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Islamophobia - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 2:00 pm on 20th December 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) 2:00 pm, 20th December 2018

The noble Lord raises an interesting point, but the project I was just talking about, schools linking, does that for all faiths. I recently visited schools in both Luton and Blackburn. One is in a predominantly white area of the town, or has predominantly white pupils, while another has pupils of different religions and races. It has had a beneficial effect on all religions and races, including on pupils in an essentially Christian-based, white school. I was going on to say that the children positively look forward to meetings between the two schools after they have had one or two. It is important to get in early in people’s lives to try to combat discrimination and prejudice. People are not born with prejudice and discrimination—it is something that grows. I hope that linking schools in that way will have benefits for older family members as well.

The noble Baroness also asked me about the diverse ethnicity and integration policy and what we were doing on that, and about recording the ethnicity divide on pay. We are certainly looking at that in the context of the Race Disparity Audit, which the noble Baroness will know that the Prime Minister has driven hard. That is now going forward, led by the Cabinet Office.

It was interesting to hear what the noble Lord, Lord Singh, said about people being asked about their attitudes to certain groups, including groups that did not exist, and because they sounded as if they could be racial minorities, people said that they did not like them. That is indicative of the ignorance that is behind a lot of this. I thank the noble Lord very much for highlighting that and for what he does. He says, to paraphrase him slightly, that Sikhs are not good at fighting their corner or complaining—but he always brings forward important matters so that we cannot forget the dimensions that exist there.

The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chichester made a point about Muslim women in particular being subject to discrimination and bigotry. It is awful that it occurs at all, but it is often even more appalling in relation to women, who can be isolated if they do not speak the English language well. That makes it particularly insidious, so it is important that we act. I thank him for that.

I congratulate my noble friend Lady Jenkin—I had not known about this—on her election to the board of the Fawcett Society and for all the work she has done on Women2Win over many years, and the success she has had. Yes, there is more work to be done, but she has done a terrific amount. She talked also about higher education and made a good point about the need for continuing support for women in Parliament. Going back to Operation Black Vote, it is interesting that there was a high proportion of women on that scheme—I did not count, but it was certainly at least 50%—so that is perhaps good news for the future.

I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Falkner, very much for a powerful description of the situation within Islam; there is certainly great diversity there, as I have found out in this job. There are the Ahmadiyya Muslims and other sects, and great national differences—the Bosniak Muslims often have different interpretations of Islam—and I agree with her that we need to take these things on board. She also stressed that the great mass of Muslims—the vast majority—are loyal to this country and play an active role as citizens of this country, which is not always appreciated and which, again, the media has a role in ensuring is carried forward much more.

I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Uddin, very much; she spoke about the urgency of the task, and I know about the work that she has done over many years and commend it. She also put this in the wider context of anti-Islamism in Europe, as did the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, in closing. This is of course not just about Britain. That is bound to be our main focus, but it is horrific to see that this is becoming a worldwide problem, and certainly a Europe-wide problem. We can see some of the discrimination and the results of it across Europe.

The noble Lord, Lord Hussain, again spoke of the proud role of the vast majority of British Muslims, including himself: he is a good example of a powerful role model. As I say, role models are extremely important. He also touched, as did others, on the dreadful anti-Muslim letters that we saw. I commend the community, who showed incredible courage, bravery and dignity during that period. It is difficult for me to appreciate what that must have been like, and I am sure that it was dreadful for somebody who was prominent in public life. However, it must have been far worse for people who are isolated. I am sure that Akeela Ahmed will not mind me saying that she, a prominent person, was not as fearful as other people in her family and people she knew, who she said were reluctant to come out that day. For that to happen in our country is dreadful. We should all feel a sense of shame about that and should work to counter it.

I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Afshar, very much for a very analytic description of the position and how we need to celebrate differences. Largely, we do; it is important to remind ourselves that the great mass of people get on with their lives, celebrate diversity in many aspects, and recognise the great diversity and benefits we have had from immigration in this country. We should now stand as one united nation, which is very much the message we should all carry forward. For people to talk about immigrant communities and their descendants as if they were the enemy within is distinctly un-British and shameful, and the Government are totally intolerant of it and will act on it.

In closing, I will try to encapsulate where we are. A great deal of work has been done. The Government’s position is fairly clear. First, if anyone asks the Government or indeed a political party, “Are you against anti-Semitic behaviour or anti-Islamic statements?”, of course any Government will say, “Yes; of course we’re against Islamophobia and anti-Semitism”. The question then is what we do. The first thing we need to look at—we will be looking to work done within government—is establishing a definition that will make things better. That is the start, and I think people will understand that. It may be that there is a swift resolution of that question, but we do not want to make things more difficult. We have seen today that there are different strands of opinion on how that definition should roll out; I appreciate that that is a slightly different aspect of the issue, but it means that the more potential definitions there are, the more you need to be reassured that you will not make matters worse.

Secondly, in parallel with that, we will certainly study the APPG report. It was thorough and well researched, and there are aspects to it that clearly anybody would want to take on board. That is the position we are in, and it is very much the position of the ministerial team in the department. This debate is important, and it will certainly be shared by the ministerial team to underline the importance of taking this forward.