Religious Intolerance and Prejudice - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:40 pm on 17th October 2018.

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Photo of Lord Triesman Lord Triesman Labour 8:40 pm, 17th October 2018

My Lords, I start by thanking the Minister—not just for launching this debate, but for what was a very important speech. I want to read and study his contribution again. It is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Patten. I know this is what Ministers normally get to do at the end of debates, but I want to thank everybody I have heard so far. I have not heard a speech from which I have not learned a good deal. One of the conventions of the House is that we only refer to people on our own side as our noble friends. However, I think this is an occasion when the friendship and empathy across the House is a great deal more significant than which side we are sitting on. So, if I do not use the convention, it will be because I see people across the House in exactly that spirit. I am looking forward to what my noble friend Lord Griffiths says at the end, though I have not heard him yet. He is a very distinguished leader of his own Church, in which he has played such a significant part. I am sorry that the noble Lord, Lord Popat, is not in his place at the moment. He has also been a formidable champion of many of these issues and I want to record my thanks to him.

Ten, maybe even five, years ago I could not have imagined that we would be having this debate, nor felt that it was necessary. The headlines that we saw yesterday about the dire increases in hate crime might not come as a surprise because we have probably all charted them. They do come as a surprise, however, because somehow, we have arrived at a point in this country where these things are manifest and serious. I am not going to repeat all the statistics because your Lordships have read them and heard them in other speeches. They are devastating. It is true from these statistics that some communities in particular have found themselves in the crosshairs of this—the Muslim community, and the Jewish community of which I am part. It moves me and has made me want to speak today because I reflect on my own family’s history, as my noble friend Lord Kestenbaum did a short while ago on his. He talked about the escape of his family from Germany. More or less none of the members of my family who were in mainland Europe escaped, with fatal consequences for pretty much all of them. One part of my family escaped from Portugal in 1492—the Portuguese have managed to track them back all that distance, which must mean that their Home Office is a good deal more efficient than ours. The reality is that our family survived because that branch escaped all that time ago.

Part of what I say, reflecting on what has been said by my noble friend Lord Hain and others, is bound to sound a little angry. I do not mean to indulge in anger or victimhood, but I want to understand what we are trying to deal with.

The issues that we have begun to explore today have led the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, Cressida Dick—somebody I greatly admire and trust—to indicate the level of work and attention that her force will give to them. I welcome that enormously. Equally, however, I do not wholly buy into the certain amount of complacency shown by the Government when they say this is simply down to increased effectiveness in keeping records. There are very real problems which go beyond police recording; indeed, the Minister made the same point himself, and I am glad that he did. Everybody knows that a great many victims feel that they have to shrug these things off and somehow carry on without reporting anything to anybody. They either see that there is little prospect of action or believe that it has become such a normal part of their lives that they do not report it. If anything, I suspect that the crimes we have been discussing which go unreported, as with crimes against lesbians, gay people, bisexual people and transgender communities, would have boosted the figures significantly had they been reported. It is not a spike in the statistics; when you look at them, there is an unrelenting, upward curve.

I will quickly mention two examples from my own experience. A lady who worked for me was punched in the face on a London bus two days after the Brexit result, when she was with her five year-old daughter. She was not visibly from any minority community; as it happens, she was from Latvia. However, she spoke with a strange accent, which caused huge fury to somebody. She would not report it. She said that what she would do was to take herself and her daughter back to where they came from. It may be that many of the people who took part in that referendum wanted exactly that outcome, but the reality was that she decided not to report it but to go. The other example is of my own intern in your Lordships’ House, who just a few weeks ago was set upon by three thugs in the East End of London. She is visibly and, I would guess to most people, obviously a young Muslim woman. She has been badly injured; thank God, she is moving around again, albeit on crutches. She was attacked for those reasons, and she is just one of many examples. It is all very close to home, which is the point I wanted to make.

We are seeing not just something in the general population; we need to reflect on ourselves as well. Political elites do not always do as much they could, or the right things in the circumstances. We see many advocates of a decent, tolerant set of relationships, and that is very much what I see and experience in this House—I described all noble Lords speaking in this debate as friends in a sense, and I meant it. But I fear that others should hang their heads in shame. Boris Johnson has become a man whose public bigotry is a significant issue. It is unbelievable to me that he should talk of Muslim women as he does, but in fact he has talked of many minority communities in much the same way. The leader of my own party, it is sad for me to say—having been involved in the party, and its general secretary—has a long history of rhetoric but is wholly bereft of action. Inaction has allowed anti-Semitism to fester in the Labour Party, and the serried ranks of bigots, who are waiting for action to be taken, see that it somehow never matures. In these cases leadership rarely says the right things, and it appears that in my party it does not do the right things. Above all, for me it is what you do rather than what you say that tells people who you are and what your values are. A Labour MP who can walk around a difficult and tough constituency in the north-west without any kind of police escort or protection cannot walk through the Labour Party conference without police protection. That is a fundamental, visible example of a significant problem. Many of us have experienced similar things—not that we needed police protection, but similar kinds of abuse.

