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3 April 2018

Focus on equality, not integration

The government’s recently published Green Paper on integration contains some welcome considerations, and acknowledges that integration is “a two way street.” Yet the emphasis still lies disproportionately on migrant communities’ own abilities and dispositions, implicitly perpetuating the idea that they are the real “problem” of integration. Existing evidence points to inequalities as a much more serious problem. Taking inequalities seriously – rather than merely giving them a nod – would push the government to consider structural barriers to integration, and revise its own policies, rather than simply asking migrants to do better.    

by ALAN ANSTEAD (Coordinator, UK Race and Europe Network)

A couple of weeks ago, the UK government published its “Integrated Communities Strategy Green Paper.” As a “discussion document,” the Green Paper sets out a range of strategies and policy priorities that the government is considering, and invites feedback by 5 June 2018.

The document lists the factors that officials believe affect integration as:

  • Level and pace of migration
  • School segregation
  • Residential segregation
  • Labour market disadvantage
  • Lack of English language proficiency
  • Personal, religious and cultural norms, values and attitudes
  • And lack of meaningful social mixing.

It is worth noting, from the outset, that these are all negative issues, or barriers to integration. Every country will have some issues within its society. But where is the recognition that the UK has vibrant, diverse communities, in which migrants and people from ethnic minority backgrounds have played a major role in society, business, government and public services such as the NHS, rule of law, and so on? The list of positives is endless, but is largely missing from the Green Paper.

The Paper has eight chapters and each sets out what the government believes is the best position for that issue, what it intends to do, and questions that should guide feedback on the proposed actions. The Paper is dense in its narrative, and it is only by reading the detail that one can meaningfully comment on the proposed actions. I fear this approach will put off many NGOs and individuals from migrant and ethnic minority communities from responding. You almost have to be an “inclusion nerd” (copyright, me) to make sense of what exactly is being proposed.

However it isn’t just some of the detail that is wrong. The big picture, the very framing of integration policy, is flawed.

This is not particularly new, or surprising. Integration policy discourse has been criticised in the past for focusing overly – and wrongly – on the self-segregation of minorities and the practices of so-called “problem” groups (most often referring to Muslims). We can trace this thinking back to the much debated work of Professor Ted Cantle on “parallel lives” in diverse urban contexts, which conceives cohesion as a kind of mutual good will between supposedly equal communities. This view enjoins everyone to play a part in ensuring cohesion, but in doing so sweeps inequalities and discriminations under the rug. Unfortunately, Cantle’s limited model is still alive and kicking within government. The organisation he established, the Institute of Community Cohesion (iCoCo), was a contributor to the Green Paper.

Much of the Paper is based on the more recent but equally misled Casey Review, published in 2016 (see my blog on the topic). Thus the overbearing talk about “British values”: never really defined, these “British values” pepper the document as a kind of integration talisman, whose reinforcement and inculcation will guarantee that migrants and minorities are fully “equipped” to deal with the challenges of life in the UK. (It will not surprise readers that Dame Louise Casey and Prof Ted Cantle mutually support each other’s views.)

Of course, this emphasis on “British values” conveniently sets aside the fact that an overwhelming majority of migrants already identifies strongly with Britain. And although these “British values” do here and there include “tolerance,” it is mostly migrants who have to learn them; strangely enough, values are not being touted as a remedy for (rising) hate crimes and incidents, for which, we are told, perfectly functional judicial remedies already exist.

There is some acknowledgement in the Green Paper that “integration is a two way street.” Perhaps this is the government taking on board criticism by the Runnymede Trust (among others), who pointed out, for example, that self-segregation is mostly a problem for White British residents and parents of school-children. But the crux of the matter – as Runnymede themselves have repeatedly emphasised – is that, instead of a focus on segregation and specific ethnic or faith groups, we should focus on structural barriers such as poverty, housing, employment and discrimination.

These structural barriers affect many people in the UK. The government has been collecting evidence revealing considerable race inequality in the UK, as part of its Race Disparity Audit. The Audit’s data is well worth delving into, though it is not perfect either, as it misses the links between education, employment, health, housing and the criminal justice system (to use the data’s own categories). Similarly, the Green Paper references structural inequalities only in passing, refusing to make connections. The government’s proposed actions on inequality are systematically limited to further studies and evidence-gathering. Arguably, this is a convenient way to cover up the fact that current government policies – unsustainable funding cuts to local authorities, Universal Credit – are themselves exacerbating inequalities, and undermining the very social infrastructure (such as libraries and community centres) that the Green Paper highlights as a crucial element of integration.   

To achieve integrated communities, to use the title of the Green Paper, we thus need a renewed and meaningful focus on inequalities in the UK. The ball is now with us to give feedback by 5 June. I hope many organisations can add this to their “To do” list, so we can say through many different voices that the real aim of an “integration strategy” should be race equality itself.