House of Lords
Thursday, 19 June 2008.
The House met at eleven o'clock: the LORD SPEAKER on the Woolsack.
Prayers—Read by the Lord Bishop of Norwich.
My Lords, an assessment of future climate change comes from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s 2007 report. The global average temperature will rise between 1.1 and 6.4 degrees Celsius above 1990 levels by 2100 if greenhouse gas emissions continue unabated. Warming will be accompanied by rising sea levels, changes in rainfall patterns and more extreme whether. The UK Climate Impacts Programme scenarios project warmer, wetter winters and hotter, dryer summers with more extreme weather events and rising sea levels.
My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that reply. Does he agree that the case for long-term climate change is really not yet settled? In particular, is it not nonsense to predict the situation at the end of the century, as has been done? At the beginning of the 20th century, it was forecast that running out of coal would result in a cold climate for centuries to come. Should my noble friend accept that, in the words of the noble Lord, Lord Lawson, in the argument for global warming there is,
“a grain of truth and a mountain of nonsense”?
My Lords, as my noble friend knows, he asked the same Question on 16 October 2006; I think that his supplementary is very similar as well. My Answer was slightly different. The temperature ranges are slightly different, because the previous Answer was based on the 2001 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report. This matter is being watched all the while.
With due respect to everybody else, there is considerable confidence around the world that the climate models provide reliable estimates of future climate change. This comes from the fact that the models use fundamental chemistry and physics, and not people’s hunches. For example, the first report of the IPCC in 1990 correctly projected the observed warming up to the present. The confidence in the model estimates is higher for some climate variables, such as temperature, but less so for others, such as precipitation.
The long-term warming trend due to greenhouse gases is there. That is mixed up with short-term variability that happens with our weather patterns in any event.
My Lords, is the Minister not being a little over the top? I am sure that he is aware that the impact assessment of his own department, Defra, for the Climate Change Bill suggests that the cost to the British economy of the Bill’s absurd proposals for a 60 per cent decarbonisation—more may well be recommended—is £200 billion by 2050; many independent economists have put it much higher. The benefits—highly conjectural and dependent on a global agreement which is unlikely to arise in the form sought—are, at best, about half that. A different approach based on adaptation, should there be a problem—despite these models predicting increasing warming this century, there has been no further warming so far—
My Lords, I am very grateful for the noble Lord’s initial comments and for the kind words he said about me last night, which I shall try to reciprocate now. The long-term warming trend is there. However, as regards the short term, figures show that there could have been a decrease in the past couple of years due to La Nina occurring in the Pacific Ocean—which the scientists say has finished this week—which is the cold aspect of it. That can have an effect on world water and land temperatures. However, the consensus of scientists is that the long-term trend of increased temperatures results from man-made emissions.
I am reluctant to say anything about the Climate Change Bill, which has started its Committee stage in the other place, and will come back to this House. I should not prejudge what the other place will do. However, according to the Stern report—which still remains the bible, whatever people may say about it—if we do not act, we will lose something like 5 per cent of global GDP each year now and for ever. The cost of action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to avoid the worst impacts can be limited to around 1 per cent of global GDP per year. Therefore, we can still have growth and deal with climate change.
My Lords, we on these Benches agree with the Minister’s comments on the problem. However, when the Government came to power in 1997, they set themselves a target of a 20 per cent reduction in carbon dioxide by 2010. Yet over the past three years there has been no reduction whatever at 557 million tonnes. The figure is now higher than in 1997. When will carbon dioxide reductions start in the United Kingdom?
My Lords, I take the noble Lord’s point about emissions. The United Kingdom can set a lead on this but we cannot solve the problem ourselves. That is the whole point of the exercise. We can preach to others if we are doing something ourselves. We are only a small player in this. The noble Lord is right: the EU’s target was to limit global average temperatures to no more than 2 degrees above pre-industrial levels. That would require CO2 concentrations to be stabilised at or below 500 parts per million. The concentration is already about 430 parts per million and the models used by the Henley Centre warn that an even lower level is required. We are on course to meet our Kyoto commitments along with most other member states of the European Union. However, overall, we have to do more in terms of adaptation and mitigation. That will not be pleasant, but it has to be planned so that we can take the population along with us.
My Lords, has my noble friend heard about or seen the reports published today which indicate that within the next decade there will be no ice in the Arctic in summer despite the fact that the winter seasons have been colder of late? Does he agree that the environmental impacts and the impacts on people’s lives of that trend are not yet fully understood and are things that we need to consider very seriously when thinking about climate change in the future?
My Lords, I have not seen the reports that my noble friend mentioned. However, it is reported that there could be catastrophic tipping points in the world’s climate, whether caused by thermal changes in the Atlantic or what is happening in the Arctic and the loss of the ice. On the other hand, none of these tipping points may occur. If they occurred, it would be catastrophic. In my original Answer I gave a range of temperatures, and if the upper range was reached none of us would probably be here. My noble friend is right to say that this is a serious business. The reason the Pacific’s temperatures are changing, and why we have just had La Nina as opposed to El Nino, is the flow of colder water from the depths and from the ice packs. I understand that that has been switched off, as it were, by nature this week. That will probably start to change the pattern and lead to slightly warmer temperatures. However, the change to which my noble friend referred is happening and we have to deal with it.
Aviation: Sustainable Development Commission Report
My Lords, we participated in and supported an open dialogue process managed by the Sustainable Development Commission, during which a huge range of stakeholder views were expressed. As such, the Government do not believe that the dialogue delivered any consensus to support the recommendations in the SDC’s report. The Government’s aviation policy is evidence-based, and we do not therefore intend to carry out a fundamental review as the report recommends.
My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that Answer, although I do not find it very encouraging. Is he aware that, in its critique of the 2003 air transport White Paper, which it published in 2004, the Sustainable Development Commission said:
“It is now becoming urgent that [Governments] begin the challenging task of building public awareness of the fact that air traffic cannot be allowed to grow at its present pace, and that policy must be reoriented towards restraining rather than encouraging growth in air traffic”?
Does my noble friend not agree that the current situation shows that it was right then and that it is right now? There has been a dramatic increase in oil prices, which is one of the assumptions on which the 2003 policy was based, and climate change science has moved on. Is he further aware that there is evidence that passenger numbers are beginning to fall off? Stansted airport recently reported a 4.4 per cent decline in passenger numbers between January and May this year.
My Lords, we keep our air transport policy under review at all times. I am aware of the points that the noble Baroness has made, but we also have to take carefully into consideration the profoundly beneficial impact that the aviation sector has on our national economy. We should look at these things over the longer term rather than the shorter term.
My Lords, I support the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, in her Question. The Government really must look at this again. There is now no real economic case, and certainly no environmental case, for additional runways in the south-east at Stansted or Heathrow. Surely, the Government should assess the need for new airport runways in the UK and perhaps put them in areas that need more regeneration. I urge the Government to review the whole situation.
My Lords, frankly, I find the position of the noble Lord’s party on the aviation industry quite astonishing. The aviation industry brings net benefits to the United Kingdom. All of the projections over the longer term show that there will be continued growth. I wonder where the party opposite’s incoherent policy on aviation in the south-east is going to lead. Will it lead eventually to the meltdown of the aviation sector if at some point in the future his party comes into government?
My Lords, the report to which the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, referred is a very poorly aimed kick for the long grass. It is a recipe for doing nothing. Does the noble Lord agree that there is much more to be done in improving access by rail to London from the north of England, and from the Channel Tunnel through to everywhere, so that there is much less need to travel?
My Lords, again, I find the position of the noble Lord and his party on travel somewhat astounding. Yes, of course we believe that much more should be done, and we have been doing a great deal to encourage rail transportation. There has been a 40 per cent increase in passenger numbers over the past 10 years, which I think is a hallmark of a successful strategy for the rail network, and we anticipate further growth. The noble Lord has argued for the further growth of rail travel.
However, there is a limit to the amount of rail-for-air substitution that can be achieved. We have achieved great things on the Manchester to London corridor, with a reversal of the balance between rail and air modes of travel over the past four years. We can make more progress with train journeys out of London to Birmingham; but that does not negate the fact that there will continue to be a growth in aviation and the aviation sector and people desiring to travel by air.
My Lords, does the Minister agree that, notwithstanding what has been said by other contributors, the UK is desperately short of airport capacity in London and the south-east? After 11 years in government, we have still not reached the hard decisions which must be taken on a strategic approach to London and the south-east. Would the Minister confirm that there is no country in the world which is unilaterally restricting the growth of its aviation industry, and that that is the policy of this Government?
