Going down the road to the Post Office, the supermarket, or just chatting at the school gates are things we take for granted in our everyday life. But they are only really possible because we have a shared language – English – that enables us to communicate what we want effectively. That’s not true for everyone, though. And if you speak no, or very little, English, it’s not just your social life that’s cramped. You can’t help the children with their homework, and you’ll find it very hard to get a proper job. A high proportion of the people who are stuck this way are women with children, often living in areas with significant integration challenges, and where social cohesion is fragile.
Being unable to speak English prevents people from integrating effectively into their community and increases divisions. But worse than that, it keeps people stuck in a cycle of poverty. There are still far too many impoverished BME communities in the UK, and in many cases, the lack of ability to speak English holds some of these people back even further.
This is something the Coalition is determined to tackle head on. That’s why I was pleased to announce today that DCLG would be providing an extra £10m of funding for the 2011/12 Academic Year to support additional provision for learners with no, or limited levels of spoken English, targeted particularly at helping those who are not in employment and are thus unable to afford normal course fees. In these areas, increasing levels of English language skills locally will have a positive impact on local community integration.
Last week’s reports of the “death of multiculturalism” have been greatly exaggerated. It is very much here to stay, but whilst we should embrace and celebrate our cultural diversity, we also need to focus on the things that unite us as well. Our shared language is one of those things, and ensuring that everyone is able to communicate effectively will help improve social mobility, and community cohesion, throughout the UK.
* Andrew Stunell is the Liberal Democrat MP for Hazel Grove, was a member of the all-party parliamentary inquiry into electoral conduct and is a former communities minister.