How integrated is Britain today? It is a highly charged question with no simple answers, not least because the terminology itself is contested. The Brexit vote laid bare the extent of polarisation in this country – not between different ethnic groups, but between those who think we have broadly succeeded as a tolerant, multicultural society, and those who think we have failed.
Louise Casey’s report into integration in modern Britain is not a light and cheerful read. Casey raises serious concerns about segregation in areas of Britain, and voices particular concern about violence and discrimination against Muslim women. It highlights the fact that many Muslim women have poor English language skills and are excluded from the work force. Casey notes that in some areas, 85 per cent of the population is Muslim, and says that she found "high levels of social and economic isolation in some places, and cultural and religious practices in communities that are not only holding some of our citizens back, but run contrary to British values and sometimes our laws".
The report is flawed in several important ways, not least its disproportionate focus on Muslims. Casey flags up that the pace of immigration has been too fast in some areas of the UK, but appears to elide the more recent question of eastern European migration – which has been the fastest growing group in the last decade – with issues in Pakistani and Bangladeshi Muslim communities, most of which have been settled in the UK for well over 30 years. You wouldn’t know it from reading Casey’s report, but Poland tops the list of the most foreign-born citizens in the UK, while the most common country of birth for migrants is India. This is an important point, because Casey is clearly aware that Muslim communities often feel unfairly targeted: she acknowledges that it is alienating for Muslims to always be spoken about in terms of extremism and terrorism. It is somewhat ironic that she acknowledges this in the context of a report commissioned by the government with the aim of combating extremism. Despite noting this point, she goes on to mention Muslims on nearly every page of her 300 page report (249 mentions, compared with 14 mentions of Poles). This uneven emphasis feeds into the dangerous trope of “bad” and “good” immigrants, a hierarchy of “cultural compatibility” which might be less obvious than the straightforward racial hierarchies of old, but is no less damaging.
Putting these issues aside for a moment, Casey does raise some important points. She highlights the fact that Muslim women – particularly those of Bangladeshi and Pakistani origin – are underrepresented in the workforce. She also highlights the fact that “regressive practices” and cultural norms within some communities are leading to women being oppressed. Fewer women than men speak English in some areas – with English skills particularly poor amongst Bangladesh and Pakistani women – and there are numerous instances of domestic abuse against foreign brides.
What good would an oath to Britishness do? Surely more effective strategies would be better funding for local services that can seek to access isolated woman with English lessons
First of all, most of these issues are not exclusive to Muslim communities. Highlighting, for instance, domestic abuse in Muslim communities as if it does not happen in the country at large, or religious oppression of women, as if this does not happen in orthodox Jewish or Sikh or Hindu or Catholic communities, falls into exactly the trap that Casey sets out. Secondly – and conversely – it is also important that we do not lose sight of these findings simply because they are not the exclusive preserve of Muslims. Domestic abuse, the isolation of women, and marginalisation from the work force are vitally important issues that should be tackled wherever they are found.
Yet Casey’s report makes crude suggestions for these complex problems, among them teaching British values in schools and having a compulsory “Oath of Integration with British Values and Society”. This is meaningless. It is already compulsory for schools to teach “British values”, there is no clarity on what these values are or why they are specifically British, and swearing an oath is hardly likely to solve underlying problems. It also totally overlooks the policy issues that have compounded the problems she identifies over the course of years.
She highlights that women who come to the UK as brides are often abused, depended on their husbands for their home and immigration status. This is a real issue. My mum spent most of my teenage years working with refugee and asylum-seeking women who had suffered domestic abuse. They are not always Muslim. And in almost all cases, their problems were compounded by an inhumane immigration system that does not accommodate the nuances of women’s claims, and tends to tie their status to their husband’s so that they face deportation in the event of leaving their abusers. The problems such women face in accessing services is no doubt worsened today by swingeing cuts to women’s services across the board.
Similarly, Casey flags up the fact that in some areas, too many women do not speak English. This might sound familiar: David Cameron raised the same concerns in January. Soon before he made this statement, he had slashed £45 million from the budget for teaching English as a Second Language (ESOL). This largely affected – you guessed it – Muslim women. I spent some time in an ESOL class in Tower Hamlets after Cameron’s speech in January. The class was almost entirely filled with Bangladeshi women, many of whom had waited weeks or months to get a place. They wanted to learn English so they could interact with their kid’s teachers, have better employment prospects, and speak to doctors. In short, to be better integrated.
Casey talks a lot about not shying away from “tough questions” but much of her report covers common ground, reflecting prevalent prejudices and offering little in the way of new solutions. What good would an oath to Britishness do? Surely more effective strategies would be better funding for local services that can seek to access isolated woman with English lessons or simply information about the support that is available to them; for careers training, community groups, English teaching, and women’s refuges. This type of small-scale, local level community work has fallen out of fashion in favour of sweeping statements about extremism and a failure to integrate, but it is where our best hope lies.