Ahmadiyya Community — [Annette Brooke in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 3:09 pm on 20th October 2010.

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Photo of John Spellar John Spellar Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs) 3:09 pm, 20th October 2010

It is a pleasure to address Westminster Hall for the first time from the Front Bench as a deputy member of the Labour party's Foreign and Commonwealth Office team. It is also a pleasure to face the Minister, who strikes the right balance between being properly partisan-I heard him shouting and bawling from the Back Benches when he was in opposition-and always being seen as competent and, even more significantly, fair-minded. Perhaps I can compromise him further with his Whips Office by saying that there is a compromising picture of him and me opening Paula Radcliffe way in his constituency. I can assure him, however, that normal service will resume in later exchanges on the Floor of the House.

It is also a pleasure to respond to my hon. Friend Siobhain McDonagh, who once again showed her qualities as a tenacious campaigner. She has turned a marginal seat, which was previously not held by the Labour party, into a safe seat, and that is based on the enormous service that she has given her constituents. She has demonstrated again today her engagement with them and the battles that she has fought on their behalf.

My hon. Friend has not only raised an important issue, but paid proper tribute to members of the Ahmadi faith, their contribution to community life in her constituency and their success in founding businesses and being part of economic life in her constituency and the country. My hon. Friend is right to be proud of that success, but as I often tell groups and individuals in my constituency, we can also be proud of the fact that we live in a country where such success is possible. There are a whole number of reasons for that, and we must fight to defend our values and customs so that such things remain possible and groups can succeed.

People of different faiths, beliefs and races can live peacefully side by side in this country. I was very much taken by the contribution of my hon. Friend Nic Dakin, who spoke of a group that had led a campaign against a mosque. Its members recognised that they had been wrong, but more importantly, they felt that it was right to convey that to the Ahmadi community. I am not sure how many other countries that would happen in. It is particularly telling that even those who have sometimes had prejudices and strong views can recognise when they have made a mistake. That is not true of everyone by any means, and there will always be a minority in society who are bigoted and driven by hatred, but the great majority of people in all communities want to live peacefully. We must work to ensure that we maintain such values and maintain that sort of country. At the same time, it strongly behoves us as individuals, political parties and state authorities to react vigorously against those, from whichever community, who would disrupt society and seek to divide it.

My hon. Friend John McDonnell rightly said that there are two aspects to the debate. One clearly involves the situation and relations in this country, and I will return to that in a minute. The other is the situation in Pakistan. There is also the issue of how we handle the relationship between the two.

Obviously, it was disturbing to hear the contributions from my hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden and other colleagues, who told us how certain groups are trying to disrupt peaceful relations, stir up hatred, damage people's businesses and even move towards physical violence. From the examples that we have been given, that seems to be a problem mainly in the Metropolitan police area, and I certainly hope that the Metropolitan police will take it up fairly urgently. As my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington said, it is important to nip these things in the bud-to deal with things at an early stage, to establish norms and isolate those who are trying to cause the difficulty.

I remind Tom Brake that, leaving aside newer legislation, the concept of actions liable to cause a breach of the peace is long established in legal principle. In that respect, the proprietors of a shopping centre, who may have rights within it, can work in collaboration with the Metropolitan police and/or the local council's antisocial behaviour unit. There is an excellent case for joint action to send the message, "This is not the sort of behaviour that we will tolerate in the public space in our borough or in London." We should have a strong attitude of zero tolerance towards those who would seek to stir up sectarian strife.

The second aspect that has been raised is the situation in Pakistan. I associate my party's Front-Bench team with the comments that the Minister has made in answer to questions over the past few months, and specifically in response to the horrific attacks on 28 May and 3 September. They were very much echoed in comments made by the previous Foreign Secretary, my right hon. Friend David Miliband, when he was shadow Foreign Secretary. In a quote that has been previously raised, he rightly said:

"Pakistan's security is paramount to stability in the region. It is when the international community has taken its eye off the ball in Pakistan that instability has increased.

The European Union needs to increase its support for Pakistan. It currently spends just half a euro per person compared to five to ten times as much in other parts of the world that are not only more developed, but less crucial to global security.

The Pakistani Government's efforts to stabilise its western provinces has seen its military stretched.

That Friday's attacks on the Ahmadi mosques originated in North Waziristan, and were carried out by suspected Pakistani Taliban militants, are areas of particular ongoing concern.

Internally, Pakistan has a duty to protect minority groups and needs the support of its allies to do so. This is the worst attack on the Ahmadis in Pakistan's history, and it is deeply saddening that 93 innocent people have lost their lives."

That clearly reflected the previous Government's ongoing policy in March 2009, when the previous Member for Harlow, who was a Foreign and Commonwealth Office Minister, clearly laid out the then Government's position, which the subsequent coalition Government have followed very well. He said that his ministerial colleague had raised

"concerns about the difficulties faced by religious minorities in Pakistan, including the Christian and Ahmadi communities and the mis-use of blasphemy legislation...With EU partners we have also made a series of demarches"- he was referring to contacts and notes-

"to the government of Pakistan on protecting religious minorities."

He said that the UK had pressed

"the government of Pakistan to promote tolerance, and take measures to protect freedom of religion or belief" and

"called for the reform of discriminatory legislation", which has been mentioned in the debate. He said that the UK had

"urged the Minister for Minority Affairs to raise awareness about abuses against minorities and to increase their political representation at all levels."

He added that in July 2008-this was not just a response to immediate events, but part of an understanding of the ongoing problems-the UK and its EU partners had called

"on the government of Pakistan to specifically protect religious freedoms and human rights of the Ahmadis."-[Hansard, 24 March 2009; Vol. 490, c. 192W.]

I want to press the Minister a little with regard to the specific event, and the occasion in May when he described the attack on the mosques in Lahore as

"a tragic example of the discrimination faced by the Ahmadiyya community" and added:

"Our high commissioner in Islamabad has raised the attacks and the discrimination suffered by the Ahmadiyya community in Pakistan with the Chief Minister of Punjab along with his EU colleagues, and the issue has also been raised by our high commission with the Pakistani Ministries of Interior and Minorities."-[Hansard, 14 June 2010; Vol. 511, c. 301W.]

It is not just a matter of getting agreement at national level in Pakistan; it is also a matter of recognising the significant role of provincial and local governments in protecting minorities in Pakistan. Therefore, national agreement and understanding is important, but things must go deeper, through the structures of the Pakistan Government.