Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Huw Irranca-Davies.]
This is the first opportunity in Parliament to discuss the 350th anniversary of the readmission of Jews to Britain. Next week there will be an exhibition in the Upper Waiting Hall, which I am sponsoring. I am privileged to represent the constituency with the second largest Jewish community—the largest for any Labour MP. As I have come to know the Jewish community better, I have become aware of its close cohesion and diversity—the Sephardi and Ashkenazi; the Federation, United, Liberal, Reform and Masorti synagogues, and many strands within those. The advantage that I have in not being Jewish is that there are no synagogues that I cannot go to. It is difficult to do justice in a debate such as this to the long history of the Jewish contribution to our country. I am sure that I shall not satisfy everyone. There is an old saying that, when two Jews are together, there are three opinions.
Jews were first recorded in England in Norman times. William invited Jewish financiers from Rouen in the 1070s, but they were subjected to prejudice and worse from the start. What happened at Clifford’s tower, in 1190, was a good example. The Jewish residents of York were attacked by the mob. They took refuge in Clifford’s tower, which was surrounded and besieged. On 16 March 1190, the tower was set on fire, and the Jews took their own lives rather than be murdered by the mob. Those who did surrender were killed, and about 150 Jews died.
In 1255, 91 Jews, of whom 18 were executed, were imprisoned in the Tower after an infamous ritual murder libel in Lincoln. It is an interesting footnote to history that both cities are now represented by Jewish MPs. In 1290, in return for a grant of taxation, Edward I, the “Hammer of the Scots”, hammered the Jews too and ordered their expulsion from England. Estimates vary, but between 4,000 and 6,000 Jews were expelled.
However, the expulsion was not entirely successful and small communities of Jews lived secretly in Elizabethan London. One of the leading Jews was court physician to Elizabeth I. They were refugees from the Spanish inquisition, expelled from Spain and Portugal at the end of the 15th century. Known as the Marranos, they pretended to be Catholics but secretly practised their faith. For more than 350 years, Jews were unable to play any visible part in the life of the country. In the 17th century, however, Sephardi Jewish exiles from Spain and Portugal sought refuge, particularly in London. Fearful of persecution, those exiles lived covertly as Spanish merchants.
In the intellectual climate of early 17th century England, the coalescence of a variety of different strands of thinking about the Jews led to increased interest in the question of readmission. Hebrew was revered by scholars, who came to believe that it was the language spoken by Adam and Eve before the fall. Most significantly, the first half of the 17th century was a period of profound millenarian expectation. Many believed that Jesus Christ’s second coming was near, and that those living at the time could work to usher it in. The Jews had a central role in that theological drama. The conversion of the Jews was seen by many as a necessary precondition of Christ’s return. Some claimed that England, which they saw as specially favoured by God, was the obvious location for that event—which brings me to God’s Englishman, Oliver Cromwell.
The English revolution changed the landscape for the Jews in England. The readmission has fuelled a lively debate among historians, and the events of 1656 have been the subject of varying interpretations. It is, however, clear that in September 1655 the Portuguese scholar and rabbi, Menasseh ben Israel, petitioned Oliver Cromwell to grant Jews the right to resettle in England. Traditionally, Cromwell’s sympathetic response was primarily interpreted as evidence of his toleration and compassion. Historians today ascribe to him other motives, including his desire for access to finance and his belief that establishing the link would constitute a potential intelligence network, which was particularly important at the time in the context of the war with Spain.
Whatever the motivation, it was Cromwell who achieved the Jews’ return. He established a conference at Whitehall to enable England’s commercial, political and legal leaders to debate the issue. This old equivalent of a focus group, inflamed as it was by conservative opponents of readmission, failed to produce a favourable outcome, although it received a legal opinion that Edward I’s edict applied only to Jews who were in England in 1290, and had no continuing legal validity in statute or common law.
A small group of Marrano families, who were ostensibly Catholics, were now living in the city. One of their number was arrested as a Spanish enemy alien and his property was seized. He declared he was a
“portugee of the Hebrew nation”.
He was released and his property restored. It has been said that as a Spanish Catholic his position was open to question, but that as a refugee Jew he was safe. That provoked a crisis among the families. They answered by throwing off their disguise and declaring themselves to be Jewish. Together with Menasseh ben Israel, they submitted a second petition to Cromwell, asking for permission to meet for private devotions according to Jewish rites, and to have a Jewish burial ground. That petition succeeded and was approved on 25 June 1656.
Cromwell told the Jewish community that it had the legal right to live openly in England and that he would protect its members from persecution for failing to attend church services. The year 1656 therefore marked a real revolution for the Jews in England. I doubt that Cromwell could have foreseen that, one day, his Commons seat of Huntingdon would be held by a Jew, as it is today. In a sense, there was no formal act of readmission—simply a limited, practical acceptance that Jews living in England could reside and worship in their own manner, Thus, resettlement was effected in an unobtrusive and informal manner. More Sephardi Jews soon arrived, shortly to be followed by Ashkenazi Jews from central and eastern Europe.
There was from the outset a strong connection between the Jewish community and the City of London. The first Sephardi synagogue was established in 1656. The oldest surviving British synagogue is the beautiful Bevis Marks, where last evening’s celebration service, attended by the Prime Minister, was held. It was consecrated in 1701. During the Jacobite uprising of 1745 the Jews showed particular loyalty to the Government. Their chief financier, Samson Gideon, strengthened the stock market, and several of the younger members of the community volunteered in the corps raised to defend London. Possibly as a reward, Prime Minister Pelham in 1753 brought in the Jew Bill, which allowed Jews to become naturalised by application to Parliament. It passed the Lords without much opposition, but on being brought before the Commons, the Tory party made a great outcry against what it called an “abandonment of Christianity”. On the other hand, it was contended that the Jews performed a very valuable function in the commercial economy of the nation, providing one twelfth of the nation’s profits and one twentieth of its foreign trade.
