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[Hugh Bayley in the Chair] — Race Equality

– in Westminster Hall at 12:00 am on 12th March 2009.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Chris Mole.)

Photo of Sadiq Khan Sadiq Khan The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government 2:30 pm, 12th March 2009

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr. Bayley. It is first time that I have served under your chairmanship. I welcome the Opposition Front-Bench spokesmen to this important debate.

It is more than 40 years since race relations legislation was first enacted. We are now at a crossroads on the way to race equality. There are some dead ends that we must avoid, but I believe that the right way forward can be found if we are prepared to be bold; we need also to listen to communities.

Some of my black and Asian right hon. and hon. Friends blazed a trail so that I was able to become a Member. I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend Keith Vaz and my hon. Friend Ms Abbott, as well as Paul Boateng and the late Bernie Grant, for the huge role that they have played.

I was born after the introduction of the Race Relations Act 1965. I would like to think that I could pass for someone born after the Race Relations Act 1976 was passed, but public office takes its toll. However, I have been fortunate enough to be able to use my abilities to progress in my chosen field, as have other black, Asian and other minority ethnic groups. Many prominent public figures from those communities, through their talent and effort, and sometimes their unwillingness to accept defeat, have achieved huge success and made a significant contribution to our society—for example, the role models from that most maligned of groups, black men, whom we found through the REACH programme, who now travel across the country, in their own time and for no financial reward, to tell a generation of young men that they too can make it.

It was not always like that. My parents' generation frequently had to settle for less. Theirs was a generation of migrants, working in factories and textile mills, driving buses or cleaning hospitals, in the hope that the dream of a better life would be there for their children to enjoy. The obvious question is whether they got what they hoped for. In some ways, yes, they did. People from black, Asian and minority ethnic groups are increasingly likely to be in employment and to get good exam results, and they are more likely to go into higher education. We have also seen a sea change in attitudes: there is less casual racism and most people are comfortable with and proud of the multi-ethnic country that Great Britain is today.

There are many success stories, in all walks of life. In the media, the judiciary and—dare I say it?—in politics, in medicine, business, teaching and science, in arts and in acting, people from ethnic minority backgrounds have done exceedingly well. However, we cannot sit back and tell ourselves that the job is done. For example, black people's experience of the criminal justice system remains too negative and their representation within it disproportionate. British families of Pakistani and Bengali origin are three times as likely to be on low incomes as white families, and minority ethnic people are still under-represented in institutions such as Parliament. Put simply, too many talented men and women are still being held back from achieving their potential.

The next question to ask is what has been done to tackle the problems. The Race Relations (Amendment) Act 2000 was one of the most far-reaching pieces of equality legislation in the world. One of the fruits of the public inquiry into the circumstances surrounding the death of Stephen Lawrence, it has helped to drive a cultural change across the public sector. People now understand why equality is important and that promoting equality is part and parcel of their jobs. The public sector clearly needs to think hard about the needs of everyone.

We have also invested in programmes and policies to respond to the specific needs of black, Asian and minority ethnic groups—for example, through outreach programmes to help economically inactive minority ethnic women into work. Work done by the Department of Health and the NHS will help to address the needs of minority ethnic groups in the mental health system. Those programmes and policies are based on our belief in fairness, not favours.

In education, the most recent GCSE results are hugely encouraging. In 2003, only a third of British pupils of black Caribbean origin achieved five good GCSEs; in 2008, 54 per cent. did so. A few years ago, British children of Bengali origin were among the lowest achievers of any ethnic group; they are now only one percentage point below the national figure.

We find ourselves today in a very different world from that of 1976, or even that of 1996. The world is changing fast. The Government's work on the wider equality agenda is progressing, with the establishment of the new Equality and Human Rights Commission and an equality Bill to be laid before Parliament shortly.

What are the challenges? Unemployment is still high for many minority ethnic groups, and at board level in most organisations there is still no one who is not white. People from minority ethnic groups often find themselves at less prestigious universities, and too often having a degree is not a guarantee of success in the workplace. Despite significant efforts to reduce disproportionality in the criminal justice system, black people are still several times more likely than others to be stopped and searched or to be imprisoned.

In 2005 we launched the first ever cross-Government race equality strategy, which sought to set out the Government's approach to race equality. More than 100 specific policy commitments were made. The strategy provided a framework for tackling race inequality, and the regular reporting provided valuable accountability and transparency. The reporting period and the action plan have now come to an end. What has not ended, however, is the need to focus on those important issues.

