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​700,000 immigrants to UK can't speak English – report

Published time: August 19, 2014 11:33
Shoppers walk in a market in the Upton Park neighborhood in east London (Reuters / Paul Hackett)

Shoppers walk in a market in the Upton Park neighborhood in east London (Reuters / Paul Hackett)

Hundreds of thousands of immigrants in the UK are unable to get professional help learning English because of government cuts, a think tank says.

While government support for English courses for migrants is falling, the demand for these courses is likely to grow as the number of UK immigrants rises, according to a report released by the think tank Demos on Monday. It has been estimated that ethnic minorities will make up between 25 percent and 43 percent of the population by 2056.

Only 150,000 migrants are currently registered in English classes – meaning that as many as 700,000 are being “left voiceless,” the report warns.

Using a freedom of information request, the think tank Demos found that government funding for English for Speakers of Other Languages courses has reduced by 40 percent in the past five years, from £212 million in 2008-09 down to £128 million in 2012-13.

Ally Paget, researcher at Demos and author of the report, said, "It is essential that we get as many newcomers as possible using English with confidence. This will unlock migrants' potential and benefit the whole country. Unfortunately, our current ESOL system is not up to the task. Current policy suffers from fragmentation, lack of clarity about the aims and intended outcomes of learning, and the tendency to take a short-term view.”

According to Demos, there are large waiting lists around the country, which “points to a paradox: an identifiable ESOL need and withdrawal of state support.” One survey found that four out of five classes were full and had waiting lists – some with more than 1,000 names on them.

"Currently around 700,000 people are left in limbo and it is unlikely their English will improve without sustained learning,” Paget added.

“The English language is vitally important to the capabilities and integration of migrants who wish to build a successful future in the UK,” the report states. However, in the last census around 850,000 migrants living in England identified themselves as being unable to speak English well or at all.

Immigrants who know the language are more likely to integrate and "become part of civic life because they have the necessary capabilities to navigate British society,” Demos said.

ESOL provision is currently the responsibility of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, though the Demos report claims this leads the government to focus primarily on employment at the expense of other outcomes.

A government spokesperson said: “We have toughened up English requirements for residency and citizenship but we do not subsidize learning for people seeking to meet these. It is right [that] employers and individuals in work contribute towards the cost of their learning and so we do not fund workplace training.”

Demos says that a national strategy across England for English courses could be a money-saver, because it increases their chances of finding work and contributing to the economy, and staying healthy.

Meanwhile, in April the government announced a new English language requirement, under which new welfare seekers are screened by Jobcentre Plus and those with poor spoken English have to take part in local training to improve their language skills and chances of getting and keeping a job.

Claimants are expected to improve within six months and sanctions will apply if they "refuse to attend or don’t show they are making an effort to improve their skills,” according to the government.

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