One and a half cheers for the Integration APPG

August 28, 2017

There is a lot to welcome in this latest report on integration from the APPG on the issue but too much is buried under a mound of tendentious political rhetoric about reframing the supposedly “poisonous” contemporary debate about immigration. This is a shame. The report’s authors, led by Chuka Umunna MP, seem to have focused so hard on forging a consensus on the left that they have abandoned the attempt at producing a genuinely cross-party—and, perhaps more importantly, cross Leaver-Remainer—contribution to this important national debate.

The report expresses a real empathy with the bewilderment felt by so many people at the helter-skelter tempo of recent demographic change and yet tries, in vain, to combine this empathy with a militant defence of mass immigration. The bewildered are invited to believe that with a bit of tinkering — the regionalisation of immigration policy or English lessons for all newcomers, for example — their discomfort over historically unprecedented levels of immigration and rapid change to neighbourhoods will melt away.

The very title of the report— ‘Integration not Demonisation’ —sets up a false antithesis. About three-quarters of British adults believe that immigration is too high—and to that extent the debate, poisonous or not, is already over—but the vast majority are against mass immigration not hostile to, or demonising of, particular immigrants (as confirmed in many surveys and, indeed, the report’s own account of meetings with white British people in the divided town of Boston, Lincolnshire).  

On the positive side there are many solid proposals to challenge the traditional laissez-faire yet hand-wringing approach to the issue. Hopefully  the report’s more sensible proposals will inform the government’s response, due in the next few months, to Louise Casey’s semi-official report on integration published at the end of last year. 

Here are some of the sensible proposals:

  • a statutory duty on all local authorities (it should perhaps be public bodies) to promote integration of immigrants (and not justimmigrants);
  • an integration policy unit based in the Cabinet Office to co-ordinate integration thinking across government;
  • a set of measures/institutions to provide a focus of support both for newcomers and volunteers who want to help the “Britons in waiting” including local Welcome centres, language cafes and mentors for conversation practice;
  • student-style loans for English language lessons;
  • promoting more social and ethnic mixing among young people with an expanded National Citizen Service programme;
  • and more visible, revitalised citizenship ceremonies.

None of this is especially controversial, or original. Indeed, despite the report’s rather censorious tone about current policy, these measures sit comfortably with our current mildly post-laissez-faire consensus. It was David Cameron after all who commissioned Louise Casey’s report, which is quoted respectfully throughout this report. Yet turning good intentions on integration into hard policy is notoriously difficult in liberal societies and the APPG report noticeably shies away from any talk of quotas in schools or public housing (though the report does favourably quote Sir Nick Weller, chief executive of the Dixons Academies Charitable Trust which runs eight schools in Bradford, who has proposed at limit of 70 per cent on any single religion or ethnicity in any school).  

The report does implicitly recognise that the integration issue is different in the mill towns than it is in Milton Keynes yet overall the report lacks a sense of differentiation—the immigrant him or herself remains a sociologically naked abstraction. There is a world of difference between a young Bulgarian builder who is here for two or three years to earn as much money as possible in order to set up a business back home and a young female spouse from Pakistan coming to marry and live here permanently. Nothing at all is said about the peculiar problem presented by freedom of movement under which it is impossible to know whether to invest in someone or not; are they making a life here or do they have a largely instrumental and short-term relationship with the country? Nor does the report touch on the issue of whether immigration policy should favour people who will be easier to integrate into the common life of British society; the support needed for an Australian to integrate will be different from that for an Afghan, for example.

Yet the report has, if anything, too much in it about immigration and its most eye-catching policy—the regionalisation of immigration policy—has no obvious bearing on integration at all. Such a policy, already dismissed by the government, would have the effect of making immigration easier at a time when the national consensus is to make it harder and more selective and it would further divide the country between those areas, like London and Scotland, which are more friendly towards immigration and the rest.

More local powers to alter the jobs on the Shortage Occupation List (SOL) or to make it easier for students to stay on when they have finished their courses are not in themselves foolish (Scotland already has power over the first) but the idea seems largely designed to take power away from the Tory centre and redistribute it to the largely Labour periphery. It also ignores the fact that the relevant skill category to business is not regional but sectoral and we already have an effective national mechanism, managed by the Migration Advisory Committee, which consults with business before advising government about occupations that should be on the SOL.

The other big proposal—more state subsidy and a more coherent national strategy for teaching English to all newcomers—is sensible, well-trodden ground but tainted by its grandiose language of “a right to English lessons” and, again, its undifferentiated approach. Why should all immigrants have free (or loan-funded) English lessons supported by the tax-payer? Should that include an affluent French businessman here for five years on an intra-company transfer? What about the thriving industry of private language schools? Yes, obviously we want all people who are living here permanently to speak the language well but we should focus scarce resources on those we know are making a life here. (The more generous approach has been tried before by New Labour, until the crisis of 2008 made it unaffordable.)

Indeed this point about focusing scarce resources becomes even more important when we consider just how much of contemporary immigration is temporary. (Net immigration even after recent decreases is still running at about 250,000 a year and yet fewer than 60,000 people were granted permanent residence last year excluding EU citizens with an eye on Brexit uncertainties.) Far from this being a problem, as the report implies, temporary immigration is the way to square the circle between the legitimate desire of most people for a slower pace of social and demographic change and the needs of business and higher education to attract the people they need.

It also makes the integration story easier because we can focus money and policy effort on those relatively small groups—people coming for family reunion reasons, refugees and some skilled workers, perhaps amounting to 30,000 or 40,000 a year—who we know are making a life here and in many cases are likely to be from developing countries. What about the potentially destabilising churn of the many temporary migrants? This need not be a problem because we have a lower integration expectation of them, and in any case many will be students or skilled workers who are likely to speak good English and be well educated.

One of the defining principles of integration policy should be to focus on the hard cases and those we know are investing their lives in Britain. The other big point, that this report positively contradicts, is that smaller inflows are a necessary (but not sufficient) condition of successful integration. It takes time to absorb people into our complex, liberal society and it is easier to do it if there are fewer of them. This report has much to recommend it when it sticks to the details of integration rather than attempting the impossible task of persuading people worried by the fragmentation of their society that large scale immigration has nothing to do with it.

David Goodhart appeared on BBC News to discuss the report:

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