News and Comment

What should be in a new Integration Strategy?

Friday 25 March 2011

The Government, and in particular the Communities and Local Government Department, is to produce a strategy on integrating communities. This strategy, fore-grounded in a speech by Baroness Neville-Jones – the Minister for Counter Terrorism – falls out of recent announcements about the future of Prevent, the current strategy which aims to stop people becoming terrorists. It reflects the clear commitment by the Government to separate interventions aimed at tackling extremists and stopping terrorists, from those aimed at building more integrated and cohesive societies.

Two reasons why a change of focus to Prevent is welcome.

Firstly, the focus on tackling terrorism – the real goal of the Prevent strategy – became dangerously conflated with a broader approach aimed at building cohesion within the Muslim community. The result was that Muslim communities felt that they were being stigmatised as terrorists, regardless of whether some of the Prevent funded work was intent on bringing about real benefits for the community. For more of our insights on the future of Prevent see our recent public service briefing on the issue.

Secondly, building a more integrated society is a good thing. There are a number of areas in England that are highly polarised and segregated on the basis of social class, race and faith. Views on immigration have hardened, with most people wanting to see immigration reduced. There is a worrying increase reported of enmity towards people who follow Islam (Lowles 2011). For some that are most critical of our record on building a multi-cultural society, there is a belief that we have ‘allowed groups to live separately with no incentive to integrate and every incentive not to’ (Goodwin 2009).

In these ways, a fresh approach to integration is necessary. But what should a new Integration Strategy contain?

Building on we know works should be the foundation of any future strategy

Firstly, the strategy should build on, and not unnecessarily unpick, much of the good work that is already taking place to build more integrated and cohesive communities. If integration is ultimately about ensuring that ‘everybody integrates and participates in our national life’, then there is a huge amount of good practice already out there, although it is by no means consistently applied. Through citizenship education, local cohesion strategies, strategies to mix social housing, social action projects and inter-faith initiatives, there have been many success stories in integrating people from disparate communities. For example the charity the Three Faiths Forum aims to help young people become confident, sensitive and effective communicators when discussing faith and belief. It supports young people to learn about how different people understand and live their faiths and beliefs and to find common ground between people of different faiths.

Need to increase and improve provision of ESOL courses

Secondly, the strategy needs to address the problem of accessing English language education. ESOL – English for speakers of other languages – is one of the only means through which many people without English as a first language can improve their English skills. But funding for this has been massively stripped back. New funding, and new forms of delivery – including through volunteer teachers – needs to be found urgently to replace what may be lost.

Put social interaction and mixing at the heart of all policy initiatives

Thirdly, there needs to be a strong focus on how social interaction and mixing can support greater integration. Improving the level and quality of interactions between members of a community, as a way to build positive relationships, is seen as central to strengthening community cohesion, and social capital and therefore integration. Social mixing and interaction can promote higher levels of inter-group collaboration, reduce prejudice and tension, and increase a sense of people being ‘in this together’. For example, the new National Citizen’s Service, which OPM are evaluating as part of a consortium, deliberately seeks to ‘socially mix’ young people, believing this will break down differences and promote cohesion.

What other policies or initiatives developed as part of the Big Society can build a similar approach? How can local community assets – such as council buildings, schools, community centres – be used to actively bring people together? What is the role of the new ‘community organisers’ in getting people to interact and work together to build social action. How can the new powers being established, such as the new community right to challenge, give people a greater say over how can make a greater contribution to integration?

The strategy needs to be honest about the huge structural barriers that stand in the way of creating a more integrated country. The school system, which will be characterised by a growing number of independent state schools and faith schools which lie outside local government control, poses a real obstacle to greater levels of social mixing. Economic decline and worklessness, can be hugely damaging to levels of social cohesion and social capital. The new strategy provides on opportunity to pull this picture together.

Avoid over-simplification of shared ‘national’ values

Finally, the strategy should avoid providing a simple definition of shared values, based on nationality. While many people increasingly identify with being English, which is by no means a problem, not all people do. It is more likely that more people will subscribe to a broader set of inherent values which cut across nationality and race. These include an attachment to democracy, the use of a common language, charity, fairness and respect for difference, and it is more likely that these values – as opposed to one more narrowly defined by nationality – will bring more people together under the umbrella of ‘integration.’