Many community members harbour a willingness to get more involved in the lives of those around them - it just needs to be encouraged
The coverage of Louise Casey’s report “A review into Opportunity and Integration” predictably focused on the “integration oath” and the problems of “segregation”. Behind those headlines are problems that only local government can own and tackle. I have a real question as to whether local government will get the support it needs to do this.
In a typically trenchant analysis, Louise describes how communities are trapped in social and cultural isolation, and those with the least power suffer most. Women are denied their legal rights. She makes the link between isolation and the grooming, radicalisation and sexual exploitation of young people. She also calls out politicians and public policy makers for being too weak, confused or ignorant to confront these issues. The report tells us that many have effectively condoned these practices by doing nothing, and sometimes through fear of being seen as racist.
Louise supports her strong social judgements with compelling data. There is something new for every reader, and even the most clued-up public servant will find a new insight.
Louise’s solutions are refreshingly hard edged and practical. They include: providing more English language teaching, focusing opportunities on the marginalised; encouraging social mixing at school, in activities for young people and in housing; and providing stronger safeguards for home-schooled children. All these seem like common sense.
Crucially, she has identified a big job for local government. Local authorities have the convening power to bring others to the table, but other tools for change are harder to identify. Consciously tailoring services and creating communities has been made harder over the years by regulations that establish process as an antidote to perceived privilege and prejudice.
For example, local government is constrained from addressing segregation in social housing by the outsourcing of stock and inflexible guidelines for how homes are allocated. In allocating services, every decision to prioritise one person in the interests of greater integration will mean another may feel their needs have been neglected. Such attempts at ‘social engineering’ risk becoming a source of greater resentment.
The challenge with schools is greater still. The growth of academies, free schools and the nationalisation of inspection mean that there are few levers for ensuring a socially mixed intake. Councils can use their local leverage to influence schools but it is hard to overcome resistance. Safeguarding children is supposed to be paramount, but getting into the homes of the home-schooled often entails considerable investment in scarce time and resources.
Local government also has a key role in working with local employers to tackle the discrimination which is undoubtedly faced by many Muslim women of all levels of education when looking for jobs. Councils and other public sector bodies need to lead by example.
I applaud Louise for calling out some tough, challenging issues. She has created the space for local leaders to take a bolder stand on their values and not be afraid of taking a more interventionist view of ‘place’.
The issues debated in this report require local leaders to be brave and to tackle hard social and personal issues with courage; this is difficult stuff and not every well intentioned local leader will move forward without mis-step.
I hope that ministers, in “taking this report very seriously”, will understand the central importance of supporting local government in implementing change in these neglected communities – this cannot be done from Whitehall and Westminster. Local leadership and insight – as well as local money – are the key building blocks for a more integrated society.