Creating the Conditions for Integration

Ben Gidley

“Communities together not apart”,Eric Pickles puts Big Lunch at the heart of effort to unite communities”, “Eric Pickles signals end to multiculturalism and says Tories will stand up for majority”,  “Immigrants will be expected to speak English and champion British culture”, “Assimilation 1 Racial Justice 0”: it seems odd that such widely divergent headlines last week announced the same news item.

After months of waiting, and hints dropped in the blogosphere, the Department for Communities and Local Government has finally unveiled a new strategy for integration and cohesion, in the form of a paper entitled Creating the Conditions for Integration. The strategy suggests some significant continuities with past policy but also some major ruptures, and offers some cause for optimism as well as some cause for concern.

It centres on five key planks, and in this post I will go through each of these in turn, as well as the philosophical propositions which frame them, and give my personal response, as a researcher working in the field of integration and cohesion.

Place matters
The overarching theme linking the five planks is a commitment to localism. As the press release puts it, “The paper demonstrates how the Coalition Government is moving away from a Whitehall-dictated approach and, because communities know their own local areas best, instead encourages collective action… While Government has an important role to play, this new approach is based on a conviction that the challenges facing local communities today are too complex to be tackled simply by blanket solutions”.

The Communities Minister, Andrew Stunell, amplified this point too, saying “Every community is different and we need local diversity, not central prescription if we are to grow prosperous and productive communities.”

This commitment to localism is a broadly encouraging element of the paper. In policy debates, integration has too often been framed as a linear process all migrants are expected to follow, and this has too often been understood as a process unfolding at a national level: it is the nation-state that migrants and minorities are expected to integrate into. The academic literature, in contrast, emphasises the dynamic and multi-faceted nature of integration, the sense in which it involves multiple trajectories contingent on very different factors at different times and places.

This academic literature was reflected in the report of the Commission on Integration and Cohesion which reported to the last government in 2007, which argued for a shared national vision but strong local leadership, including better mapping of communities and how dynamics of changes played out differently in different areas. Responding to it, Hazel Blears invested heavily in local authority work in the area, a programme of central support for shared local learning was put into place through what was then the Improvement and Development Agency, and local authorities were encouraged to emphasise cohesion more in their local plans.

Recently, scholars have placed even greater emphasis on the local dimension, showing that integration occurs a smaller geographical scale than the nation-state. One current COMPAS research project, AMICALL, has taken as its premise that local leadership matters fundamentally in shaping integration; the project is attempting to spell out the local policy implications of that premise. The research has identified examples of this across the UK where local authorities, with various partners, have been proactive in creating the conditions of integration.

Breckland, a rural local authority in Norfolk which had experienced significant migration into the agricultural sector, first from Portugal and later from Poland, is one example. For example, migrant businesses were proactively engaged to support them to cater to non-migrants too and become spaces for mixing, while a “Pride in Breckland” campaign promoted a sense of belonging across all communities.

In Peterborough, the New Link Centre was established at a time of the dramatic rise in the numbers of asylum seekers and European economic migrants, to work with newcomers in English language training, citizenship and integration skills, information on local regulations and requirements, while also addressing practical issues that led to tensions. However, we also found that these sorts of initiatives face major challenges in the current fiscal climate. In the absence of central funding for this sort of work, it can be seen as a luxury local authorities can ill afford compared to core services.

Another research project in which COMPAS is involved, Concordia Discors (led by an Italian thinktank, FIERI), takes this concern with localism even deeper, arguing that it is the local neighbourhood which is integration’s “ground zero”. There are as many differences within local authority areas as there are between them, and place matters in shaping the conditions for integration. Working in several European neighbourhoods, we have recorded how very specific local histories, differences in the urban fabric and particular local political cultures are among the many factors which make for contrasting outcomes at the neighbourhood scale.

Common ground
Following the overarching commitment to localism, the government’s paper calls for collective action which “emphasises and celebrates what we have in common rather than our differences”. In fact, in many ways this principle is not new. Belonging is a key domain of integration in its own right in the scholarly literature. And it often relates to other domains of integration too; recent COMPAS research with new citizens shows that local belonging is one of the attitudes which tend to predict a sense of Britishness.

Not surprisingly, then, a similar principle was one of the core conclusions of the Commission on Integration and Cohesion. Drawing on the experience of overcoming sectarianism in Northern Ireland, the Commission argued for an emphasis on “our shared future” (which became the title of its report) rather than the pasts which divide us.

