Speaking English does matter. But almost all immigrants to the UK do.
Tonight, Ed Miliband will - again - admit that "Labour didn't get it right on immigration", in particular by failing to impose the "maximum transitional controls" on those coming here from the new EU Member States. As I've pointed out before, this ignores the fact that pretty much all the evidence about the impact of this decision is positive: the new migrants get jobs, contribute to the economy, pay taxes, don’t use many public services, and don’t take jobs from natives. Nor, as I explain in the Guardian, do they pose a significant threat to the benefit system.
But Mr Miliband will emphasise another aspect of the current debate, saying:
"I think everyone who comes to live and work here should learn English. ...we'd also have a very simple rule, which says if you work in the public sector, in a job face to face with the public, you need to be able to speak English."
Others have been more blunt: for example, the Sun claimed:
"In some parts of the UK, 40 percent don't speak English as their main language, says the 2011 Census..For all the waffle at Westminster,no effective policy has ever been in place to persuade migrants to learn English. It is hard not to conclude that many migrants have no interest in learning English because they simply don't want to integrate."
while in the Guardian Jackie Ashley argued
"there are apparently around a million households that speak no English.These are dramatic numbers."
But what does this really mean? The statistics used by both the Sun and the Guardian come from the 2011 Census; the Office for National Statistics have just published an excellent summary of what the figures tell us about language knowledge and use. And there are indeed a lot of people in the UK whose first language isn't English: 4.2 million, although that's still less than 8 percent of the total, rising to a high of 41 percent in Newham (hence the Sun's number). But, as the ONS is at pains to point out, "a much smaller percentage [1.6%] of the total population said they could either not speak English well or not at all." Only 134,000 people - 0.3% of the total population - don't speak English at all. Even in Newham, where well over half the population was born abroad, and the Sun seems to think that people "simply don't want to integrate", fewer than 1 in 10 of the population can't speak English well.
Overall, of the well over 7 million people in this country who were born abroad, less than a million can't speak English well, and most of those appear to be at least making an effort. So much of the comment on this simply confuses, deliberately or through carelessness, not speaking English as a first language or not speaking it at home, true of very large numbers of UK residents, with not speaking it at all or not wanting to learn it, true of very few indeed. [Note: the Guardian did subsequently correct Jackie Ashley's error].
A similar confusion applies to schools. The Daily Telegraph claimed earlier this year that "in secondary schools, at least one-in-eight children have a relatively poor grasp of English, it emerged." In fact, no such thing "emerged" at all. Indeed, amazingly, pupils in Inner London whose first language isn't English actually significantly outperformed the national average for all pupils at GCSEs this year.
Nor, contrary to the arguments made by government Ministers and Migration Watch, is there any evidence that the presence of pupils with English as a second language damages the attainment of native pupils. [Incidentally, it should be noted that - in contrast to some of the media misrepresentation noted above - the Daily Mail has produced a number of balanced and informative stories on this particular issue. Here's the latest]
So should we be relaxed about immigrants not speaking English? Absolutely not. English clearly matters, both for the labour market and for broader issues like integration and social cohesion. Immigrants who don't speak English, not surprisingly, are less likely to be in work and get much lower wages. This is bad for the immigrants themselves and bad for the economy as a whole. So when Mr Miliband argues that
"What was really striking to me was talking to the women in the classroom about learning English. They said to me overwhelmingly, "Look, we've got to be able to learn English, because otherwise," as one of them said, "how can we be part of our society?" ..so we'll make English language teaching a priority, and the priority it deserves to be."
this makes a lot of sense. This is the sort of practical policy measure that could improve outcomes both for immigrants and the wider economy and society.