The Whigs persisted in carrying out at least one part of their policy of religious toleration and the Bill was passed and received Royal Assent. Nevertheless, a great clamour was raised against the Act, and the lord mayor and the Corporation of London petitioned Parliament for its repeal. Effigies of Jews were carried about in derision. In 1754 the Jew Act was repealed. During the 18th century, the Jewish presence in England continued to grow and a joint committee of the Sephardi and Ashkenazi communities, which developed into the Board of Deputies of British Jews, was founded in 1760. By the end of that century, before the more numerous immigrations of the 19th century, London Jewry was one of the largest urban Jewish communities in Europe.
From the 1880s to the early part of the 20th century, massive pogroms and the anti-Semitic May laws in Russia caused many Jews to flee the pale of settlement from Russia and Poland. By 1919, the Jewish population had increased from 60,000 in 1880 to about 250,000 Jews, who lived primarily in the large cities, especially London. Originally, the Jews lived primarily in the Spitalfields and Whitechapel areas, which made the east end a Jewish neighbourhood. Manchester and neighbouring Salford were also areas of heavy Jewish settlement. It is interesting to note that the Huguenot church that was on the corner of Brick lane was first converted into a Methodist church, then in the late 19th century to a synagogue, and finally into the mosque it is now, reflecting the changing population of the east end and, of course, migration within London. Many of the Jews who found homes in the east end would now find their families living in my constituency and the neighbouring ones of Finchley and Golders Green and Hertsmere, or in other parts of north London.
Many tales are told of those times, which are within the living memory of the community, whose parents and grandparents were those very migrants. My constituent, Sidney Wagner, told me that his father came from Poland in the late 1920s. He was a trained forester, who, when he got off at Tilbury, thought he had managed to reach Canada. He spoke no English, and Sidney says that apart from Epping forest there was not much call for forestry, so his father went into the garment trade, as did so many Jewish migrants.
Before world war two, Britain was not particularly receptive to Jewish refugees fleeing the Nazis. Approximately 40,000 Jews from Austria and Germany were eventually allowed to settle in Britain before the war, in addition to 50,000 Jews from Italy, Poland and elsewhere in eastern Europe. Despite the increasingly dire warnings from Germany, Britain refused to allow further Jewish refugees into the country at the Evian conference of 1938.
The notable exception allowed by Parliament was the Kindertransport, an effort on the eve of war to transport Jewish children from Germany to Britain. However, their parents were not given visas, which led to heartbreak for families, as parents waved off their children, never to see them again. About 10,000 children were saved by the Kindertransport, although the plan had been to rescue five times that number. One notable Kindertransport survivor was Lord Dubs, who was a refugee from Czechoslovakia. There is a commemorative plaque at the entrance to the Strangers Gallery, for those who would like to see it. Despite the official position, however, there were notable heroes, such as Sir Nicholas Winton, who was recently knighted. Working at our Prague embassy, he saved nearly 700 Czech Jewish children.
After the second world war, there was further migration of displaced persons and of British citizens from around the empire and especially from the far east, where many of them were interned by the Japanese. My constituent Isaac Abraham was born in Shanghai in October 1934. His parents were British citizens from Iraq. As a young boy, he was interned from April 1943 by the Japanese. He came to the United Kingdom in 1949 and spent most of his working life as a teacher.
In 1950, the Jewish community’s population was estimated at 450,000. Now probably just below 300,000, it is about half of 1 per cent. of the population, which is still a pretty large number compared with the original 35 families in the 17th century.
I have been describing what I hope is a very positive picture, but it would be wrong not to refer to the anti-Semitism that has been endemic throughout the life of the Jewish community in Britain. Historically overt, that racism was tolerated and even encouraged. It was exemplified by popular stereotypes from Marlowe’s Jew of Malta and Shakespeare’s Shylock through to Dickens’s Fagin in Oliver Twist, all of which were profoundly anti-Semitic. It was also exemplified by the growth of the British Union of Fascists under Mosley and by the attitude of much of the British establishment towards the pre-war Jews in the UK and Germany. Rightly, the Jewish community resisted that attitude, and that was perhaps best exemplified by the battle of Cable street.
In late September 1936, the BUF announced its intention to mount a show of strength to intimidate the organised working class and particularly the local Jewish community in east London. The Jewish People’s Council responded to that provocation by organising a petition calling for the march to be banned. It received 100,000 signatures and was presented to the Home Office, but the Home Secretary refused to ban the march, despite a large east end Jewish population and the anti-Semitic nature of the BUF.
The battle of Cable street took place on 4 October 1936. It was a clash between the police, overseeing the BUF march, on the one side, and anti-fascists, including local Jewish groups, on the other. Up to 300,000 anti-fascists assembled. According to the estimate in the Daily Herald, up to 10,000 police were brought in from all over London and deployed to protect the march. The anti-fascist group erected barricades to prevent the march from taking place, and after a series of running battles between the police and anti-fascist demonstrators, the march failed. The BUF was dispersed towards Hyde park, and as the fascists skulked off towards the west end, it was reported that
“everyone of Jewish appearance was insulted and in some cases they were spat upon”.
When the fascists reached Trafalgar square, they tried to hold a meeting, but they were prevented from doing so by the police and were forcefully dispersed, having been comprehensively humiliated.