We are in difficult times economically. What will be the effect of the downturn on minority ethnic groups? Evidence suggests that they suffered more than the overall population in previous downturns. It is not yet clear whether that will be repeated. For example, will resentment build up among those who are struggling, and will that threaten good relations between different groups, as some fear it will?

The new framework on equality, the economic problems that we face and the end of the reporting period on our old strategy all mean that the time is right to look at our approach to dealing with race inequality. Recently, on the 10th anniversary of the publication of the Macpherson report, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government announced that we are beginning a fundamental reappraisal of where we go from here in our efforts to tackle race inequality.

We have published a discussion document, which can be found on the fantastic DCLG website and which invites views from a wide range of stakeholders—the public, the voluntary sector, local government, businesses and unions. We want to know what people think the Government's priorities should be, what further practical measures should be taken, and what action can be taken to ensure that the progress that we have made in narrowing gaps is not reversed by the current economic problems. We want to know how to encourage and support more people from black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds to become involved in public life.

We also want to engage in the debate on social class and ethnicity. Some people feel that the presence of minority ethnic communities and recent migrants contributes to the problems faced by poor white communities. They feel that we focus on visible minority groups at the expense of disadvantaged white people. The reality is more complex. However, we must acknowledge those genuine concerns and it is important that we explain why our work on equality is needed.

We must also change the terms of the debate somewhat. It is not simply about dividing limited resources among deprived people; it is about making opportunities available to everyone and raising aspirations. Without doubt, being born into a disadvantaged family, whatever one's ethnicity, makes it much less likely that one will succeed in education and work; one is also more likely to suffer ill health in later life.

The investment that we have made to deal with child poverty, to regenerate neighbourhoods and to improve education and skills for all has made and continues to make a huge difference to the lives of millions. However, I would argue that minority ethnic groups face additional challenges: as well as being much more likely to be poor, and in some cases being disadvantaged by barriers of language, there are other unexplained differences. If we compare like for like—if we take out class, where people live and so on—it can be seen that minority ethnic people do less well. It is that hidden difference, the X factor, that we need to overcome. However, we need to communicate to people the reasons for doing what we do and to show that we take seriously the concerns of those who feel that they are being left behind. That is one of the reasons for consulting on our future approach.

That work does not sit in isolation. Our work on community empowerment will also give people of all races more of a voice. We need to place ever greater power in the hands of communities to enable them to challenge and overcome the problems faced by disadvantaged people. We want to build strong and positive relationships between people of different backgrounds, including those from different ethnic and cultural backgrounds, as well as different faith communities. By focusing on what people have in common, as well as recognising the value of diversity, we can foster a shared vision of the future and a sense of belonging, built upon the strong foundations of equality.

As I have said, over the next few weeks, we will consult with as wide a range of people as possible, through road shows, the internet and other means, to enable us to plan, in an informed manner, our future approach to race equality. I know that hon. Members here will want to take part in that consultation, and I look forward to their contributions, not only in this debate, but to the consultation document.

A

Regarding staff in the Natioal Health Service. It is my opinion that ethnic background is not a problem as long as the individual person concerned is a British citizen, speaks and writes English. Where the position requires it they should be computer literate. They should have obtained the requisite training for the post they apply for, and have no crimnal record. They should of course not be an illegal immigrant.

Submitted by Alix Cull

Photo of Paul Goodman Paul Goodman Shadow Minister, Communities and Local Government 2:40 pm, 12th March 2009

This is the first time that I, too, have had the good fortune to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Bayley. I welcome this debate on future strategy on race equality and, like the Minister, I am delighted at the presence of the other two Front-Bench Members. I also congratulate the Minister on his speech, which contained a minimum—if not none—of the party political nonsense that sometimes obscures debates in this Chamber; I shall try to deal with the issues in exactly the same way. I apologise if I speak for slightly longer than he did, but I shall try not to detain the Chamber for too long.

I shall reflect on my own experience, not as a member of the official Opposition Front-Bench team, but as a constituency Member of Parliament. When I was elected in 2001, the Wycombe Race Equality Council, to whose work I pay tribute, the local district council and other local interest groups were, by and large, focused on important bread-and-butter issues, including homes, schools, jobs and opportunities. However, they were of course also dealing with the effects of discrimination and racism. A few months after my election, 9/11 took place, and since then we have had 7/7 and the attacks on Glasgow airport, which have resulted in a shift of focus. Much discussion in my constituency is now about the threat of violent and more general extremism.

