Osborne’s much derided English requirement for immigrants is only about scapegoating them


9:09 am - July 2nd 2013

by Owen Tudor    


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One of the nastiest pieces of George Osborne’s Spending Round last week was his announcement that benefit claimants who refused to improve their English to find work would be penalised.

Nasty not so much because of its likely impact on unemployed non-Anglophones, as because he was giving a high profile to a problem which doesn’t really seem to exist.

As several people have pointed out, this isn’t sensible welfare strategy, it’s pure dog whistle anti-immigrant politics: 87% of those polled were reported by the Telegraph to back the utterly imaginary crackdown. We’re with the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants (JCWI) who said:

“To make unfounded statements that portray migrants in a negative way is not only discriminatory but chips away at social cohesion and will only serve to create tensions in our society.”

The Spending Round 2013 document spells it out:

“all claimants whose poor spoken English [I'm not sure how significant the omission of written English is] is a barrier to work to improve their English language skills, with claimants mandated to attend English language courses and sanctions for those who refuse to participate.”

It will be interesting to see, when detail becomes available, how much this measure is intended to save. But as Channel 4′s fact checker pointed out, benefit claimants already face English tests, and if their language skills aren’t good enough, they are offered free English lessons currently costing the Treasury £50m a year, and if they don’t take them up they face the benefit curbs Osborne says he will introduce in 2015.

Ellie Mae O’Hagan, meanwhile, pointed out in the Guardian that her experience of working for Unite, organising migrant workers in London’s East End, suggested that people are keen to improve their English, contrary to what Osborne implied. Indeed, the cost to the Exchequer of teaching English as a Second Language (ESOL) has been cut from £300m to the current level, leaving many keen learners unable to access courses unless they can pay for it (which wouldn’t include benefit claimants.)


We’ll be discussing the part rhetoric is playing in the politics of social security cuts and the need for solidarity at a seminar on Solidarity and Social Security Cuts on the afternoon of 24 July. The speakers will include Alison Garnham of the Child Poverty Action Group and Professor Ruth Lister, from the Labour front bench in the House of Lords. Plenty of time has been allowed for discussion and debate. Places are free, but please book in advance.

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About the author
Owen Tudor is an occasional contributor to LC. He is head of the TUC’s European Union and International Relations Department and blogs more regularly at the Touchstone blog.
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Story Filed Under: Blog ,Economy ,Immigration

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Reader comments


The British economy could gain much more if the native English would speak as many foreign languages as immigrants do.

“87% of those polled were reported by the Telegraph to back the utterly imaginary crackdown”

Ah, so an overwhelming majority of voters in a democracy back it….when you make your case and win enough people around to your point of view I’ll listen to the rest of your rhetoric.

You also seem to miss the point: this is about the experience of the working class when confronted with mass immigration, not really about saving small amounts of money.

3. Shatterface

The British economy could gain much more if the native English would speak as many foreign languages as immigrants do.

If you have any stats on that I’d be interested in reading them but it looks like the kind of bollocks Marcus Brigstock would come out with, innit?

You also seem to miss the point: this is about the experience of the working class when confronted with mass immigration, not really about saving small amounts of money.

No, it’s about people who need to learn English. You don’t teach people English because the ‘working class’ want to se them punished – you do it because society thrives on people being able to communicate with each other directly.

Nasty not so much because of its likely impact on unemployed non-Anglophones, as because he was giving a high profile to a problem which doesn’t really seem to exist.

Unfortunately this sentence makes it’s way into the preview on the homepage and makes it look like you think there’s no problem with people not being able to speek English – but the rest of the article seems to suggest that there are people who don’t speak English but the system already compells thrm to learn.

Take the compulsion out of it and there’s every reason to support the idea people should have a basic grasp of English – and that courses should be free and accessable for everyone who needs them, whether they are on benefits or not.

Nobody’s interest is served be keeping people dependent on others for translation.

Tyler: 87% of those polled were reported by the Telegraph to back the utterly imaginary crackdown”

Ah, so an overwhelming majority of voters in a democracy back it….

You may want to reassess those two lines.

5. Churm Rincewind

I don’t think there’s any disagreement anywhere that’s it’s a good idea for anyone living in the UK to be able to speak English and that for the purposes of social cohesion should be incentivised to do so.

So the Government’s current reduction in the availability of English Language courses is counterproductive – no, I’m being too kind, it’s simply mad and almost on a par with Michael Gove’s enthusiasm for segregated faith schools (how cohesive is that?)

“as Channel 4?s fact checker pointed out, benefit claimants already face English tests, and if their language skills aren’t good enough, they are offered free English lessons currently costing the Treasury £50m a year, and if they don’t take them up they face the benefit curbs Osborne says he will introduce in 2015.”

I can’t find anything in the Channel 4 article to back up the assertion that people already face benefit curbs if they don’t take up lessons. Am I missing something?

£200 charge for foreigners to use NHS but Labour brands plan to stop health tourism ‘xenophobic’…

So the left want people who cant speak english and have no intention of getting a job to continue on benefits, whilst making those who come just for the nhs pay their way is xenophobic..

Do they even understand what that word means?

8. Dissident

It would be nice to see a chancellor of the exchequer who is actually capable of 1+1=2 for that matter.

The current one keeps getting 3 (for the rich) and 0 (for the poor)


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