I regret to say, however, that anti-Semitism remains alive today. Only a few years ago, property developer Eliot Bernard’s staff inquired about membership at a golf club in Surrey. The club secretary said, “We’ve got a few Jews, but we try not to encourage them.” The reply was, “Well, you’ve got one more now—we’ve just bought your club.”
My constituent Malvyn Benjamin told me that he was once looking to be a Liberal MP. In 1961, he was interviewed as a possible candidate by the Liberal party in Darlington. The meeting’s chairman said, “I see you’re of the Jewish persuasion.” Malvyn replied, “Nobody persuaded me—I’m Jewish by birth.” The chairman then said, “Well, that’s a problem. We had a Jewish MP before, in 1910. It was Trebitsch Lincoln. He was a bit of a rogue and lost his seat in 1912. If we have another Jewish candidate, people might remember him.” Of course, that interview happened more than 50 years later.
However, anecdotes such those mask a serious problem. In 2005, the Community Security Trust recorded 455 anti-Semitic incidents—the second highest total for any year. That included 82 violent assaults, 152 random attacks on individuals, including children, and four cemetery desecrations. Seventy of those incidents showed a far-right motivation, 39 included the expression of anti-Israel or anti-Zionist views and 52 involved a direct reference to Israel and the middle east. Such extreme views are not only found on the far right but, regrettably, expressed by extremists who purport to be of the Muslim faith. It is vital that the Government are seen to be doing all they can to tackle the cancer of anti-Semitism in our society.
Now, however, I should like to turn to some examples of how Jews have contributed to our national life, and it would be appropriate to start with service in the armed forces. The first documented contribution was in 1757, when Captain Alexander Schonfield of the Royal Navy commanded HMS Diana in support of Wolfe’s attack on the Heights of Abraham to take Quebec. No fewer than nine Jewish seamen served with Nelson on HMS Victory at Trafalgar, and Wellington reported to Parliament that 15 Jewish officers were with him at Waterloo.
Jews served in the forces throughout the Victorian era, including in the Crimean war and the Boer war, where 3,000 Jewish servicemen were present, of whom 180 were killed. In the first world war, about 55,000 Jews enlisted, of whom 2,200 died. Some 1,100 decorations for bravery were won, including five Victoria crosses for gallantry. The first Jewish VC was awarded to Lieutenant Frederick de Pas in 1914. Of course, we should not forget the first world war poets, and Isaac Rosenberg, who was killed in action, was one of the great first world war poets.
In world war two, about 65,000 Jews served, out of a community of 400,000, which is a very high proportion. That included 4,000 refugees from the Nazis. Some 3,000 of those servicemen died. Jews were awarded 1,500 decorations, including three VCs and three George crosses.
The Jewish contribution to political life is enormous. David Salomons, one of the founders of the London and Westminster bank, was elected sheriff of the City of London in 1835. Twenty years later, in 1855-56, he became the first Jewish lord mayor of London, following in the footsteps of Jewish mayors in towns and cities across Britain.
In 1847, Lionel de Rothschild was elected MP for the City of London, but was unable to take his seat, as he would not make his statutory declaration
“on the true faith of a Christian”,
as required. In 1858, after he had won four successive election victories, the oath was finally amended, allowing him to become the first practising Jew to serve as a Member of Parliament. At the time, that was only a personal privilege. The Act that allowed all non-Christians to take their seats—the Parliamentary Oaths Act—was not passed until 1866. After finally winning the right to sit in Parliament, Lionel de Rothschild said these moving words:
“Would that this elevation not mean the diminution of our faith”.
Of course, we should not forget Disraeli, the son of Isaac, a Jewish-Italian writer. Benjamin Disraeli had an Anglican upbringing after the age of 12. He referred to himself as the blank page between the Old and New Testament. With Jews excluded from Parliament until 1858, Disraeli was able to follow a career that would otherwise have been denied him. Elected as an MP in 1837, and twice Prime Minister between 1868 and 1874, he was Britain’s first, and so far only, Jewish-born Prime Minister.
The first Jew to hold ministerial office was George Jessel, who was made Solicitor-General in 1871 and who later became Master of the Rolls. In 1908, Herbert Samuel joined the Cabinet. In 1913, Rufus Isaacs was appointed Lord Chief Justice, and he later became Viceroy of India. Since then, Jews have been continuously involved in Parliament and Government. According to the current “Jewish Year Book”, there are presently 25 Jewish Privy Councillors, eight hereditary and 43 life peers and 22 Members of Parliament.
The Jewish community has made a great contribution to business, and many household names, such as Marks and Spencer, Tesco, ICI, Dixons and, of course, the Rothschild banks, were founded by Jews. Jews have also made a great contribution to science and medicine. Lord Winston, the world-famous pioneer of infertility treatment and TV personality, is in the other House. The Jewish community has made great contributions to the world of entertainment, too. Lord Bernstein founded the Granada TV company and brought “Coronation Street” to the nation’s televisions. There is Harold Pinter, Arnold Wesker, Peter Shaffer—all great playwrights. There is Maureen Lipman—I think it would be fair to call her one of our great national treasures—Sir Anthony Sher, the great Shakespearean actor, and of course comedians such as Sid James, Warren Mitchell and, for the older generation, Frankie Vaughan, the great entertainer. For younger people, there is Rachel Stevens of the former group S Club 7, and Craig David.
