Terrorist Attack: New Zealand - Statement

– in the House of Lords at 6:42 pm on 18 March 2019.

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Photo of Baroness Williams of Trafford Baroness Williams of Trafford The Minister of State, Home Department, Minister for Equalities (Department for International Development) 6:42, 18 March 2019

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall repeat an Answer to an Urgent Question asked in the other place earlier today. The Answer is as follows:

“Thank you, Mr Speaker, and I am grateful to the honourable lady for asking the Question so that the Government can set on record our position towards extreme right-wing, neo-Nazi and other types of violent terrorism. The Home Secretary would have liked to respond personally to this Urgent Question, but he was visiting Regent’s Park mosque with the Communities Secretary today to show support for British Muslims, following last week’s horrific terrorist attack in Christchurch. The attack was a sickening act of terrorism which this Government condemn, as we do the incident reported in Utrecht today and the attack in Surrey on Saturday evening.

The Government take all forms of terrorism and extremism seriously. Our counterterrorism strategy, Contest, does not differentiate between what motivates the threat. It is designed to address all forms of terrorism, whatever the ideology, be it Islamist, neo-Nazi, far-right or extreme left-wing.

If we are to tackle terrorism in the long term, we must challenge those seeking to radicalise people. The Prevent policy is designed to safeguard our vulnerable citizens from being recruited or motivated into terrorism. That is why I always urge people to get behind the policy. Our counterterrorism strategy is agnostic to the threat. It is not relevant to us what name terror strikes; it is the use of violence and hate that we seek to stop. Government and law enforcement will direct their funding wherever the threat emerges, and if we are to stay one step ahead as the threat changes, so must the funding. We will continue to keep funding for protective security measures under review as that threat moves, and will indeed consistently be reviewed for places of worship and other areas that may be vulnerable.

Social media platforms should be ashamed that they have enabled a terrorist to live-stream this evil massacre and spread this mantra of hate to the whole world. As the Home Secretary has made clear, “Enough is enough”. We have been clear that tech companies need to act more quickly to remove terrorist content and ultimately prevent new terrorist content being made available to users in the first place. This must be a wake-up call for them to do more. There can be no safe spaces for terrorists to promote and share their sick views. The online harms White Paper will be published imminently and it will set out clear expectations for tech companies to keep users safe, and what will happen if they fail to do so. This Government take the growing threat of the extreme right wing extremely seriously, and I can assure the House and our Muslim communities that we will stand together to counter it wherever it manifests itself in our society”.

Photo of Lord Kennedy of Southwark Lord Kennedy of Southwark Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Shadow Spokesperson (Housing) 6:46, 18 March 2019

My Lords, first, I condemn the terrorist attack in Christchurch, the attack in Utrecht and the attack yesterday in Surrey. All the victims of these incidents are in my thoughts and prayers. Terrorists can never be allowed to win; we utterly reject their message of hate, violence and killing. I also express my anger and disappointment at the actions of the social media companies following the terrorist attack in Christchurch—time and time again, they fail us. They are publishers and are responsible for the content on their platforms. Can the Minister confirm that the White Paper she referred to in her Statement will be the start of putting on the statute book the toughest laws possible in the UK to ensure that these companies understand their responsibilities and that there will be serious consequences where they fail to take them seriously?

Photo of Baroness Williams of Trafford Baroness Williams of Trafford The Minister of State, Home Department, Minister for Equalities (Department for International Development)

I absolutely confirm to the noble Lord that the White Paper and its consequent legislation will tackle this. I have had numerous contacts with CSPs; on each occasion, I have made this point most strongly. They have heard submissions from the honourable Member Luciana Berger about some of the disgusting content about her that has been put online. I have only to look at Twitter to see some of the absolutely appalling comments that people make, particularly about Members of either your Lordships’ House or of the other place. To put such a video online is the final straw, so I totally agree with my right honourable friend the Home Secretary, and the sooner this legislation comes, the better.

Photo of Baroness Hussein-Ece Baroness Hussein-Ece Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Equalities)

My Lords, I also associate myself with the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy. The absolutely shocking events in Christchurch last Friday sent shockwaves right around the world, particularly in this country—Muslims here were fearful of going to a mosque on Friday as well. It is clear now that Muslims need more than thoughts and prayers because many fear that this can and will very likely happen in the UK.

I am glad the Minister highlighted social media responsibilities. The media and some politicians have created a climate in which far-right ideology and commentary can flourish—by giving platforms to right-wing hate preachers and to journalists who write racist opinion pieces, and to those who support Islamophobia on TV. Words have consequences—these events did not happen in a vacuum—and these are no longer fringe ideologies but ideologies tolerated and dressed up as freedom of speech. Will the online harms White Paper that the Minister mentioned include looking at mainstream media? The comments on online mainstream media pieces, such as those on Mail Online, are equally disgraceful and as disgusting as those on social media. That needs to be seriously looked at.

