Not everyone gets excited when an Integration and Cohesion Report lands on their desk but I read Louise Casey’s report minutes after its official release. To be honest I am a self-confessed community cohesion junkie having previously worked for the Government to advise them on these issues and to set up practical projects to promote integration and combat hate crime and extremist organisations.
The Casey Report refers to previous attempts to look at cohesion and integration, pegging much of its thesis around the earlier 2001 Cantle Report written in the aftermath of the Northern Riots of that year. Professor Cantle expressed concern around community tensions resulting from a phenomenon that he described as ‘parallel communities’ in Northern cities such as Oldham and Bradford: in essence these are areas of high-level youth unemployment consisting of large often neglected estates divided along ethnic and religious lines. In the North it tended to be two groups who self-identified as Muslim and white (working class) respectively – labels used by the two groups themselves. When working for the Commission for Racial Equality we visited many of these deprived estates and discovered that that the challenge of cohesion and potential tension points were best overcome through innovation, lateral thinking that enabled better connectivity and communication.
The Casey Report is scathing at the Government’s inaction since 2010 claiming that “The problem has not been a lack of knowledge but a failure of collective, consistent and persistent will to do something about it or give it the priority it deserves at both a national and local level”. The report goes on to raise some good points about the need to tackle social and economic inequality and to provide equality of opportunity for everyone regardless of race, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation and the need for social interaction between communities to breakdown barriers.
That's all good except but the reports's analysis has not moved on from where we were around a decade or more ago on this topic: Casey seems to rehash previous arguments by Cantle, Darra Singh and Trevor Phillips: but 2016 is not 2001 and that’s where the report begins to fall to pieces.
Louise Casey should have taken a deeper look at the post-Brexit world. Society is not just divided along ethnic and religious lines but increasingly between North and South; generational divides; and the divide between metropolitan ‘remainers’ in London, the M4 corridor, Manchester and Liverpool and the ‘leavers’ in the rest of the country who feel the wealth-generating engines or powerhouses have left them behind where many feel their concerns are not being listened too: we have become the Two Nations of Britain. Since the decision to leave the European Union there has been a surge of reported attacks on minorities. Instead of highlighting these she seems to join in, returning to Cantle’s mantra of attacking religiously conservative, mainly Muslim communities, migrants and those with poor English.
Casey fails to look at the real pressing issues around cohesion: the failure of the much discredited "prevent" programme to counter radical extremism which she lauds in places; the need to bridge a divided country along socio-economic and geo-political lines which has seen the growth of the far right in areas where frankly the ethnic minority population is small including the north-east and UKIP’s heartlands on the east coast; and the need to look at how social media has created virtual silos that simply did not exist when Cantle wrote his report and now impact on the affluent and highly educated young as much as those living in traditional parallel communities that Cantle first wrote about; she fails adequately to explore the way in which ISIS and other jihadi groups recruit across social classes, the rise of racism on the far-right and the far-left of politics and the growth of populist nationalism as a negative force; and the complete lack of funding for essential youth services.
The report shies away from the real causes of social inequality: namely the slashing of public funds for local services. I recall sitting in a London Borough town hall four years ago being asked by Councillors if a large charity that I worked with would pay for and take over part of their publicly funded youth services as they had just axed 40 youth workers. Those workers were essential in building communities. Four years down the line there is no fix. To Casey’s credit she calls for more resources to promote integration but does not really reveal the scale of the damage done by the hard cuts following the austerity policy of the Government and its real impact on cohesion as frontline public services go non-operational in socio-economically deprived areas. There is surely a link to be made between cuts to public health and social care and the rise of the far-right that has harnessed the anger felt around failing public services to foster resentment of migrants and other minorities in a modern form of scapegoating.
Furthermore, the report cynically suggests “in this country we take poverty, social exclusion, social justice and social mobility seriously and we do so across political divides. Creating a just, fair society where everyone can prosper and get on is a cornerstone of Britain’s values” at a time when child poverty is on the increase and the very safety net the poorest in society depend upon is being removed.
When it comes to our own Jewish community Casey is confused: she seems to attack the religiously conservative part of the Jewish community and faith schools whilst downplaying the real security threat to Jewish institutions as a result of growing extremism.
Some of her analysis is just wrong and in places sloppy. Take for example her reference to Jewish divorce: an extremely serious issue. Casey gets the law wrong. She writes: “We have also heard about cases where devout Orthodox Jewish women in some communities, despite being able to get a divorce in British law courts, have felt trapped in a marriage they cannot get out of, as only the husband has the power to grant a ‘get’”. This ignores the fact that since 1999 English legislation has meant you can’t get an English divorce without a Jewish one. There are a few pre-1999 cases left. Terrible as these cases are, thanks to work done 20 years ago, this issue is disappearing fast in the UK. It’s 2016 not 2001.
On the upside Casey likes Mitzvah Day… but in general the report contains one attack after another on our community as it does on other faith communities. It seems to be a modern meme: as long as you attack all religious groups then it’s deemed fair game or somehow balanced…
I think the report would have benefitted from saying something more positive about the social values of faith communities and their commitment to promoting welfare, volunteerism and community service. Instead it leaves a bitter taste in the mouth. There are valid points in her analysis but the wheat and the chaff lie together in a report that needed some serious editing.
In the end the report recommends local integration plans, more prevent programmes, some social experiments in our cities whilst failing to define the British values that it wants to promote, to make effective recommendations to tackle the root causes of extremism, including the issues around social media that most working in this field are now concerned about. Most of all she fails to tackle head-on the real issues of social exclusion: the slow death of public services, the millions of children falling back into poverty as a result of austerity measures and the anger generated by those who feel that they are not being listened to by our leaders. This report won’t help either them or the leadership who commissioned it.
Alex Goldberg is a JLM Member, Rabbi and Cohesion Expert