How to reconcile this government’s actions with their stated aims? Their Big Society promises “new powers” for local communities, “innovation, diversity and responsiveness to public need”. David Cameron’s Munich speech urges “a clear sense of shared national identity that is open to everyone” (however toxic its undertones, as Stuart Weir has discussed).
So why has his government more than halved funding for the Refugee Council’s vital advice services to asylum seekers?
Last year the Refugee Council’s One Stop Service provided 83,000 advice sessions through services in London, Birmingham, Ipswich and Leeds. (The Brixton advice centre gave 25,180 sessions, averaging 88.9 per day). Topics included navigating the complex asylum process and support system, training, education, employment, how to proceed after gaining asylum, and advice on combating or coping with destitution. The One Stop Service is being cut by 62 per cent to a fraction over £2 million.
The result is likely to be more destitution and increased pressure on other already stretched voluntary and statutory bodies — including Citizens’ Advice Bureaux, local authorities, Members of Parliament, and the UK Border Agency.
So, is this the Big Society “opening up public service to new providers like charities?” Or is it the reckless withdrawal of life and limb services from some of the most vulnerable people in Britain?
In Munich, Cameron said we should ensure that immigrants “speak the language of their new home . . . are educated in the elements of a common culture and curriculum”.
The Refugee Integration and Employment Service (RIES) helps and supports newly-recognised refugees to integrate smoothly and quickly into UK society, advising on cultural and language training, running a refugee mentoring service to encourage integration into the community.
In other words, it is doing exactly what Cameron says he wants. So, guess what’s happening to RIES? It is being completely scrapped.
And from September the government is further slashing funding to teaching of English to Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL), on top of previous heavy cuts to funding and provision.
A Refugee Council briefing explains the ESOL cuts, whose complexity helps to conceal the true damage that is being done in diametrical opposition to what Cameron says he wants. A union-backed campaign, Action for Esol, urges people to sign a national petition defending ESOL and pushing the government to think again.
In a recent post for OurKingdom, Michael McMahon drew attention to Cameron's exchange with MP Kris Hopkins, where the Prime Minister agreed that parents had a responsibility to ensure that their children could speak English. How does he propose they do so, if these children can't gain access to ESOL classes?
With even traditional Tories, such as Peter Oborne, the Daily Telegraph’s political commentator, sharing “the growing disillusion inside the charitable sector – the very engine room of the Big Society – with the Prime Minister”, and warning that, “the stakes could not be higher. If the Big Society collapses, Cameron does too”, perhaps the government will wake up, before it’s too late, to the fact that it is destroying the very things that it claims to believe in.
If the Big Society and “a clear sense of shared national identity that is open to everyone” are to be more than vacuous slogans, or, worse, deliberate deceptions, then words and deeds must match up.
That’s not going to happen without pressure. On Saturday 26 March, I’ll be joining many thousands of others on the TUC-run March For The Alternative.
In Munich, Cameron said: “At stake are not just lives, it is our way of life.” He was right about that. The Bullingdon Club wreckers are in power and they are putting our way of life in jeopardy.
Petra Brady is an independent researcher with an interest in the right to protest and the police tactic of kettling.
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