My Lords, we do not seek unilaterally to restrain the growth of the aviation sector, but we balance our concerns and considerations about growing the aviation sector with environmental concerns. That is why we have put tough policy measures in place to ensure that any future growth in the aviation sector is balanced by environmental concerns. We recognise the importance of climate change, as my noble friend Lord Rooker has carefully explained this morning.
My Lords, does the Minister agree that advancing the environmental cause is not incompatible with sensible and existing airport strategy? Is it not clear that our airports—particularly Heathrow—play a vital role in linking the UK to other parts of the world? They thereby significantly help to boost the competitiveness that we demand.
My Lords, my noble friend is right. If we were to freeze all development at Heathrow, Stansted or Gatwick, aviation sector activity—indeed, the aviation industry—would simply displace to other major European airports. That would be very damaging to the United Kingdom economy.
Railways: Network Rail
My Lords, Network Rail is a private sector company, limited by guarantee. Decisions on bonuses are a matter for Network Rail’s independent remuneration committee, not the Government. The level of bonuses is determined by the degree of achievement of key performance-indicator targets, under Network Rail’s incentive plans, produced in accordance with a licence requirement of the independent Office of Rail Regulation.
My Lords, does my noble friend agree that Network Rail is funded largely out of public money, that it was recently fined £34 million for incompetence, and that its directors have received bonuses of hundreds of thousands of pounds? Does he not agree that there is something wrong with that system? Certainly, many people are puzzled as to why we go on paying large bonuses for inefficiency.
My Lords, as I said, the bonuses are a matter for Network Rail’s independent remuneration committee, not for government. I understand the concerns expressed by my noble friend. The Office of Rail Regulation is now consulting on changes to Network Rail’s network licence, which is aimed at strengthening the company’s accountability. This includes a proposal to require Network Rail to publish its remuneration committee’s bonus-level deliberations.
My Lords, we are probably in for a summer of chaos on the railways. There were track problems on the line from Liverpool Street to Norwich on three evenings last week. People were discharged in villages, with no transport; there were almost riots as people tried to get taxis. This is unacceptable. Should not the Government encourage Network Rail to do rather better in repairing its track, not simply fine it, as they did at Christmas? They should do something to encourage an improvement to the track in this country.
My Lords, there have been record levels of investment in the rail network. For that reason, punctuality has improved. Something like eight out of 10 passenger trains now arrive on time, which is a rather higher figure than we experienced some years ago. The Government are committed to increasing the amount of money spent to ensure continued improvements in reliability. That is an indication of our commitment. We meet rail industry executives regularly, on the basis of delivering improvements to the network. There have been many improvements to the network and to how repairs are carried out.
My Lords, can the Minister tell us whether the Government will have any influence on the appointment of a new chairman for Network Rail, which will happen shortly, and whether, in so doing, they can do anything to make sure that the organisation lives up to the promises it is making, for example, about having a railway that is open on weekdays and weekends?
My Lords, it is extremely important that the railway network is open at all times, but one has to acknowledge, and I am sure the noble Lord would, that we have to ensure that there is a proper programme of repair works; otherwise the network will begin to fail. We have experienced the worst of those failures. It is right that we seek those standards, and whoever heads Network Rail will be charged with those responsibilities.
My Lords, as has been said many times in your Lordships' House, the railway network is funded by the farepayer and the taxpayer, and we seek to achieve the appropriate balance between those two elements of its funding. I cannot give the noble Lord a precise answer to his question, but the independent remuneration committee reflects on the performance of the rail network, and in some years, performance bonuses are reduced. Roughly speaking, only 3 per cent of bonuses paid to staff employed across the network are paid at the executive level. The vast majority of bonuses are paid to frontline staff, quite rightly so.
My Lords, while my noble friend is undoubtedly right that the performance of the railway has improved considerably in recent months compared with, say, 12 months ago, does he not agree that one of the fundamental responsibilities of Network Rail is to establish a proper method of working with the train operating companies and that it is in nobody’s interests for there to be stand-offs between the TOCs and Network Rail, which have led to some of the problems that occurred in the summer, which were referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield?
My Lords, my noble friend always speaks with great wisdom on these matters, and he is absolutely right. We want to see all parts of the industry working well together to deliver a safer rail network that is well invested in and that continues to expand to ensure that we have extra capacity to meet the increasing demands that are made upon it.
My Lords, do the Government agree with the award of a knighthood to Moir Lockhead, chairman of First Great Western, which is the worst performing rail franchise in the country? Do they think that that is a suitable reward for such inefficiency?
My Lords, I agree with the Minister that there have been improvements in rail services, and I welcome the fact that the Office of Rail Regulation will look at this. The Government set up Network Rail. There are no shareholders, as far as I can tell. It is run as a self-perpetuating oligarchy, and the Government say they have no responsibilities. Somebody must be in charge of it. It is our money. Who?
My Lords, in the end, Network Rail is responsible as a not-for-profit organisation to the stakeholders in the industry. There is a defined structure that sets that out. It has measures and levels of accountability, ultimately to government. I know that from time to time there is speculation about how effective that structure is, but it is what we have at the moment, and our objective in government is to make it work well.
Special Educational Needs
My Lords, our Children’s Plan includes £18 million of extra funding over the next three years to support teacher training and development in special educational needs and disabilities. We have asked Sir Jim Rose to make recommendations on identifying and teaching children with dyslexia in both primary and secondary schools. The Education and Skills Bill, which raises the education participation age to 18, includes provisions for SEN assessments to be carried out by local authorities for all students beyond the age of 18.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for that response. Has special attention been paid to how you explain to somebody of 17, for instance, in a way that they can understand, that the reason they have failed all their exams is not because they are stupid? How do we explain to their parents and carers what they can to do support that person? Unless that person accepts that they have to take new action, virtually anything the education authorities do is bound to fail.
My Lords, I should make clear that the duty on local authorities to carry out assessments begins at the age of 16, not 18 as I said a moment ago, for those who have come to the end of compulsory school-leaving age.
The noble Lord is absolutely right that support for students with special learning needs is unlikely to be effective unless their parents are fully engaged too. The statementing process, as the noble Lord will know, fully engages parents. It is a joint process between parents and local authorities. In most cases local authorities, schools and parents reach joint decisions on the best provision for a student. Of course, many students with special educational needs do not have statements. Schools seek to ensure they have the best possible relations with parents in agreeing patterns of provision. This is one of the prime responsibilities of special educational needs co-ordinators in schools. We are in the process of introducing mandatory training for special educational needs co-ordinators, part of which will be how they can engage as effectively as possible with parents.
My Lords, many young people with special educational needs are extremely bright but if their problem is undiagnosed they can become frustrated and disruptive, and often end up being excluded. Are young people who are persistently difficult screened for learning difficulties?
My Lords, that should be the case but it depends on action at school level. As I was saying a moment ago, one of the responsibilities of special educational needs co-ordinators is to see that schools have in place reliable screening processes which will see that children who may be disruptive or exhibiting serious behavioural issues, as mentioned by the noble Baroness, are screened and, if they have special educational needs, that those needs are properly addressed.
My Lords, many of those young people who do not want to stay on in learning after 16—the ones the Government are now intending to force to stay on—have complex needs. Not only do they have the underlying problems such as dyslexia but they have probably experienced serial failure over many years because of the lack of diagnosis of that problem. Given the Government’s intention to raise the learning leaving age, what are they doing to train those organisations that are supposed to support those 16 to 18 year-olds so that they understand the complexity of their problems and make sure that the resources are there to deal with them in a completely new way?
My Lords, I do not accept the premise of the noble Baroness’s question—that young people with complex needs are less suited to staying on in education and training in some appropriate form beyond the age of 16. In all my experience of schools and colleges, those that have good provision in this area, that engage effectively with parents and have the right pattern of special needs provision engage successfully with students with complex needs. They find appropriate provision for them to stay on. As the noble Baroness, Lady Morris, was saying a moment ago, a large proportion of students with complex needs are not short of capacity to engage in education and training. The job of institutions is to see that the provision is appropriate, including vocational provision and provision tailored for students with special educational needs. Providing that they have that provision in place, we should have the same expectations of success for pupils with learning difficulties and disabilities as we have for all other young people.