Some of the great artists of the 20th century were Jewish, including Lucian Freud, Jacob Epstein and Frank Auerbach. Jews have made a great contribution to our sporting heritage, particularly in the field of boxing. The pugilist Daniel Mendoza, who lived from 1764 to 1836, was heavyweight champion between 1792 and 1795, even though he was only 5 ft 7 in and 11½ stone. He was only an inch or two taller than me, and was about the same weight as me, and I certainly do not feel like a heavyweight boxer. The reason why he was so good was that he saw boxing as a battle of wits. He became known as the father of scientific boxing, inventing defensive boxing techniques such as the guard, side-stepping and the straight left. His patron was the Prince of Wales and he was the first Jew to speak to King George III. He became a popular figure in songs and featured in plays. His contests were illustrated by artists of the time, including James Gillray.
We all remember the film “Chariots of Fire”, which was about the 1924 Paris Olympics, and in particular the portrayal of Harold Abrahams, who won gold in the 100 m and silver in the four by 100 m relay. I suspect that very few people will remember Edgar Seligman, who won silver for fencing in three successive Olympics in the last century.
The Jewish charitable tradition is also extremely important. In the 19th century, Jews entered wider fields and worked for both Jewish and wider communities. The best example is Sir Moses Montefiore, a successful Sephardi businessman and a friend of Queen Victoria when she was a child. He retired at the age of 40 and devoted himself to charitable and diplomatic work on behalf of Jewish people in Britain and across the world. His 100th birthday was the cause of much national rejoicing.
Many Jewish leaders are involved in important interfaith activities. Good examples are Sir Sigmund Sternberg, who devoted his life to interfaith activities, and my good friend Dr. Richard Stone, who has worked hard on the Three Faiths Forum. Perhaps the best example of all is the Chief Rabbi, Sir Jonathan Sacks. He makes great play of the importance of religious education; he attended a religious school, Christ’s college, Finchley. That is probably what gives him his wider perspective. We all very much appreciate his thoughtful comments on the “Today” programme, including those that he made this morning. He emphasised the importance of tolerance across the minority communities and across different faiths.
This Government have done much to support the Jewish community. For example, there is holocaust memorial day. The Divorce (Religious Marriages) Act 2002—my private Member’s Bill—was carried by the House with cross-party support. The Government have done wonders on holocaust restitution issues. In particular, they set up the spoliation advisory panel to deal with the return of looted works of art. However, there is a number of outstanding issues. There is the question of compensation for the civilian detainees of the Japanese, such as my constituent, Isaac Abraham, whom I mentioned earlier. It now looks as though, at long last, justice will be done for Isaac, although perhaps not for the rest of his family. In respect of the Kindertransport, there is a long-standing grievance that our Government ought to be taking up with the German Government over pension rights. We have yet to get the Jewish community radio station, Shalom FM, established; it has had great difficulty obtaining a licence from the Radio Authority.
There is unfinished business in terms of tracking down the war criminals of the second world war. I am pleased that the Home Office and police seem to be paying more attention to that, but there is a great deal of urgency in, for example, trying to trace the evil perpetrators of genocide, particularly those involved in the worst activities of the SS Galicia division. Of course, as I mentioned earlier, there is the need to be much firmer and tougher in tackling the problem of anti-Semitism.
On a more positive note, ever since its return—and even during the expulsion—the Jewish community has played a full part in our country’s success in every field, including the arts, sport, business, politics and the professions. The community has always contributed beyond its size in activities that are of benefit to the whole of society, putting in far more than it ever received. Jewish community values are British values. Since June 1656, the Jews have become a settled presence in all walks of life. Despite incidents of anti-Semitism, the process of Jewish resettlement has been peaceful. There was no grand gesture or pronouncement, but a pragmatic and practical process of emancipation and integration of the oldest minority in our country, proving that diversity does not mean division.
In commemorating 350 years of the Jewish community’s presence in our country, the modern Jewish community remembers the beginning, with Menasseh ben Israel and Oliver Cromwell, and looks forward to many more centuries of contributing to British life. Ultimately, the anniversary commemorates the greatest benefit, which is not to Britain’s Jews but to Britain itself, as a uniquely tolerant nation. We wish the Jewish community mazel tov for its 350th anniversary.
I start by slightly correcting the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore). He said that it is difficult for someone who is Jewish to go to all synagogues. I am Jewish and have been welcomed in all synagogues. Indeed, I am a member of an orthodox synagogue and the chairman of governors of a pluralistic school that serves the whole community. Perhaps the reason for that is that I have lived in the area my whole life.
I pay tribute to one of my Jewish predecessors as Member of Parliament for Ilford, North, Millie Miller, who was a Labour MP until her untimely death in 1977. My constituency, when taken together with those of my neighbours, is the largest Jewish area, with the largest number of Jewish electors, in Europe, and I am proud of that. We have five synagogues in my constituency, with nine neighbouring it. There are three schools—Ilford Jewish primary school, King Solomon high school, and the school of which I am chairman of governors, Clore Tikva. There is Sinclair house, serving the community’s needs, from the youth to the elderly, and that is excellently run by Jewish Care, which should be commended for that.
I move on to the compliment paid to sportsmen by the hon. Gentleman. He left two out, and I was shocked, because they are players for the best football team in this country, which everyone knows is Leyton Orient. Those two players are Barry Silkman and Mark Lazarus, who contributed excellently to Leyton Orient’s promotion in 1969-70. I shall not trouble hon. Members by naming the rest of the team, but I could if pushed.
We should commend everything that my community has done in its 350 years here, and look at some of the reasons for that. I should like to talk briefly about my family. One of the greatest honours that I have had was when I swore my Oath of Allegiance in this House, wearing my skull cap, on the Old Testament. I was touched, and I know that my family were touched. We felt that that was possibly one of the most special things likely to happen to me, aside from the birth of my children and my marriage. That is a privilege for which I am grateful, and I will continue to be grateful to the electors of Ilford, North, for many years to come, I trust.
