Spending Round 2013: Benefit rights lost in translation?
One of the nastiest pieces of George Osborne’s Spending Round last week was his announcement that benefit claimants who refused to improve their English to find work would be penalised. Nasty not so much because of its likely impact on unemployed non-Anglophones, as because he was giving a high profile to a problem which doesn’t really seem to exist. Scapegoating an imaginary group may be less harmful than one which actually exists, but the intention is even meaner. Osborne appears to have plumbed the depths by attempting to tar all migrants as scroungers when – in the terms this measure addresses - none of them are!
As several people have pointed out, this isn’t sensible welfare strategy, it’s pure dog whistle anti-immigrant politics: 87% of those polled were reported by the Telegraph to back the utterly imaginary crackdown. We’re with the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants (JCWI) who said:
“To make unfounded statements that portray migrants in a negative way is not only discriminatory but chips away at social cohesion and will only serve to create tensions in our society.”
The Spending Round 2013 document spells it out (in case there is any doubt caused by the Chancellor’s much-mocked Mockney delivery!) It says that the Government will require
“all claimants whose poor spoken English [I'm not sure how significant the omission of written English is] is a barrier to work to improve their English language skills, with claimants mandated to attend English language courses and sanctions for those who refuse to participate.”
It will be interesting to see, when detail becomes available, how much this measure is intended to save. But as Channel 4′s fact checker pointed out, benefit claimants already face English tests, and if their language skills aren’t good enough, they are offered free English lessons currently costing the Treasury £50m a year, and if they don’t take them up they face the benefit curbs Osborne says he will introduce in 2015.
Ellie Mae O’Hagan, meanwhile, pointed out in the Guardian that her experience of working for Unite, organising migrant workers in London’s East End, suggested that people are keen to improve their English, contrary to what Osborne implied. Indeed, the cost to the Exchequer of teaching English as a Second Language (ESOL) has been cut from £300m to the current level, leaving many keen learners unable to access courses unless they can pay for it (which wouldn’t include benefit claimants.)
UPDATE: Becoming a hate figure is the fate of everyone who needs to claim a benefit, not just immigrants. We’ll be discussing the part rhetoric is playing in the politics of social security cuts and the need for solidarity at a seminar on Solidarity and Social Security Cuts on the afternoon of 24 July. The speakers will include Alison Garnham of the Child Poverty Action Group and Professor Ruth Lister, from the Labour front bench in the House of Lords. Plenty of time has been allowed for discussion and debate. Places are free, but please book in advance.