Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Yesterday's Hansard

Immigration: Entry Clearance Refusals


English for Speakers of other Languages

7.44 pm

Lord Avebury: My Lords, my noble friend has convincingly demonstrated the proposition that he put to your Lordships at the beginning of his speech: that the acquisition of language skills is fundamental to social cohesion. That is certainly the case in my noble friend’s area, where ESOL provision has been, and should continue to be, the key to the social cohesion of his constituency.

However, as my noble friend said, I want to focus, in particular, on the decision to stop ESOL for asylum seekers. I consider this a particularly unpleasant idea which is based on false assumptions and is detrimental to the public interest. The Minister, Bill Rammell, in his Guardian article of 16 January headed, “We cannot sustain current levels of funding for ESOL provision”, justified the withdrawal of tuition from asylum seekers over the age of 19 on the grounds that taxpayers’ money should not be used to support the learning of English by people who are expected to leave the country. At the same time, he extolled the IND’s success in determining 80 per cent of applications within eight weeks, half of them leading to refusals.

According to the latest Home Office statistics, the number of asylum claims has been falling steadily since 2003, so these applicants are not responsible for the,

“massive increase in demand for free ESOL tuition”,

to which the Minister referred in that article. Both the smaller numbers and the speeding up of determinations will have reduced the cost of ESOL tuition for asylum seekers, although the actual figure is 69 per cent of applications determined within eight weeks, not 80 per cent as the Minister claimed, and the figure has been going down.

Roughly, 20 per cent of the applicants are given leave to remain and another 20 per cent succeed on first appeal. In all, something like half of all applicants are allowed to stay here by the time they have been through the whole process and not 30 per cent, as alleged by Mr Rammell on the BBC programme “The Learning Curve” yesterday evening. So, if all asylum seekers were equally likely to end up

26 Feb 2007 : Column 1437

26 Feb 2007 : Column 1437

permanently settled in the UK, half the spending on free English tuition for them would be not only reasonable but imperative if they are to put their talents to full use for the benefit of themselves, their families and the host community. By giving successful applicants a head start in the job market, we have been helping them to contribute to the economy and to repay, through their taxes, the cost of the services that they receive.

In fact, the proportion of spending on those who are likely to be unsuccessful will be much lower than 50 per cent because most of them already are not eligible for ESOL classes. Those who are sent to other EU countries under the Dublin convention, non-suspensive appeal cases—that is, people who do not have a right of appeal in the UK—and those who are fast-tracked are here for much shorter periods and they do not qualify for ESOL tuition at the moment. When you deduct all those categories, the proportion of the remainder who finally get leave to remain is well over 50 per cent, but evidently Mr Rammell’s advisers failed to provide him with that information. So the evidence on which the Government base their case is wrong.

There are also those who, for practical reasons, cannot be sent back to their countries of origin. They include, for the indefinite future, Eritreans, Zimbabweans, Somalis and Iranians. Of course, most Zimbabweans speak good English, but their gripe has been that they do not have access to other types of courses, such as IT, so they should also be deducted from the total of unsuccessful asylum seekers whose participation in ESOL is, according to the Minister, a waste of money.

If there is no prospect in the foreseeable future of removing people who come from other countries, the very least that we can do for them is to help them to speak our language. Bristol, for example, has a large Somali community, among whom ESOL courses in the City of Bristol College are popular. Does the Minister think that it makes any sense to put obstacles in the path of Somali asylum seekers, two-thirds of whom are given leave to remain, while the remainder are likely to gain permanent settlement sooner or later because we cannot send them back?

The Commission on Integration and Cohesion has identified lack of English as,

“a critical barrier to integration and cohesion for new arrivals”.

The Government recognise in their strategy document for refugee integration that English-language proficiency is a key factor in accessing the labour market, mainstream services such as Jobcentre Plus call centres, and successfully integrating into UK society.

In welcoming the decision to continue funding for asylum seekers aged 16 to 18, the chief executive of the Refugee Council says that early entry to English courses is important for all ages if they are to communicate and function effectively, and competence in English means that they are less dependent on support services and better able to make connections with their local community.

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26 Feb 2007 : Column 1438

Bill Rammell claims that the cuts in ESOL are not intended to save money but to ensure that places on courses are taken by those in greatest need. Excluding destitute asylum seekers from access to our language is mean, inhumane, and perverse and a false economy that will delay the entry of refugees into full participation in British society and the Government should think again.
7.50 pm

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