I recall as a twelve year old growing up in the ‘Motor City’ that was Coventry and interpreting for my English school teacher who had started arranging English classes at the local Sikh Temple (Gurdawara). Twice a week in the evenings he volunteered (with me) to teach basic English as a second language to members of the local, relatively newly arrived congregation. This was at a time when no provisions had been made by employers, National or Local Government to teach English and hence improve engagement and dialogue between new arrivals and hosts. Many argued that the British State and employers only wanted the cheap labour of immigrants and did not address the issues arising out of settlement.
My father picked up rudimentary English from his colleagues on building sites where he worked as a carpenter and my mother learnt enough English to get on a bus, buy some groceries and say ‘hello and thank you’. How they would have loved an opportunity to learn the English language and therefore engage with employers who exploited them, have meaningful conversations with my teachers at parents teachers evenings and challenge the racists who abused them (P*** bashing was at it’s virulent worst – it was time when it was fashionable for white gangs to seek out and attack people of colour).
Forty year on, Ed Miliband has suggested that the ability to speak English improves engagement, interaction and therefore integration – seems logical to me. However, the dangerous inference is that immigrants choose to or not learn English, though many who arrived in the 60’s and 70’s from the ex-colonies included people from the Caribbean for whom English was their first language and were Christian like the host nation.
The issue of fluency in the English language is no longer on the same scale as it was for the pioneering immigrants of the 60’s and 70’s, most have now passed away or retired to the Indian Subcontinent. Today we have the fourth or fifth generation of children of immigrants from the Indian Sub continent and East Africa. For this generation not only do they speak English fluently but think and dream in English.
Proficiency in English is now relevant for immigrants from Eastern Europe. Again, history repeats itself as Coalition Government behaviour has led to the chronic underfunding of English-language teaching.
With the onslaught of Government policy on privatisation of public services, there are some private contractors who wilfully exploit workers’ lack of English skills, from migrants working in the agricultural sector packing food for supermarkets in East Anglia to cleaners in Westminster or GMB members cleaning and providing catering at Swindon General Hospital.
English language provision in isolation is not enough. Any debate or policy on immigration has to be holistic that addresses issues around housing, health care, education provision and fundamentally strengthening workplace rights with stronger sanctions against employers who wilfully abuse, exploit and in many cases degrade migrants. Yet the Coalition Government is hurtling in the opposite direction with proposals to reduce employment rights, reduce English language provision and it is not surprising that some new migrants are marginalised and a long way away from integrating into the mainstream of Britain.
The influx of migrants has seen a growth in xenophobic attitudes towards people coming into the UK to find work, particularly from Eastern Europe. In areas of Britain with higher rates of unemployment there has been growing resentment.
The last 70 or 80 years we have experienced migration from Europe and the rest of the world. For example Jewish people finding sanctuary from the Nazis, Irish people responsible for building our great railways and canals as well as people from the Commonwealth staffing our hospitals and transport systems. We forget at our peril that we are a nation of immigrants. Or should it be ‘One Nation’ of immigrants?