Religious Intolerance and Prejudice - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:05 pm on 17th October 2018.

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Photo of Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Housing, Communities and Local Government) 6:05 pm, 17th October 2018

My Lords, I thank the Chief Whip’s office and the usual channels for allowing time for this most important debate.

Barely a month ago, my noble friend Lord Popat—who is not in his place at present—raised a question about what is being done to reassure Jewish communities about anti-Semitism in the United Kingdom. In that debate, we heard many powerful speeches from across this House that brought to light the palpable fear felt by Jewish communities. The message from this Chamber was clear: all Jewish people in the UK today are valued, they are welcome, and they will be protected whatever it takes. This is a message I reaffirm today.

Due to restrictions on our time, much was left unsaid that afternoon, so I am grateful that more time has been found to open up this discussion, not only on anti-Semitism, but more broadly to all religious intolerance and prejudice. A deep discussion of religious intolerance and persecution in our country is needed in the light of the increase in religiously motivated hatred. I regularly speak to and receive messages from people of all faiths. They tell me of their anxiety at being subjected to hatred in a country they call home and of which they are proud, at the hate directed towards them and at the persecution directed at other groups.

I recall the words of the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury. It is a pleasure to see him in his place and we eagerly await his contribution. In the debate on shared values and public policy priorities, he said,

“we need a more beautiful and better common narrative that shapes and inspires us with a common purpose”,

He warned that we must resist,

“the turn inward that will leave us alone in the darkness, despairing and vulnerable”.—[Official Report, 2/12/16; col.418.]

I could not agree more, and I begin to see this better common narrative realised in Near Neighbours projects up and down the country, led by people of all faiths and none. These projects seek to highlight the values that bind our society together to invigorate and develop their local areas—values such as freedom of expression and freedom of worship, democracy, equal opportunity and the rule of law. I want to make absolutely clear, as I have stated many times before: any abuse directed at someone because of their religion, race, sexual orientation, disability or because they are transgender, is totally unacceptable and will not be tolerated. The Government will do whatever it takes to unite our country around these values and to confront those who would deny our fellow countrymen and women these freedoms. These values are fundamental and anyone who spreads intolerance or hatred shames themselves and places themselves outside of our society.

This message is timely as we mark National Hate Crime Awareness Week. It is a moment to highlight the challenges we still face. This morning I visited Greenwich Islamic Centre to meet a group of young black Christians and Muslims. I heard first hand their experiences and how they feel we can all do more to improve opportunities and challenge hatred, to tackle Islamophobia and anti-Semitism and to seek to build an inclusive and united Britain around these values.

It is also a moment to listen and learn from the tremendous work of people standing up against hatred across the country. Last month, I was privileged to attend the national No2H8 Crime Awards, which brought together hundreds of activists working to combat hate—many of them partners with the Government and with each other. The importance of this particular awards ceremony has grown over the years.

I was particularly inspired by the winners of their Young Upstander Awards: Siena Castellon, who campaigns against bullying of people with disabilities and particularly highlights hidden disabilities; Rory McGuire, who works to combat hatred directed at people with facial disfigurements; and Ahmad Nawaz, who campaigns against religious intolerance following his experience of being attacked by the Taliban, losing family and being himself badly injured. These stories are but a few examples of the incredible people and organisations honoured that evening. They remind us that the only way to respond to hatred and intolerance is to call it out and stop it.

That is true of government too. We are utterly committed to challenging and condemning religious intolerance and persecution in all forms. We stand half way through the four-year hate crime action plan, and this week we released our refresh of the plan, which is an important opportunity to take stock of progress made. We now have a strong legal framework in place. There are criminal penalties for offences such as incitement to racial, religious or sexual orientation hatred, and racially or religiously aggravated offences such as intentionally causing harassment, alarm or distress. We have increased sentences for offences motivated by prejudice, hostility, or prejudice based on a person’s real or perceived race, religion, transgender identity, sexual orientation or disability.

Our work with the cross-government working groups to tackle anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim hatred and Islamophobia also continues at pace. The feedback from these groups and from round tables with members of Sikh communities has been invaluable. We have also continued to collaborate with a range of partners such as the Anne Frank Trust; Streetwise’s Stand Up! Programme; True Vision, the police hate crime reporting portal; Tell MAMA and Remembering Srebrenica.

But the renewal and refreshing of our hate crime action plan is also the right moment to look ahead to the next two years of the plan. If the last two years are anything to go by, we have the potential to achieve a lot. We have achieved much better reporting of hate crime, which is one reason—not the only one—why the incidence of reported hate crime has gone up. We have had success in encouraging the reporting of hate crime, and it is important to know that.

We have asked the Law Commission to review the coverage and approach of current hate crime legislative provision. We must be clear: when someone has perpetrated a hate crime, they will be held accountable for it. Later this year, we will launch a wide-ranging national hate crime public awareness campaign publicly to address hate crime. The refresh commits us to updating the True Vision website to make it easier to use and to ensure it remains the key central platform for all hate crime reporting. We are working with the National Police Chiefs’ Council to provide hate crime training for all call handlers in order to ensure an appropriate response from the first contact, and we are creating the challenging hate crime support group—a network of organisations who share resources, skills and best practice.