How did I become Lee Scott? It is quite a funny story. My father went into the armed forces. Our name at that time was Schuldberg, which would have been quite long for posters. The story goes that my father was standing next to a Scotsman, and we became Scott. I am only grateful that he was not standing next to a Gurkha.
I want to talk about a particular organisation in my constituency. There are many that I could single out, but there is one that is doing unbelievable work, an organisation called Drugsline Chabad. It is run by part of the Jewish religion called the Lubavitch, and it serves the community’s needs. It works with a project for the Muslim, Sikh and Christian communities, and with any other religion that wishes to plug into it, to try to stop the vile trade in drugs and youngsters’ use of drugs. It also helps to rehabilitate those who, unfortunately, have gone down that route. Its work across the community reflects the work done by many other organisations and interfaith groups working in my constituency to benefit our entire community. That is what it is all about.
Most Jewish Members of Parliament here today, and those in this House in the past, have come here to serve the whole community of their constituency. That is vital. I am Jewish and I am British. I am proud of that, and that is vital, too. We heard earlier from the hon. Gentleman about anti-Semitism in the past, and what is still happening today. Before entering the House I worked in the charitable world for a number of years. It was my privilege to visit Theresienstadt with people who had been at that camp. When you see what man has done to man—to women and children—you ask yourself whether we have learned anything from history. When we see some of the atrocities being carried out against all religions in the world today, we have to say that perhaps we have not.
I pray for all religions that there should be no prejudice against them. We all worship one God. We all have the same needs. Therefore, I hope that anti-Semitism—the hon. Gentleman was perfectly correct to say that it is still happening today—is eradicated. It is vile and cannot be permitted. Some far-right fascist parties—I shall not even give them credit by naming them—had minor successes at the recent local elections. We must learn from history, and I would tell anyone, however they vote, not to vote for far-right fascist parties.
To finish my few remarks, I would like to say not only to the people of Ilford, North but to the entire Jewish community that we can be proud of what we have achieved and there is so much more we can continue to achieve. We must work together with all other communities to make a difference for our country. As long as that continues to happen, we will be able to continue to celebrate our 350 years, and the many hundreds of years to come in which we can serve the people of Britain.
I would like to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) on securing this important debate. The only reason this debate is taking place is that he sought it and put forward the subject for discussion. He serves all his constituents extremely well. I know that he displays commendable knowledge and dedication towards his Jewish constituents and carries out his duties with absolute sincerity and success. I congratulate him on all the work he does, inside the House and out, for his Jewish constituents and for all those he represents.
The debate is an interesting one. In the contributions so far, we have heard a detailed history of the Jews in this country and heard a lot about the contribution of the Jewish community to British society as a whole. In my brief remarks, I would like to focus on the nature of the Jewish contribution to British society, and specifically consider the basis on which that contribution takes place, the lessons that can be learned with regard to other communities in Britain today and the contribution that can be made to the ongoing debate about the nature of British society, multiculturalism and citizenship.
The Jewish community is, and always has been, diverse. The origins of Jewish people in this country are diverse and there are social and economic differences between them, but there is a Jewish experience. That experience comes from the common bond most Jewish people have through a background of coming to this country as asylum seekers or, in some cases, what we now term economic migrants. Despite those differences—the individual differences and the differences of social and economic background—there is a strong sense of community, which is extremely important in understanding the notion of a Jewish contribution.
My hon. Friend and the hon. Member for Ilford, North (Mr. Scott) both mentioned examples of individual Jewish successes in contributing to our society. These are just a few of the names that show the nature of individual contributions from Jews to British society: Professor Chain, the discoverer of penicillin; the late Judge Rose Heilbron, who was the first woman judge; Lord Winston and Jacob Epstein, who have both already been mentioned; and John Cohen, the founder of Tesco.
However, the contribution has a wider significance. An examination of the Jewish contribution to British society over the centuries shows that there is no incompatibility between being a proud Jew and a proud citizen. The lesson of the Jewish contribution is that integration, not assimilation, is the model. When we are discussing models of citizenship now and in the future in our multiracial, diverse society, that is an important model to which we should put our attention.
Reference has already been made to the experience of the first Jewish MP, Lionel de Rothschild, who was prevented from taking his Oath for 11 years after he was first elected. It was only after 11 years that he was able to take an Oath where he did not have to state the words
“on the true faith of a Christian”.
In my area of Liverpool, the earliest records of the Jewish community go back to 1722. One of its proudest forebears was Herbert Samuel, Viscount Samuel of Toxteth and Mount Carmel, who was British Home Secretary twice, in 1916 and 1931, and was also the first British high commissioner in Palestine and Transjordan—a vital post, in which he served between 1920 and 1925.
We rightly concentrate today on the positive contribution of Jewish people to our society. We cannot ignore the great hostility that Jews faced in this society as immigrants and, indeed, as Jews. We should not forget that the Aliens Act 1905—the first immigration Act in this country—was enacted to stem the flow of Jewish refugees fleeing persecution from eastern Europe. After coming to this country, Jews often faced discrimination. That discrimination could relate to employment, and many Jews became active alongside non-Jewish people in the growing Labour and trade union movement. Discrimination could relate to housing. I remember being very shocked when my parents told me that when they tried to buy a house in Manchester in the mid-1940s, they gave a name that did not sound Jewish because they had been told that Jewish people were not allowed to buy houses in that area.
That discrimination spread to universities, where, until relatively recently, there was a quota of Jewish students allowed to join medical schools. Discrimination took many forms, and we are all aware of it in the social sector as well. The advent of Jewish golf clubs came about because Jews were deemed not fit to be members of other golf clubs and it was feared that they would take them over.
