Louise Casey's review into integration in Britain has certainly got some backs up. That is no bad thing. Far too often, discussions on integration can be paralysed by a reluctance to self-interrogate and a desire not to offend anyone. Integration, a subject that means a different thing to each different person, suffers from being hard to measure yet highly politically charged. Dame Louise is to be congratulated for ploughing in and tackling the issue.
Nonetheless, her report on Monday is no great break with the past, and offers few transformative solutions. The debate in Britain can verge on the hysterical, especially when Muslims are concerned. No tabloid editor has gone out of business underestimating the public's appetite for scare stories about Muslims. The problem with Dame Louise's report is that it maintains the 'them' and 'us' framing, when the reality is far more complex. The obstacles to Muslim integration, and the solutions to it, lie in equal measure both within and outside the Muslim community. Ultimately, this framing keeps everyone in their defensive posture, chilling the debate. The public feels suspicious and wary, while minority communities feel stigmatised and picked upon. And that makes the day-to-day business of integration harder.
Furthermore, most of Dame Louise's recommendations are highly symbolic. Introducing an oath for new migrants, for example, seems somewhat superficial. It is classic 'action for action's sake', which has haunted integration policy down the decades: adding hoops for migrants to jump through, while doing little to facilitate the integration of those who were not already predisposed to integration. One suspects the value of these policies lies more in the warm glow policymakers get for having done something, than any tangible impact on the real world. Some of the report's recommendations point in the right direction: more resourcing is desperately needed for English learning, and integration support for new migrants is long overdue. But with the government refusing any additional funding, this is more an airy wish than a constructive proposition.
Integration isn't rocket science - but it does take hard work. Unfamiliarity, suspicion, lack of confidence, few resources, low human capital, profound conservatism and stumbling at the first obstacles - all these play a big role in keeping some communities isolated from others. We need action from the government that will help overcome those obstacles that keep communities blocked off from each other. In reality, we need a far more strategic and granular approach to integration. So much of our immigration system works against integration. Restricting family reunion, creating a hostile environment for irregular immigration, reducing settlement visas and a toxic debate on immigration all encourage high levels of 'churn'. Visa policy effectively disincentivises integration: why improve your English if you don't know if you'll have to leave next year? Equally, those on the front line of integration policy could do with government support. Helping Muslim women who speak no English gain the confidence to learn English, and stop their families from blocking them, takes sustained trust-building and targeted support - but it can be done.
Ploughing in and tackling this thorny issue is surely a good first step. Shaking the usual suspects out of their satisfied clichés will revivify the debate; these pigeons could do with a some cats being set among them. But this on its own will not be enough. It will take hard work, concrete granular action and a way to make the debate less hysterical before integration in Britain finally moves on.