Restrictive conditions have made it harder for those legally resident to commit to British society
Since the introduction of the concept by then-Labour home secretary Roy Jenkins in the mid-1960s, integration has never been a priority for UK governments. The anti-racist movement and black communities have been suspicious of the term, seeing it as too close to assimilation.
Integration has had little traction on the right either, where there has been distrust for any accommodation with migrants and minorities. Labour started talking about integration under Blair, but usually as a footnote to cohesion or in relation to refugees.
The Coalition government launched an integration strategy in 2012, but it mainly argued that national government needed to leave it to local governments.
In a time when net migration remains high and has transformed the demographic profile of every region of the UK, when we see persistent gaps in health or employment outcomes for some ethnic groups, when concerns about de facto segregation continue, and when politicians talk about particular minorities ‘quietly condoning’ non-British values – is it time to put integration back on the policy agenda?
The 2015 edition of MIPEX, the Migrant Integration Policy Index, is published today. It measures policy commitment to integration in 38 developed countries.
The timing of this might help us re-frame the integration debate in the UK. The last edition of the index was published in 2010, in the final months of the Brown government, so the new edition offers a timely assessment of the changes made in the Cameron/Clegg half-decade.
The headline is that the UK has fallen from the top 10 to mid-table 15. We have dropped points in areas where we perform strongly, such as education and anti-discrimination, because of austerity-driven cuts.
While there are schools across the country being confronted for the first time with children who don’t speak English at home, the funding which supports them to do this (the EMAG grant) is no longer ring-fenced.
While the gap between mainstream and minority employment is bigger than ever, the requirements to enforce equality law are being loosened and seen as excess red tape.
We have lost points too for the indicators relating to routes to settlement and to citizenship, as restrictive conditions brought in to help meet the net migration target have made it harder for those legally resident to commit to British society.
Most dramatically, we have fallen to the very bottom of the table for family migration, meaning we are the hardest place in the developed world for separated families to reunite; we have the most restrictive definitions and stringent requirements, long delays and high costs.
Separated non-European families are now less likely to reunite in the UK than on average in Western Europe, with numbers falling by 20 per cent after the UK imposed one of the highest income requirements for family reunion in the world, one which 50 per cent of working people in the UK could not afford.
The MIPEX index does not measure integration itself. It measures how favourable a country’s policies are to the level playing field that would make integration possible.
This approach has limits, and a resetting of the integration debate would need to look at other measures too: how social integration and a shared sense of belonging can be promoted, for instance.
But the results of the new index show just how far integration has fallen down the policy agenda in the drive to reduce migration and cut costs. Can we afford to let it keep slipping?
Ben Gidley is a senior researcher at COMPAS. Follow him on Twitter