The Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government has just launched its Integrated Communities Action Plan. It lays out the work that this Government will undertake to support the confidence and integration of communities.
There are some well thought out thematic headings, from strengthening the leadership of locally elected members through to faith leaders. The plan also looks to support new migrants and local residents through education and by boosting access to English language courses and in inculcating the rights and freedoms available in our country.
As someone who has worked for many years within integration-based projects, the plan covers key areas that successive governments have failed to even consider. Providing people with basic language skills, for example, is fundamental to getting them to achieve the best out of their lives and in supporting local economies by getting them into work and away from relying on partners. For some women, reliance on partners because of a poor command of English has made them vulnerable to abuse and manipulation by their partners. Giving them to confidence to understand English and work in the future helps them to unshackle them from abuse and take charge of their lives.
The plan also suggests that visa application rules will be tied to information which reinforces the values of the United Kingdom before applicants arrive in the country. No doubt these will include the rule of law, democracy and tolerance of others, all positive values that we can embrace and accept. Yet, this Government has been unable to enforce and push forward these fundamental values within communities, nor have these values been laid out clearly through local authorities, many of whom have had tensions with central government and where integration related issues have taken a back seat, apart from local authorities who took part in the Syrian Refugee Resettlement programme.
Furthermore, ask people what the core values of the country are, and you will get varying answers, showing that even these are not embedded into the heart of communities. Add to this the fact that locally elected leaders have to be expedient in keeping the political support of communities and what you have at points is a subtle acceptance to steer away from challenging divisive and prejudiced views in some communities. So, these core values that we are selling internationally are not even properly embedded here in the UK.
The plan also talks about ensuring that best practice in English language training is disseminated and that ESOL regional co-ordinators will be supported. Again, all well and good, though accessing such courses is difficult and huge cuts in their funding have meant that access for some has become drawn out and near impossible.
Or take for example comments in the plan to support the mental health, well-being and social needs of refugees, through upskilling frontline therapists to meet the mental health of refugees. Depressingly, mental health service provision is stretched to the point where people have been waiting for over a year to get access to therapy or counselling and with their emotional and mental health affected as each day goes by. This has been the social impact and reality of the breakdown in investment in mental health services by successive governments. Even though the government has stated a £2 billion investment in mental health services the King’s Fund highlights that key issues affecting mental health services include staff recruitment and retention and speed of access to services. Any investment will take time to garner benefits and so part of me believes that some of the points in the Action Plan and more aspirational, rather than being realistic.
One of the other areas that the plan mentions is that the Government will work with groups like the National Citizen Service Trust to increase mixing in areas of high segregation. Again, this is to be welcome, though missing in the detail is how local authority planning committees and developers need to work on landscaping and the design of living spaces where individuals can physically meet and mix. These spaces need to be designed into buildings and should be a mandatory requirement for planning applications to meet in areas of high segregation. Local authority leaders also need to make this a commitment in their work plans in the coming 12 months.
Lastly, we must welcome the amendment of Immigration Rules to prohibit Religious Workers, (granted a Tier 5 visa) from acting as a Minister of Religion in faith institutions in our country. The plan states that individuals who want to come to the UK and fill roles as a Minister of Religion must go through a tier 2 process which requires them to demonstrate a higher level of English. This is essential and I have seen first-hand, how extremists have humiliated and developed power and control over communities, because the local Imam who may have a strong theological understanding of Islam, simply cannot engage with and work with young people. I would go further though and say that any individuals applying to become a Minister of Religion from overseas must undergo a period of training which demonstrate to them the values of our country. Ensuring that people speak English and understand the social values and norms of our country, is the only way forward if we are to take in individuals to work in faith institutions in the UK.
Overall, the plan is to be welcomed, but the devil is in the detail. Given that our country is so polarised politically and socially, it would have been good to have this plan released a year ago so that activities could have been under-way.
Finally, one note of advice to this Government. You can’t expect to send ‘Go Home’ vans around in communities and expect Black and Minority Ethnic communities (BAME) to buy into Integration Plans. Let’s hope such perverse actions are never put into action again. Some damage has already been done to trust between BAME communities and this Government. Let’s hope common sense prevails in the future.