Next week, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government is coming to my constituency, which I welcome, and I am sure that she will learn a great deal from the visit. However, the shift in focus suggests that in recent years religion has become a source of potential division, and may have taken the place that race and ethnicity occupied in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s in terms of the fervour of the discussions that it can arouse—we debated some of those issues in this Chamber yesterday. What is true in my constituency is—I think—also true nationally. Since 9/11, the Cantle reports and the disturbances in Oldham, Rochdale and so on, there has been intense focus on integration and cohesion. Commentators have queued up to denounce what could be called the traditional multicultural settlement, including the Chief Rabbi, the Archbishop of York, John Sentamu, and George Alagiah, the BBC journalist, who apparently has written an entire book attacking multiculturalism. And then, of course, there is Trevor Phillips, the chairman of the Equality and Human Rights Commission.

When I was a Conservative student, Trevor Phillips was a member of the left bloc, and it is for others to judge whether, in the years since then, he has ended up to the right of me. However, in some respects, he seems to have developed his views. He has said that the word "multiculturalism" has ceased to be useful in modern Britain—this is the chairman of the Equality and Human Rights Commission!—and that it suggests separateness. He said bluntly that it is necessary to

"assert a core of Britishness".

We believe that there is much in that, but it is crucial to recognise that specific communities have specific problems and that the equality agenda remains important, and to ensure that attention to it is not lost in the midst of the focus on the important matters of integration and cohesion. Ultimately, the equality agenda is about raising life chances, as is done through the REACH programme and organisations such as those to which the Minister referred.

I welcome the Government's consultation document, and I want to consider the position of equality in Britain today. The traditional picture, which still remains in the public consciousness, is that society is a pyramid, at the top of which is an establishment of Anglo-Saxon, Protestant, public-school-educated men—an establishment from which I am disqualified on two grounds. I shall leave it to hon. Members to ascertain which ones. There is some truth in that picture, but it is misleading, to a degree; the Minister alluded to that in his remarks. He was right to say that we have come a long way, but it is worth putting on the record that Trevor Phillips—him, again—said quite recently that Britain is

"by far the best place in Europe to live if you are not white".

I cannot comment on that particular perspective, but over the years, despite all our difficulties, the vast majority of people in Britain have remained decent, tolerant, hospitable and liberal—in the best sense of the word.

To some degree the traditional pyramid picture, to which I referred, is misleading. To illustrate that, I shall quote some statistics. The group now most likely to achieve five or more GCSE A* to C grades consists of people of Chinese origin. Chinese, Indian and "white Irish" people are now more likely to have degrees than those referred to as "white British" in the 2001 census. The employment rate for Indian men is very close to that for white men. It remains true, of course, as the Minister said and as the Government's research indicates, that black, Asian and minority ethnic groups are, on the whole, far more likely than other groups to have lower levels of academic achievement, to be unemployed and—this is very important—to be victims of racially motivated incidents.

The picture, however, is mixed. Extremist groups, whether Muslims who hate the kuffar, such as those on the streets of Luton this week, or those aligned with the British National party and preaching hatred of Muslims, are trying to exploit the current economic downturn and recession. The Department's research into ethnicity and opportunity indicates that class—were they here in large numbers, Labour Members might appreciate this point—is as much a determinant as ethnicity and religion. In support of that assertion, I cite the thorough work of Munira Mirza, from Policy Exchange, in the report, "Living Apart Together", as well as the Government's own paper, "Tackling race inequalities".

Page 22 of the Government report states:

"Research from the Department for Children, Schools and Families suggests that deprivation has a greater impact on pupils' progress than ethnicity does, and that once factors such as deprivation are controlled, most minority ethnic groups make more progress at school than White British pupils with the same levels of prior attainment and with similar characteristics."

Research tells us many things, and that is a very interesting element buried in the report. In some respects, however, I found the document very cautious and quite hesitant, the reason for which, I think, is that, understandably, Ministers are trying to balance difficult factors of integration and equality.

Ministers are trying to balance the push towards integration, which suggests that funding and support should be provided without regard for ethnicity, with the needs of equality, which suggest that funding and support should sometimes be provided with regard to ethnicity. I want to set out our view on that very difficult balance and ask some questions of the Minister.

First, I will address the issue of multiculturalism because it has been raised by so many people, including Trevor Phillips. To say that Britain is a multicultural society is a statement of the obvious. In essence, we agree with Trevor Phillips that the balance has gone badly wrong. There needs to be more emphasis on the learning and speaking of English and rather less on the automatic translation of documents. The Government are doing some of that work.

My noble Friend Baroness Neville-Jones suggests—it is not policy yet—that history in schools should be a core subject. Moreover, she suggests that there should be a national holiday on the Queen's birthday. Therefore, we are interested to hear the Minister's view on the whole debate of multiculturalism versus integration.

