Integration debate: Should immigrants learn English before moving to the UK?

UK border checks at an airport. Proposals have been made that migrants should learn English before moving to BritainOli Scarff/Getty

A plan to make migrants learn English before moving to the UK has triggered a new debate about immigration in Britain. The proposal comes from the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Social Integration, which is chaired by high-profile Labour MP Chuka Umunna.

The former shadow business secretary said immigrants should be enrolled in compulsory English for Speakers of Other Languages (Esol) classes if a lack of English language skills are identified upon arrival to Britain.

The cross-party group also called on councils to set up local integration action plans, a new Controlling Migration Fund and the immediate introduction of an Integration Impact Fund.

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"It's clear that immigration has impacted on different communities in different ways, and the pace of change has alarmed many," Umunna said.

"The government has a duty to address the lack of integration of immigrants if it is to address this. Failing to do so has left a vacuum for extremists and peddlers of hate to exploit.

He added: "We now need a meaningful integration programme which works for all parts of the UK and an immigration policy which allows all to celebrate and look beyond our differences – a middle way between the laissez-faire multiculturalism favoured by successive British governments and the assimilationist politics of the French Burkini ban.

"In the wake of the Brexit vote, we must develop a new approach to immigration which works for everyone in our country and helps us rebuild a divided nation – a system with integration at its heart."

But Professor Thom Brooks, a Labour-supporting immigration expert at Durham University, warned that the proposals were "short sighted".

"Literacy is not an issue for migrants alone, but affects native Britons too. They also should receive our support," he said. "Integration is about tackling isolated communities, not only communities with migrants. Integration efforts should be more inclusive to benefit citizens old and new rather than only new arrivals."

The comments come after a government-commissioned review from Dame Louise Casey, which called for more English classes for isolated groups in the UK and recommended that migrants should swear an oath of allegiance to British values.

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A government spokesperson said: "Our country has long been home to lots of different cultures and communities, but all of us have to be part of one society — British society.

"That is why we are rolling out a £20m fund for English Language provision and have also made £140m available through the Controlling Migration Fund to local authorities to manage impacts on communities caused by issues such as poor English language skills.

"However, we must also recognise that uncontrolled, mass immigration makes it difficult to maintain social cohesion and puts pressure on public services. Our priority is to build an immigration system that works for everyone in the UK and delivers the control we need."

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