Discrimination has taken place against Jewish people on the basis that they are immigrants, and on the basis that they are Jews. The battle of Cable street was mentioned by my hon. Friend—an occasion that has an important place in the history books. However, there have been many other incidents, perhaps of a less grand nature, where fights took place in the school playground between children as Jewish children were told that they had killed Jesus. I would like to think that that is something of the past, but anti-Semitism has not really gone away.
What has the response to all that been? When anyone faces discrimination and prejudice, the response has to be to fight against it and hope that other people will join the battle, which might be individual or with others, and might be political. Jewish people recognise the need to be positive and show initiative, and to fight by showing what they can achieve. Education has always been seen as important because of the Jewish value of learning, and family and community support have always been an essential part of Jewish individual achievement. In short, Jewish people have been able to combine religious practice in great variety—there is no one mode of Jewish practice—with Jewish cultural identity and being British. None of those three things is static, and the Jewish experience shows that they can be combined.
I hope that my experience as a Jewish person and of the Jewish community has already assisted other minorities in our society. In the 1980s and 1990s, I was the leader of Lancashire county council. One of the first issues that I encountered when I became leader in 1981 was what I saw as the total neglect of and ignorance about the needs of Muslim communities in areas such as Blackburn, Burnley and Hyndburn. I found that there was little understanding of their needs. Their correct wish to maintain their identity and to have their religious and cultural needs met was fully understandable and acceptable, yet the authorities found it difficult to understand. Seeing things differently was considered to be hostile.
Because of my Judaism and my position as leader of the council, I was able to use my knowledge to assist the Muslim communities, and at the beginning of the 1980s we changed Lancashire county council policy. Dietary policy was changed to introduce halal meat to school meals, and we argued with the burial authorities so that, in accordance with Islamic law, Muslim burials could take place on the same day. I brushed aside statements and reports telling me that that was not possible. I knew that not so many miles down the road, in the Jewish communities of Manchester, burial on the same day was a given, and was accepted as a right of that community. I could not understand or accept that if it was a right for the Jewish community in Manchester, it should not be a right for the Muslim communities of Lancashire. That change was made, as were changes in policy on school uniforms.
I also worked with Adam Patel, who is now a peer, to found the Lancashire Council of Mosques to help Muslim communities in Lancashire to develop their identities and to extend their knowledge on the basis of maintaining their identities as members of a wider community and contributing to that community. The Jewish experience provides a model for how people can maintain their sense of identity, how it can change over time, and how maintaining identity can make people better and stronger citizens.
The Government’s efforts to give support in matters of particular concern to Jewish people have been mentioned. I thank also the Speaker for his efforts in recognising the Jewish community, and for holding the special celebration to mark the 350th anniversary of the return to the UK of Jews. The Chief Rabbi spoke to the nation on the BBC this morning, and talked about this debate. He quoted Jeremiah urging Jews to contribute to the society of which they had become a part, and he drew attention to the origin of many Jews in this country as the asylum seekers of the past.
I hope that the Jewish contribution has shown the way forward for people to maintain their identities in a way that contributes to society as a whole. I hope also that that is a cause for celebration, as we discuss the future of citizenship and the direction in which our society should go.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) on securing this important debate. I also congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, North (Mr. Scott) and the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs. Ellman) on their speeches in this enjoyable debate. I do not expect that my humble contribution will add much.
I am not a Jewish person, but I want to place on record my appreciation for what Jewish people have brought to Britain in the past 350 years. In many respects, the number 350 resonates throughout the debate, because after Cromwell changed the law, there were only about 350 Jewish people in London. It is now 350 years since that important decision, and there are about 350,000 Jewish people in Britain today. That is the second largest Jewish population in western Europe, I believe.
As the hon. Member for Hendon described, Jewish people have not always had a happy time in this country. For many centuries, it was considered that Christian people should not be involved in moneylending, which is why the first Jewish people who came here engaged in that profession, from which they clearly prospered, which led to resentment. It is shocking, and strongly reminiscent of the second world war, that in 1217 in this country, Jewish people were required to wear yellow badges to indicate that they were Jewish.
Cromwell’s decision, made in this place in 1655, was momentous. It followed several weeks of debate, including opposition from the clergy, but with strong consideration given to the Messianic prophecies. It was a strong view at that time that if Jewish people were not allowed back into this country there would not be a second coming, because Jewish people would have to be on all the lands of the earth for the second coming to happen. As well as those religious implications, Cromwell clearly had strong feelings on the matter and rightly recognised that Jewish people would help trade inside England and with other countries in Europe.
The relationship between this country and Jewish people has not always been straightforward. We rightly recognise that this country has a long and proud tradition of democracy and trade in all sorts of different spheres, but Israel was a kingdom long before London or England were ever thought of, and when where we are now was just swampy riverside. For the people alive at that time, there was no concept of our nation, yet many years on, this country played a crucial role in establishing the modern state of Israel. That was never a straightforward process, but I like to think that if Britain had not had the mandate in Palestine and it had been given to another power, the state of Israel might not have been born in the way that it was.
My uncle served in the British Army in Palestine just before 1948. He very much appreciated all that Israel had to offer, and our country had a difficult role to play between the Israeli and Arab communities. The path was never straightforward. Had there been a more brutal colonial power than Britain in Palestine, the Israel that we know today might not have come about after the second world war. This country stood alone in 1940 against the rise of Nazism in Germany when no other country in the world was prepared to stand up to Hitler.
I am sure that Jewish people and non-Jewish people alike will be grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising this important issue today. An important part of Britain’s cultural life is the hymn “Jerusalem”. Many of us know its words off by heart, and it is rather appropriate that that hymn links the Jewish community with those of us who are not Jewish but who recognise the Jewish tradition.
