The latest report from the Migration Policy Group (MPG), released this week, provides new ammunition for critics of the UK government’s ever-tougher approach towards English language ability among migrants.
Few people – least of all migrants themselves – would disagree that learning some English is likely to make life in the UK much easier. But the MPG report renews debate about which government policies on language ability have the best outcomes for new arrivals.
This report uses the MIPEX index to compare the UK with 32 other countries on how far its immigration policies promote migrant integration. Historically the UK has done rather well in these reports – it currently ranks 9th out of 33 countries for measures to promote integration.
But the MPG report shows that comparisons with other countries may be increasingly unfavourable to the UK. It finds that the UK government’s approach to English language ability for migrants in particular is becoming tougher than in any other English-speaking country– and many other EU countries too – which are surveyed under MIPEX.
In particular MPG points to the way that English-language testing has been increasingly built into the immigration rules over the past 18 months. Fast-tracked rule changes, in force since last November, mean that people coming here to join their partners are required to speak English before they arrive. Pre-entry English testing is now being considered for some elderly and child dependant applicants, as is a tightening-up of language testing for those applying for settlement. And major cuts to the state budget for English language tuition reflect the government view that it is up to migrants to develop their English skills under their own steam, with reduced in-country support available to help them do so.
The government argues that tougher rules on English language for migrants entering and settling in the UK mirror the approach being taken by many other countries. Ministers say that all this has the perfectly legitimate aim of ensuring that new arrivals integrate ‘from the outset’ into UK life. But is this really the case?
Not according to the MPG. The report makes unfavourable comparisons with Canada and Australia, which it says are doing much better than the UK in key areas which bring about lasting integration of new communities. In particular these countries provide strong support for people wanting to learn English, as well as making it easier for them to bring their families into the country, and running far-reaching settlement programmes for new arrivals. This is a far cry from the ‘sink or swim’ attitude increasingly applied to migrants and refugees in the UK.
This report should provide important evidence for migrant advocates to argue that, no, punitive language testing simply isn’t the norm across the nations of the world – and that it will not have the beneficial effects on integration that ministers claim.