In these difficult political times, one thing which should require no debate in Britain is that women and men have an equal voice. I’m proud that we have a female Prime Minister and a female Home Secretary; but while we’ve come a long way in terms of gender equality in my lifetime, there is still a long way to go.
It is shocking that in Britain today some women remain voiceless and marginalised. Far too many refugee women are unable to make a contribution to life in the UK that matches their skills, talents and ambitions, because they are unable to speak English. I know how isolating it can be to move abroad to somewhere unfamiliar and have the challenges of learning a language in order to take part in everyday life in new surroundings, let alone make your way on a professional level.
Yet for refugee women in Britain, all too often the reason they can’t speak English is because they are unable to go to English language classes – or they’re forced to wait for months and often years before a space becomes available for them to start classes. Even then, they may receive only a few hours a week – not enough to allow anyone to master a language. If these women are mothers too, a lack of childcare facilities creates yet another obstacle.
Last year, the Government made a £10 million commitment over the next five years for additional ‘English for speakers of other languages’ (ESOL) funding. This is available to refugees who arrive from Syria under the Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Scheme (VPRS) and will ensure a minimum of eight hours a week teaching during their first year in the UK. However, other resettled refugees who arrive in the UK under the long-established Gateway Protection Programme (around 750 a year, of all nationalities and resettled from a wide range of countries), do not receive the additional support.
The Government has also committed a further £2.3m to help local authorities provide childcare support – from crèches to family learning days – to enable refugee women to learn English. I know first-hand that this is already making a huge difference to the prospects and wellbeing of thousands of people. And let’s not forget the work of volunteer groups around the country providing refugees with language teaching and English conversation practice. Hosted by both faith and community groups, and run by dedicated and tireless volunteers, their work is invaluable. Organisations such as Refugee Action continue to do good work to highlight the plight of families and individuals affected by underinvestment in ESOL provision.
However, there is much more to do to ensure that every refugee in Britain can learn English in order to integrate and contribute fully to their British communities. This is highlighted again and again by the refugee women I have met, including Amal whose contribution to British life has been limited for far too long because of the barriers encountered to learning English.
This issue goes beyond creating equal opportunities - it’s about the kind of Britain we want to live in. I believe - and colleagues both in Government and across the entire House of Commons share this view – that to have a cohesive society which works for everyone, and in which everyone has a stake, we must focus on our shared values. A common language is fundamental to achieving that goal.
That’s why I’ve tabled a Westminster Hall debate on English language teaching for refugees. This is the right moment to take stock of what has worked, and to look at ways we can do more. The Government will soon respond to Dame Louise Casey’s wide-ranging recommendations in her review on integration. It makes sense that increased support for all refugees in Britain to learn English should be one of the outcomes from this process.
It’s high time that we unlock refugees’ potential to work, study, volunteer and make a full and active contribution to life in Britain - something which is to everyone’s benefit
Rt Hon. Dame Caroline Spelman MP
(Article originally published online for Politics Home, 24th October)