I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) on securing this debate, which has ranged widely around the contributions that the Jewish community has made to British life and indeed the connections between the life of this country and Jewish communities overseas.
I noted in the Library pack for this debate an article written by a scholar claiming that this date was not necessarily the most significant in the history of the Jewish community in this country. I was therefore interested to hear the hon. Gentleman speak about the case that made it acceptable again at that time for members of what was a small Jewish community to practise their faith openly. It reassured me that this date is significant. Whether the anniversary is for 350, 400 or 300 years, the important thing is that we are having a debate today and that there is a celebration this year of the immense contribution that the Jewish community has made to British life and to global Jewish culture. A prominent example of the latter is the political influence that the Jewish community exercised to ensure that the British Government supported the establishment of the state of Israel.
I was interested to hear the contribution of the hon. Member for Ilford, North (Mr. Scott), who is no longer present, as my father’s family is from the east end of London, and they grew up as part of a diverse community. My father’s first teaching job was in Ilford, and he trained as a teacher in Golders Green, so there is also a connection with an area not too far from Hendon. We heard particularly moving words from the hon. Member for Hendon about his discussions with those people who experienced the most appalling persecution in Europe during the second world war. As an A-level history student, and a fairly difficult person to affect emotionally at the age of 16, I remember visiting the Imperial War museum and seeing some of the footage of the British Army arriving at and liberating the camps, and the effect that that had on me. It is impossible to imagine the suffering that the Jewish community throughout Europe experienced during that period, and it was moving to hear the hon. Gentleman’s experiences of and discussions about that.
Like every European community, we have had our own periods of persecution in which episodes of anti-Semitism were overt, although they took place further back in our history. We heard from the hon. Gentleman about the terrible persecution in York.
In the contribution from the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs. Ellman), we heard how low-level discrimination in our society is equally damning of us as a community. Although it may be less obvious, we must never forget that it devalues us all.
The Jewish community’s resilience and determination to practise its faith reminds me of the Catholic tradition in which I grew up, although the two faiths may have slightly different views on the role of Oliver Cromwell in certain stories. As the hon. Lady said, the Jewish community as a minority paved the way for others in integrating or maintaining the role of its unique tradition. The Jewish community has contributed famously to the worlds of business, science and the arts, and, as we have heard, to sport and to the military.
All parties have had prominent Jewish politicians. As we heard, the first Jewish MP, Lionel de Rothschild, was elected four times before he was allowed to take his seat in 1858. He was from the Liberal tradition. The first non-baptised, Jewish Cabinet Minister, Herbert Samuel, joined the Cabinet in 1909, as I had understood; the hon. Member for Hendon said 1908, and I bow to his research. Samuel went on to lead the Liberal party and, I am told, to appear in the first televised party political broadcast. I shall leave it up to other hon. Members to decide whether that was an achievement.
There are debates within the Jewish community about its degree of assimilation. It is clear that living among and interacting with other cultures brings challenges, but it also provides the opportunity to celebrate uniqueness in Britain’s diverse culture. The celebration taking place this year marks the re-emergence of the British Jewish community 350 years ago, and more than that, it provides the entire British community with the opportunity to show its appreciation of the contribution made by the Jewish community and individual Jewish citizens.
The community has not often sought the limelight, and I hope that schools, councils, villages, towns and cities will take the opportunity to thank the Jewish community. I hope also that the community itself will proudly acknowledge its achievements in Britain, and look positively to the future.
I add my congratulations to the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) on securing this debate and on introducing it in a generous and illuminating fashion. We had a wonderfully expansive trot through the history of the Jewish community in the United Kingdom, and we thank him for that. I welcome my friend, the Minister, who will make the Government’s winding-up speech—so we have little doubt that the high quality of this debate will be maintained right to the very end.
I have had the good fortune to be long acquainted with just what the Jewish community means to this country. I was born and brought up in Bury when, as is well known, the Jewish community was already a fixed part of north Manchester life. When driving into Manchester through Whitefield and Prestwich, the synagogues, the visible symbols of the Jewish community, were obvious and proud. My school, Bury grammar, had long benefited from a distinctive Jewish community. Over the decades, countless boys have emerged to contribute to all sections of British society through their skills and application. From within my generation, there have been such literary notables as Colin Shindler, author of the wicked and, in my view, deeply unfair book “Manchester United Ruined My Life”; and Simon Kelner, possibly the finest and most innovative newspaper editor of the modern day, and whose form prefect I once was.
There is one man in particular, however, who bridges my childhood and adult life as the epitome of dedication to public life. His life and career was a wonderful example to me and many others. He is Michael Fidler JP, and woe betide anyone who forgot the JP. Michael was born in Salford, the fourth child of two Lithuanian Jewish émigrés who ran a hardware shop. They subsequently established their own waterproof garment factory, and Michael became its managing director. He was chairman of the National Joint Clothing Council of Great Britain between 1953 and 1957. While serving his trade and profession he served his faith. He was a member of the Board of Deputies of British Jews from 1942, and its president between 1967 and 1973. He also had a distinguished masonic career.
As an independent councillor, he became the first Jewish mayor of Prestwich in 1957, but he joined the Conservative party and was the MP for Bury and Radcliffe between 1970 and 1974. I shall remember for ever my excitement and elation, as chairman of Michael’s young Conservatives, when he held his seat in February 1974 by just 300 votes after three recounts, little realising that barely nine years later I would be his Conservative successor. He distinguished himself in Parliament by fighting hard for his constituency, perhaps making his greatest contribution by ensuring that Bury and Rochdale retained their historic individual identities. In the midst of all that, he still had time to be the founder of the Conservative Friends of Israel, of which he was the director until his death in 1988, and which is now so ably run by Stuart Polak. Michael was just one man, but the life of that one man—and he was so rightly proud of every part of it—and of Maidie and the family epitomise the contribution made by Jews throughout this country to business life, community life, politics and international relations, particularly in ensuring vital support for the existence and independence of the state of Israel.
