Deborah Orr: Farewell to multiculturalism, welcome to community cohesion (and loads of jargon)

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The Independent Online

Here is a heart-warming story about how central government can reach down into local communities and use its expertise to help them to solve their problems. Boston Borough Council, in Lincolnshire, was concerned about negative perceptions of the town in the media. So, its wise heads got in touch with the Department for Communities and Local Government, which put it in touch "via Leicester City Council", with the regional paper, The Leicester Mercury.

Now, that might sound like a bit of a complicated way to contact the media and have a bit of a word with some journalists. But it's not at all complicated compared to what followed. Here is how the rest of the transaction was described in a government document published this week, and entitled with admirable straightforwardness, Response To The Commission On Integration And Cohesion. "The aims of the project were to work with public sector agencies (principally the local authority and the LSP) to critically examine their engagement with local media and to consider ways in which supportive coverage can be fostered and community cohesion promoted.

"The initial pilot resulted in one action plan for the local community, its partners and local media and this additional material was added to ICoCo's Cohesion Communications Toolkit. The lessons learnt were disseminated to other local authorities."

Yes, I know what you're thinking. It's "I can't read any more of this brain-bleeding jargon," isn't it? Or maybe, if you're gifted with fortitude, it's "What is an LSP?" Or "What is ICoCo?" Or "What is a "Cohesion Communications Toolkit?" Good questions, to which I have the answer.

An LSP is a local strategic partnership. It is part of a "family of non-statutory, multi-agency partnerships, which match local authority boundaries and bring together at a local level the different parts of the public, private, community and voluntary sectors, allowing different initiatives and services to support one another so that they can work together more effectively". If they sound a bit similar to local authorities, then that's because they appear to exist in order to counter the difficulty whereby local authorities are not doing what the Government wishes them to do. Or, as the Communities and Local Government website puts it: "Lack of joint working at local level has been one of the key reasons why there has been little progress in delivering sustainable economic, social and physical regeneration or improved public services that meet the needs of local communities."

ICoCo is quite a different beast. It is the Institute of Community Cohesion and, according to the website of Coventry University, it "was established in 2005 to provide a new approach to race, diversity and multiculturalism". It adds: "Our aim is to become the recognised national and international centre of expertise on community cohesion, providing unrivalled research capacity, academic courses to the highest level, accredited training programmes for public, private and voluntary sectors and support to all agencies involved in the development of community cohesion policy and practice."

Still there? Well done. So, what is a Cohesion Communications Toolkit? It is a "live document" created by ICoCo and funded by the Home Office which "draws on the experience of a number of councils who took part in a workshop in March 2006". It is "live", basically, because whenever the Government gets wind of a local problem related to "community cohesion", it shoves what happened in response to the problem into the Cohesion Communications Toolkit so that other local authorities can access the wisdom thus gleaned.

I think it is pretty telling that one little paragraph from an important government document needs quite so much in the way of footnoting. Needless to say, footnotes for all 56 pages of Response To The Commission On Integration And Cohesion would stretch for miles, explaining the workings of all sorts of temporary or permanent bodies, the research they have conducted, the reports they have made and will make, the frameworks that exist to measure their progress and the action teams that are to be set up in order to disseminate their policies.

It is still considered rather bold in leftist circles to question the value of multiculturalism, and still considered rather bold in rightist ones to suggest that it is the cause of all our troubles. Only this week, publicity surrounding the Government's idiotic and retrograde decision to pay benefits to certain members of "harems" suggested that multiculturalism was still a live issue. Yet, as far as the general thrust of government policy is concerned, multiculturalism was buried long ago, its grave marked extravagantly with a vast emerald city of structures designed to promote "cohesion".

I don't myself believe that multiculturalism is much to be mourned. But I do think it is worrying, this rush to bureaucratise the new "approach" even as it is still being researched. For all the Government really seems to know about "cohesion" is that it doesn't really know very much about it. Government-commissioned research has found that "in each area there is no single or small group of factors which can explain the level of cohesion" and that "even the strongest influence, the level of deprivation – can explain only a few percentage points of difference".

The Government does recognise that cohesion can only be promoted at a local level, though, and being a centralising government it is eager to put in place mechanisms whereby it can control from Whitehall this need for local change. (As ever, it is where most of the money, time and expertise will go). Or, as the Government prefers to put it: "Central government's role is to set the national framework within which local government can deliver." That national framework, of course, is going to be published soon.

Some of the forms of control are familiar. Schools are to be used as a means of promoting cohesion, of course, with a whole raft of committees, bodies and initiatives being launched in order that schools can be told what to do, and "share their experiences" of doing it. As of July this year, for example, schools will be obliged to run a "Who do we think we are?" week.

Yet, more broadly, because the Government is not quite sure of what it wants, or when it is sure what it wants, is not sure of how to get it, the main thing it craves is more information. There are, therefore, to be further orgies of opinion-gathering – the most striking example of which is that the Government's Citizenship Survey, conducted biennally since 2001, is now to be done every three months. This, says the Department for Communities and Local Government, will provide "the very latest intelligence on people's attitudes and expectations". And we all thought that was what MPs were for.

d.orr@independent.co.uk

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