[Hywel Williams in the Chair] — Jewish Communities (350th Anniversary)

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 10:38 am on 14th June 2006.

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Photo of Meg Munn Meg Munn Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Communities and Local Government) (Women and Equality) 10:38 am, 14th June 2006

I congratulate my hon. Friend Mr. Dismore on securing this important debate and on his representation of his Jewish community and constituents and, generally, the way in which he represents all his constituents. It is no exaggeration to say that he is indeed legendary in this place.

All hon. Members who contributed to the debate have added to its richness. They shared their experiences and knowledge, and I have certainly learned a great deal. It is always a pleasure to take part in a debate in which there is cross-party support—in which parties come together to speak loudly from this House about an important issue. I commend the speeches of the Front-Bench representatives, and I thank Alistair Burt for his generous comments and his moving contribution.

This debate takes place at an appropriate and opportune time. It is appropriate, as it provides an opportunity for the House to recognise the contribution that Jewish communities have made to our culture, society and economic success, and it is opportune, as the Government have recently consolidated their work with faith communities under the auspices of the new Department for Communities and Local Government. My hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government has lead responsibility for race, faith and cohesion following the reshuffle, and I am supporting him in that work, as part of my cross-cutting equality brief.

This year marks the 350th anniversary of the resettlement of Jews in England, following their expulsion by Edward I in 1290. It is an important anniversary in our country's history, a time to remember and celebrate. Jewish communities are part of the fabric of British life and have been for more than three centuries, and they have made a huge positive contribution to our society. During that time, they have been part of an extremely vibrant political culture, with people such as Benjamin Disraeli and Karl Marx, and political events, such as the 1936 battle of Cable street, which stopped Oswald Mosley's fascists marching in the east end of London, and to which my hon. Friends the Members for Hendon and for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs. Ellman) referred. Mainstream political parties have all had distinguished members from the Jewish community in this place contributing to the nation's governance.

Jewish contributions to British society have enriched it in many fields, including business and finance, arts and sciences, industry and technology, medicine and law, academia and the media, politics and public services, the armed forces and charitable endeavours. Indeed, it would be hard to find an area of British life that has not benefited from Jewish input, and hon. Members have given us other interesting and detailed examples.

As a community, the Jews have been able to integrate into the life of the country without losing their distinctive identity as Jews. My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside described that well. The Jewish community is an example of how members of an immigrant community can succeed as individuals and as a community, and make a huge positive contribution to the country at large.

The Government value the Jewish community in this country. Over the past year, ministerial colleagues have attended the League of Jewish Women's human rights day, the Rabbi-Imam conference, the 350 years of British Jewry event, the Holocaust Educational Trust dinner, and holocaust memorial day. As has been said, yesterday evening the Prime Minister attended an event at the Bevis Marks synagogue commemorating 350 years of British Jews in the UK.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hendon spoke of the experiences of Jews before and after the second world war. Holocaust memorial day is about commemorating all the communities that have suffered as a result of the holocaust and Nazi persecution. It is about demonstrating that the holocaust is relevant, by having the day as a focus. National and local events help people to think about the ongoing repercussions on our society of that tragic time.

The UK holocaust memorial day was first held in January 2001, and has been held on 27 January every year since. A different part of the UK hosts the national event each year, and it has been held successively in London, Manchester, Edinburgh, Belfast and London again. Holocaust memorial day this year was held in Cardiff, showing that the issue is important to all parts of our country. The success of holocaust memorial day has enabled it to go from strength to strength and to play a major role in commemorating all the communities that suffered as a result of the holocaust and Nazi persecution.

Hon. Members have rightly reminded us that anti-Semitism still exists and continues to arise in different forms and in different shapes throughout the country. The Government deplore all forms of racism and are committed to tackling anti-Semitism. We welcome the Community Security Trust report for 2005, which highlighted a decrease in the number of ant-Semitic incidents, but we cannot become complacent. Violent attacks on Jewish people have outnumbered incidents of damage to Jewish property for the second year in a row.

Government and the police work closely with the Jewish community. The police and officials from my Department work closely with the Community Security Trust. Attacks on individuals, synagogues and Jewish cemeteries are completely unacceptable. British Jews, like all people in this country, must be able to live their lives free from verbal or physical attack. The Government have a shared responsibility to tackle anti-Semitism and all other forms of racism and prejudice against lawful religious traditions.