However, the new paper is far vaguer than the Commission was in specifying “what we have in common” might be. In keeping with the localist thrust, are we talking about what binds a local community – the concrete issues which affect us day to day, as well distinctive local customs? Or are we talking about what Britain as a nation has in common – something much harder to identify, given the very different local cultures and communities up and down these islands? The annexe at the end of the report gives some indication: values such as treating everyone fairly and a sense of belonging to Britain. Encouragingly, the annexe recognises that a sense of belonging is intrinsic to – and not in tension with – multiple identifications:

“We recognise that most of us belong to a number of different communities based on where we are from, where we live now, our ethnicity and beliefs. These multiple identities and shared experiences strengthen us as individuals and communities, as people come together to contribute to their local areas and to Britain. Those who reject the idea of multiple identities and reject shared commitments – for example, far-right and Islamist extremists – threaten integration.”

The paper is also vague about the alleged previous tendency to emphasise difference. It talks about new education standards to bar schools from teaching which “undermines fundamental British values”, but presents flimsy evidence that such teaching is going on out there, or why current education standards are inadequate in addressing it. Similarly, Mr Pickles’ press statement claimed that “In recent years we’ve seen public bodies bending over backwards to translate documents up to and including their annual report into a variety of foreign languages”, when in fact the trend has long been away from bending over backwards, a shift that was explicitly at the heart of the last government’s cohesion policy.

Even more curious is the way that Christianity is taken in the paper to be one of the elements of common ground. Mr Pickles claims that “We’ve seen men and women disciplined for wearing modest symbols of Christian faith at work, and we’ve seen legal challenges to councils opening their proceedings with prayers, a tradition that goes back generations, brings comfort to many and hurts no one. This is the politics of division.” It may be that some of these examples show an excessive puritan zeal on the part of some secularists. But a “politics of division”? How can it be that – in a country where only two thirds of us are Christian (and only a third of Christians go to Church) – saying Christian prayers unites us more than not saying Christian prayers?

However, saying prayers together is only one of the actions the paper proposes to build common ground. More encouraging ones include the Big Lunch and a community music day. Also proposed are tougher rules on testing those who want to settle here on their knowledge of life in the UK – although it is not clear in what way the already very comprehensive system put in place under the last government is inadequate.

The second plank is also rather abstract: the responsibilities we have to each other and society. This is on the face of it uncontroversial: in a liberal democracy, rights are accompanied by responsibilities, and a stronger sense of personal and social responsibility will no doubt benefit Britain.

The paper sets out several government plans which aim to promote this sort of responsibility – a year of service, various youth schemes, and a National Citizen Service, as well as investment in the traditional and less fashionable youth institutions (Scouts and Guides, Cadets and Police Cadets and St John Ambulance) which currently have less reach in excluded communities, to help them extend that reach.

The third plank is increasing opportunities and tackling persistent inequalities. This third plank is vitally important. Previous British policy debates have too often neglected the socio-economic domain of integration, in favour of cultural and civic domains, even though the evidence is clear that socio-economic integration – especially in the areas highlighted by the paper: jobs, training, education and access to finance – affects migrants’ and minorities’ life chances profoundly.

Rob Berkeley of the Runnymede Trust gives some examples of these persistent inequalities: “Youth unemployment among Black and Pakistani heritage young people is more than double the rate of that of white young people. There are three times as many young Black men in prison as in Russell Group universities. Police waste 5,500 days each year stopping and searching Black and Asian people without reducing the crime that they are more likely to be victims of.” The annexe to the report gives further compelling examples: “Pakistanis are the least likely to have a better job than their parents. And we know that ambition in young people is often lowest in deprived white communities; that Gypsy and Traveller communities face persistent challenges in education and employment; and that only one in four Bangladeshi and Pakistani women are in paid employment compared to nearly three in four white British women.”

However, the paper is less clear about persistent inequalities are to be tackled without “singling out” the groups experiencing them, and without forms of state intervention such as regulation or equalities law. And there is little evidence that the Coalition’s social and economic policies more generally will lead to anything other than deepening inequalities in society and restricted life chances for the vulnerable and disadvantaged, this commitment to equality is likely to be greeted with scepticism.

Nor is there any explanation suggested for these inequalities: the word “racism”, for example, is conspicuous by its absence from the paper. The actions proposed in this section seem to me unlikely to have much purchase on these sorts of inequalities: the pupil premium, promoting entrepreneurship in schools, widening access to higher education, workfare schemes, and asking business to do its bit to make jobs accessible.