The Minister mentioned the Prevent programme, but it has, until recently, failed to challenge or change the attitudes of those on the far right. We urgently need an anti-extremism strategy that addresses the subversive far-right activity that has been allowed to flourish. Will the Government use their powers to take direct action to tackle these far-right extremists, and will the review of the Prevent programme investigate how the far right has been mainstreamed? As I mentioned, it has been given regular platforms, especially on channels such as the BBC. Last Friday on “Newsnight”, disgracefully, a hate organisation called Generation Identity was invited to comment on the murders. What will be done about this?

Photo of Baroness Williams of Trafford Baroness Williams of Trafford The Minister of State, Home Department, Minister for Equalities (Department for International Development)

I thank the noble Baroness for her comments. To start with her last point, I understood that some of Generation Identity’s members were supposed to be speaking at an event last year in this country and that the organisers cancelled the event so that Generation Identity could not have a platform to spread its hate. None the less, the mainstream media invited a comment from it.

The White Paper is entirely the platform from which to discuss—effectively, it is a pre-consultation on the legislation—whether mainstream media should be included. Mainstream media should also get its religious literacy right. The noble Lord, Lord Singh, who is not in his place, always talks about it: people are very sloppy with language. We all have a responsibility to be careful about that. The noble Baroness talked about people saying things in the name of freedom of speech, but with freedom of speech comes the responsibility to not let hate take hold. I have often heard freedom of speech used as an excuse to mete out hate and division towards other people—wherever they might be, but particularly in communities where they seem to have a grip.

She also talked about Muslims living in fear—and Muslims are in fear. In Manchester on Friday, I felt a terrible sense of unease. However, there was a lovely vigil on Friday evening, where people of all faiths came together—it was really touching. While people were out celebrating St Patrick’s Day in one bit of Manchester, in another part, just nearby, everyone of any faith and none was coming together to think and pray for our friends in New Zealand.

The noble Baroness also talked about Prevent, which is as much about the far right as it is about Islamist extremism. In fact, we are absolutely cognisant of the referrals to Channel on that issue over the past couple of years having increased significantly, going from 30% to nearly 50% of all referrals. We cannot talk about Prevent without talking about the far right.

Photo of Baroness Warsi Baroness Warsi Conservative

My Lords, I add my voice to the sentiments of all three Front-Benchers. Does my noble friend agree with the comments made by the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury, who described those who co-opt Christian language in their hate and speak about a Europe of Christendom against Muslims as “blasphemous”? Does she also agree that, despite numerous mentions of Christianity, biblical teachings and crusade references in the manifesto and act of the New Zealand terrorist, we do not believe this to be a Christian terrorist, nor do we believe that Christianity and Christians are to blame?

I hear my noble friend’s sentiments about being shocked, but does it surprise her that I am neither shocked nor surprised by this act? It has been a long time coming. Many of us have warned the House about the rise of Islamophobia. Therefore, would my noble friend consider some real action to come out of this tragedy? I do not necessarily expect an answer today, but will she take back and consider the Government adopting the definition of Islamophobia as detailed by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on British Muslims? That definition has now been adopted formally by the Liberal Democrats and is being considered and supported by the Labour Party. The party in government is the only party refusing to accept it.

Will she also ask her department to end its policy of disengagement with British Muslims, which has now been in place for more than a decade? Will she send out an unequivocal message that Islamophobia will not be tolerated in politics, specifically not by the party in government? We can do that by ending the culture of denial in our party and instigating an independent inquiry.

Photo of Baroness Williams of Trafford Baroness Williams of Trafford The Minister of State, Home Department, Minister for Equalities (Department for International Development)

I thank my noble friend for her points. On her last point about Islamophobia, I think she knows that any hatred towards anybody, regardless of their colour or creed, is absolutely deplorable to me. Certainly, if she or anyone else refers to me any examples of Islamophobia they have witnessed or had reported to them, I will take action and follow up on it immediately.

My noble friend asked about the policy of disengagement. We will engage with people who share our values, abide by the rule of law and are committed to the tolerance of different faiths in our society. I know that my right honourable friends the Home Secretary and the Communities Secretary held an Islamophobia round table last week, which discussed the Anti-Muslim Hatred Working Group working on a definition of Islamophobia. I am sure that the definition the APPG came up with will provide food for thought.

My noble friend talked about being shocked but not surprised. I am shocked but not surprised every day of the week by some of the things happening in society. Two years ago, it started in earnest on the streets of this country. We must constantly be shocked by it, otherwise I do not think that anything would be done. I have just been told that I am out of time, but I will finish on the words of the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury about Christianity. Christianity, or any other religion, can never be used as an excuse to do the sort of things we have seen on our streets and on the streets of other countries.

Photo of Lord Blunkett Lord Blunkett Labour

Are we out of time?

Noble Lords: