Following months of delay, the Government’s response to a review it commissioned into the state of integration is today. There will no doubt be a strong impulse to come across as muscular and decisive.
But Government should resist this temptation. Because for all the accusations that lack of Government action on integration is the result of Whitehall’s deeply ingrained political correctness, the reality is that integration is a complex matter. There is therefore no quick and easy solution.
However, this does not mean that nothing can be done. One starting point is the immigration system itself. If Government is serious about integration, it would be right to expect our immigration system to should be ‘integration-friendly’. But this is far from the case. Since 2010 greater barriers preventing non-EU migrants to lay roots in the UK have been erected: Britain is today the most expensive country in which to become a citizen and families are finding it increasingly hard to be reunited. In years to come, should freedom of movement end, these restrictions could be extended to EU migrants. Indeed, there are reports that Government is considering the introduction of multiple guest worker schemes in the wake of Brexit. Programmes of this kind would certainly put in question Government’s commitment to integration.
The way integration is currently governed also needs to be rethought. Back in 2010, Government declared integration a devolved matter. The intention of this announcement was in many ways welcome: around the world the evidence shows that local programmes are the best way of succeeding with integration. In recent months, for example, we have witnessed the quiet success of the Government’s Voluntary Persons Resettlement Scheme for Syrian refugees. Here, the powerful the combination of well-resourced yet devolved policies has both helped ensure that those arriving in the UK are settling in and is starting to shift the debate about immigration at the local level.
But in the context of austerity, recent IPPR research has shows that outside London and a few major cities, integration has become a ‘nice to have’ in many local authorities. Indeed, seen from the perspective of local leaders, a head in the sand remains an attractive alternative. Immigration is one of the most divisive issues in British public life. Because the immigration system remains so centralised, it is an issue over which, in practice, local areas have little or no power. By putting forward a position on integration local areas would be assuming responsibility. And without the resources to do much, this just seems like a lose-lose.
One way of addressing this would be to give local areas a greater stake over how immigration flows to the UK are managed. With greater power over decisions, Government would be much better placed to dictate that local areas need to take fuller responsibility over integration. The outcome could be a much better conversation about immigration. Our research with Leave supporters in cities like Sunderland and Coventry shows that rooting the discussion about immigration locally leaves far more scope for a more constructive and mature debate about the role which immigration plays in the local economy, the future of public services or its impact of the community. This is a key reason why IPPR has called for greater devolution in the immigration system.
With increased responsibility over immigration policy decisions, local areas should also be granted more powers to raise the funds they need to finance integration. In setting up a Controlling Migration Fund Government has also acknowledged the urgent need to channel resources to areas under pressure. But while funds are important, not least because they provide insights into the types of policies and approaches that can be effective, the reality is that they will never reach the level necessary to fund integration strategies at the scale that is required (at present the fund totals £15 million).
Three steps should be considered. The first is to rethink the way Government treats the money that it raises through the immigration system. The reality is that Government currently makes substantive profits via the visa and immigration system. Not only have fees been raised in recent years, but new levies on employers have been introduced. However, at present, most of this money is lost to the Treasury. Moving forward, the Government should consider which funds could be collected and spent locally (making this conditional on local authorities agreeing to spend funds raised on integration activities).
Secondly, Government needs to put in place a coherent plan for financing the chronically under-resourced English language system in the UK. English is the cornerstone of integration. The evidence suggests that it is a challenge we have yet to address. Government should work with local areas to set bold targets for addressing this challenge through the launch of a Full English campaign. The aim should be to galvanise ambitious local levels efforts to mobilise resources – both financial and in-kind.
A final step would be to ensure that local areas can leverage and capture more value out of immigration at the local level. Steps, such as making employers pick up the bill for English language provision for their employees or making Universities take responsibility for ensuring that the private rental market is not distorted by inflows of international students, would help cash strapped local authorities. One incentive proposed by IPPR is to make access to visa and work permits conditional to employers and universities bdemonstrating that they will take active steps to support migrant integration and their communities.
Integration policy in the UK can’t operate as a game of all or nothing: long periods of silence are followed by bursts of hype and controversy. The outcome of this cycle is, ironically, more division: minorities are left bruised by what are seen as targeted attacks at their expense while conservatives bemoan that still not enough is being done. In the process, the British public, who we know cares deeply about this issue, is left none the wiser (and probably less, rather than more, reassured). This Green Paper could be a unique opportunity break this cycle.