Seldom, during the anti-cuts debates, has the issue of language training been raised as a central concern. The plain fact is that the cuts in ESOL training affects that pocket of society whose voices are not represented in Unions or other mainstream groups. Often, the voice of the immigrant and the asylum seeker in Britain is a whisper, often drowned out by louder voices and only heard when being listened to intently . The reason for this is that this sector of society is not seen as a group worthy of complaint; why should people who escape terrible regimes and torture complain about the conditions we in the UK offer them?
The tragic reality is that with the proposed cuts, this quiet and often shunned voice risks being silenced completely. From September this year, the cuts in ESOL will be pronounced. Under the proposed rules, the state will limit free places to people on job seeker’s allowance or employment support allowance (i.e. those who are actively seeking work). For those who claim on other benefits, such as housing, income support, or tax credits, free places will no longer be available. As a qualified EFL teacher myself, I am aware of the prices some centres charge for language courses. The opportunity to learn English from professionals will simply no longer be possible for a huge number of people who vitally need it.
This travesty was finally given mainstream exposure yesterday by Ms Alexander, who followed on from her ESOL Day of Action on 24th March, by throwing this question at the Prime Minister
‘Last week, I had the privilege of meeting a group of 25 women studying English for speakers of other languages courses in Lewisham. They and I share the Prime Minister’s desire that every migrant in the UK should speak the language of their new home. Given the Prime Minister’s belief that the practical things can make a big difference to community cohesion, will he commit today to putting a stop to this Government’s short-sighted cuts to English language courses?’ (http://news.bbc.co.uk/democracylive/hi/house_of_commons/newsid_9439000/9439997.stm; 28.37)
The latter part of the question bears great relevance to the status of asylum seekers and immigrants in Britain today. With Cameron’s condemnation of the failures of multiculturalism in February, and a reassertion of the desire for every aspiring British citizen to have a proficient level of English speaking, Alexander points to the anomaly these cuts present: a government policy which seeks to make access to ESOL training very difficult, whilst insisting every citizen can speak it.
On her website, Ms Alexander states ‘having good English language skills is a must if you want to get a decent job or if you just need to be able to talk to the doctor or your kid’s teacher’(http://www.heidialexander.org.uk/?p=1162). I would go further even than this. For those seeking citizenship status or fighting asylum claims, speaking English can be a matter of life and death. Coupled with the draconian cuts to Legal Aid, it would appear that this government seems intent on placing barriers on everything asylum seekers and refugees require to make it through an already unforgiving system.
For those lucky enough to have been given status or indefinite leave to remain, such cuts are destined to exacerbate feelings of 2nd class citizenship, and will no doubt feed the negative stereotyping of immigrants, already at boiling point in Britain.
Therefore I would commend Ms Alexander for her words in Parliament, and urge all those working in the adult education sector to amplify the rank injustice these cuts in ESOL represent, and force them into the greater anti-cuts debate.