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Pickles's integration showpiece - a Curry College for British workers

By Paul Goodman
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Eric Pickles 2010 What I will always think of as the Chicken Tikka War broke out towards the end of my time in the Commons.  On the one side were restaurant proprietors, insisting that British chefs were incapable of cooking Indian food to the required standards, and demanding that chefs therefore be allowed to enter the country from the subcontinent.  On the other were Government Ministers, pointing out that Britain has six million or so economically inactive people, and questioning whether it could really be right to let in more foreign workers for work that potentially could be done by British ones.  In my small way, I was myself lobbied on the matter by the owner of a restaurant in Marlow, if I remember rightly.

There has apparently been action on the first front  - border control - since the Coalition was formed last year.  Home Office sources claim that there has been a clampdown on entry for such purposes.  And now Eric Pickles is preparing to move on the second - job opportunities.  Two sources tell me that he has a dream: namely, to set up a Curry College.  In other words, the Government would back a school to train British people from all backgrounds to become chefs specialising in Indian food.  The scheme would both help satisfy the apparently inexhaustible appetite of consumers for onion bhajis and prawn birianis while also providing further justification for the squeeze on visas.

This plan is Very Eric Pickles - border control plus foreign cooking (well, not so foreign, since Indian restaurants have been a feature of British life for the best part of 40 years).  It's not quite Cool Britannia, but is certainly what another political big beast, John Prescott, called traditional values in a modern setting (or vice-versa), and a reminder of Pickles's long engagement with communities from the sub-continent since his days on Bradford Council.  A Tory source told me that younger Indian restaurant owners are less set than older ones on importing workers from the sub-continent, and any such scheme would presumably be partly aimed at them.

The scheme is alluded to in the Government's draft integration strategy, which I wrote about in detail yesterday.  A paper called "Creating the conditions for integration" for an internal "Integration and Tolerance Working Group" says: "The Indian restaurant sector has already approached the Government to explore how they can be supported to recruit and train British workers.  Changes must come from the sector, but the Government will work with them to identify barriers and short term support."  The integration strategy itself was heralded in the recent Prevent Review, and I've written since posing some questions about it.  The Government is aiming to publish a complete strategy document by the end of September.

The paper breaks the strategy down into four parts: establishing common ground, increasing social mobility, improving participation and countering intolerance and extremism.  The last section seems to be causing CLG officials some nervousness, since they've asked officials in other departments for definitions.  Ideas explored in the paper include an online integration forum, a "barrier busting" site to speed the scrapping of red tape, events to celebrate the Diamond Jubilee or the London Olympics, and projects bringing together children from different backgrounds and schools.  The document also says that we are looking at ways to encourage [faith communities] to join up effectively and overcome bureaucratic barriers".

Three big picture observations:

  • Cohesion is out, integration is in...  Under Labour, integration was essentially what happens nationally (how we all live together as British citizens), cohesion what happens locally (how people get on together in their localities ) - an approach derived from the Integration and Cohesion Commission.  This Government is tearing that lexicon up.  The aim of the policy is to promote integration everywhere, full stop.
  • ...As is "tolerance".  This is a bit of new buzzword.  Tolerance suggests allowing behaviour of which we disapprove - a vital element in a free society.  It's presumably being used precisely in order to find the limits of what should be tolerated and, beyond them, what shouldn't.
  • Will Pickles really be in charge?  Much of this programme wouldn't be delivered by DCLG.  The Cabinet Office leads on social mobility.  English language provision is largely in the hands of the Education department.  The Home Office leads on Prevent, and will be funding local Prevent officers in the 25 areas named in the Prevent strategy document.  Experience suggests that the more any project is shared between departments the less likely it is to make progress.

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