Is Cameron correct about the level of English of British Muslims?

David Cameron’s announcement that people who fail mandatory English language tests will have to leave the UK has provoked an outcry among Britain’s Muslim population.

In an interview with BBC Radio 4 on 18 January, the prime minister said that 22 per cent of Muslim women in the UK cannot speak English, and were therefore “more susceptible to the extremist message that comes from [Isis].”

Cameron’s comments were met with accusations of stigmatising the Muslim community, with former Conservative Party chair Baroness Warsi among his critics.

What is the level of English spoken in UK homes?

Statistics published by the London Datastore  show the veracity of Cameron’s claims, and the factors behind them.

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The percentage of adults who speak English at home has declined slightly across the UK in general since 2009. But in almost every UK region, the percentage remains above 90 per cent. The sole exceptions are London and the South East, where the 2009 figure of 78.4 per cent has fallen to 74.4 percent in 2015.

What are the differences in the level of English spoken at home in London boroughs?

The percentage of English speakers is most striking in London. Further statistical analysis reveals the regions of the city where the need for improved English is most pronounced.

It is the centre of the city where the lowest percentages of English speakers tend to reside. But the variations are immense, from 42.2 per cent in Newham to 96.4 per cent in Bromley.

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The data provides evidence of a worrying development of linguistic ghettos  in London. While £20 million of funding for English classes will be provided ahead of the implementation of mandatory English tests in October, the government has been attacked for making £45 million of cuts to English classes just six months ago. The cuts were confirmed in a letter from the government’s Skills Funding Agency dated 20 July 2015, in which the agency’s chief executive Peter Lauener wrote:

“On participation budgets, I can confirm that with immediate effect we will implement the following: withdrawal of funding for ESOL Plus Mandation in full for the 2015 to 2016 funding year”.

The criticism turned to derision when a press release from the Home Office advertising the new English lessons for migrants misspelt the word “language”.

The government has said that Muslim women arriving in the UK on spousal visas are the target of the policy. “After two and half years they should be improving their English and we will be testing them,” said the prime minister. “They can’t guarantee they will be able to stay, because under our rules you have to be able to speak a basic level of English to come into the country as a husband or wife. ”

What is the Muslim population across London’s boroughs?

Further figures from the London Datastore show that the majority of London’s boroughs have seen the a rise in the percentage of Muslim residents since 2009.

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The number of Muslims in London boroughs has grown in 21 of 32 boroughs from 2009 to 2014, with the highest percentage in 2014 in Tower Hamlets (45.6 per cent), and the lowest in Havering (2.7%). City of London is not included in the figures due to insufficient data.

If Cameron’s suggestion that the Muslim community is particularly lacking in English skills is correct, a correlation between the percentage of Muslims in each borough and the percentage of adults who speak English at home would be expected.

Is there a relationship between the  level of English spoken and the size of the Muslim population in London boroughs?

In the majority of boroughs, there is a clear correlation between the percentage of English speakers and the Muslim community.

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There are however some exceptions. In Harrow and Brent, 55.5 per cent and 46.4 per cent of adults don’t speak English at home respectively. 14.3 per cent and 19.3 per cent respectively of the two boroughs’ populations are Muslims.

A possible explanation for this is that the two boroughs have the city’s largest Hindu communities, at 28 per cent and 19.3 per cent respectively.

In Ealing, 44.5 per cent of adults don’t speak English of home, while 15.2 per cent of its population is Muslim. This may be a result of the large number of the borough’s residents born abroad. Data from the 2011 census showed that in ten of Ealing’s 23 wards, the majority of residents were born outside the UK.

Whatever the opinions on Cameron’s controversial proposals for language testing, it is clear that there are vast differences in the level of English between the different boroughs of London and that there is a tendency for boroughs with a high Muslim population to have a low level of English.

The hope is that rather than persecute Muslim residents for their language skills, structures can be put in place to improve them, and a more equal level of English across the city can be achieved, avoiding the linguistic ghettoisation that is currently augmenting the problem.

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