Opinion: Community cohesion is a task for our sector

Local councils have been asked to provide citizenship guidance to newcomers to the country as part of the Government's efforts to improve community cohesion.

Julia Neuberger
Julia Neuberger

There has been much in the news about community cohesion recently, as we come to terms with the attempted terrorist attacks in Glasgow and London. Many Muslims wonder whether they are being suspected by their neighbours as "not properly British", while they sigh with relief that those detained in connection with the latest attacks appear to be foreign nationals.

A month before all this, Liam Byrne, a Home Office minister, argued that more needed to be done to help migrants understand British values. He said: "We need to make it clear that citizenship isn't something handed out, but something that is earned." 

My mother was an asylum-seeking immigrant in 1937. She came to the UK from Nazi Germany as a Jew, without qualifications - her education had been summarily terminated by Nazi laws. A domestic servant with a wonderful family in Birmingham, she would have been delighted to prove her Britishness when she finally achieved citizenship after the war. Most immigrants who want to stay feel much the same - unless, and it is a big unless, we do not make them feel welcome.

One of the great difficulties about the present climate is that we risk making people feel unwelcome, or suspect or both. I believe that local authorities cannot do this community cohesion guidance on their own. Indeed, I think government has to pass much of this to the third sector, just because trust is such an issue in all this. Government is seen as tightening the noose for illegal immigrants, and 'asylum seeker' has become a dirty term. That has, unsurprisingly, infected relationships between government, local and national, and immigrants.

If employers who unlawfully employ migrant workers are to have sanctions used against them, as last year's immigration legislation suggests, then all sorts of people are simply not going to want to give immigrants a chance just because they will need to keep checking their immigration status. That will affect third sector organisations too.

There is suspicion out there and a lack of trust in local government's intentions. The voluntary sector, in partnership with schools, the NHS and others, can help counter that suspicion. It can do so by working with immigrants, interpreting the system, signposting, giving comfort, explanations and encouragement - all classic voluntary sector activities. There will also be a need for large numbers of volunteers to mentor new arrivals.

The atmosphere can be quite ugly for new migrants, and those who are genuinely fleeing horrors at home - in Zimbabwe, say, Afghanistan or Iraq - are often traumatised. This is a golden opportunity for the sector to organise this guidance from local authorities on their behalf, to provide support to new immigrants and to work across public services to improve the lot of the new migrants and the degree of trust between the host community and newcomers.

- Julia Neuberger is a Liberal Democrat peer and chair of the Commission on the Future of Volunteering

And while we're on the subject ...

- Last month, Home Office minister Liam Byrne and Ruth Kelly, then communities secretary, argued in a Fabian Society pamphlet that the award of British citizenship to immigrants should be linked to volunteering. They said it would help incomers integrate and reassure host communities about their commitment to British values.

- Last week, Gordon Brown announced a strengthening of security checks for incoming workers after the attempted terrorist attacks in Glasgow and London. He also said security minister Lord West would carry out an inquiry into NHS recruitment after it emerged that eight people with links to the service had been detained over the attacks.

- Julia Neuberger's mother was one of an estimated 60,000 Jewish people who fled to Britain in the 1930s to escape persecution by the Nazis. These refugees included 10,000 unaccompanied children arriving via the Kindertransport or 'children's trains'. Most of those children never saw their families again.

- Jewish people have not always been made to feel welcome in the UK. They were banished by Edward I in 1290 and readmitted by Oliver Cromwell only in the 17th century. More recently, the 1905 Aliens Act was introduced to control immigration of Jews escaping persecution and economic hardship in eastern Europe.

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