I have been lucky to experience at first hand the contribution of the Jewish community. As the Member of Parliament for Bury, North until 1997, I was able to see still more of that contribution in education, welfare, family life, community life, business and politics. Perhaps nothing during that time was more poignant to a child born after the heartbreak of world war and holocaust, but whose soul had been touched by visits to Yad Vashem and by the writings of Elie Wiesel, than attending the annual remembrance service of Jewish ex-servicemen in Prestwich with my good friend and colleague David Sumberg, who was the MP for Bury, South. I still cherish those memories.
I hope that you will forgive these personal reflections, Mr. Williams. Perhaps they help to explain why I am so proud on behalf of the Opposition to respond to the debate and to discuss the contribution of the community on a wider scale. We have heard several excellent contributions this morning. They highlighted particular themes that run through the community’s contribution to Britain during the past three centuries. There were personal reflections from my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, North (Mr. Scott) and the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs. Ellman), who both drew on personal experiences to illuminate their remarks. My hon. Friend spoke with humour, emotion and not a little passion about the family experiences that had brought him to this place, and the hon. Lady used her considerable local government experience to draw some valuable and too often unheard parallels between the experience of the Jewish community and that of other minorities in Britain.
My hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr. Hollobone) reminded us of the United Kingdom’s role in establishing the state of Israel, and the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Rogerson) rightly took this opportunity to remind all communities to celebrate the contribution of the Jewish community to life in this country.
Perhaps I might emphasise three trends throughout the centuries to make a point about the Jewish contribution to community life. Speaking just a few days ago at the Board of Deputies of British Jews, the leader of my party stated:
“To me the greatest strength of the Jewish faith—and the Jewish community—is the primacy of your values and how you live by them. Treasuring the close bonds of family life, truly understanding that they are the cornerstone of a healthy and vibrant community. That community also recognises the central importance of education and a good schooling. The greatest gift you can give someone is the means to help them look after him or herself and a good education provides the tools for independence.”
That closeness of community and that shared culture, which is so generously made available to anyone who inquires after it and is taken into the home of Jewish friends, is a fundamental characteristic well known to our society.
If culture has been important, so too has been the remarkable character of significant individuals who have made a contribution. Many of them have already been mentioned this morning. A visit to a cheerful Jewish website, of which there are many, produced an entertaining list of the top 10 UK Jews. The list comes from TotallyJewish.com’s top 10 list of Jews who have influenced Britain. It is not a bad list: it includes Peter Sellers, Brian Epstein, Benjamin Disraeli, Isaiah Berlin, Michael Marks, Siegfried Sassoon and Robert Winston—contributions that have been mentioned by many others this morning. I was particularly delighted by the recognition of Rosalind Franklin, a representative of Jewish women of achievement. Too often forgotten, she was the woman at the heart of the discovery of DNA.
If character and culture have been of significance, so too has been the wisdom of those whose thoughts and words stop us in our tracks and make us look at the world differently. I have had the good fortune to meet and listen to both of the last two Chief Rabbis. They have made a huge impression on us all with their depth of understanding of the importance of fixed and firm values in the midst of a rapidly changing world. Such wisdom is drawn from a perspective influenced by the tragedies of the Jewish people’s experience of the 20th century and the later struggles for the existence and very life of the state of Israel. Their words, directed often with gentle humour but deep insight, have illuminated contemporary discussion of the place of faith in modern life and communities. They represent many other writers, artists and philosophers, too numerous to mention, who have helped shape the modern world and culture that we now take for granted.
Arthur Hertzberg stated:
“Community cannot survive on what it remembers; it will persist only because of what it affirms and believes.”
Those of the Jewish faith in Britain have something special to contribute. What they affirm and believe encompasses a sense of purpose born from the pain of their existence, which is perhaps why so many of them have tended to raise their voices on behalf of others. Wiesel stated:
“No one is as capable of gratitude as one who has emerged from the kingdom of night. We know that every moment is a moment of grace, every hour an offering; not to share them would mean to betray them. Our lives no longer belong to us alone; they belong to all those who need us desperately.”
An article published on the website of the Board of Deputies of British Jews about the Jewish community in the United Kingdom concludes:
“The Jews have never just been a people like other peoples. Jewish survival is a miracle. It defies the trends and logic of history. Logically the Jews should have been no more than a footnote of history disappearing centuries, even millennia ago. With our endless problems, crises and catastrophes which have perennially cascaded through Jewish history, we are indeed (in Simon Rawidowicz’s famous phase) ‘the ever dying people’.”
We are all the richer in this country because that Jewish community survived. We recognise that it survives not on its past or on its history, but on its relevance and engagement with contemporary life. Nor do we forget that the embers of anti-Semitism, which may have been dampened much lower than in medieval times, are still capable of being inflamed. With the recent votes for fascist parties such as the British National party, we know that they need vigorous and effective combating.
The key to the relationship of the Jewish community with the rest of society is the relationship of that community with God and its creator. That relationship gives us in the book of Micah a phrase which, when applied to individuals, communities and nations, and when remembered, is a universal code by which we can all live:
“He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the Lord require? To act justly, to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”
We wish Godspeed to the Jewish community in this country for many years to come.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (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 the hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire (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.