Next, I turn to what might be called Britain's forgotten communities. I have already referred to the neo-Nazi leadership of the British National party and its attempt to stir up hatred and division in Britain's communities. It is undoubtedly true that the BNP seeks to exploit poorer white deprived communities. In that context, it is worth quoting some statistics to illustrate the problems with which mainstream political parties must deal if extremists are not to make headway.

According to the DCSF, in 2007, white British children on free school meals performed worse at GCSE than others. Only 6 per cent. of white boys on free school meals go on to higher education. In ethnic minorities—where there is, of course, considerable variation—the figure is 24 per cent.

The Government document, "Tackling race inequalities" refers to such problems. However, the summary of questions in appendix A refers only to black, Asian and ethnic minority groups. It is worth noting that in the document the Government ask whether there is a need for a separate strategy to tackle race equality, which indicates just how cautious and hesitant their approach is.

Let me move on very quickly to the immensely controversial issue of single-group funding that arises when we consider Britain's forgotten communities. Our view is that, generally, it is better to fund in ways that bring people together rather than in ways that separate them. Single-group funding should not be the norm. It always carries a risk, but one has to look at the whole picture; in trying to tackle and remove inequalities that hinder people's life chances, it may sometimes be necessary to have an element of single-group funding. On the whole, though, the presumption should strongly be against it. We are looking closely at that territory, and I shall be interested in hearing the Government's view.

Finally, I am curious to hear the Minister's view on the degree to which the whole social justice agenda, on which my right hon. Friend Mr. Duncan Smith and Mr. Allen have worked together so closely, focuses on early intervention and raising the life chances of people from different ethnic groups who find that there are barriers in their way. Moreover, should that early intervention come in the form of improving the home learning environment, tackling family breakdown, working with parents to improve literacy or tackling peer pressure and the anti-learning culture? In our discussions, we have found that the black Churches and others are extremely receptive to the social justice agenda. Indeed, they have been blazing a trail for it over the years, well ahead of the politicians. Again, I welcome this debate and I look forward to hearing the Minister's response.

Photo of Lynne Featherstone Lynne Featherstone Shadow Minister (Children, Schools and Families), Liberal Democrat Spokeperson (Children, Schools and Families) 2:55 pm, 12th March 2009

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Bayley. I, too, welcome this debate. There remains a very real, and sometimes radical, divide in our country. It is clear that there is a need for a future strategy for race equality. One statistic brings that into sharp contrast. The Office for National Statistics shows that in 2005, infant mortality among Pakistani and Caribbean groups was double that of British white children. Therefore, there is health inequality. The Minister referred to the disproportionateness of police stop and search. Such a policy has resulted in more than a third of the black and ethnic minority population being on the DNA database. If there is no evidence of such criminality, most of those on the DNA database would be innocent. Therefore, will the Minister tell us whether the DNA that is taken from those who are found to be innocent could be destroyed?

The level of disparity that remains in this country should set alarm bells ringing. As Mr. Goodman said, racial inequality is compounded by deprivation and results in tensions and flash points. A few years ago, we saw what happened when France and Holland buried their heads in the sand. Race riots were sparked by the incendiary devices of neglect, inequality and segregation. It is much better to confront and address such challenges before we are at real risk of internecine strife or the hideous bile of the far right. There is no doubt that in an economic downturn, the far right will be looking to exploit and play upon people's fears. Therefore, if we want a better future, we must reduce the chasms that separate us all and reduce that which divides.

We must address the three issues that divide us—there are more, but I will limit myself to three for today. First, there is a divide between the "already heres" and the newcomers. I am not necessarily talking about black against white, but those races who are already here versus those races who are newly arrived. I speak from my experience in my constituency of Hornsey and Wood Green, which is hugely ethnically diverse. It is a phenomenal place in which to work. I feel privileged to be its Member of Parliament.

In my surgeries, I hear people say, "It's not fair because immigrants and asylum seekers get the houses first." They often tell me about someone they know down the road who has jumped the queue. However, they never give me any evidence because they are too frightened. Whether such behaviour is true or whether it is perceived, it builds tension, thereby allowing the far right to make inroads into that community. Moreover, it leads to the very deep and unresolved schism of need versus entitlement which hinders the allocation of scarce public resources. We must address those issues around the holy grail of need head-on to balance it more fairly with the entitlements of the "already heres".

Such a problem is most acute when it comes to housing allocation. Housing in Haringey is in very short supply. We are a welcoming borough with a range of different communities—we would be here all day if I listed them—and, not unnaturally, people's relatives and friends come to an area in which there is an existing community. Therefore, the pressure on housing in Haringey is acute. I will be interested to hear what the Minister thinks about that.

