The claim

“If you’re not prepared to learn English, your benefits will be cut”

Chancellor George Osborne, Comprehensive Spending Review 2013, 26 June


The background

Our very Briddish Chancellor revealed today how the government’s “gonna” cut £350m from the welfare budget in 2015-16.

FactCheck couldn’t help but note the creeping of a Mockney accent into George Osborne’s speech – but it wasn’t the only language barrier that came up.

Mr Osborne said that under a new “upfront work search” scheme, non-English speaking claimants will have their benefits cut if they refused to learn English.

Mr Osborne said it was a “reasonable requirement”. FactCheck gets out its red pen.

The analysis

Firstly, the idea of testing the English skills of those applying for Job Seekers’ Allowance (JSA) is nothing new.

Claimants are already subjected to informal English language tests, and if they are found wanting, they are offered free English lessons.

The Treasury told FactCheck that the UK currently spends £50m a year on English lessons to help JSA claimants get their language skills up to scratch.

From 2015, these informal tests would be formalised, said the Treasury, with anyone testing below the minimum standard offered English lessons.

The minimum standard is deemed the “equivalent of a nine year old native Briton” by the Treasury, it’s known as Entry Level 2.

A Treasury spokesman told FactCheck: “Anyone who fails to attend or engage in the lessons would lose their benefits for a set period of time.”

This all sounds rather menacing: no attendance, no benefits.

But the truth is that the government’s English for Speakers of Other Languages (Esol) programme is so successful that in 2011 they decided to rein it in.

In the eight years between 2001/02 and 2008/09, the Labour government trebled its spending on Esol to £300m.

House of Commons Library research concluded in 2011 that: “Under the Labour government Esol arguably became a victim of its own success and expenditure on Esol increased significantly.”

In 2005 the Labour government started charging anyone who wasn’t on benefits for Esol classes.

The following year a campaign group, Save Esol, was founded. It eventually secured £15m from the then London mayor Ken Livingstone to support English language teaching in the capital, where demand is greatest.

Yet in 2011, the government cut back on free Esol courses, ruling that the only people eligible would be those on “active benefits” – JSA or employment support allowance (ESA).

The government said it would focus its “fully-funded provision on people who are unemployed”.

The verdict

By threatening to take away the benefits of anyone refusing to learn English, George Osborne inferred that there are a slew of people out there who don’t want to speak English, but are happy to live off benefits.

Perhaps he was trying to win back all the voters who’ve defected to UKIP in recent months.

The reality is, migrant workers are desperate to learn English.

English lessons are already offered to Job Seekers’ Allowance claimants.

The scheme is so popular that under Labour it was a “victim of its own success”, and in 2011 the government reined the programme in to save money.

So by making the current “informal” offering of English lessons “formal”, Mr Osborne is introducing English tests across the board for all non-native claimants and promising lessons for all those who aren’t up to speed with your average nine year old.

FactCheck thinks this could prove rather expensive (especially given he’s trying to cut money from the welfare budget).

How much will it cost and where will the money come from? The Treasury has yet to get back to FactCheck.

We’d say the chances of people refusing free lessons and having their benefits cut as a result are slim to nothing on this one.  Mr Osborne gets a grade ‘F’ for fiction.

By Emma Thelwell