My Lords, does the Minister agree that a late diagnosis is the signal of a tragedy in an individual’s life? His announcement about resources directed at early diagnosis is extremely welcome. As we can see by looking at the prison population, if no other, we have a school population with a very high incidence of undetected dyslexia and it is on the way up. How will those who are caught between the new provisions at 18 and the new provisions for early diagnosis be screened and caught, or will they be left at risk?
My Lords, the noble Lord is absolutely right: it is a tragedy for the individuals concerned and for society at large if special educational needs are not diagnosed at an early stage. That is why the £18 million of investment, to which I referred, to upgrade systematically the quality of training available to new teachers is so important. However, the fact that diagnoses are not made at the earliest stage in education does not absolve schools and local authorities from their responsibility to see that proper provision is made at a later stage. As the noble Baroness said, if students start to exhibit behavioural issues later in their school career, that should be one of many spurs to ensuring that proper screening assessment takes place and that, where special needs are identified, that provision is put in place.
My Lords, following up the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Elton, and in view of the number of wrong diagnoses that have been made, is the Minister sure that enough attention is being given to a second opinion on behavioural difficulties? Perhaps a second medical consultant’s opinion should be sought in quite a number of cases.
My Lords, in most cases, particularly those that go through the statementing process, a range of professionals will be consulted before decisions are reached on the appropriate provision. Of course, it is entirely open to local authorities and parents to seek that range of advice so that an initial judgment does not become the final judgment, under which parents are not satisfied that the required provision is being put in place.
Business of the House: Debates Today
My Lords, I beg to move the Motion standing in my name on the Order Paper.
Moved, That the debate on the Motion in the name of Lord Taylor of Warwick set down for today shall be limited to three hours and that in the name of Baroness Park of Monmouth to two hours.—(Baroness Ashton of Upholland.)
On Question, Motion agreed to.
Probate Services (Approved Bodies) Order 2008
Representation of the People (Amendment) Regulations 2008
Parliamentary Constituencies and Assembly Electoral Regions (Wales) (Amendment) Order 2008
European Parliament (Number of MEPs and Distribution between Electoral Regions) (United Kingdom and Gibraltar) Order 2008
My Lords, I beg to move the next four Motions standing in my name on the Order Paper.
Moved, That the draft orders and regulations be referred to a Grand Committee.—(Baroness Ashton of Upholland.)
On Question, Motions agreed to.
rose to call attention to the concept of Britishness in the context of the cultural, historical, constitutional and ethical tradition of the peoples of these islands; and to move for Papers.
The noble Lord said: My Lords, a British national newspaper once asked its readers what it means to be British. One of the responses that it received was:
“Being British is about driving in a German car to an Irish pub for a Belgian beer, then travelling home, grabbing an Indian curry or a Turkish kebab on the way, to sit on Swedish furniture and watch American shows on a Japanese TV. And the most British thing of all? Suspicion of anything foreign”.
That is a vivid example of why being British is not defined or explained by narrow national, ethnic or geographical origin. However, we need to understand the concept in order to adequately face the challenges of modern Britain in a fast-changing world. The question of British identity in the context of its culture, history, constitution and ethical tradition is topical and important. That is why the issue has been addressed in recent speeches by the Prime Minister, the leaders of the two main opposition parties and, two days ago, by the former Attorney-General, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Goldsmith.
There is a saying, “We should all choose our parents carefully”. For understandable reasons, that advice, though well intended, is difficult to follow. However, my parents had the good sense to ensure that I was born and brought up in a place that some regard as paradise. It is arguably one of the most beautiful and exotic spots in the world. It is called Birmingham, just off the M6 motorway, by the old gas works. This link to Birmingham I proudly share with the Minister.
What Birmingham in the 1950s perhaps lacked in scenic beauty, it made up for in its new vitality and diversity. My parents were part of the “Windrush” generation that came from a genuine paradise: Jamaica in the West Indies. They came from a group of islands in the Caribbean whose inhabitants arguably had a stronger sense of what “British” meant than those actually born and raised here. My mother’s ancestry was part Anglo-Irish. My father served as a sergeant in the British Eighth Army, otherwise known as the Desert Rats. Among his proudest possessions were medals that he won for his part in the battle of Anzio in Italy during the Second World War.
My parents were part of a generation of immigrants who came to Britain with a genuine love for the British flag, British royalty and British literature. After the war, my father demobbed to Birmingham in the country that he called the “motherland”. However, to his shock, he quickly found that the streets were more cold than gold. He was immediately asked, “When are you going back to your real home in Jamaica?”. He thought that he was home. Hope turned to despair when he realised that the only job that he could get was as a cleaner in the local factory. As a qualified accountant, he had hoped for something better. He became further disillusioned when, looking for a room to rent, he saw sign after sign in house windows stating, “No blacks, no Irish, no dogs”. Immigration quickly became a divisive and emotive issue. People did not realise that immigration had not started in the 1950s. Britain is a nation of immigrants: Danes, Normans, Irish, French, Spanish, Huguenots, Jews, Muslims, Indians, Pakistanis and Africans. Our food and language are derived from a rich variety of different nations and cultures.
Fortunately, my parents and many immigrants like them did not flee in the midst of racism. They chose to stay and to make a life for themselves. The fact that my father, Derief Taylor, was talented enough to sign as a professional cricketer for Warwickshire eventually took him off the factory floor and into the hall of fame at the Warwickshire stadium, where his photograph remains as a memory of his achievements. However, it was only after two seasons, when he had scored 126 not out against Leicestershire, that he finally believed that he would never have to clean any more toilets at the Lucas factory. Cricket was not just a sport to him; it was his way out of poverty and racism. When I was a child, he often used to say to me, “Boy, one day I want to see you at Lord’s”. I think that he meant Lord’s Cricket Ground.
Since then, many members of ethnic minorities in Britain have made themselves icons and role models, in particular in sport and entertainment. My father and other immigrants have shown that being British can allow you to be valued for your actions and not for your accents. Many descendants of the “Windrush” generation also experienced racism, but they learnt the skills to bloom where they were planted.
Being British is not determined by racial or geographical origin; it is about national values and hallmarks. These include the rule of law, parliamentary democracy, social justice, fair play, freedom of speech and equality of opportunity. Britain created the mother of Parliaments, and its legal system has been copied around the world by other countries. However, it could be strongly argued that some of these traditional values have been under attack in recent years. The attempts to curb the right to a trial by jury, the restriction of free speech under the Racial and Religious Hatred Act and the proposal to imprison for 42 days without charge are seen by many as a serious erosion of British values.
The development of the British as multiracial and multicultural is positive and dynamic. My own three children see themselves as typical proud Londoners, being a mixture of Afro-Caribbean, Polish, Scottish, Russian, Irish and Indian. Aren’t we all? This multicultural ethos is important and welcome. Diversity and respect for difference are healthy, but over the years there has developed a regrettable imbalance between multiculture and integration. We must remain proud of our racial and cultural roots, but this must be balanced by encouragement and a willingness to become integrated within a common British identity. This does not mean assimilation. One can be British and Afro-Caribbean; one can be British and Chinese.
I have to agree with Sir Trevor Phillips, the head of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, that Britain is becoming more divided by race and religion. He said:
“We are sleepwalking our way to segregation. We are becoming strangers to each other”.
I agree with his view that we should not put people in boxes that not only separate them but end up treating them unequally. As he said, this means that,
“people are different, but in some key areas, if you live in a society, you have to play by the rules that we have all agreed”.
The imbalance between multiculture and integration as a policy has led not to cohesion, national unity and a sense of community but to isolation, alienation and even hostile communities. Research by Policy Exchange found evidence of a rise in Islamic fundamentalism among young British Muslims. Almost a third surveyed said that they would prefer to live under Sharia law. This is not the way forward. It produces young adults with multiple identities, with some torn between two versions of themselves. One identity is designed to fit in with modern British secular society, but the other feels called by a religious fervour, at odds with the modern world around it. This background of hostility culminated in the bombings and attempted bombings that we have experienced in Britain in recent years, so this issue is critical and must be addressed.
The terrorists seek to rule by the law of force, not by the force of law, but we must build bridges, not walls, between racial and cultural groups in Britain. It is vital that people from different communities feel a sense of being included in the British identity, alongside their other cultural identity. Treating them as monolithic blocks rather than as equal members of society has been both divisive and patronising. Either we learn to pull together or we learn to be pulled apart.
