Muslim community in this country and find what will work for them. We need to work together to reach those in the community who cannot speak English; there is no desire to stigmatise but to integrate and be helpful. We need to listen carefully to what will work.

The Minister made the important point that it is not only about the money but about how we spend it. I am very receptive to that. We need to look at best practice where it exists—he has a great heritage in local Government—and we can point to local authorities that were cited earlier that are doing a good job. My local authority is in a dispersal area for asylum seekers. I will never forget the transformation of an Afghan child seeking refuge in this country who went on to become the BBC national children’s story-teller of the year. That is just one highlight of the amazing contribution that migrants make to our country.

I will end on a sobering note. Those of us who are in this room have a big job to do. The social media comments my right hon. Friend the Member for Loughborough (Nicky Morgan) and I received on an article released today that we co-signed are salutary reading. I will read one out to impress upon the Minister and the Government how much work has still to be done:

“Taxpayers money should not be used to help immigrants speak English. If they cant or wont learn English, how/why are they here?”

That tells me and every person in this room who supports the consensus on the need to facilitate learning English that many of our countrymen and women do not understand the positive contribution that migrants make to this country, or that refugees come here to be safe. There are countries that have signed up to international treaties to provide safe haven to people coming from unsafe countries, and learning English is a part of that.

The Minister is right. However, I ask him to take away this message and to make the case for the benefits of migration, what it brings to our economy and society and why learning English is such an integral part of making that a success.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered English language teaching for refugees.

Sitting adjourned.