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English Language Learning

Volume 805: debated on Monday 27 July 2020


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have to make learning (1) to speak, and (2) to read, English compulsory.

English language requirements are already in place for individuals who are seeking to live, work or study in the UK. Where appropriate, all applicants for settlement and citizenship are required to pass the Life in the UK test and to have an English language speaking and listening qualification. This financial year, we are making over £7 million available for programmes, in addition to the adult education budget, to support the integration of migrants through improving their English language proficiency.

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that local authorities have a duty to ensure that, when public funds are provided for community groups and activities in areas that are predominantly populated with ethnic minority communities, they must demonstrate in an annual report what active engagement and measured outcomes have taken place in learning the English language as part of any funding application? The Covid pandemic has shone a torch on this issue in my city of Leicester, where communities have failed to understand important government messaging due to language barriers. Many people in these communities have been here for many years, but they are being excluded from the available schemes and services and the wider opportunities just because they do not have English language skills.

My Lords, a lack of English skills presents a clear barrier to social and economic mobility. As a Government, we will always focus on the practical solutions that can make a real difference to people’s lives. However, voluntary and community sector funding by local authorities is a devolved matter and it is a matter of regret that Leicester did not want to engage in our integration programme.

My Lords, the ability to speak and read English is key to social mobility and for social skills. Does the Minister agree that being able to write good English, with accurate spelling and grammar, is also important and valued by employers? This too should be compulsory. The subtleties of apostrophes and English spelling can be learned and become automatic, unless a child has specific difficulties, which of course would need other support.

My Lords, we recognise that being able to read and write in English is vital to supporting integration. That is why the ESOL for Integration Fund supports learners across 30 areas with reading and writing as well as speaking and listening, whereas previous programmes focused predominantly on speaking and listening.

The Minister will know of the practice in other similar countries. He will know that both France and Germany have a mandatory requirement for newcomers to speak their respective languages fluently. The UK has myriad exceptions from this requirement. Will he look at making it mandatory for all those wishing to remain in the UK to have a level of proficiency such that they can integrate adequately?

My Lords, there is a requirement for those applying for citizenship to demonstrate that they have appropriate English language speaking and listening qualifications and for those who wish to remain to have the requisite proficiency needed for what they are seeking to do in this country.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that English is key to helping communities to integrate in Britain and that the importance of learning English should be further emphasised as a precondition to granting British citizenship?

My Lords, I thank my noble friend, who has written eloquently on the subject of the importance the English language to integration. Those applying for citizenship are required to demonstrate that they have an appropriate English language speaking and listening qualification.

My Lords, the ability to communicate with others from different communities is vital, but those who are deaf are at a disadvantage because they cannot fully participate unless signing is provided, no matter what their culture. My experience as a past patron of Friends for the Young Deaf has taught me the importance of signing in breaking down language barriers. Do the Government plan to make provision for signing available to those with hearing impairment when they are learning English?

My Lords, there is a clear requirement under the equalities Act to provide information in a way that is accessible to all, including to those who hard of hearing or deaf. There is a requirement in place to provide that.

My Lords, I cannot believe that teaching English is not already compulsory in schools in this country. Not only English should be compulsory but clear, correct English; there would be far fewer misunderstandings. Does the Minister agree that schools could follow the advice of Bernard Levin, one of our best modern writers of English prose: just read George Orwell and Jane Austen and you cannot go wrong?

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that excellent advice. Of course, good written English is very important. Being able to read will give people the joys of the English language.

I have spoken to volunteers here in the north-west of England who have continued teaching refugees English virtually, with the assistance of Zoom, during lockdown. They say that patchy access to and knowledge of how to use the necessary technology is problematic. As language is key to integration and citizenship, will the Minister look at ways in which the necessary technology could be made available to those volunteer projects to sustain this vital work?

My Lords, we recognise the important and valuable contribution that volunteers make to English speakers who speak other languages. A series of resource provisions has been made available and 500 volunteers continue to be engaged in proving those programmes, but I will take up the point the noble Lord makes.

My Lords, I refer the House to my relevant registered interests. It is important that everyone living in the United Kingdom learns to speak, read and write English. I endorse the comments of the noble Baroness, Lady Verma, and my noble friend Lady Massey of Darwen. But can the Minister say something about the importance of preserving our other native languages here in the UK—Welsh, Irish, Ulster Scots, Gaelic, Scots and Cornish?

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord on his knowledge of Cornish. Of course, it is important to have language skills so that you can stay close to your community.

My Lords, the Government have made 154 statutory instruments on the coronavirus crisis, the vast majority under emergency legislation. How many of those have included an insistence that this emergency information, which is essential and life saving for our communities, is disseminated to those whose first language is not English or who have English language or other learning barriers, as my noble friend Lady Benjamin highlighted? How many of those emergency pieces of legislation have been able to be communicated clearly?

My Lords, I will have to write to the noble Lord about the precise number. Where I have had a choice, we have made sure the provisions have been made available in numerous languages.

My Lords, the Government are committed to uniting and levelling up our country, and that means building a rich, vibrant and integrated society. With the announcement in March of the new £6.5 million English language programme for the 25 successful local authorities, will the Government request feedback at the end of the 12-month programme so that possible future bids can support our diverse communities and help deliver even better outcomes?

My Lords, in fact 30 local authorities were successful for funding, and there will be a full evaluation of the programme’s outcomes and impacts. A longitudinal study of longer-term benefits for learners is also planned.

My Lords, it is difficult to overestimate how important it is for an individual in this country to read and speak English. The dreadful manslaughter of Police Constable Andrew Harper throws a light on this issue in a slightly different way. The young men convicted, Henry Long, Albert Bowers and Jessie Cole, could not read or write. Their education from the age of 11 was only in the arena of crime, not at school. Does the Minister agree that all British citizens should speak and read our language if they are to thrive and become valued members of society? It is important to the fabric of our nation and their feeling of belonging to this nation. Not giving anyone the opportunity, and making that learning compulsory if necessary, is a failure of our system.

My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord. The recent census showed that 770,000 people who live in England speak little or no English. We need to work hard to ensure that we provide them with those skills, so that they can benefit fully from life in this country.