Not Saussure

June 10, 2007

The Commission on Integration and Cohesion

Filed under: Community, Politics, UK — notsaussure @ 5:15 pm

I’m a bit confused by this; the Telegraph reports that

Employers will be told to pay for language lessons for immigrant workers who have a poor grasp of English, under proposals to be unveiled this week. […] The Commission on Integration and Cohesion, which was promised by Tony Blair in the wake of the July 7 bombings in 2005, says that moves to prevent immigrants from being marginalised will help to ease racial tensions and fight the appeal of extremist ideologies.As the rate of overseas settlement in Britain runs at its highest ever, the commission will argue that many new immigrants are too poor to afford tuition and should have the costs covered by their employers. That would greatly improve their ability to contribute to society and would bring long-term benefits to cohesion in Britain, its report will suggest.

I find this confusing for two reasons; first, it’s self-evidently mad (not that this means it would not recommend itself to this, or any other, government, of course) and, second, Darra Singh, the Chairman of the Commission, says nothing about it in his article in today’s Observer, though he does discuss, at some length, his proposals for encouraging people to learn English:

Some basic translation is useful and necessary, but we have not always struck the right balance. My Commission on Integration and Cohesion will publish a series of tests public bodies should apply when making decisions about whether to provide translated material. And where savings are made by cutting translation services, they should be reinvested in English lessons – both for newcomers and settled communities. It is a lost opportunity, for individuals and for society, that some people who have lived here for 30 years or more have never acquired the language skills to play a fuller role in local life.

That may well have much to commend it, particularly in Wales, where a surprising number of people even in South Wales (as opposed to traditionally Welsh-speaking rural North Wales) appear to speak only Welsh and consequently need everything translating for them at enormous public expense, but he doesn’t seem to say anything about requiring employers to pay.

It’s a daft idea for two reasons. First, I don’t quite see why anyone would want to hire someone if they didn’t think their language (or any other) skills were adequate for the particular job they had in mind. Well, any private employer, at least; certainly our local hospital — of which I saw rather more than I would have wanted during my late wife’s last years — employed whole armies of absolutely charming ladies from the Philippines as nursing auxiliaries whose English, unfortunately, wasn’t up to communicating with patients at anything other than the most rudimentary level, which meant that complicated requests like ‘please get me a bed pan’ (from the elderly lady in the bed next to my wife’s on one stay in hospital) frequently went unanswered.

But any normal employer would, one rather assumes, try to make sure that his sales staff could understand enough English to serve the customers (though possibly not to write business letters), while being rather less bothered about the standard of English attained by his cleaners, so long as they understood what they were being asked to do.

Quite why an employer should be asked to pay for training he doesn’t think his staff need is a bit beyond me; yes, it would doubtless be nice if they could all drive, too, but is he also to be asked to pay for driving lessons for non-drivers?

Second, this proposal would, almost certainly, run smack into anti-discrimination legislation, and quite right, too. I’m old enough to remember when, shortly the Race Relations Act was passed, employers who wanted to continue to discriminate against recent immigrants started introducing tests in written English for jobs that didn’t obviously require such skills to any great extent (working on a production line, for example). Quite rightly, the Race Relations Board, as it then was, stepped in and the courts rapidly agreed that this sort of indirect discrimination was unlawful; you can only insist on linguistic skills that are relevant to the job.

Well, require employers to pay for language teaching in certain circumstances and, it seems to me, you’ve automatically made those language skills of direct relevance to the job and, in effect, given employers every reason to discriminate against applicants even they don’t want to. If I want to employ someone who seems perfectly well qualified for the job but the government are likely to insist I pay for training I don’t think he needs, then obviously I’m going to look for someone else who definitely won’t need the training because English is his first language.

