I spent my first U.K summer time-travelling between two migrant integration policy eras. If that sounds both sad and exciting, that’s about right: it was both those things. For my MA dissertation I regularly tubed to the National Archives at Kew to research how integration emerged as a policy sphere during the mid-1960s. The other half of my time was spent above ground in cities throughout the U.K evaluating a refugee and asylum seeker integration project as part of my internship at a London-based NGO. Unlike most time-travellers, I had long commutes to compare my destinations and, despite the gap of fifty years, I think the leap is worth taking here. Exploring efforts by activists, public servants, migrant groups and politicians to develop a national migrant integration policy sphere in the 1960s, has helped me articulate why the U.K’s current lack of any national policy framework on integration is seriously problematic.
My research focused on the published papers, internal documents, private notes, and scrawls in the margins produced by the National Committee for Commonwealth Immigrants (NCCI) over the course of its short life from 1965-68. Tasked by the then Labour government to “promote and coordinate on a national basis efforts directed towards the integration of Commonwealth immigrants into the community”, the NCCI was among the earliest official attempts in the U.K to understand, articulate and address the “problem of integration” on a national level. Despite the barrage of criticism it received since its inception (many thought the NCCI was a feeble attempt to make Labour’s harsh immigration restrictions more palatable to opponents), this group of activists, migrant community leaders, health/housing/social service employees and academics made many astute observations as to how a national government might contribute to migrant integration. If they could comment on integration policy today, what would they say?
Information sharing is a central responsibility
At its first meeting on 15 October, 1965, the NCCI deliberated over the crucial word in its terms of reference: ‘integration’. From that day on, until the Committee’s dissolution in 1968, the word was alternately puzzled over, defined and redefined by its members. Much of the Committee’s terms of reference involved gathering and analysing information to better understand what progressed or hindered migrants’ integration in the U.K. Conscious of their unique position in moulding a new policy sphere, the NCCI took a broad view of integration issues, identifying (for instance) legal discrimination, limited access to services and negative public attitudes as mutually reinforcing factors blocking migrants’ participation in public life. For the NCCI, getting the U.K’s collective head around integration issues required central leadership: information may have come from local authorities and civil society but was collated, coordinated and shared with others through the national body.
The situation today is even more complex, and the need for information gathering and coordination more pressing. Granted, nowadays ethnic minority groups are bigger and more varied and migrants, refugees and asylum seekers face vastly different integration issues and require different approaches. But current government policy that sees integration as a local issue, community-based and context-specific, should place a corresponding responsibility on the central government to provide the evidence-base to inform these local integration initiatives. Without an integration policy framework no such coordination mechanism exists. Best-practice can only be established through sharing information and, even in the age of social media, this will not occur without dedicated financial support and leadership from the centre.
‘Big Society’ is no excuse for little effort
The Cameron Government’s Big Society vision was supposed to (in the PM’s words) ‘take power away from the politicians and give it to the people’. For those who have been campaigning for bottom up community-driven integration initiatives, the shift from central to local and civil society led programming – enshrined in the Localism Act – must have seemed promising. However, a key problem I observed in my travels throughout the U.K. is that the lack of earmarked central government funding for specific groups means that – by a kind of survival of the fittest process – visible groups i.e. within the radar of local authorities, are the ones that receive government funding. What follows from this total lack of direction from a central and well informed source is that those groups at the highest risk of social disadvantage and marginalisation are the least likely to be able to ‘take charge’ (another Government catch-cry) and influence local funding decisions. In the project I was working on with young asylum seekers and refugees for instance, our (philanthropic trust-funded) project was focused on empowering young people to get to a point where they could simply participate in community life and gain the skills and confidence to engage decision-makers. The fully participatory Big Society is evidently a pre-integrated one.
Obvious political bias aside (overall, NCCI members were supporters of Labour’s then socialist, big government principles), the NCCI would have been baffled by a strategy that puts integration policy solely in the hands of local authorities. Their understanding of integration issues placed the issues and grassroots knowledge at the local level but the responsibility at the central level. Why? Because they saw integration and migration policy as inextricably linked. As the Oxford Migration Observatory’s Sarah Walker puts it in her excellent Integration Policy Primer: “while local authorities are closest to many of the issues raised by the presence of migrants within their communities they do not control some of the levers that affect integration outcomes.” What levers? For the NCCI, operating within the decade of the U.K’s first formal immigration restrictions, the primary lever was deciding who and how many people could migrate to the U.K. No change there. Central government also dictates the extent to which migrants can legally participate in employment and education and access to services. Central governments are also in a unique position in being able to influence the media and public attitudes ‒ crucial to the integration of non-migrant ethnic minorities and new arrivals alike. For the NCCI it was obvious: an integration policy framework should be seen as an associated responsibility of national migration policy.
Sanctioned by the ‘Big Society’ vision, and obscured by the current government’s rhetoric, the government has shirked its responsibility on integration policy. This is much more significant than shifting balance or emphasis. The government has offloaded a task that only it can perform. From a time-traveller’s perspective, this is a seriously backward step.