We need an absolutely fair system of allocation that addresses the clash of need against entitlement. Not only does the system need to be fair, it needs to be seen to be fair, so it needs to be published and audited. Right now, housing allocation rules are often obscure and unpublicised, which feeds rumours and hatred. For people to understand and agree with the fairness of the system, there needs to be participation in the decisions on the process and system in the first place. We need equality of who gets what, why and where in housing allocation. People need to see it and agree to it so that the BNP cannot work up the hatreds that are so easy to prey upon when there is a fight over scarce public resources.

Secondly, we need to address segregation when it becomes extreme or hostile to communities. Communities can become separate from, and almost non-participatory in, the more general life of the country. In that regard, we need to address schooling. The common parental preference is for a school where the majority of pupils match the ethnicity or race of their own child. In some ways, that is only natural, but it almost certainly exacerbates segregation, unless counter-mechanisms are introduced. Lord knows, that that is a difficult road to go down.

As recently as last week, on the day parents throughout the country found out whether their children had secured a place at the secondary school of their choice, the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families ordered a review into the allocation lottery for school places. No party in the House has reached a consensus on school place allocation lotteries. They have obvious pitfalls and are not necessarily the answer. As a Liberal Democrat, I think that a local school is the answer, but the fact that people can afford houses near a local school in, say, Muswell Hill means that that school's catchment will have an advantage that children elsewhere might not have.

The Liberal Democrats' new policy is to give a child who faces deprivation and challenges, which often means ethnic minority children, a package of money. We call it the pupil premium. The package goes with the child, so the school that accepts them will have the resources to meet their needs above and beyond what is normal. We would also cut infant class sizes to the same number as private schools to give children the same opportunities. In a way, we need an intensification of resources where the challenges are greater.

Of course, a lot of softer measures are available. Sport is often talked about in terms of integration and it is a fantastic way of bringing communities together, but we need to think much more widely, which could mean twinning towns with middle east towns rather than French towns, having schools of different faiths that share common facilities and work together, and looking at what history we teach. It could be time for more Suleiman the Great and less Napoleon, but I could not possibly comment on that.

The third of the great divides that we have to tackle was referred to by the hon. Member for Wycombe. We need to bridge the discrimination against, and fear of, Muslims, which are greater than for any other group. So much damage has been done to the image of Muslims by the reporting of news from overseas of so-called Islamic terrorists. However, when those who are fighting the terrorists, or the victims of their terrorism, are also Muslim, it goes unmentioned by the media. The drip-drip effect of linking the words "Muslim" and "terrorism", but not linking the words "victim" with "Muslim" in the same way, is pernicious.

Photo of Paul Goodman Paul Goodman Shadow Minister, Communities and Local Government

Does the hon. Lady agree, given that we have a debate once a year on anti-Semitism, that the time may well have come to give serious consideration to having a debate in Government time on Islamophobia?

Photo of Lynne Featherstone Lynne Featherstone Shadow Minister (Children, Schools and Families), Liberal Democrat Spokeperson (Children, Schools and Families)

Yes, that is very good idea. The more we can bring up these issues, the better. To be fair, the Government have done a great deal of work on integration and work to tackle extremism in communities. A lot of work is being done by Muslim anti-terrorism groups. I go to our Mosque in Wightman road and meet swathes of young Muslims. They have a variety of views, but the thing is to go in there and engage in the debate and not to be separate and avoid touching it. Such debate in Parliament would be a very good idea.

I just touched on the language problem—I said that it is pernicious—and I would love the Minister to address it. I have not come up with a solution that would attract the media to my cause, but the coverage I talked about builds a grossly unfair image. Jewish people in this country are feeling very vulnerable because of what is happening in the middle east, and all our communities need to be protected from over-zealousness, pejorative description and other such things. A lot of work is done in Haringey across the faiths, races and cultures. After 7/7, we were pleased that there was not a single incident against anyone because of that work. However, it is not easy. A number of rising tensions need to be addressed.

Part of the solution is always to be firm in our values. We live in a democracy. No group—Muslims, Jews, Christians or anyone else—has a right to express disagreement with a democratically elected Government by any means other than peaceful protest or political campaigning within the law. That is a non-negotiable first principle for everyone who lives in this country.

Any strategy for future race equality must involve improved communications; funding initiatives and schemes that encourage communities together, meaning the end of separate funding or looking at the effect that such funding has; locally negotiated compromises and fairness and transparency in the allocation of scarce public resources; reduction in health and education inequalities; the use of politics as a uniting rather than a dividing force; a more realistic understanding of the negative impact of our foreign policy, which has huge repercussions in this country; and a greater degree of mutual understanding and cultural awareness.