It’s a barmy idea, and I rather wonder if the Telegraph isn’t rather exaggerating, though possibly not since Mr Singh is clearly well able to come up with pretty bonkers ideas without any help. For example, he’s got the idea that

a new citizenship ceremony – perhaps on students’ completion of their GCSEs – would be one way of more publicly marking their understanding of what it means to be a responsible citizen in modern Britain

Tim Worstall says all that needs to be said:

What really seems to be missed is that (whether it’s at 16 or any other age) the attainment of full citizenship is not some privilege that is handed down to us from on high. Rather, it’s that one is now of an age when one gets to choose who those on high are going to be. It is not the mighty who offer us the privileges of citizenship, it is us who choose who is going to handle those minor matters that cannot be handled privately, whether individually or collectively.The correct ceremony would therefore be for politicians to abase themselves before such gatherings, begging for votes so that they might continue their lives upon the gravy train. The correct response to this from those celebrating would for 40% not to bother to turn up, the remainder to view the vote stealers with the contempt they deserve: precisely the (correct) reaction of all the other adults in the Kingdom.

Mr Singh also favours the idea of compulsory volunteering, which rather suggests he could do with some English lessons, as least with regard to what ‘compulsory’ and ‘voluntary’ might mean. Apparently,

It is to be welcomed that many young people now take part in volunteering and give something back to their local area. The benefits are great – bringing together young people from different backgrounds to work together towards a common goal. I think we need to consider a national community service and we should not be afraid of asking whether this should be compulsory.

Well, yes, it’s certainly to be welcomed that people, of their own initiative, see something that they think needs doing and, quite sensibly, get together to do it themselves rather than ask the government, be it local or national, to do it for them. That Mr Singh thinks that the correct response to this is, in effect, to nationalise such efforts and to make them compulsory rather suggests he hasn’t properly thought it through. But, if we look more closely, we see that the benefits he perceives aren’t anything to do with the actual project being voluntarily undertaken; no, he likes the idea of

bringing together young people from different backgrounds to work together towards a common goal

Well, yes, I’m sure that’s a good idea. Employers do it all the time, do they not? Bring together people of all ages and backgrounds to work together to keep Tescos running profitably or what have you.

Obviously that’s not what he has in mind; I think he imagines, in effect, imposing community punishment orders on all young people, whether or not they’ve bothered to commit a crime first, which would be perfectly in line with government thinking. He might first, though, want to take some advice from people who’ve had experience of such national voluntary compulsory work schemes, though. They used to have them in the old Soviet Union, for example, for girls (boys did military service, obviously).

My interpreter and PA back there, the lovely and talented Inna, did hers at the local hospital in her home town, Kiev; from what she said, it’s a wonder the hospital ever managed to treat any patients, so busy were they trying to cope with finding jobs for — and supervising — dozens of untrained, mutinous and completely unmotivated 18 and 19-year-olds, where the girls couldn’t do too much damage (by accident or design) and wouldn’t get too much under the feet of the staff who were actually being paid to do the jobs properly.

Afterthought:  To be fair to Inna, she said that, in principle, she wouldn’t have minded doing some voluntary work, so long as it was voluntary;  it’s just that, as she said,  if you take a bright and somewhat stroppy 18-year-old who’s primarily interested in clubbing it and getting into university to study modern languages, and then tell her she’s got to spend a day a week at the local hospital helping with the filing and in the laundry (she got to help with the filing because she was one of the bright ones who was going to go on to university, you see), you’re looking for trouble…



  1. “Everything that isn’t forbidden is compulsory?”

    Comment by Ian Grey — June 10, 2007 @ 7:03 pm

  2. I’m all in favour of language lessons for new arrivals, preferably free or means-tested; most of the migrant workers I’ve met have made an effort before they arrive, but a few supplementary lessons would make their lives a lot easier away from the workplace. One could also argue that since most of Britain’s industrial economy is content to be heavily dependent on unskilled workers who are paid absolute peanuts (and I know this because I was one of them) then they ought to foot a percentage of the bill for making their lives a little easier, though I’d go about it by taxing performance-related bonuses for top executives and ring-fencing it for this and similar schemes.

    As for ‘compulsory volunteering’, I have another radical idea; reward people who sign up as volunteers for the Salvation Army or St John’s Ambulance with a modest but appreciable reduction in their council tax bill, or a small sum of money for teenagers and young adults living with their parents, and organise a modern equivalent of Bob-A-Job week; the typical British teenager of today might be short on community spirit, but they’re firm believers in capitalism.

    Comment by James — June 11, 2007 @ 3:11 pm

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