Learn English or Lose Benefits: Osborne Misses Three Birds with One Stone

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osborne_learn_english.jpgIn the announcement of his spending review on Wednesday, George Osborne announced several developments in government spending policy. Among them, one particular change piqued our interest here at Kwintessential – a kind of crossroads between politics, economics and language.

We’d like to explore what it is that Osborne introduced earlier this week, as well as his possible reasons for doing it and the actual effects they will have on native and non-native British jobseekers, the rest of the general public and the image presented by Osborne’s party.

The new implementations involve the requirement that jobseekers visit the Job Centre once every week (increased from once a fortnight), a four-day increase in the time new jobseekers must wait before receiving their first payment; and finally, the denial of benefits to those who do not possess a satisfactory command of the English language, unless they enrol in free English lessons.

The implications of this will touch upon several aspects of the political debate in the U.K. – not just the economy at large, but also issues of welfare, immigration, unemployment and education, all of which are very hot topics at the moment.

According to an opinion poll from Ipsos MORI, 50% of Britons this month said they believed that the economy was one of the most pressing political issues –the highest concern rate of all the issues mentioned in the poll. Immigration comes in second at 35%, followed by unemployment with 32%. This amounts to highly-charged political fodder, and everyone is guessing at the Chancellor’s motives. Many are suspicious of an attempt to poach voters from other parties to the left and to the right; others either praise or condemn his attempt to cut spending on non-English speakers who claim unemployment benefit; still others simply hope that the rest of us won’t have to deal with quite so many professionals who are incapable of communicating with us. As one of the most volatile areas of British politics, and as the most reasonable (if misguided) of Osborne’s motives, we’ll start with the immigration issue.

How does the denial of benefits to non-English-speaking foreigners fit in with our national stance on language and immigration? If we take the most left-wing perspective on this issue as being that everyone should be free to speak their own language, and the most right-wing perspective as being that all foreigners should learn English; then this policy would seem to fall somewhere in the middle. Is the Chancellor saying that every resident of the U.K. should learn English or get out? No. Is he saying that everyone who works in the U.K. should learn English or make room for those who do? No. He’s saying that no foreigner should be able to claim Jobseeker’s Allowance without making the effort to learn the single most useful skill to land any job in the country – a satisfactory command of the national language. At its core, it’s not so unreasonable. And the apparent advantages don’t stop there.

It would also appear that with this new move, more of the workers we deal with on a day-to-day basis will be able to communicate with us in an effective way – which seems like a great idea. But will it actually have this effect? More skilled workers will always be more valuable than less skilled workers, so there will always be an incentive for companies to cut corners and ‘do without’ the skills that are not absolutely essential for the performance of a task. If George Osborne hopes to see a Britain where service provider and customer always share a common language, he may well have missed the mark. Furthermore, it should be noted that free English lessons are already provided within the welfare system, and it’s probably fair to assume that for the most part, those who need them would attend if they could. But the practicalities could prove difficult: if all foreigners are threatened with losing their benefits if they don’t attend, but the lessons are only offered at 3pm on a Tuesday, many might not be able to because of other commitments such as picking the children up from school. So rather than achieving a more English-speaking workforce, this could well end up doing nothing more than denying support to those who need it.

Finally, and most importantly, we turn to the real motivation behind the new measures. The political endgame here seems to be to try and win back some of the Conservative voters who recently turned to UKIP for fear that the Tories just weren’t quite right-wing enough any more; all while poaching a few voters from Labour too. From the right, threatening to deny benefits makes the Conservative Party look tough on foreigners coming over here, stealing our benefits and not even bothering to learn the language. At the same time, being seen to invest in immigrants and make an attempt to help them integrate into society is supposed to make the Tories attractive to left-wing voters. But again, the reality is very different from the theory.

The Lib Dems have blocked any more savings from the welfare system, which means that any money saved by delaying benefits to new claimants has to be invested back into welfare – in this case, by making free English lessons compulsory for all claimants who need them. The money spent on providing these lessons is money that is being taken away from new British welfare claimants. It seems to me that even the far right will be more loyal to those U.K. citizens who have only just lost their jobs and haven’t had time to find a work yet than to the foreigners who have arrived in our country without the ability to speak our language, and are subsequently told that if they want the government to give them money, they have to participate in a scheme whereby the government spends money on them as well. Cutting money out from ‘our’ people’s benefits to give double benefits to the ‘others’ will only serve to alienate the political right.

Equally, Osborne also broached the subject of free schools in the same speech – a seemingly quite socialist idea to which Ed Miliband has been outwardly opposed. This attempt to appear ‘lefter than Labour’ supports the hypothesis that ‘investing’ (read: shuffling around) funds in welfare distribution is simply another attempt to garner support from the left as well as the right. Unfortunately for him, an informed voter can see through this poaching expedition and tell that Osborne is much less interested in running the country in the best possible way than he is in winning the next election, thus securing the funds to continue funding the £10,000-per-year education of his own children; and the remainder of the Labour voters will probably be so put off by the ‘tough on foreigners’ stance, the feeble attempt to win back defected Tory voters lost to UKIP, that Osborne has effectively cancelled out his efforts to reach out to both sides at once and ended up alienating himself even more.

What do you think?

* How will Osborne’s reshuffling of the welfare system affect you, and how do you think it will affect the Conservative party?
* Do we have the right to deny benefits to foreigners who don’t speak English?
* Or should we instead try to find ways to make it more convenient to attend English classes, for those who would like to become more employable but can’t?

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Written by Megan Currie

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