Like the Minister, I cannot discuss race without mentioning the forthcoming equality Bill—I am not sure when it will come forth—which represents an opportunity to address race inequality. The Liberal Democrats are slightly concerned at the tone of the debate, which involves Lord Mandelson, ahead of the Bill. He seems to be indicating, by smoke signals, that he is the friend of business, and business is undoubtedly a prime concern during an economic downturn. However, the trade press and the right-leaning press have been littered with scare stories vilifying the Bill. The tiny bit of the Bill on positive action, which would allow an employer, when all other things are equal and if applicants are equally qualified, to choose the applicant who balances the work force and, for instance, employ a male or black teacher, is such a no-brainer. That happens anyway with those who wish to balance the work force. It is enabling, not forcing, but one would think, reading the tabloid press, that the world had ended because of that small, very good suggestion from the Government. There are a lot of scare stories vilifying the Bill, with Lord Mandelson stepping in to save business. However, I cannot stress strongly enough that to pit equality against the needs of the economy is a completely false dichotomy. The needs of those who face discrimination do not stop where the needs of British business begin.

As social problems go, race discrimination is pretty well documented. Hon. Members are right that there is a view that closing the equality gap will be as much an advantage in some other strands of inequality as anything else. The widening equality gap ultimately makes it harder to right wrongs. In fact, we could end up pouring endless amounts of money in at one end of the spectrum, which those who are paying in but getting nothing out would resent. What we see across Europe is that narrowing the equality gap makes things better for all citizens, wherever they are on the spectrum. That is an important change in the way in which we see inequality and racial inequality. Whichever measurement we choose, however, there are relatively few areas where not being white puts people on top.

When it comes to tackling the issues raised in the equality Bill, my suspicion is that Ministers' hearts are totally in the right place, but effective measures and changes need to be implemented. I therefore look forward to the Bill's introduction.

Photo of Eric Joyce Eric Joyce Labour, Falkirk 3:10 pm, 12th March 2009

In following on from the excellent speech by Lynne Featherstone, I am being a bit opportunistic because I just want to make a quick point that I had hoped to make in an intervention.

For a short period between a previous job and coming to this place, I worked for the Commission for Racial Equality. Part of my job involved funding race equality councils across Scotland. It was always a problem to disentangle genuine racial equality issues from local political issues and all sorts of other issues that can embed themselves in any locally funded body. Sometimes, different minority ethnic groups were trying to seize control of a body; at other times, there would be different imperatives, and everybody involved in racial equality issues is pretty clear about all that.

The events of a couple of days ago were interesting. Some people protested very loudly when a battalion that had just returned from Iraq marched through their town. From the media coverage—I do not blame the media for this—it was easy to get the impression that this was essentially a racial equality issue, but that was to misunderstand and conflate two quite separate things. One was to do with racial equality, which is a live issue for all parties, and certainly for the Government. The other was to do with political dissent and with people's right to voice a view, although these particular individuals unwisely chose to capitalise on the likely coverage by taking an extreme position.

The important point, however, is that there was some response in the media from some pretty good individuals, who felt it necessary to defend people's right to make extreme statements in the free society in which we live. However, they did so from the perspective of racial equality, reflecting the nature of bodies that they directed or were chief executive of. It is important to say that the people who run race equality councils and other bodies that the Home Office still helps to fund, which are well-meaning and often very effective, although that can vary, sometimes have to keep certain local groupings happy while pursuing a race equality agenda in their areas. For the past couple of days in the media, there has been some misunderstanding of those two roles, which are easily conflated.

I simply wanted to make the point that the protest was bad, ill-advised and designed to get in the public eye. The fact that these guys happened to be from a minority ethnic group was largely irrelevant from the racial equality perspective. The protest was entirely a matter of political dissent. Although most people in this place understand that point, it is important to make it clear.

Photo of Sadiq Khan Sadiq Khan The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government 3:13 pm, 12th March 2009

I thank all the hon. Members who have contributed to the debate. One problem with the hon. Members for Wycombe (Mr. Goodman) and for Hornsey and Wood Green (Lynne Featherstone) is that they speak sense so much of the time. Ministers come prepared for a ding-dong, but the hon. Members disappoint us by being so reasonable and making so many good points. Let me deal with some of those that they have raised.

The hon. Gentleman talked about his experiences as a constituency MP and about the huge contribution that his minority communities have made to his views. In particular, he made an important point—I use my words rather than his—when he queried whether faith was the new race in terms of people's experiences and how people define themselves. He also touched on the challenges facing Britons of Muslim faith.