Only one action – additional funding to support English language provision for those adults who are not in employment or actively seeking employment and are unable to afford fees – actually focuses on any of the groups experiencing persistent inequalities. The paper invites further ideas, and suggests some areas of intervention, including supporting “excellence in the Asian and Oriental catering sector”: the “curry academy” proposal that was the first element of the paper leaked back in the Autumn. While support for English language provision is an urgent necessity to facilitate integration, and supporting excellence in these catering sectors is a laudable ambition, I would have preferred to see a more robust approach to tackling exclusion.

The fourth plank turns to the domain of civic integration, and focuses on giving people of all backgrounds opportunities to play an active part, be heard and take decisions. The actions proposed under this plank include several which emphasise faith communities:

The emphasis on faith as the platform for participation is a theme that runs through the whole paper. Although working through the faith sector is not a new policy – it was a strong feature of the Tony Blair period – the paper represents a deepening of this commitment.

The annexe to the report returns to the theme of participation in a different way, though. It argues that “people feel that they have little opportunity to sort out problems or grievances affecting their lives, either themselves or through public bodies, or they think they are being treated unfairly or being discriminated against. This risk is compounded when unplanned separation and segregation occurs.”

There is indeed strong evidence for “unfairness” discourses among some settled communities driving intolerance, and this was a key motivation for the important policy of “visible social justice” – that allocation of goods like housing should not just be just, but seen to be just – from the Commission on Integration and Cohesion.

However, it is important not to overplay this danger. The best evidence we have suggests that amongst all but one ethnic groups in the UK, the trend is rapidly away from residential segregation. The exception is the White British majority, who are choosing to become more segregated. The housing market in the last decade has also encouraged unprecedented levels of socio-economic segregation, and this is a problem that the paper does not begin to address.

Outflanking extremism
The final plank is about ensuring that intolerance is challenged. This is framed in terms of “outflanking” extremism, and I think the concept of outflanking is a useful one. It recognises that “extremism” is not some kind of moral failure to be merely condemned or a pathology to be decried (which have been typical responses of liberal and conservatives alike), but rather than it is a complex phenomenon grounded in concrete grievances thriving in different sorts of communities, requiring sophisticated responses.

Holocaust education and stronger action on hate crime against Muslims and Jews, the practical steps outlined in the paper, send out a good signal about intolerance, but a much more comprehensive approach is needed to really address extremism. The paper talks about banning marches which could cause tension, but that is something no previous government has shied away from doing.

More importantly, banning marches and proscribing hate speech are surely examples of using the law, state intervention and blanket solutions; they are precisely not ways to outflank extremism or to change society. Such top-down approaches tend to reinforce underdog narratives and further alienate the intolerant from democratic institutions. To really outflank extremism, we need an approach which really does work with local communities at a grassroots level.

It is also interesting, and worrying, that the paper focuses exclusively on intolerance towards those of other faiths (presumably including the intolerance of extremists within faith communities), hence the emphasis on hate crime against Jews and Muslims. Although anti-Muslim racism and antisemitism have risen dramatically in the current century, other forms of intolerance are also on the rise – against Roma, Gypsies and Travellers, and against migrants – while older forms of intolerance persist against black and Asian people and sexual minorities. The paper is deafening in its silence about racism, one of the fundamental obstacles to integration in Britain, and while homophobia is mentioned in the annexe it is ignored in the body of the paper.

Coerced integration?
Finally, there is something of a gap between the generally sensible, evidence-based content of the paper, and the way Coalition ministers are selling it, especially to the right-wing print media. The embrace of a holistic approach to integration has been down-played, while an assimilationist subtext is amplified. For example, the Daily Mail reportage of the paper, based on the government’s press release, does not use the paper’s keywords such as participation and inequality, and instead focuses on the failure of state multiculturalism and recalcitrant minorities who refuse to join the mainstream. (This is somewhat reminiscent of the way the previous government spun the Commission on Integration and Cohesion, distorting its message to downplay its innovative call for visible social justice and an ethics of hospitality, instead leading on making migrants learn English.)

In the ministers’ press comments, integration seems to no longer be about opportunities to participate, and more about the compulsion to fit in. Mr Pickles claims that: “There are too many people still left outside, or choosing to remain outside, mainstream society.” But surely the imperative to conform to “mainstream society” (whatever that may be) is at odds with the libertarian impulse to move away from top-down, Whitehall-directed blanket solutions?