Sadly, security remains a key concern. The Government have already provided over £2.4 million to increase security provisions for vulnerable places of worship, and in the refresh we have committed further resource for this purpose, to be released next year. That has been welcomed by faith communities up and down the country. It ensures that we are alive to community concerns and able to respond quickly and strongly when incidents occur. The need for this was sadly illustrated by the recent incident in Cricklewood, where Islamophobic abuse was directed at worshippers attending a lecture series for Ashura, before people were injured, some of them seriously. But the response was exemplary. We were quickly in contact with communities and condemned the incident, and the police offered their support and presence for remaining lectures. We will do whatever is needed to protect all our communities.

Our message must be that there is no place for hate in our society, and that is equally true of online hate. Last December, with others I hosted a ministerial round table which brought together social media and technology companies with community stakeholders to consider how hateful narratives are able to spread online and, crucially, what can be done to prevent it. These conversations are ongoing and will be reflected in the forthcoming White Paper on online harms. A number of different aspects of government work will be brought together to make industry take responsibility for harms, including using technology to improve user safety, supporting users to increase their own digital resilience, and outlining what direct action the Government can take to address online harms.

I am mindful that these challenges cross borders. Our work, naturally, has a number of international dimensions, notably the promotion of freedom of religion or belief around the world, including in Commonwealth countries. I pay tribute to what my noble friend Lord Ahmad is doing in this regard. We actively defend and promote this right on a number of fronts. We lobby Governments for changes in laws and practices that discriminate against individuals on the basis of their religion or belief. We raise individual cases of persecution with relevant authorities in other countries. Multilaterally, we work through the United Nations and the Commonwealth, and there are important lessons to be learned, not least from attacks on Coptic Christians.

Through this international work, there are a number of lessons we can learn. I was personally reminded of this on a recent visit to Bosnia and Herzegovina, where I visited the Srebrenica-Potočari Memorial and Cemetery for the victims of the 1995 genocide. With the Mothers of Srebrenica I laid a wreath in memory of those cruelly killed. Speaking to them afterwards renewed my conviction that we cannot tackle today’s problems without learning from the horrors of the past. In that spirit we are supporting the creation of a national memorial to the Holocaust here at home. Leading British architect Sir David Adjaye has been appointed to design the memorial and learning centre. The ambition is create a world-class memorial in an iconic location, making a bold statement about the importance Britain places on preserving the dreadful memory of the Holocaust. The Holocaust Memorial Day Trust, a charity set up by the Government, runs events and programming for Holocaust Memorial Day both locally and nationally, with government funding. We are committed to ensuring that these awful histories, alongside the horrors of the Rwandan genocide, from which we mark the passage of 25 years next year, the Cambodian genocide and the genocide in Darfur are never forgotten and never repeated—not to mention current challenges such as the Rohingya situation.

In 2017, over 11,000 activities took place around the country to mark Holocaust Memorial Day. It is a real tribute to our communities, and the incredible contribution that people of faith make to their local communities is something I have been honoured to witness first hand. During my recent faith tour I visited the Khizra Mosque in Manchester for a big iftar during Ramadan, where people from local communities, including those of Jewish and Christian faith, joined worshippers at the mosque to break their fast. The mosque opened its doors on the night of the appalling attack at the Manchester Arena, providing a drop-off centre for emergency services and shelter for victims in need of a safe place. Islam at its best—our country at its best. I have also been inspired by the range of faith-based social action projects developing their local neighbourhoods and creating connections across different faith groups. Jewish-led Mitzvah Day, Sikh-led Sewa Day and Muslim-led Sadaqa Day all reinforce one another, and throughout the year find a network of social activism with our faith communities at the front.

Indeed, engagement between faith communities is growing. It is one of our strongest defences against intolerance and persecution. I was also privileged to learn about the twinning arrangement between St Philip’s Church in Southwark and the Old Kent Road Mosque on this faith tour, and to see it in action. The church-mosque twinning programme is an excellent example of interfaith in action. It was clear to me from my visit that twinning has helped the relationship between the mosque and local clergy to move from initial contact, through dialogue, towards real mutual support and friendship.

In his contribution in response to my noble friend Lord Popat’s question on anti-Semitism, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Birmingham made the distinction between talking about people and talking with them. He said that this was the only way properly to challenge prejudice and intolerance. He is right. I once again call on everyone, whether they are a member of a faith community or not, to visit their local synagogue, mosque, gurdwara, church and temple. Let them know that you stand with them in good times and difficult times. When people from different backgrounds have the opportunity to mix socially and get to know one another, it breaks down the walls on which intolerance creeps and grows. Enter with an open mind and an open heart to hear about their traditions, and their hopes, and share yours with them. I encourage our places of worship to keep their doors open, reaching out to your local neighbourhoods with everything that they have to offer.

It is when we feel the most challenged, and the most afraid, that these encounters are at their most valuable. We must all challenge anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, discrimination against Sikhs, against Hindus—against any racial group—wherever it exists. I am proud of my country, a rich and diverse country which confronts religious hatred and bigotry and must always do so. We must all be of that opinion and act accordingly: government, opposition, institutions and individuals. That is the British tradition. I beg to move.