Language cuts under attack

9th March 2007 at 00:00

Skills tsar lambasts ministers for axing free English lessons for migrants and refugees

Gordon Brown's skills envoy has attacked the Government's decision to cut free English language training for migrants as a "damaging, retrograde step". Sir Digby Jones, former director of the Confederation of British Industry and the man handpicked to advise the Chancellor on skills, made the criticisms as he backed what organisers called the biggest ever lobby of Parliament for further education last Wednesday.

"I am concerned that the Government has decided to restrict entitlement to free English for speakers of other languages with potentially damaging results both to workforce efficiency and to social inclusion," Sir Digby said. "This is a damaging, retrograde step in the nation's pursuit of an integrated productive workforce."

He said it was a mistake to link free English lessons to a complex benefits system. This would exclude many people in need, and he called for the Government to rethink the funding of courses for those who cannot afford to pay.

Sir Digby said: "Many migrant workers and refugees need training in English to be aware of their rights, to make a full contribution to society and to perform efficiently at work. Low-paid and vulnerable workers will be disproportionately affected by the restrictions in access to free Esol provision."

More than 1,000 principals, lecturers and students from all over the country attended what the University and College Union said was FE's biggest lobby of Parliament.

Meanwhile, the Refugee Council staged a mock English lesson in Parliament Square in protest at the decision to end free tuition for all migrants and asylum seekers from August, except for those on benefits.

Bill Rammell, the FE minister, heard speakers from colleges and refugee groups at a meeting inside the House of Commons.

Paul Mackney, joint general secretary of the UCU, told the minister: "After years it finally looked as though the Government had got it right with tailored courses and proper training programmes for tutors, and excellent courses. The Prime Minister and the Chancellor were exhorting non-English speakers to go on courses and they joined in their thousands. It was a success story and now you are in danger of wrecking it. You will tell us it is a difficult issue and the demand is too great. The solution is not to penalise the weakest members of the community."

The lobby was also backed by 140 MPs who have signed an early day motion in support of free English classes for migrants.

UCU said Mr Rammell had indicated the Government was looking at ways to soften the blow of the restrictions on free classes. The system of applying for help with costs through tax credits could be simplified and spouses of British citizens, arriving from abroad, could be helped with family literacy classes.

Publicly, the Government held its ground, however. Mr Rammell said:

"Despite continually increasing funding for Esol, demand for courses has tripled and the growth in funding is unsustainable. In some parts of the country there are waiting lists of up to two years and this affects many of those in greatest need.

"We expect the current level of funding for Esol to remain comparable next year. But we must focus resources on those who most need help. Learners benefiting from Esol classes who are able to pay a contribution should do so."

Sir Digby said he was politically independent and his skills envoy role was unpaid. "I don't do this for the Government but for private and public sector employers. I think the Government is getting this wrong, so I say so.JGordon Brown said I was his mentor and his tormentor - Jthat's fine by me."

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