I say to my noble friend Lady Deech that in my experience it is not always about Israel and Palestine—in fact, that is unusual. The thing which apparently I do, and which people know about me without ever asking my view, is that I use whatever authority I have to prop up my friends the Rothschilds and George Soros to make sure that the secret network which makes so much money for that part of the community is intact. One could have heard it in the 1930s of course, and we are hearing it again now.

It is a sad truth that we are becoming an ugly and intolerant country. This is a tragedy for the United Kingdom, given its history and ability to absorb peoples. As many others have said, civility and respect are not quite dead in this country but I fear they are they are heading for a rather shallow grave.

The internet, which is the default mass publishing house for trolls, racists, homophobes, liars, fakers, charlatans and racial supremacists, has deepened the ugliness and intolerance. Freedom of expression is, of course, tremendously important, but I urge noble Lords to reflect on when the expression of something goes beyond freedom of expression into something that is, by repetition, more significant. If we look at any individual statement by Bannon, it is unlikely that we would see it, in itself, as the cause of anything. Yet, aggregated, such statements were sufficient to help the President of the United States say of a group of Ku Klux Klan members that they were not “bad people”. If we can begin to define where things move from being expressions of opinion into being dangerous, we should do it.

The problems have been there below the surface for a long time; we need to face them. Black communities in the United Kingdom have faced them and we need to do so too, in a very candid way. In the case of Jewish people, Conor Cruise O’Brien rightly described anti-Semitism as a very light sleeper. Sadly, many of us who have experienced problems in the recent past will know just how lightly it is asleep.

The speech given by the noble Baroness, Lady Warsi, at the Second Reading of the anti-terrorism Bill was, I thought, exceptional; I applaud it, and I applaud what she said today. It is absolutely clear that, unless you can engage with communities who can engage with other people, the likelihood of finding solutions is very small. I assure her, as I am sure others in the House will, that many will support the positions she has taken and argue for them.

I do not think people’s fears are fanciful. My late father used to keep a packed suitcase—a bit like the parents of the noble Baroness, Lady Warsi—because he thought things would probably go wrong in this country. I always thought that was crazy but I am now beginning to see things which appear to be going very wrong. Any number of my friends and relatives are beginning to plan their departures to various places— Canada seems the most popular destination because they feel it is likely to be tolerant. What an extraordinary thing—I could not have imagined that this would happen in my lifetime.

Some of it is unquestionably down to the politics of identity. The sorts of social alliances that were so cohesive for us over so long a period have broken down in many ways. People still respect those institutions—most of us try to ensure that they remain healthy—but the truth is that people can identify themselves in smaller and smaller groups, which identify themselves partly through not being part of another identity. They are in many cases hell-bent on describing how their group has been set upon by the most considerable disadvantage. For those reasons, they regard themselves as needing a remedial case to be argued, which places them above others.

What might we do? First, I agree completely with those who say there is no place for hate crime. I do not like the idea of criminalising people, and I do not think it often works, but it is essential that people understand that the Government of this country will pursue crimes and seek to convict criminals, and that the regime which criminals then experience is enough to make them reconsider what they do. I do not see any point in thinking otherwise. I think of how the late Lord Scarman dealt with some of the issues that arose out of the original Notting Hill riots. It was an absolutely clinical intervention and it had a dramatic effect.

Secondly, the leaders of political parties must act expeditiously against members of their parties who promote hatred. This should apply absolutely to Islamophobia as much as it does to anti-Semitism or any other form of discrimination. They are in many ways distinctive, but they have much in common.

Thirdly, I will not repeat the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Hain, but I completely agree that fundamental economic change is important to raise aspirations and people’s feeling that they are part of this society.

Fourthly, and for the sake of our future, it is important to look at and address the school curriculum, the way teachers work and the sort of things that happen to kids in classrooms. There are good arguments for classroom discussions that enable all pupils to take part, with everyone being properly heard and their opinions respected. We need to focus on evidence and a means of dealing with fake facts. We need to draw on the external and community resources around schools, and we have to moderate opinions and strong emotions to try to retain cohesion. We have an amazing teaching force in this country in many ways, and it is perfectly capable of doing this. I am well aware that I am making no greater an appeal than to make sure that all the things in the Runnymede report of 1994, and reprinted in 1997, are finally done. Of course a lot has been done in schools—it would be stupid for me to suggest otherwise. However, I suspect that we have not done as much as we could.

For those reasons, I make one final point to your Lordships—to my friends, right across the House. The existential issues may take us a generation to deal with. As the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, said, that applies to universities too, but it applies also to the next generation. If we do not get it right, our future as a cohesive people will be in the gravest jeopardy.