04 JUL 2019

Speech in debate on ESOL

John Howell (Henley) (Con)

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries. I will start with a reference to the all-party parliamentary group on social integration, which correctly provided a statement that, to be successful at getting ESOL taught, we had to ​ recognise that we were up against cultural norms among the groups to whom we were trying to provide the language training. I remember 11 or 12 years ago, when I was a councillor in Oxford, seeing groups of women in particular who had been coming to English classes for five or six years, but whose English was no better than on the day they first went. It was an opportunity for them to get out of the house and have social interaction with other people on the course.

ESOL teaching can be useful for that purpose of providing social interaction, but that does take away from the purpose of providing the language tuition that we all think is important. Fortunately, most refugees do not fall into that category; they passionately want to learn English. There are many reasons for doing that: for talking to neighbours, for having that normal family social interaction, for studying and, most importantly, for work-related activities.

Much of the thinking about teaching English stresses the need for a community-based strategy. I am not sure that I understand what a community-based strategy is in this case, particularly given that so much of the English-language training is provided by large local government organisations that can hardly be described as community-based in the way they operate. At some point we will have to bottom that out when we talk about how these services should be delivered in the best possible way.

I have mentioned that it is essential to run language training courses for large refugee communities; it is essential to run them for all refugees, but particularly so where there are large refugee communities. My own constituency does not have any, so I can speak on this with a touch of objectivity, and look at that training to see how it proceeds. I have also already mentioned the importance of English language training for people getting a job, but that also leads to another question: what role should employers have in providing English language training for people to whom they offer jobs? That is much more than simply the social mixing that I talked about at the beginning.

The ability to teach the English language affects so many other areas. One area that it affects particularly is that of loneliness; if a refugee is lonely and does not have the right language skills, they will be even lonelier. It is essential to be able to address that. I remember reading the story of a refugee lawyer who spoke very little English, but who wanted to be able to continue to practise law when she came to the UK with her family. To be able to practise UK law in the UK, she had to take a conversion course. The stories that were told of the difficulties she faced in finding that sort of language training, just to be able to keep her family alive in the way to which they were normally accustomed, made for a sorrowful tale, and it is one I would recommend to all hon. Members.

Finally, I will mention, as I frequently do in this Chamber, the work of the Council of Europe. The UK is a member of the Council of Europe and it is rare that we take what it does into account. It has a programme called "Linguistic Integration of Adult Migrants", which is there specifically to ensure that member Governments of the Council provide the linguistic training that is essential for migrants to be able to improve themselves by learning the language so that they can do all the things that we take for granted.​

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