How can we nurture this concept of being British? We have to recognise that Britain has failed to create a sense of national identity embraced by all, regardless of their faith or ethnic origins, in the way in which America has. We need a stronger sense of inclusive identity. The Life in the United Kingdom Advisory Group said:
“To be British seems to us to mean that we respect the laws, the democratic political structures, and give our allegiance to the state … in return for its protection. To be British is to respect those over-arching … institutions, values and beliefs that bind us all, the different nations and cultures together in peace and in a legal order … To be British does not mean assimilation into a common culture so that original identities are lost”.
I am at one with that definition.
As to nurturing a sense of what is British, I refer first to the English language, which needs to be more strongly promoted. We are fortunate in Britain that the international language of business, the internet and popular culture is English. Some of the world’s most respected writers, old and new, are British. It is essential that new immigrants learn to speak English so that they can communicate with the rest of society. I understand the rationale behind the Government’s multicultural approach, which has led to a growth in the translation of public documents and signs into mother-tongue languages, but this has actually undermined integration and cohesion.
Secondly, I support the principle of a language and knowledge test that will equip new migrants with skills and information. The test should be a meaningful proof that the applicants have made a genuine effort to become more aware of British society, but not so onerous as to be an unnecessary obstacle. The test comprises 24 multiple-choice questions with a required pass mark of 75 per cent. I had a look at the type of questions asked. These are a couple of examples:
“What are the roles and powers of the main institutions of Europe? How is European law organised?”.
After the Irish no vote against the Lisbon treaty, with the resulting muddle and war of words, I wonder how confidently any of us could answer that question. Other test questions for immigrants are:
“What are the powers of the devolved administrations? Which areas of policy remain under the control of the UK Government?”.
Bearing in mind the complexities of the West Lothian question, which no one has fully answered, I do not envy immigrants grappling with that question. The education watchdog, Ofsted, has said that these classes were the worst-taught in schools—25 per cent of classes were not taught in a proper manner to the required standard—and a survey by the National Foundation for Educational Research revealed that pupils knew less about voting and politics than they did three years previously when these lessons became compulsory.
The third issue is that of role models in modern British society. We hear a lot about young people in the media in a negative context, but there are many young black, Asian and other ethnic minority men and women who have become icons, especially in the sports and entertainment industry. We need to focus more on the positives while accepting the negatives. The media often have this philosophy: “If it bleeds, it leads”. That is why we see on the front page of many newspapers murders, drugs and knife and gun crimes. These are serious problems that need to be addressed, but there are throughout the country many community initiatives that are working well and need government support. I am director of the Warwick Leadership Foundation, which is seeking to work with a number of inner-city schools where black and ethnic minority role models will be going into the schools to inspire schoolchildren of all colours and backgrounds.
Fourthly, there are many faith and voluntary groups that need government support at a local and national level. They know their communities better than anyone else. I am talking about the churches, synagogues, mosques and Hindu and Sikh temples. I would like to see government funding of joint initiatives between local faith and community groups. They are the people who know their people best.
The Government have a job to do in promoting the British concept, but we all have a role to play. There needs to be a dialogue with schools, colleges, faith groups and community groups. Being British is about shaking hands, not fists. I beg to move for Papers.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Taylor of Warwick, for initiating this debate. He has given us a good-humoured and personal statement of what it is to be British and I cannot presume to match it. I am afraid that I am going to be boringly academic and try to look a little more critically and closely at the idea of Britishness.
I am not happy with the term “Britishness” that we are debating today. I do not think it is widely remembered that the word was first used in the 1840s. At that time, a large number of writers questioned it on the ground that it was very Germanic because it seemed to imply an unchanging essence which all British people were supposed to embody. The word “Britishness” is once again being revived and, in my view, it is open to the same difficulty. We are not British because we embody something called Britishness; rather, we choose what we want to be as a nation. Britishness simply refers to whatever results from our choices. In other words, being British is not about embodying a transcendental essence; it is a political project.
Basically, the problem underlying the debate is that we are a multinational state, made up of three, possibly four, nations. We are an individualist country where people take great pleasure and pride in making their own choices and having their own lifestyles. Some are religious, others are secular; some are gay, others have a different sexual orientation; some of us are socialists, others are equally committed to private enterprise. We are also a multiethnic and multicultural society; some of our fellow citizens are white, others are brown, black or another colour; some are Christians, others belong to different religions or none. We also take different views of our history. Some people are intensely proud of British history; others are deeply uneasy about it and find it aggressive, imperialist and militarist. Others cherish some aspects of British history and feel embarrassed about other aspects of it.
Finally, we have different views of what British society should be like. Some find British society class-ridden and oppressive towards certain groups; others see nothing wrong with it. I remember some 10 or 15 years ago when I was deputy chair of the Commission for Racial Equality I had the occasion to go Australia. My hostess turned out to be a British woman and I happened to ask her why she had settled in Australia. She said, “To be free”. I asked, “What do you mean?”. She said, “As long as I was in Britain, my working-class background was always held against me. My accent was mocked. There was no area of life where I could simply be me. Being in Australia, I felt free for the first time”. Many of us would take the opposite view, but I mention that conversation simply to indicate the enormous range of criss-crossing differences that divide us as a people.
That poses a political problem of the highest importance. How can we create unity out of these differences? How should we define ourselves so that all of us can feel at home in this wonderful country and be at ease with each other? In other words, how can we create a sense of community and common belonging? We need a shared national self-definition. As I have said, that is a political project and is defined differently at different times in our history. For example, in the early years of the 19th century and the aftermath of the Napoleonic wars, we distinguished ourselves in Britain by saying that we were Protestant, not Catholic, that we were committed to constitutional government, not to European despotism, and that we were lovers of liberty. In the latter half of the 19th century, that view came under some criticism and we were forced to define ourselves differently. By that time we had industrialised and were moving, from 1832 to 1867, in the direction of greater democracy, and we had three-quarters of mankind at our feet. Therefore, we began to define ourselves as the industrial workshop of the world, as a superior people who had a duty to civilise others, and as a democratic people.
So national self-definition has changed and must change over time. Today, that old definition of a superior democratic people civilising others, and of being the industrial workshop of the world and so on, will not do. There is a great deal of anguished debate in the country on the question of how we define ourselves such that all our fellow citizens can own that definition and feel comfortable describing themselves as British. What has changed? The empire has gone; immigrants are here and they are not all white and Christian. Britain is not the culturally homogeneous society it perhaps once was. Even if all the immigrants were to disappear overnight—I hope that does not happen—Britain would still be a multicultural, deeply heterogeneous society, because different individuals will want to make different choices. Britain today is part of a globalising world and our destiny is interlocked with that of the rest of the world.
This is the new situation and in the light of this, the issue is how we define ourselves so as to accommodate and adjust to these changing circumstances. I suggest that any definition of being British must include the following three elements. The first is a democratic form of government. We fought for that for more than 200 years and it now forms an integral part of our identity. We are a mother of democracy. Secondly, we as a country are committed to certain basic rights and values. These rights and values, we are sometimes told, are also shared by other countries, so what is peculiar about them? That is a logical fallacy. These are uniquely British values because we fought for them, internalised them and we also define and relate them differently from the way other countries define and relate them.
For example, with regard to freedom of speech, we value it and so do others. But in the United States it is made an absolute principle. You can burn the constitution and the flag and you can also engage in hate speech. We decided to define freedom of speech differently so as to make it consistent with respect for human dignity and equality. In other words, the notion of shared values is a very complex one. We can share certain values, but if we then define, relate and interpret them differently, it is the interpretation which distinguishes and defines us.
Thirdly, we are a diverse society and need to allow for the expression of those differences that some of our people have brought from elsewhere. People who came from elsewhere have different ideas on how to organise their personal lives and their family structures. They are also inevitably bound to look beyond Britain to the countries they came from and to which they feel some degree of attachment. This has been true of British people who have settled in Australia, the United States and Canada. Why should we expect things to be different for others?
For me, being British means three things: first, respecting our democratic institutions and obeying the law; secondly, respecting and sharing certain values and social practices; and, thirdly, respecting differences in so far as they do not transgress our basic values. One can be Scottish, Irish, Muslim or Hindu and still be British. One can cherish one’s cuisine, customs, practices and history without undermining in any way one’s claim to be British. Being British must make space for these differences, first, because these differences matter to people and, secondly, because if you start suppressing them, people will become completely alienated from a society which has no place for them.
