Monday, 5 March 2012

Inching towards integration?

One of the best things about working on social policy in the UK is the depth and richness of the data, especially survey, data, that we have about British society.  We may lack the  comprehensive population register of, say, Sweden, but to compensate we have what I suspect is an unparalleled variety of topic-specific social surveys, from the British Crime Survey to the Workplace and Employment Relations Survey.

It is therefore particularly frustrating when policy-makers, despite having relevant data close to hand, choose to ignore it.  Take the Minister for Civil Society, Nick Hurd, who is reported in the Daily Mail as believing that 
"Young people no longer socialise with peers from other social and ethnic groups, leading to a ‘fragmented’ society"

Mr Hurd said: 
‘When you go into schools, you see some of that. There’s a risk of society becoming more fragmented and segregated. We tend to see people not mixing together as much as they did. .I don’t think there’s any real mystery about that. 
Now, since the controversy over Trevor Phillips' 2005 "sleepwalking towards segregation" speech, it has generally been recognised that, according to hard quantitative measures,  there is little or no evidence at all of any overall increase in ethnic segregation.  For example, in schools, the most authoritative research suggests it is "flat or falling", while in other respects - household and family formation - there is a clear decrease

But getting a handle on "socialising" or "mixing together" is harder. Fortunately, however, we have  - or did have - a government survey designed to do address exactly the issues raised by Mr Hurd. The Citizenship Survey, which ran every two years from 2001 to 2009, asked questions about how people felt about their neighbourhoods, their neighbours, their friends, and so on. Given that the topic of Mr Hurd's interview was the government's new National Citizen Service, you might have expected him to be familiar with the results. 

So what did it find?  The executive summary of the report on "Community Spirit in England" found the following:
"The vast majority of people agreed that their area was somewhere that people from different backgrounds get on well together – this has steadily increased since 2003. The vast majority of people also agreed that their local area was a place where people from different ethnic backgrounds were respected and this has also increased since 2003.  Perceptions on these two issues were very strongly linked. Underpinning perceptions of respect were the existence of a more diverse local community .."
Doesn't sound so bad. What about Mr Hurd's specific concerns about socialising and mixing?  Well, the detailed tables tell a similar story.  Slightly more than half of all respondents, a proportion that's been drifting up over time, have at least some friends from a different ethnic group. Those who are least likely to do so are whites living in mostly white areas - so more about geography than fragmentation, or deliberate self-segregation.  

Not surprisingly, non-whites - and whites who live in areas with substantial ethnic minority populations - are much more likely to have friends from different ethnic groups.  Again, over time, the trend is, slowly, towards greater integration.  The figures are similar, perhaps slightly more encouraging, for religion;  22% of Muslims said all their friends were of the same religious background, compared to 42% of Christians.

And what about the idea that it's getting worse over time, especially in schools and for younger people?  Well, about one-third of people aged 16-24 had friends from only one ethnic group. For those over 65 the proportion was two-thirds.  So there's a very strong and clear age gradient - younger people are much more likely to mix with those from different ethnic or religious backgrounds. 

There is a wealth more detail in the tables. They show a mixed and complex picture of a society which remains divided, but is getting, slowly and gradually less so; and where people of all backgrounds are largely happy with their neighbourhoods and get on with their neighbours. You could describe it as "inching towards integration". There is no excuse for complacency; many of the questions raised in Trevor Phillips' speech remain relevant.  But there is really absolutely nothing in the data - this or any other that I am aware of - that in any respect backs up Mr Hurd's reported remarks. 

Why am I picking on Mr Hurd, when commentators, from across the political spectrum, make the same data-free assertions about increasing segregation?  Well, it seems very odd for the Minister responsible for the National Citizen Service to ignore the data from the government's own Citizenship Survey.  Indeed, it is positively irresponsible for a Minister to make policy, and spend taxpayers' money, without doing his homework in this way.  

That is not to say that the policy is wrong - for what it's worth, the NCS seems like a perfectly sensible idea to me - but it should be possible to argue for it on its own merits without arguing that British society is irredeemably fracturing, when it clearly isn't.  And more broadly, surely the Minister for Civil Society should be using the data and evidence to celebrate the relatively healthy state of British civil society - rather than ignoring it so that he can run it down. [To be fair, the government's strategy for integration, here, does present a reasonably balanced view of the evidence]. 

Indeed, what is the point, you might ask, of the government spending money to collect high quality and useful data from social surveys such as the Citizenship Survey, if Ministers responsible for the relevant policies can't even be bothered to read the results (or choose, for whatever reason, to ignore them? Evidently the government agrees with this argument. From next year, Mr Hurd will be free to make whatever arguments he wishes on this topic, without fear of contradiction from actual data, since the government has chosen to cancel the Citizenship Survey. 

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