The hon. Gentleman went on to talk about multiculturalism, but it means different things to different people. When we analyse what Trevor Phillips and George Alagiah have said, we must ask ourselves how they define multiculturalism before they knock it down—it is the straw man argument.

When I visited the hon. Gentleman's constituency, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will next week, I was impressed by the inter-faith work that was going on. What was remarkable, although not for those of us involved in this line of work, was the fact that majority communities and members of other faiths were putting out the hand of friendship and helping minority communities of Muslim faith to feel empowered and confident enough to raise their concerns. That inter-faith work is analogous to the best of the inter-racial work that went on in the previous life of my hon. Friend Mr. Joyce, when he dealt with the CRE and the RECs.

The hon. Gentleman said that raising life chances was the key, and I could not agree more. The discussions that took place following the publication of the White Paper and in the days and weeks leading up to the publication of the equality Bill were about raising life chances, and that has been the cornerstone of what the Government have been about for the past 12 years.

The hon. Gentleman quoted Trevor Phillips as saying that the UK is the best place to live if someone is non-white, and I would endorse and, indeed, extend that. I try to be a practising Muslim. I was born and raised in the UK and have lived here all my life. I often travel overseas and meet Muslims from other countries and of other nationalities. I would go so far as to say that, as a Muslim who seeks to practise his religion, I can think of no other place where I would rather practise it. People here have the ability to go to a place of worship and pray in a congregation; to bury a loved one following Islamic rites of passage; to eat food that reflects their faith; to wear the clothes that they choose to wear, whether they are a woman or a man; and to show political dissent—my hon. Friend referred to the right to protest, but that right is not enjoyed by many Muslim citizens of other countries. I therefore echo and extend the words of Trevor Phillips.

I was pleased when the hon. Gentleman spoke of the need to attack deprivation, because that view has been the cornerstone of many of the policies that the Government have pushed over the past 12 years and which we will push in the next period.

The hon. Gentleman used the phrase "forgotten communities". Although he was not using it in this way, it is, as he said, often used by the far right to whip up a frenzy, and the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green also touched on that. However, if the hon. Gentleman analyses Government policies over the past 12 years, such as Sure Start, our investment in state schools and children's centres, neighbourhood renewal, tax credits for working parents, the minimum wage and the steps that we have taken to deal with public health issues such as obesity, smoking cessation and sexually transmitted diseases, he will see that they have indirectly targeted and helped those so-called forgotten communities. I therefore do not accept that those communities have been forgotten. We have taken many steps to deal with some of the problems and challenges that they face in ordinary life.

The hon. Gentleman made a good point about the importance of English. We should not be scared of saying that English is a crucial part of the social ladder and that one needs to be on top of the language if one wants to climb that ladder. People simply cannot speak to their neighbours, do well at school, ask questions of their children's teachers, get involved in the governing body or the parent-teacher association at their children's school, progress at work or get a job in the first place if they cannot speak the language. It is therefore important that we do not shy away from recognising the importance of English.

The hon. Gentleman went on to talk about the single group funding debate. He will be aware of the legal challenge brought by Southall Black Sisters against Ealing council, which was supported by the Government. Our policy on single group funding is clear: central Government will not dictate what should and should not be funded at local level. Each place will be different and have different needs. Clearly, there will still be a need for centres that provide specific services to local and minority communities, and that could include women. There are examples of great projects across the country, and it is for local communities to make decisions about such projects. We hope that funders—that means local councils—will take a measured approach, drawing on their knowledge of what happens in their neighbourhoods when they distribute funding. We hope that they will acknowledge the needs of groups that require single group funding, while bearing in mind the need to promote meaningful interaction. We will also ask that funding decisions be communicated effectively to the wider community, to mitigate the risk of myths developing. That was a key point arising from the tenor of the hon. Gentleman's remarks.

In relation to the excellent work being done on social justice, in which members of both major parties are involved, and the importance of early intervention, I could not agree more with the hon. Gentleman. That is one reason why we have been obsessed with Sure Start, parenting skills and all the other things that help people to become better parents and benefit society in the longer term. A cost-benefit analysis of early intervention shows that there are benefits; but they do not appear for a generation. If we intervene early for the child, the reduction in antisocial behaviour and the improvement in educational attainment will not be apparent for 15 or 16 years at least.

The hon. Lady also made an excellent speech. Her comments about the DNA database are noted. She will of course be aware of the recent case in the European Court of Human Rights and the fact that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary is looking into its implications, so I shall not comment on it. Her speech had three themes, the first of which was about those who are already here versus new arrivals—the "it's not fair" argument. There are two points I want to make about that: first, we need to bust the myths. There are a lot of myths out there and we need to deal with them. Many people have genuine concerns because of things they have been told, which are perpetuated.