The cultural diversity of Britain is seen in our cuisine, our arts, our literature, our music and our sport. None of these areas of life would have the richness and vibrancy it has today but for our multicultural, multiethnic society. If somebody were to ask me to formulate a question on being British for my final year degree students, I would expect an answer along the lines of: being British is to belong to a globally oriented, multicultural, liberal democracy. The term liberal democracy refers to certain individual rights and values. We are multicultural, because we are a nation made up of differences which has greatly benefited from the contribution of the Jews, blacks, Asians and others. We are globally oriented because we are simply not in a position to escape the constraints of belonging to the global world.
What follows is this: being British is a moral covenant between the minorities and majority. The minorities who have chosen to settle here and make it their home must accept democracy and the basic values of our society. For its part, the majority must accept the fact that the minorities are here to stay and represent differences. These differences enrich us. This, to me, is the basis of the unity of our society. We should aim at nothing more, as some people want to do, and we should aim at nothing less, as some people press us to do.
I end my analysis with a personal example. Some years ago, I was addressing an international gathering, where I was introduced as a British professor. A distinguished Frenchman came up to me and said, “You know, you’re not British”. I said, “What do you mean? I have a British passport to start with”. “Yes”, he said, “but that makes you a British citizen; it doesn’t make you British”. Then he went a little further. He asked, “Do you love animals?”. I replied, “No, I don’t”. He said, “You don’t look like a man who is emotionally self-restrained”. I answered, “No, I’m not”. He asked, “Do you value your privacy so much that you will not allow others to invade it?”. “No, I don’t”, I replied. In answer to the question, “Do you hold yourself so tightly that others don’t impinge upon you?”, I replied, “No, I don’t”. Then he added, “You have an Indianised sense of humour; it is not a British sense of humour. Ergo, you can’t be British”.
In other words, he was playing around with two different notions of Britishness. One is official, raising the question, “Do you have a British passport?”; the other is ethnic, asking, “Do you have the temperamental qualities, the stiff upper lip and so on that British people have?”. My answer to that is simply that after 40 or so years here I feel profoundly British and have great affection for this country. I am committed to Britain. For me, to be British is to be committed to this wonderful country, to cherish its unity and well-being, and to wish it well, while at the same time cherishing and living by the differences that I regard to be part of my Indian heritage.
My Lords, I warmly thank the noble Lord, Lord Taylor of Warwick, for this opportunity to discuss a subject with so many fascinating aspects and of such importance to the people of these lands. I am afraid that I shall differ from the noble Lord, Lord Parekh. My contribution will not be academic; rather, it will be homespun, with personal examples. However, I hope that your Lordships will appreciate the deeper points that I wish to raise, for they reflect some of the concerns already identified by the noble Lord, Lord Taylor, in his very wide-ranging opening speech.
First, I wish to highlight my belief that we have a very precious heritage of Britishness: constitutionally, rooted in the Magna Carta and the principle of equality before the law for all; culturally, with the rich tapestry of our heritage of literature, art, music and architecture; and ethically, with the historic values of our Judaeo-Christian heritage, encouraging the growth of ethically based institutions in areas such as the professions, trade guilds and the charitable organisations serving in this country and abroad.
Therefore, it is sad that in recent years and in certain circles this great and, in many aspects, distinctive British heritage has been increasingly undervalued—indeed, devalued—in many ways. I offer as my first example my own experience of teaching social sciences in higher education in the 1970s. I was then head of department, and in my department of 20 academic staff, 16 were members of the Communist Party or further to the left. Their definition of higher education was not mine. Mine was freedom to pursue the truth, wherever that pursuit might take one, but within the canons of academic rigour. Theirs was hard-line indoctrination with academic blackmail, physical intimidation—we had many physically very violent people in our institution—and a systematic negative version of Britishness which inculcated shame, guilt and even abhorrence of our history and all that Britain stands for.
I know that the situation in my academic department in the 1970s was certainly not universal throughout the United Kingdom, but nor was it unique. I therefore wrote with colleagues a book entitled, perhaps rather controversially, Rape of Reason, which highlighted the dangers of that situation. Bernard Levin subsequently wrote three articles in the Times about the book because he believed that it was seminal in forecasting the grave implications of this extremist ideology for the destruction of any appreciation of what is valid and valuable in our British culture. I believe that in part of our society today we are reaping the harvest of those days.
The value of our British culture and its contribution to education is often appreciated elsewhere, sometimes in unexpected places, although among the constellation of ideas and values disseminated in those years was a widespread feeling of guilt—guilt, for example, about aspects of colonialism, imperialism and exploitation. Doubtless, there was exploitation, but there were many positive contributions as well, amply illustrated in terms of our educational heritage.
On one of my visits to war-ravaged southern Sudan, during that bitter war in the 1990s, I had been walking for 12 miles through the killing fields when we arrived in a remote village where everything was destroyed. The very dignified tribal chief was mortified. He did not even have a chair left for us to sit on. We had to sit on the ground among the ants, which worried him more than it worried us. With great dignity he welcomed us in his devastated home. After the preliminary courtesies he asked, “Madame, may I offer a word of criticism?”. I said, “Of course, I am here to listen and to learn”. I expected a tirade on British imperialism which I might have heard on a British university campus. Instead he said, “Madame, our problem with the British is that you left too early. We were not ready for you to go”. But then, with traditional courtesy, he immediately followed that criticism with a compliment. He said, “But, Madame, we will always be grateful to the British. You gave us education. Education gives us the freedom to think for ourselves. You cannot give anyone a greater gift or a greater freedom than that”.
I suggest that the cultural traditions of education which promote freedom of thought are one of the greatest gifts of western liberal tradition and have been one of the greatest British contributions to the developing world. It therefore grieves me that so many of our young people do not appreciate this; perhaps this is another fruit of the destructive harvest originally sown in the 1960s and 1970s.
When my children were in state schools in those days, in the people’s republic of Brent, they were not taught our heritage of English literature. My second son, in two years of English literature in the critical run-up to GCE, was given only two essays in those 18 months—they were on rock music. When I challenged the teacher at a parents’ evening and said, “Are you ever going to teach them any English literature?”, he said that it was mixed ability teaching and he was not sure who was going to learn what. I said, “We happen to live in the land of Shakespeare, Keats, Wordsworth and Graham Greene. Are they ever going to learn anything of our English literary heritage?”. He said that he had not yet decided who was going to learn what. My daughter had a radical teacher who would not teach maths, but set essays on subjects including green ping pong balls. Naturally, I raised these concerns with the authorities, but it made no difference.
Our children's comprehensive school in Brent was not typical of every school in the country at that time, but it was deemed to be one of the best schools in the borough. It is a very different school now. Given that experience and the experience of many children who were in similar schools, it is perhaps no coincidence that many of that generation left school with little or no appreciation of the value of Britishness and of our rich cultural heritage, or that their major role models now are pop and soccer stars. According to a recent survey, many young people believe that Winston Churchill is merely a fictional figure.
When my son Jonathan left school, he went to work in healthcare in Africa. He returned to England after a year. He was so shocked when he came back by the vacuum in the lives of many of his peer group, with drugs, drink, promiscuity and the frequent use of that dreadful word “boring”. They said that they had done everything. There was nothing left for them to do in their mid-20s. He decided that the needs were greater here in Britain than in the so-called third world, where the values and traditions of British education and institutions were still cherished. So he established a charity, Adventure Plus, which last year gave more than 5,000 children some introduction to the best of British in spiritual, ethical and outdoor education. This has been running for some years and every year those young people love those experiences and come back enthusiastically.
That is just one example of an effective response to the lack of identity and the vacuum of values affecting too many of our young people in Britain today. We have an indescribably rich heritage of Britishness in our constitution, our culture and the ethical values which we have inherited. We have an obligation to preserve these and to pass them on to our children and to their children. I am, therefore, deeply grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Taylor for enabling us to remember this heritage, to affirm the many precious, valid and valuable characteristics it enshrines and to consider how we may more worthily cherish and convey it, undiminished, to those who come after us, as their rightful legacy.
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Taylor of Warwick, for prompting this debate. I am especially glad that the Motion puts Britishness in several contexts, though I notice that religion is not specifically mentioned in the frame of reference. In a world in which, as we have heard, an increasing number of people define their identity through their religion, the religious history of Britain, may be a more important guide to who we are today than we often realise. It certainly cannot be compressed into the narrower confines of ethics.
