Backbench Business — Summer Adjournment

Part of Child Benefit Entitlement (Disqualification of Non-UK EU Nationals) – in the House of Commons at 5:14 pm on 22nd July 2014.

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Photo of Paul Blomfield Paul Blomfield Labour, Sheffield Central 5:14 pm, 22nd July 2014

I do not want to comment on the many interesting contributions this afternoon, but I want to pick up one point made by my hon. Friend Meg Hillier about the minimum practice income guarantee, which has been in the public eye in the way it affects practices in London, but also has had an impact across the country. In fact, five GP practices in Sheffield are affected, including two in my constituency. I have pressed Ministers in Health questions and met with NHS England, and I have had a similar experience—warm words and reassurances but no sign of significant practical action to alleviate the impact on those practices working with the most challenging patients in the city. Those practices face a tipping point, and I join her in urging the Government to reconsider the withdrawal of MPIG over the next seven years, because, if they do not, a number of practices will fall by the wayside.

That was not what I rose to speak about. These debates provide a useful opportunity for us to reflect on the past year and to learn lessons for the remainder of the Parliament. I am proud to represent a multicultural constituency in a multicultural city, and I want to talk about a community that I have worked with over many years but which is feeling increasingly beleaguered: our Muslim community. It is long established in Sheffield—over three or four generations—and I have worked with it for more than 30 years, challenging extremism, since long before I was a Member of Parliament. I have to say that the extremism we have challenged over that period has largely come from the white community: from the National Front, the British National party, the English Defence League and others.

The community now feels threatened. A community leader said to me recently:

“People feel under attack all of the time, not in a physical way, but that they’re always under suspicion.”

My hon. Friend Shabana Mahmood described the problem very well in a recent article in The Guardian. She said that

“this lazy discussion (practising Muslim = extremist = on the conveyer belt to terrorism) is getting just a little tired”.

The members of my local community are not just tired of the narrative, but worried about it. People who have worked for years to promote community cohesion say to me that the situation has never been worse. We have to act on this lesson for the remainder of the Parliament, because a toxic public discourse is developing in which religious conservatism, political extremism and national security issues are often dealt with as one when it comes to the Muslim community.

Everyone in this place has an important role in helping to frame that public discourse—today we had a significant debate about the issue in Birmingham schools. The bullying and intimidation of staff; improper employment and governance practices; the promotion of one branch of a faith to the exclusion of others, and a lack of financial transparency are issues that we have to take extremely seriously and which should be investigated seriously, as they have been, but to frame them as an Islamist plot and to link them to terrorism by appointing the former head of the Metropolitan police’s counter-terrorism command to investigate is profoundly unhelpful, because it fuels division, rather than reducing it. As another of my Muslim constituents told me recently,

“Everything you do is questioned, by the Government and by your neighbours. Muslims are seen as terrorists.”

The press plays a role in creating such a climate. Newspaper headlines linking the appalling events associated with the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, in Iraq and Syria, with threats to the UK, as reflected in a recent Daily Telegraph headline, “Are the British jihadists going to turn their guns on us?”, fuel enormous suspicion. A recent article in the Evening Standard on women jihadists told the story of two 17-year-old British girls arrested at Heathrow and went on at length about the threat posed by women converting to Islamic terrorism, before pointing out that they had been released without charge. We have even witnessed hysteria over people eating halal meat. The Daily Mail described that—in a front-page horror story—as

“a stealthy takeover of Britain’s supermarket shelves”.

The way in which we frame discussion and the way in which we address issues need to be approached carefully. It was not helpful for the Prime Minister to contribute an article to the Daily Mail which was accompanied by a front-page headline reading “Be more British, Cameron tells UK Muslims”. A debate about British values is fine, but let us be careful how we frame it. Let us also recognise that when the Prime Minister talks about

“a belief in freedom, tolerance of others”,

it is not helpful for some of his Back Benchers, at the same time, to introduce private Member’s Bills to legislate for what women can and cannot wear.

All this is not without consequence. According to Tell MAMA, a voluntary organisation with which some Members will be familiar—it measures and monitors anti-Muslim attacks, and, unfortunately, its funding has been withdrawn by the Government—the number of attacks on Muslims increased significantly over its last reporting period, between May 2013 and February 2014. That contrasts sharply with the general figures produced by the police and the Government on hate crime incidents.

Careless words cause real damage. As we look forward to the remaining part of the current Parliament, there are three things that we could do. First, all of us—on all sides—need to be enormously careful about the way in which we use language, and the Government in particular need to think carefully about the way in which they frame their debate on British values. Secondly, we need to recognise the good work that is done in all communities to tackle extremism, and to recognise that extremism exists in all communities. Thirdly, we need to work harder at building community cohesion. It would be useful for the Government to reflect on the decision to cut the budget of the Department for Communities and Local Government for community rights, integration and the big society from £38.6 million in 2013-14 to £27.2 million in 2014-15, at precisely the time when we need to work harder to build community cohesion. If we fail to rise to that challenge, we shall be driving communities apart when we should be pulling them together. Let us make those our objectives for the remaining months of this Parliament.