The hon. Lady raised a substantive concern, however, which is not a myth, about the allocation of finite resources. Housing is a good example. When demand is greater than supply there will always be rationing, and the way in which those finite resources are rationed is important. The debate about need versus entitlement has gone on for 40 years, and it is important for politicians to be alive to the need for openness and transparency in the allocation of finite resources. The hon. Lady's point about that was important and welcome. However, I would say—I am still trying not to be party political, but I cannot help myself—£8 billion pounds of investment in the next three years for building more houses will increase the supply of housing. Of course, we have spent the last 12 years trying to improve the quality of the existing supply, but there is a huge demand and we need to ensure that we can meet it.

The hon. Lady's second point was about segregation, particularly in schools. She and the hon. Gentleman will have witnessed as I have so-called middle-class flight in an area and the ability of some parents to buy a house next to a good school. We have taken steps to try to ameliorate some of the problems with the recently introduced school admissions code, which will help, and, for example, by having Ofsted inspect schools to ensure that they promote community cohesion. The hon. Lady cited twinning, the sharing by schools of resources, and the curriculum as possibilities for good practice. We need to ensure that all schools try to improve integration, not only within the school—intra-pupil integration—but between schools. The hon. Lady made an important point, which was not just pious words, but something that we need to take on board and act on—that all schools need to be good schools. The sooner all schools are excellent schools, the less concerned parents will be that they cannot get the choice they want for their children.

The final point that the hon. Lady made was in the important passage in her speech about Islamophobia. She said something which is sometimes lost on the media: some perpetrators of horrific acts of terror may be people who claim to follow the faith of Islam—although they have a perverse interpretation of it—but many of the victims follow it too. That is missed by the media. Muslims died on 9/11, on 7 July 2005, in Istanbul, Bali and Mumbai, and in the Marriott hotel in Islamabad. The six police officers and one driver who died in Lahore were all Muslim. We should not forget that, and should bear it in mind that in a city such as London, where 40 per cent. of British Muslims live, the victims of terrorism will inevitably include many Muslims. It is worth pausing and realising—I am not talking about self-interest—that that is probably one reason for the fact that the vast majority of Muslims are also committed to and obsessed with making sure that they deal with the pernicious individuals who pervert their religion.

The hon. Lady talked about the media. It is often said in jest—perhaps it will become reality—that if only we could nationalise the media it would be possible to control what they say about us. She knows the limitations affecting us, but we can make sure that young citizens are empowered to challenge the media by writing to editors—and in other ways. We have a Muslim young advisory group and a Muslim women's advisory group, who are becoming more empowered and taking on the media as empowered citizens.

I cannot end without commenting on the hon. Lady's comments about my noble Friend Lord Mandelson. First, she should not believe all that she reads in the press; he is not the bogeyman. I take on board the point that positive action is not the same as positive discrimination. The Government are aware that equality is good for the individual, society and the economy. We know that and understand the strength in it. That is one reason for our keenness on a single equality Act to deal with inequality and bring about a fairer and more equal society, in preference to several different items of primary and secondary legislation, and directives from Europe.

My hon. Friend made an important contribution about something that is hot and relevant because of events this week. In a clever and acute way, which I wish the media had adopted, he disentangled the rights that people may have to protest—and we have a long and rich history, including in this place, of political dissent. He will know that the 20 or so individuals who wanted to use the rights accorded to them as British citizens caused huge problems of tension within the community for the vast majority of other citizens of Muslim faith who disagree with them. Those people may disagree about what happened in Iraq or Afghanistan, but they do not agree that it is appropriate or sensitive to act in such a way at a homecoming march for people who have risked their lives and some of whose colleagues have died—and my hon. Friend will know more about that than I do from his previous life. It must be put in context.

There were people at that homecoming march whose prayers had come true, because their loved ones had come home. Some had lost loved ones overseas. What happened was an act of callous insensitivity on the part of the 20 or so people concerned. That is not to take away their right to protest and express their opinion. My hon. Friend is right to say that we must be careful, when we belong to organisations, about putting across an opinion and perhaps giving the impression that it is the opinion of a faith, race or group, when it is really just an individual opinion. No one faith or race has a monopoly on protest or political dissent.

This has been an excellent debate. I thank hon. Members for its quality and the seriousness with which they have contributed to it. People who read the report of the debate will see that hon. Members of all political parties in the House are determined to make Britain the fairest, most equal country in the world. The parliamentarians in this place will make that happen sooner rather than later.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting adjourned.