Who are the British? As the noble Lord, Lord Parekh, demonstrated, they are emphatically not one ethnic or religious group. But were we to reflect on our religious history a bit more seriously, we may be able to tell our national story in such a way that today's multiculturalism seems unexceptionable. One of my predecessors as Bishop of Norwich 400 years ago gave the chapel of the bishop’s palace to French Huguenots fleeing persecution. They were both religious and economic migrants, welcomed and provided for by a bishop when they themselves did not believe in bishops at all; it is one of the reasons they came here, to get away from them. Perhaps that is why men and women with Huguenot names and proud of their Huguenot ancestry are now found among Norfolk’s church wardens, local councillors and public figures.
The existence in a city such as Norwich of a medieval strangers hall and a modern Strangers Club is evidence of a long tradition of hospitality and integration, even if we are a bit more politically correct now in our description of new arrivals. Migrants, of course—new strangers—have arrived again in East Anglia in big numbers in recent years. They are mostly European; they are mostly Christian. Anglican services in Norfolk translated into Polish and Lithuanian would have been unthinkable a few years ago; they are not now. We are enlarged, enriched, and we are certainly changed by such developments. They remind us in themselves of very long historic links between the churches in this country and churches in Europe, sometimes links that we had rather forgotten partly because of the huge influence of the English-speaking union with the United States over the past 250 years; and now it seems to me that the British are looking in both directions, and rightly so, because our identity is always determined in relationship to others.
My parents when asked what their nationality was would always say Cornish, not because they denied being British—though it is partly because they thought that the Cornish were the real British, of course—but because they belonged at various levels to contemporary society as it was then. As a Cornishman in East Anglia, I am conscious of plural identities and plural relationships.
One of the complicating factors about Britishness is the legacy of empire; we cannot avoid it in this debate and we have not so far. There seem to me to be two fallacies to avoid. The first is to imagine that the recovery of such former power is either achievable or desirable; that sort of nostalgia can be insidious. The second is to imagine that the legacy of empire has been dealt with satisfactorily. A bishop of the Church of England may recognise that some of the tensions in the worldwide Anglican Communion are fashioned in part by our imperial legacy and we cannot really get away from it.
People sometimes lament that the absence of a written constitution in Britain is a disadvantage to us, but is there not something valuable in the pragmatism that our unwritten constitution permits? Perhaps in the rest of this brief speech I can sound a note in favour of the British habit of avoiding rigidity in our national identity, even a note in favour of muddling through. The Church of England has plenty of experience here to offer despite the turmoil that we are supposed to be in as I read our newspapers. There is a positive characteristic of this church to which I belong, which is a product of these islands, which I think has relevance for this debate.
The Church of England has long regarded herself as both Catholic and reformed. In other words, she has tried to embrace both sides of the Reformation divide, even though she has contained within herself people who have wanted to veer only one way. This leads to plenty of unresolved tensions in our life, but actually expresses something important: embracing difference within a single, accommodating story is more important than cut-and-dried definitions that include some and exclude others. A debate about Britishness has a lot to offer, so long as it does not end up setting hard boundaries which tell us less about who we are and more about who is not one of us. Even the very word “British” needs rescuing, from the British National Party, for example, which simply continues the tradition of an earlier generation—some of us remember Colin Jordan’s British Movement; and the eccentric British Israelites, convinced that the British were God’s chosen people, the lost tribe of the House of Israel. Fuzzy boundaries to Britishness may not only be pragmatic, but remind us that differences between people are often much less interesting and important than what they have in common.
The word “tradition” appears in the Motion. That is always a risk these days; it is an unfashionable word suggesting the imposition of something from the past. However, the hallmark of a living tradition is a continuing debate about what it means to be part of it. If we leave a tradition alone, or if we think that we have settled it, it will gradually wither and die. There is little value in discussing Britishness to define who is in and who is out. This cannot be a debate about border control and immigration, about flag-waving or the transformation of our political or religious culture into something more suitable for the Wembley Stadium or Euro 2008—except that we are not in it. Surely it is about fostering good citizenship. It is about people recognising that their story and the national story are somehow held together. The moral philosopher, Alasdair MacIntyre once wrote:
“I can only answer the question, ‘What am I to do?’, if I can answer the prior question, ‘Of what story do I find myself a part?’”.
Living within a tradition—a story that may include others—as the Motion of the noble Lord, Lord Taylor, says, causes us to learn how we ought to live. Belonging within a national story, complex and contested though it is, shapes our moral behaviour. The atomised individualism of a consumerist society simply cannot teach us what is right and wrong. It separates us from our traditions and leaves us with nothing but our own desires to guide our moral sense. That is one of our current problems, and why the Motion is so much to be welcomed.
Whatever I have said, I am not arguing for the return of Christendom; that would be both nostalgic and futile. However, if we take our history seriously, think about the legacy of empire and reflect upon our relationships with the United States and Europe, we might recognise something worthwhile about being British. Then there will be a story that people want to know, to which all can contribute in writing the next chapters.
My Lords, I, too, congratulate my noble friend Lord Taylor on securing this debate. Once again, it offers an opportunity to speak openly of the difficulties that arise if artificial debates are held by politicians seeking a commitment from people of immigrant backgrounds—I dare to push the barriers a little further and add, “especially those from Afro-Caribbean, south Asian and Middle-Eastern backgrounds”—to prove that they have signed up in principle to the values and culture of Great Britain.
I shall emphasise a number of points raised by my noble friend. I start by drawing on the Cantle report on the riots in the north of England in the summer of 2001. The report found that communities from the largely Muslim community and those from the white population were living “parallel lives”. As my noble friend pointed out, more recently Sir Trevor Phillips said that we were “sleepwalking to segregation”. These two findings are deeply worrying since they illustrate that different communities are leading increasingly separate lives.
The debate over Britishness can be seen as a backdrop to these findings and more generally as a response to the increased numbers of immigrants and the threat of terrorism, particularly after 9/11. The term “Britishness” is designed to promote a common identity and so cultivate a sense of belonging and commonality between citizens. Yet I question the relevance of the term in this context. Britishness for me is not an objectively definable concept, which can be applied as a label. I understand Britishness as an identity that one feels and interprets in one’s own way.
I illustrate this with an admittedly crude and completely non-scientific investigation of the concept. I asked my mother, who was born in India and came to Britain when she was 19, what Britishness meant to her. She replied, “Opportunity, freedoms, economic betterment and for women to be equal to men”. I contrasted this with the response from my English manager and supervisor, who were born in this country. When I asked them what Britishness meant to them, they looked at me and said that they did not know. In fact, they did not understand the question. Then I asked my 24 year-old administrator, a Muslim girl born in this country. She felt that part of the British culture was to get drunk and that marriage and family life did not matter. These responses are crude but illustrate that Britishness is not a clear concept.
The CRE's examination of the concept further illustrates this. Its 2005 research came out with no fewer than eight dimensions of what constitutes Britishness. These eight were then further divided into sub-categories of examples. Moreover, different individuals put different emphasis on these eight dimensions. Defining Britishness, then, seems to be an irrelevant consideration in promoting a sense of belonging.
The challenge, though, is in fostering a sense of British belonging and identity within individuals. This challenge is greatest in areas that Sir Trevor Phillips has termed “ghettos”. These are areas where a single ethnic group accounts for at least two-thirds of the population. Sir Trevor Phillips has exemplified a number of these areas as showing racial, ethnic or religious segregation with south-Asian “ghetto” communities. They include my home city of Leicester and Bradford. Segregation can be seen in both the workforce and the education system. For example, according to the CRE, nine out of 10 African-Caribbean children are in black majority schools.
On top of this residential and education segregation, there is evidence of what Sir Trevor Phillips terms “soft segregation”; that is, where individuals move in social circles made up of people with similar backgrounds to their own. Shockingly, the research found that 95 per cent of white Britons said that all or most of their friends were white. These figures illustrate that the problems of segregation are not limited to any one group of Britain's diverse demography; rather, the existence of separate lives is a broad finding.
This finding was echoed by the ethnographic study of refugees entering Britain by the Refugee Council. It found that refugees tended to stay within a comfort zone in the locality. While feeling integrated on the national level, this was not the case in the workplace or education establishments.
