Whether that is true or not, I had an extraordinary piece of good fortune when I arrived at the Civic Centre this morning for the sole purpose of treating myself to one of the surprisingly tasty English breakfasts which they serve up in our canteen. For en route to said canteen I encountered a number of Somali ladies and gentlemen, including my good friend Hassan Isse, who naturally assumed that I had turned up to attend the Annual General Meeting of the Refugee Employment & Training Initiative (RETI), which I had promised to do and to which I had been looking forward very much. But for whatever reason I hadn't noted the date in my diary, and would have missed it but for the call of my rumbling tum.
RETI is an organisation which provides advice and assistance to newly-arrived immigrants and their families with a view to helping them to integrate more easily into British society. Although heavily rooted in the Somali community, it is reaching out to other groups and amongst those I encountered today were Albanians, Kosovans, Nepalese and Tamils. Despite its name it provides services to members of these groups irrespective of whether or not they have attained British citizenship, a fact which has led some members of RETI to question whether the misnomer "Refugee" should now be dropped from its name.
Initiatives such as RETI should provoke healthy debate amongst those of us who hold the view of the current administration at the London Borough of Hounslow that there should be more emphasis on what unites the people of Hounslow, a thoroughly multi-cultural community with over 120 languages spoken, rather than on what divides us. Knowing some of my colleagues within the coalition the instinct might well be, perhaps understandably, to see RETI as being more a product of the old mentality, providing special services for some sections of the community and not for others.
It is worth considering therefore the three foundations on which Community Cohesion is built, according to the Department of Communities and Local Government:
- People from different backgrounds having similar life opportunities
- People knowing their rights and responsibilities
- People trusting one another and trusting local institutions to act fairly
Groups such as RETI aspire to create a level playing field. In other words they want to create conditions within our society which make integration and cohesion more, not less, achievable. To that end I believe they should be supported and encouraged.
I share the revulsion of all my colleagues within the coalition towards the tacky, cynical vote-buying approach which the previous administration took in its support for some elements of the Voluntary Sector. But in our rejection of this approach we need to be clever, and resist the temptation to throw the baby out with the bathwater in the process of making some grand gesture. We should make our support for the Voluntary Sector work for Community Cohesion, just as our predecessors made it work for themselves.
RETI is one of many groups which, if successful, will pave the way for a united, cohesive and integrated Hounslow. But as it blossoms from beyond its purely Somali origins and reaches out to other newly-arrived groups I can foresee this particular organisation, possessed as it is of dedicated, astute, charismatic and highly intelligent leadership, becoming a very major player in the Community Cohesion work which is so important to me and to all of my colleagues.
These people deserve all the help and support we can give them.