For change to happen successfully, it must be owned by everyone, not just a few, argues Jim McMahon MP
The publication last week of the interim report into integration of immigrants by the all-party parliamentary group on social integration was welcome and timely, following the recent Casey Review on a similar theme. The APPG, chaired by my colleague, Chuka Umunna MP, calls for a more front-foot approach from government to integration policy. It is right: the government’s obsession with the quantity of immigration has meant it pays too little attention to the quality of integration. The report rightly argues that we must support both immigrants and existing communities to contribute to and enjoy the economic, civic and social life of our country.
Immigration has changed the face of some communities more quickly and more dramatically than others. This local variation gets lost amid all the macroeconomic graphs that operate at the national, aggregate level. People do not experience their lives in aggregate. That is why the APPG’s call for a more devolved approach to immigration and integration matters. Different regions would benefit from some freedom to shape immigration policy to meet their different needs and capacities. Local people know where the gaps in their local economy are, where the pressures are on existing services, where the infrastructure is best able to support new arrivals. This richer picture is largely ignored by national policymaking.
In my own constituency of Oldham West and Royton, we well understand the challenges that immigration and integration can pose, as well as the benefits and opportunities it can bring. From the time when Oldham first sprang from the fields in the foothills of the Pennines, to becoming an industrial powerhouse, to riots on its streets 15 years ago, we have a long history of struggling to settle a community in constant change.
In recent years, governments of all parties have failed to ensure that community change is done by consent and with support. Change then has left some established residents feeling unsure of the future, their concerns ignored. But we also hear from families who travelled across continents to work hard and provide a better future for their children who feel that they are treated as a problem, and that their contribution is not valued.
It is actually not that difficult though to get agreement on the need to live in a decent place with good facilities, standards and behaviours. It is not that difficult to reach agreement on the need for compassion and the importance of preparing the next generation to do better while we give care to the elderly who have given so much.
What is difficult is trying to do that when the system is actively working against you. And so, what has been galling in Oldham over the years is to see how much progress in terms of forging vibrant, mixed communities has been held back by government cuts to area based grants, the Housing Market Renewal programme, new school buildings and English language classes, all of which were supporting community cohesion.
The APPG’s report calls for us to break down barriers between sections of our communities, building bridges not walls. It is true that, in a place like Oldham, for change to happen successfully, it must be owned by everyone, not just a few. In addressing ourselves to that challenge we should all remember what our late friend, Jo Cox, reminded us: that we have more in common than that which divides us. Following the EU referendum, our country can feel deeply divided. To ‘integrate’ means to combine elements into a whole. If we get integration right in this country, that whole can be greater than the sum of its parts.
Jim McMahon MP is shadow minister for local government and devolution. He tweets at @JimfromOldham
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