Such ghettos can be seen to have formulated for a number of reasons. A large part may be due to self-segregation—communities choose to stick to what they feel is closest to them—but it is partly institutionalised. As highlighted by the Cantle report, funding provided by local government for faith schools with the aim of supporting different racial groups adds to the possibility of greater divisions. The obvious problem of polarised, segregated communities is that minority communities may view themselves as identifying with one heritage and not the other. This identification, as mutually exclusive heritages, deeply troubles me. Diversity is, of course, greatly to be valued. Indeed, the ease with which new communities can be accepted makes Britain a great nation. This was reflected in my mother's perception of what Britishness meant to her. While there is no doubt that foreign cultures, languages and traditions should be embraced, in so far as they are compatible with the law, this should not be at the expense of a feeling of belonging in the nation as a whole. Rather, there is a need to bridge differences between communities, so that differences are experienced. That can contribute to a broader experience than one that is within the confines of the educational and cultural networks of one’s own community.
Yet in promoting a sense of belonging and commonality within Britain, individuals must be free to hold on to their historical and cultural roots. Taking my example, I am able to enjoy identifying myself both as British and as having an Indian cultural and historical heritage. That kind of gap-bridging is crucial in young children. As the future of this country, for them to have an outlook and experience in life wider than that of their own community is vital in making them rounded individuals. However, if the statistics that have been quoted regarding friendship groups and educational institutions continue, children especially will be sleepwalking into segregation. That is deeply worrying, and it is a key challenge in Britain today to give people access to a network wider than their own. Feeling that they can draw both on their British and historical cultures is deeply important.
I hope that the Minister will tell your Lordships why there is still a drive by the Government to provide funding to groups that show little accountability on what and where that funding is spent. It would appear to be much wiser to spend money to address the serious and common issues of poor education, housing and unemployment that affect populations across the board. That they are not addressed gives rise to the suspicions and misunderstandings that allow a festering of ill will and segregation.
I am truly troubled by the direction that the Government have taken in trying to address disenfranchisement and disengagement by parts of the British community. The consequences of this problem—namely, the outbursts of mob violence that we have already experienced, as well as social and educational deprivation—are worrying. Let us always bear in mind who the victims of these failed debates will be.
I will finish with a quote that has inspired and driven me from the great personality, Dr Martin Luther King:
“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character”.
As a proud British citizen in the UK, I have seen Britain and the USA move a long way since that speech. There is still much to be done, but for me that inspiration remains. As a British citizen of Indian origin, I have enjoyed the rich history of both Britain and India, of ballet as well as bhangra, opera as well as qawwali, English cinema as well as Bollywood. I have enjoyed belonging to a country that will protect me regardless of my gender, ethnicity or colour. To me, that emulates in my mind all that is good and British.
My Lords, I, too, congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Taylor, on introducing this debate, which I thought he did in a particularly thoughtful and sensitive way. Sensitivity is important, because identity is a very personal matter, especially for immigrants such as me who want to be British. Fortunately, I was naturalised before you had to answer all those difficult questions that the noble Lord told us about.
For me, finding Britishness is a journey. Looking round your Lordships’ House, I see that many of us have travelled the same path. I found the start of my journey pretty easy. You learn the language, respect the Royal Family, be kind to animals, stick to the rules of fair play and, most important, know your place in the class structure. After a while, it appeared to me that there must be a bit more to it than that.
What about history? British history is a source of great pride. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Taylor, that we immigrants can take pride in the fact that throughout its history Britain has been the product of many outside influences. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Norwich reminded us of the religious aspect of those influences. To me, our history, as well as being a source of pride, also speaks of patriotism. But patriotism has two sides. There is pride on one side, but there is a rather ugly other side, which the fascists and the British National Party use as a means to express hostility. Patriotism will wither unless it is progressive and forward-looking. Putting a duty on someone is rarely a solution. Patriotism has to be forged, not forced; only then can we be comfortable with it.
The next stage of my journey was education. Is it possible to learn what Britishness is and how to be British? The answer is that what you seem to learn is citizenship, which I do not think is quite the same as Britishness. You learn about social capital and civic engagement. Citizenship means that you have a political as well as a consumerist relationship with the state. There are underlying social values committed to the common good and the collective interest, the maintenance of which are the duties and responsibilities of citizenship. But is that Britishness? It is probably part of it, but what about the rest?
On the next stage of my journey, I discovered that Britishness had suddenly become one of the most important debates in British politics. Immigration, race relations, multiculturalism and people’s right to be here were top of the political agenda. The noble Lord, Lord Taylor, spoke about that. Britishness, instead of being an identity that we all shared, had become a framework for uniting us in our differences. It was something to bring us together that was stronger than the things that were holding us apart. It was a kind of social contract, so that we could all live in the same space together.
As if that were not enough, we also have the devolved settlement, so that kind of social contract also has to be an umbrella under which the English, Scots, Welsh and Irish can all get. There is more. One of the things that our children value most is their freedom to travel, work, study and live in any part of the European Union without any formalities or hindrance. Presumably, they would want to carry some of their Britishness with them. How do we do all that? Certainly not by diktat and certainly not to or for people; it has to be with people. That makes it something rather subtle. Britishness does not need to be a dominant part of our identity. If it is, it becomes a bit of a farce.
It seems to me that Britishness has to be both inclusive and aspirational, both social and economic. Although we are a market economy, part of Britishness must be equality in life’s chances. If some groups are destined always to live in poverty and inequality, they will be excluded from Britishness. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Parekh, that equality must be seen as a foundation stone of the notion of Britishness. That applies to social equality, too. It seems to me that the Human Rights Act provides the basis for social equality, in that it provides the non-negotiables. That framework provides something that can be part of everyone’s identity.
If we have equality in place, Britishness will not be seen as threatening. That is important, because if we are all to live together on this island, inevitably people will be asked to change their behaviour and stick to a set of rules. This kind of Britishness means that no one need be afraid of asking that. I think that that is what the Government are rightly trying to do. At this stage of the journey, Britishness has the task of uniting us in our differences. It means treating everybody equally despite their differences, instead of treating people differently because of their differences.
Britishness is like freedom. Freedom is a journey that never ends, because each generation discovers new aspects. So it is with Britishness. Perhaps this explains the change and confusion spoken about by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Norwich and the noble Baroness, Lady Verma. I can see the next stage in the journey: Britishness for the 21st century, a century when we can choose what we want to be and change what we are. After all, that is what much of celebrity culture and many popular television programmes, such as “The Apprentice” and “Big Brother”, are all about. Many blogs and websites are all about choosing an identity that is attractive, modern, beneficial and cool. This, combined with mutuality and solidarity, about which other noble Lords have spoken, and the acceptance of rights, duties and common beliefs, will bind us together in 21st-century Britishness and citizenship. That is the direction of travel, relevant to our citizens and our politicians. Yes, Britishness does matter.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Taylor of Warwick, for introducing this important debate, which certainly relates to my experience. In the past couple of years, I have been to more conferences on Britishness than I care to remember. The difficulty is that, as yet, I have not found out what it is or what it is supposed to be, as opposed to what it is that we live and understand.
By some measures I think that I am more British than the British. I have lived in the same village for more than 30 years. My children went to the local school and still see the children with whom they went to school. We are part of the community, working with the church; when the roof falls in, we collect money and take part in the church fete. Of course, we have the Sunday roast every week when the family gets together. On the other hand, even today, when my children, who were born and raised in this country, say that they are British, they are asked, “Where do you come from really?”. When my son insists that he comes from Heslington, people do not believe him. There is a problem about the identity that the British have ascribed to those of us who come from a different place.
I will talk particularly about the ascribed identity of Muslim women. When I stand up and say that I am a Muslim woman, people say that I am not, because I wear a short skirt, I do not have a cover and I can stand on my own two feet. As to arranged marriages, one of which I am supposed to have had, I chose my own husband, chose the venue and the menu and presented my father with the bill. My daughter did exactly the same two years ago. The whole idea of Muslim women as silent, subdued and dominated is something that I have not experienced. I might add that I am not in a minority; just look at the Muslim women in this Chamber. You will see that we are uppity, capable and, at the same time, different. The idea that, somehow, there has to be a cohesion that makes us like everybody else is extremely problematic.
I chose to become British in my adult life. I left a well paid job in the Iranian Government and came here because I admired Britain. I admired it because of the freedom, the liberty and the ability to function. In Iran I was a journalist, based in the same building as the press censor. I never knew whether the articles that I had written would be cut or not. It was wonderful to come to a country where you can not only speak out but disagree with the establishment. The most extraordinary thing for me was that the establishment thought that I could be part of it, whereas I had always thought that I was a dissident on the side, fighting against everything.