In recent years we have strengthened both the legal framework against race discrimination and the criminal penalties for offences such as incitement to racial hatred, and racially or religiously aggravated assault or criminal damage. Additionally, in a July 2003 policy statement, the Crown Prosecution Service gave a commitment to prosecute racist and religious crime fairly, firmly and robustly. That sends a clear message to perpetrators that they will not get away with threatening, violent or abusive behaviour towards members of racial or religious groups.

My hon. Friend raised the issue of war crimes. The Government are clear that the crimes committed during the second world war by the Nazis are among the most serious. We remain determined that the UK will not provide a safe haven for anyone guilty of such atrocities. The Metropolitan police continue to investigate all allegations, and immigration powers are in place to revoke leave for suspected war criminals to enter or remain in the UK.

It is important not to forget that Britain is a multi-faith society, quite as much as it is a multi-ethnic and multicultural society. Muslims, Hindus, Jews, Sikhs and others form sizeable minorities alongside the majority Christian faith. The Government are committed to engaging with all faith communities. We are working towards ensuring that members of all faiths and none enjoy the same opportunities in life. We work with people of different beliefs but shared values toward common goals. Faith communities contribute to social and community cohesion through those of their values that help to underpin good citizenship, such as altruism, respect for others, ethical behaviour and community solidarity.

We recognise that in the past some well-meaning initiatives might have inadvertently contributed to a sense of division within communities. Although concerns that a section of a community is receiving a preferential level of investment or treatment over, or at the expense of, another section are often unfounded, the Government are determined that the important work that we have embarked on will be undertaken in a manner that promotes community cohesion. My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside has demonstrated how she was able to use her experience and background to assist people of another faith who were experiencing discrimination. We should all learn from such examples.

We have established the Faith Communities Consultative Council, as a way of engaging with faith communities. The new body supersedes the Inner Cities Religious Council and the "Working Together" steering group, and covers nine faiths: Baha'i, Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, Jainism, Judaism, Hinduism, Sikhism and Zoroastrianism. The council will be administered by and linked with the Department for Communities and Local Government. In addition, many Members of this House and the other House, such as Lord Janner, are doing considerable work on improving inter-faith co-operation.

I should also mention the creation of the new commission for equality and human rights, which we aim to have in place by October 2007. For the first time, there will be institutional support for people experiencing discrimination on the grounds of religion and belief. As hon. Members will be aware, the Government have introduced a range of laws on discrimination, outlawing it in employment on the grounds of sexual orientation, and religion and belief. Later this year, we will introduce regulations to outlaw discrimination in the provision of goods, facilities and services on the grounds of religion and belief, and sexual orientation. We shall continue to look at how to respond to a changing inter-faith integration and cohesion agenda, and to focus on all faiths.

Interfaith engagement and dialogue are part of the glue that binds society together. The Government are deeply committed to dialogue and have brokered Jewish-Muslim dialogue through meetings with imams and rabbis and through engagement with the Three Faiths Forum, which focuses on Muslim, Christian and Jewish dialogue and understanding.

There are nearly 185 interfaith and multifaith and local bodies throughout the country. Those bodies play a key role in bringing together people of different faiths to increase trust, mutual understanding and respect, to help to defuse intercommunity tensions, to build community cohesion, to provide advice and information on religious issues, to foster co-operation on local issues and to work jointly on social and educational projects.

The Government have consolidated their work with faith communities under the auspices of the new Department for Communities and Local Government. The new arrangements put us in a strong position to make a difference. Our focus is on helping communities to prosper through good governance, tackling deprivation, housing, regeneration, empowering communities and improving the local environment. Those are some of the fundamentals of building communities and of building cohesion at their heart. Race and faith issues are seen as an important element of the different strands that need to be knitted together.

I hope that my hon. Friend and other hon. Members have found useful my explanation of how we intend to move forward in the area of faith. Britain has for the most part a positive tradition of accepting people of different faiths, races and cultures. I hope that, through the Government working positively with all who are willing, we can ensure that the children of today grow up feeling accepted by society at large.

Last night, the Prime Minister said:

"Throughout these years, the community"— the Jewish community—

"has shown how it is possible to retain a clear faith and a clear identity and, at the same time, be thoroughly British...As the oldest minority faith community in this country, you show how identity through faith can be combined with a deep loyalty to our nation."

The Jewish community in England and in the UK as a whole has made a significant contribution to our society. It has contributed enormously to our diversity and helped to make us a vibrant and successful society. This debate has shown that we ignore at our peril the talents and abilities of any section of our society and of any individual. There are many important challenges ahead of us. We want to build diverse cultures within a framework of integration. I am sure that the Jewish community will continue to be at the forefront of helping us to build a more inclusive and cohesive society.