As Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group for Refugees, I welcome the publication of an integration strategy in line with recommendations from the report ‘Refugees Welcome?’ the group published last year on refugee integration. I also welcome the recognition that English classes, adequate accommodation and mental health support are vital for refugees to be welcomed into our country properly.
I agree that English classes for refugees are extremely important for integration, but this strategy is unlikely to improve the situation without a clearer funding commitment. Funding for English training has fallen from £203m in 2010 to £90m in 2016 – a real terms cut of 60%. The proposed strategy includes £50m funding over two years, but none of it seems to be for English teaching.
In my own constituency of Bristol West there are outstanding organisations supporting refugees. But they say there is a clear need for English classes for learners over the age of 16, who cannot find a place in the school system.
There are positive aspects to the strategy, which I welcome. For example, the plans to support ‘conversation clubs’ and build on good practice in English teaching could have some real benefits, if funded correctly.
I am glad to hear about the proposed trial of Local Authority Asylum Liaison Officers - 35 in 20 local authorities. And I am pleased accommodation contracts will be started next year. I hope lessons have been learned from the inquiry by the Home Affairs Select Committee on Asylum Accommodation a year ago, where I spoke.
Among various detailed recommendations in the ‘Refugees Welcome’ report, my colleagues and I asked for a Minister for Refugees and Integration with cross-party powers.
Any strategy for integration affecting refugees should properly address their poor accommodation, cuts to legal aid leading to awful delays sometimes lasting years, and restrictions on where asylum seekers can live, their work and qualifications. Asylum seekers and refugees want to work and contribute to the country which has given them shelter. In addition, their skills and qualities are hugely beneficial for our national economy. We need to make this process work better.
There are other problems in the asylum system which need sorting out if we are to have meaningful and long-lasting integration and community cohesion. For example, drastic cuts to Home Office staff have added to the delays in the process of establishing who does and does not have the right to asylum.
Sajid Javid rightly recognised that getting integration right is vital for all communities, and that it needs cross-party and inter-departmental co-operation. I am committed to doing my part to achieve this. I look forward to working with him, with refugees and with refugee organisations to make this a reality.