David Cameron wants recent migrants to learn English, or face deportation. He argued today that too many women are denied the opportunity to speak English. And who doesn’t want women to have the freedom to learn English and play a full part in society? As an MP who represents one of the most diverse constituencies in Britain, no-one needs to tell me how important it is to engage seriously in a debate about integration. Like the Prime Minister, I want women in Leicester to learn English and in my experience, they and their families want them to learn English too.
The problem is not that Cameron wants women to learn English, but that his own record doesn’t suggest he is able to follow through on this promise. The government has spent the last five years restricting free access to, and cutting budgets for, English for Speakers of Other Languages courses. Two thirds of ESOL learners are women and they have been hit hardest by these changes.
If Cameron visited Leicester, he might meet Nevin who enrolled on an ESOL course because she wanted to find a job and move into paid employment. Hopefully he would meet Khairunissa who, like many before her, came to Leicester via Malawi and found the ESOL classes she attended not only helped her with her English but allowed her to play a full role in society. He might be moved by Fatima, who can speak and write English because of ESOL, telling us that she loves helping her children with their homework.
In 2011 we pushed the government to publish an Equality Impact Assessment on the ESOL cuts. That report showed clearly that the changes to ESOL would have a greater impact on women, and that a reduction in ESOL provision could leave women isolated within their communities. The same conclusion was reached last summer when the Government announced the sudden and immediate withdrawal of ESOL funding. The Association of Colleges was clear: 16,000 learners across 47 colleges would be affected, with female and ethnic minority learners disproportionately so. Leicester College, a provider in my constituency, saw £1.5 million of ESOL funding removed at a stroke, without any notice, making them the second worst hit college in the country.
While David Cameron talked this morning about additional ESOL funding being used to break down the language barriers which segregate communities, the reality of the situation is very different. Since 2009 the overall Adult Skills budget that funds ESOL has been reduced by 35 percent which has led to a drop in overall ESOL participation by 22 percent since the Tories took power. 80 percent of ESOL providers have seen waiting lists rise to up to 1,000 students.
I cannot see how women like Nevin, Khairunissa and Fatima will be able to integrate into British society if the best opportunity for them to do so has been taken away.
Jon Ashworth is Labour MP for Leicester South