In 2008, a Parliamentary Inquiry into Community Cohesion and Migration called upon the Government to be more proactive on integrating immigrants and to better support the communities that accommodate them. Fast forward nine years and today, a similar Inquiry by the All Party Parliamentary Group on Social Integration has powerfully restated some of the same key messages, albeit with much greater urgency. Why? Because over the past decade, the Government has overseen the largest single wave of in-migration that the British Isles have ever experienced but has done little to support either the new arrivals themselves, or the communities which receive them.
Having been an expert adviser to both Inquiries, I believe today's report should be the wake-up call this Government so desperately needs. We can no longer leave our communities (both immigrant and British) unsupported in the face of such rapid social change - social change driven not just by unprecedented levels of migration, but through growing inequalities in our society, deep cuts to public and voluntary services, the changing nature of work and technological advancements. All of these developments have left many communities feeling insecure and increasingly vulnerable about their future - fears which are all too easily displaced onto newcomers and exploited by extremists.
How might the Government better support these communities? Today's report is full of ideas and recommendations, but two key messages emerge as key.
First, the government must be proactive on integration. The Casey Review was right in saying that, for generations, we have welcomed immigrants to the UK but left them to find their own way in society, while leaving host communities to accommodate them. In other parts of Europe, it is not uncommon for new migrants to participate in state-sponsored support programmes for civic integration, which include language provision; here in the UK integration is largely left to chance.
Today's report argues that a government integration strategy should proactively set a national framework for action that empowers local authorities to tailor their responses to the integration needs of their communities. The challenges in a place like Crewe, for example, will differ substantially from that of somewhere like Lambeth. The report also calls for a statutory duty on local authorities to promote integration in order to prioritise integration as an upfront consideration, and not just an afterthought, in key policy areas, such as housing, education and skills. The Government could provide more substantial support for local integration efforts through an Integration Impact Fund, which would bring our level of financial distribution to areas under pressure from immigration in line with countries like Germany. Finally, this framework for action must address the practical aspects of integration and, most notably, English language provision, which has faced drastic cuts in recent years. No one should be able to live in our country for a considerable length of time without the support to learn or improve their English language skills, and today's report is important in articulating this as a basic right which should be extended to anyone who needs it.
Second, there is an urgent need to reframe the national debate on immigration so that government policy and rhetoric does not undermine integration efforts. The government's consistent failure to meet its own immigration targets, for example, has only served to undermine public confidence in the government's ability to manage migration effectively and encourage popular resentment against migrants. The same could be said of the way in which issues of counter-terrorism are often conflated with government rhetoric on immigration. As today's report asserts, immigrants should be viewed as Britons-in-waiting rather than 'security risks', 'welfare tourists' or a burden to our public services. This would create a climate in which is it expected that immigrants will fulfil a role as full and active citizens in our society. This is something most immigrants aspire to achieve in any case, so it surely makes sense for us to encourage this rather than make it more difficult to achieve? Instead, we have spent the last 20 years toughening our citizenship system, while competitor economies like Germany have liberalised theirs to facilitate the integration of newcomers and improve their economic competiveness.
The scale of this challenge is vast. As Chuka Umunna points out, the toxicity of current debates requires a new kind of political leadership that does not pander to fear or divisive headlines. This leadership must start by advancing an understanding of integration as the responsibility of us all, and as the success of all groups - not just an 'issue' for newcomers. This is important because, although immigrants face specific integration challenges, the evidence presented to the APPG has kept us mindful that groups from all social backgrounds in Britain today are increasingly marginalised, disadvantaged and disconnected. The integration agenda must, therefore, speak to all communities going forward and cut across policy silos to ensure that a comprehensive approach to integration. Only then can we start to build a confident and inclusive national identity based on the vision that all communities should be able to participate equally and fairly in civic, social and economic life.