Un International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 8:33 pm on 8th April 2019.

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Photo of Alex Chalk Alex Chalk Conservative, Cheltenham 8:33 pm, 8th April 2019

I pay tribute to Ian Austin, who gave a speech of extraordinary fluency and power. Everybody in this House knows that racism is morally and intellectually bankrupt. That is the easy bit to say. The difficult bit to face up to is that there are clear examples that show that it is on the rise. We might have lulled ourselves into a false feeling of security that there is an iron rule of social progress that determines that it should wither, but it has not. We are seeing much more of it; it has not been consigned to the dustbin of history.

Hon. Members have talked about what the possible reasons are for that, and we have talked a bit about social media, but it is worth highlighting why social media is relevant. It seems to me that the reason is this. Individuals can exist in communities that are otherwise beacons of tolerance, and yet the online community is more important to them than the real-world community that they live within. When people talk about loners, in the past that might have been individuals alone with their books, but now those loners are behind a screen, finding individuals elsewhere in the world who have similar outlooks and warped perspectives. The critical point is that this allows such individuals to normalise atrocious and appalling behaviour, to say unspeakable things about which they then find succour and comfort elsewhere in the world, and to drive each other on to ever more unspeakable thoughts and, in some appalling cases, actions.

What are the solutions? Time does not allow any great opportunity to expand on these, but I invite the House to consider three things. First, we have to do everything possible to ensure that individuals can build real-world experiences of interacting with people of backgrounds and faiths. One of the things that has struck me so powerfully in Cheltenham is to see people of all backgrounds coming together through the National Citizen Service, for example, meeting people with whom they might otherwise never expect to have any contact and finding, in the inspiring words of Jo Cox, that we have of course more in common. Increasingly, however, it requires the hand of the state to intervene to ensure that such opportunities are available. We saw that during the community day held in Winston Churchill gardens in Cheltenham, with people of all faiths interacting and being enriched through that experience.

Secondly, in Cheltenham—forgive me for mentioning it again—the security services are intensely important. At GCHQ, we have some of the finest minds anywhere in our country, and one of their key tasks is to root out violent extremism of the far right or of the far left and bring it to justice.

Thirdly, the social media companies need to get their house in order. I strongly welcome the White Paper that has been issued today, which will lay down a marker. If material that is likely to inspire hate and intolerance comes to be on their platforms, they have a duty to take it down within a reasonable period, and if they do not, the state will take action and it will hit them where it hurts—in their pockets.