The Pickles Integration Speech – big on rhetoric, small on ideas

Jill Rutter writes on migration issues and through IPPR will be publishing a paper on integration in February 2013.

A month after Ed Miliband’s speech on migrant integration and nearly 12 months after his Department published its integration strategy, Eric Pickles made his first speech on this issue in a speech hosted by Policy Exchange and British Future. Devoid of serious policy debate and riddled with Daily Mail prejudices, it was a speech that left many in the audience in bemused silence.

Pickles began his speech by listing the cultural successes of last summer: the Olympics and Paralympics, the Jubilee weekend, Big Lunches, the Big Bandstand Marathon and so on, praising the volunteers who made so many of these events a success. So far, so good. But Olympic nostalgia soon gave way to a lengthy and crude attack on the last government’s record on integration:

some policymakers of the past want Stalinist five years plans. They believe in focus groups, beanbags and box ticking….we will snap the shackles of the PC past and let localism run free.”

The remainder of the speech mostly comprised rhetoric, with three further references to Stalinism and strong assertions about the UK as a Christian nation and that integration is being undermined by “aggressive securalism”. The only policy announcement of any note was a statement that the Government was going to set up a competition to recognise innovative ways of teaching English to adults.

The Pickles’ speech highlighted the gap in thinking between Labour and the Government on integration. Miliband’s  speech in December 2012 talked about the UK’s successes as well as its integration challenges. It also presented policy solutions for dealing with issues such as poor housing, exploitative gangmasters and the occupational segregation of migrants in some poorly paid sectors of the UK economy – in social care and catering and food processing, for example. Any discussion of policy was absent from the Pickles’ intervention.

While the Pickles’ speech left many wondering about his competency, it came as no surprise to those who had read the Department for Communities and Local Government’s integration strategy of published in February 2012. Today’s speech was very much along the same lines as Creating the Conditions for Integration, last year’s paper.

Creating the Conditions for Integration had been planned for a considerable period of time, but was blocked for many months by Downing Street and other departments concerned by its lack of rigour. When this slender document of 20 pages eventually came out it mostly comprised long lists of existing social policy interventions which could be seen, however tenuously, as bearing on integration: early education, the Pupil Premium so on. In the remaining few pages, there was an uneasy mixture of negative ministerial rhetoric, claiming that “state-sponsored multiculturalism” had failed alongside more balanced official commentary.

As with the Pickles’ speech, there was a great deal that is missing from Creating the Conditions for Integration. Work is a significant driver of integration – we meet and mix with others in the workplace. While some migrant groups have low levels of labour market participation, there was little mention in the integration strategy about occupational segregation or about how the Work Programme should meet the specific needs of migrants who have not faired well in the labour market. Shockingly, no central government programme of work is attached to Creating the Conditions for Integration at all.

Creating the Conditions for Integration appears to be a manifestation of the Government’s ‘localism’ agenda. Ostensibly advanced as a means of giving power back to local communities, many commentators have highlighted its inconsistency. The Coalition Government’s desire to intervene on local issues appears to be as strong as ever – where it wishes – for example, in education. At the same time, localism means that this Government is quite content to wash its hands of difficult or unpopular issues such as migrant integration.

Yet all research about migrant integration – both from the UK and beyond – shows that political leadership is needed to ensure successful programmes to support those migrants who struggle to make their way. National leadership and debate about integration and cohesion make it more likely local political leaders will talk about these issues, however difficult they can be. Where there is clear national leadership, local government and the third sector are more likely to acknowledge the specific needs of migrant communities and mainstream public services adapt to their needs. Where there is national leadership, accompanied by flexibility in public service delivery, genuine local innovation can flourish. This is what real localism is about. It is not the irresponsible wash your hands rhetoric of Eric Pickles.

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