On the 24th October the Second Church Estates Commissioner, Dame Caroline Spelman MP hosted a debate about the importance of English teaching for refugees.
English Language Teaching: Refugees
Dame Caroline Spelman (Meriden) (Con): 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.”
Dame Caroline Spelman: 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.