Britain stands at a crossroads. If we do not take action now to bridge the divides in our communities, we run the risk that they will grow into gulfs. Whether it is rich and poor, Muslim and Christian, old and young, or black and white – we are too often living parallel rather than interconnected lives.
But it is possible to do something. Remember the London 2012 Olympic Games? That Olympic ideal showed a way that Britain could be more than the sum of its parts, a country where we embrace our differences and build a modern and inclusive island identity. A country that is strengthened by its unity in diversity, not a country where we walk on by on the other side of the road.
In my role as the Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Social Integration I have visited communities up and down the country to try and understand how we can empower communities and neighbours to come together. All too often I have seen immigrants who want to participate in their new country, treated as a problem. Alongside this, I have seen the legitimate concerns that some feel about changes to communities and pressures on public services being dismissed as racist.
It is clear to me that if we want a ‘United Kingdom’ to not just be a name, but a way life, we need to end our laissez faire approach to social integration. This means taking action to help us to come together. This should start with a new right that everyone – whatever their ethnicity or gender – has the opportunity to learn and speak English. A shared language is the key to full participation in our society and economy, but also vital in opening up avenues to opportunity and public services. This will allow them to enrich our economy, and build meaningful relationships with their neighbours.
A common and shared language is a building block for community. When I visited Boston, Lincolnshire, as part of a visit with the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Social Integration, one woman told me that she really wanted to get to know her new neighbour from Eastern Europe. But she had to wait for her neighbour’s children to come home from school to translate because her neighbour could not speak English. We need to tear down such barriers to building community and relationship.
Ultimately, these relationships are what will bring us together as a country. We should start building them early. Sadly, too many schools are segregated by social class and ethnic background, depriving people of the opportunity to fully understand the country in which they live.
National Citizen Service (NCS) has become a vital institution in over-coming this by ensuring that young people have the chance to share a meaningful experience with a diverse group at ages 16 and 17. The concept of NCS is a relatively simple one: it brings together young people from different backgrounds in small groups, to reflect the social makeup of their local communities. The four week programme includes outdoor team-building exercises, a residential for participants to learn ‘life skills’ and a community-based social action project to give something back to where they live. For many this will be the first time they encounter experiences like this, with people different to them.
An independent report released on Thursday, by Oxford University and the University of Manchester, shows that NCS is playing a critical role creating more cohesive communities. The report shows NCS is having the biggest impact on improving cohesion in the communities which need it the most – while helping to close the integration gap nationally. For example, those from the most segregated communities prior to participating became almost a fifth more likely to report positive social contact with other ethnic groups ‘quite often’ or ‘very often’ after completing the programme.
NCS is currently reaching approximately 100,000 16 and 17 year olds each year, around one-in-six of the cohort. Given the national challenge we face, we should be brave enough to expand NCS so it becomes a rite of passage for all our young people. This would be one positive step towards making sure that our country chooses a future that is united and open to all. That’s the country that my father chose to come to from Nigeria in the 1960s, and it’s the country that I want for my daughter.