The problem seems to be the way in which some people choose to define Britishness. For me, Britishness has been about inclusiveness and freedom. The British are the most well travelled people of all nations. They have a long tradition of crossing the world and bringing back the best: the best plants, the best ideas and even the system of examination, which I worry about but have to live by. They have included all this in what it is to be British. It is the eclectic, wide-ranging and open nature of Britishness that is important. As minorities, we have better rights in this country than anywhere else. I am familiar with France, where being a Muslim is very problematic, particularly for women who choose to cover. The freedom to dress and speak as one pleases is, for me, very much part and parcel of Britishness.
Here is, perhaps, a note of disagreement. I am pleased about legislation that forbids discrimination on the grounds of creed. It is important not only to celebrate and be inclusive but to recognise that many British-born citizens suffer because they are labelled “Muslim”. We live in a context where Islamophobia is encouraged and adopted by such groups as the BNP as a badge of honour. We need to think about why Muslims, specifically, are asked to choose between being British and being Muslim. As many of us who have spoken know, we have fluid identities. We are Muslim when we pray but British when we stand in the classroom or in this House. Having identities that change according to where we are is part and parcel of our lives. Asking us to choose is one of the important problems that we face.
The second problem that we face is the notion that Muslims as a category—in particular Muslim youth—have a tendency towards terrorism and towards looking elsewhere. I have a long conversation going on with members of Hizb ut-Tahrir about the idea that Sharia law should be implanted here. The discussion is vigorous, important and sustainable. We need to think about why British-born and British-educated youngsters choose to look elsewhere and see themselves as closer to the Ummah—the people of Islam everywhere—than to this country. That cannot be resolved by deciding what Britishness is and categorising Muslims as the other. We need to look at education, opportunities and the ability of young, educated Muslim men and women to participate fully. Britain can be fantastic in this respect. Your Lordships’ House is a wonderful example of best practice.
However, places such as Bradford have experienced some of the worst practice. It may not necessarily be negative that people are ghettoised, living in their own communities. In recent research, one of my students talked to young Muslim women who had been in tertiary education and to young non-Muslim women. She found that young working-class Muslim women went to university but tended always to come back home, home being, in this case, Bradford or Leicester. They aimed to put something back into their communities. They worked with other Muslims but were committed to their locality, as the noble Lord, Lord Taylor, is to Birmingham and I am to Yorkshire. The interesting thing that my student found was that non-Muslim young women of working-class backgrounds saw education as a way out, left where they were born and abandoned their background because they felt that they could find more.
It seems to me that we can teach one another a great many things. Just as beer and curry has become a national dish, so we can find that we can learn from the best among the minorities and the best among the British without having to delineate where Britishness stops and other people start. We are part of this community and, to quote the Parekh report, we are a “community of communities”. That is what is so enriching in this country in this context. Many of us are grateful to be here. If Britishness is about being part of the community, it is wonderful, but let us not try to say who is not British, because the lines get narrower, tighter and harder to live with.
My Lords, I am not an historian or a social scientist. I am a lay man whose first language is Welsh and whose roots are deep in Welsh-speaking Wales. In preparation for this debate, I sought the help of the Library. It was, of course, immediately forthcoming. It provided me with a helpful background document that includes the Prime Minister’s Fabian Society lecture on the future of Britishness. I also reread the interesting, informative and wide-ranging debate in your Lordships' House on British identity and citizenship on 2 February 2006, introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire. I browsed through that remarkable volume, Trevelyan’s History of England, which was published in 1926. I returned to the History of England because I recollected that it focused on the themes that have distinguished the special experience of the English people over the long flows of history, but I take what my noble friend Lord Parekh said—that we can probably identify the emergence of Britishness in the early 19th century.
It is possible that the fount of Britishness springs from the flow of history described by Trevelyan. It is clear from the speeches that we have heard today that Britishness is a difficult concept to define and explain. The Prime Minister identified the values and qualities in abstract terms, such as individual liberties, civic engagement, fairness and decency to neighbours and the less fortunate. The noble Lord, Lord Taylor, spoke in broadly similar terms in opening this debate, but those qualities and values are not unique to Britain. They are common to all strongly established western democracies, having been shaped by the values of the Christian church over 1,500 years and, I beg to suggest, the socialist principles of the past 200 years or so.
It seems that Gordon Brown’s purpose in encouraging and fostering a debate about Britishness is to achieve harmony within the United Kingdom and between its component parts. That has been the priority of the Labour Government since the first flush of the 1997 great electoral success. I recall that when the late, much lamented Gareth Williams—Lord Williams of Mostyn—presented the Government of Wales Bill to this House, he proclaimed unshakeably that the devolution settlement for Wales and Scotland would strengthen the union. I cannot speak about Scotland or Northern Ireland, but I have an understanding of the scene in Wales, and I have no doubt that the settlement has pulled the Welsh people together and stimulated national consciousness. We may yet see a further sharpening of that consciousness. I believe that when another Trevelyan comes to write about this century, he will see that the setting-up of the devolved Assemblies and the Scottish Parliament has been another turning point in the history of the United Kingdom that may require some terms to be redefined.
In seeking to define Britishness, we also have to take into account another factor. If we turn to page 14 of the briefing material prepared by the Library, we find an important table produced by the British Social Attitudes Survey 2007. It shows that surveys conducted in England, Wales and Scotland during the past 10 years reveal a notable increase in the proportion of the public preferring a national identification, be it English, Scottish, Welsh or Irish, over their British identity. It is interesting and significant that that is particularly true among people under the age of 35. Again on page 14, our attention is drawn to the Camelot Foundation report Young People and British Identity, which was published in 2007. The report considered how Britishness resonated among young people. It found that for many young people, it appeared to be old, hierarchical and traditional, although that was not necessarily true of those who considered themselves Welsh, Scottish or Irish. I have no hesitation in bringing forward the tables produced by the British Social Attitudes Survey and the Camelot report in my speech. Here is evidence of a remarkable contrast between one’s attachment to national identity and to British identity. Here is evidence of how the concept of Britishness resonates among young people.
That suggests that some of our leaders need to define in more explicit terms what is meant by the concept of Britishness. We require considerable skill, courage and insight if we are to define Britishness in terms which are meaningful to the rising generation with plural identities, each of equal strength. That task is possible.
My Lords, it has been fascinating listening to all the noble Lords who have spoken in this debate. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Taylor, for this timely opportunity for us to define our personal views of Britishness. It can only be personal. It cannot be an objective way of defining Britishness because, even if we feel totally British, we all see our Britishness in our personal ways. It is interesting that so many of us who are British by choice—or by birth but with another culture—have spoken in the debate. It is right and proper that we share our own insights into what it means to us to be British with those who take it for granted. People who are by birth British, who have lived in this society and do not know another can be quite complacent about what this society is. We are the ones to tell you how fortunate you are to be in this society and how fortunate we are to join you.
I came to this country as a student in 1952. My experience of the English in India at that time—we did not use the term British—was very different from the one I have now. There was enormous racism. I grew up in the colonial times and there was a huge amount of racism. We did not have any real contact with English people. Sometimes they came to our house because they wanted something or my father needed to talk to them. I do not remember ever going to the home of any English person. I had quite a lot of anxiety about how it would be in this country.
I am of the generation that came here knowing that there was racism in this country. I was not shocked as a student when I would go to find digs and they would say, “Sorry, we don’t take Indian students”. We must remember one important factor: they were never rude to me. They were always polite and courteous but said, “We do not take Indian students”. This was quite common, as we all know. The noble Lord, Lord Taylor, touched on “No blacks, no dogs, no Irish, no tinkers” and so on. When I rang up about digs I started saying, “I’m an Indian. Do you take Indian students?”. That solved that problem.
I went to University College, London, which by nature of its foundation by Bentham and friends is one of the most egalitarian colleges in the country. It was the first to take women, it does not have a faith base and I could not believe that I was just one of the students. There was no sense of differentiation. That has been an important part of my personal development and the courage one develops about being who one is and not a different person. I am fortunate in that respect. I also went to the Bar. My grandfather had been called to the Bar at the same time as Mahatma Gandhi and at the same Inn. My father had also been called to the Bar, so of course I had to be called to the Bar as well. I cannot remember which noble Lord said that they personally had not experienced difficulties—altogether I had not.
Then you start life. I started teaching when we moved to Maidenhead. I was teaching English as a second language to Asian boys. The head teacher, after an hour and a half of interview, said, “I only have two problems with you. First, you are not one of us. Secondly, you are a woman”. I said, “Those are the two things I can do nothing about so you have to find someone else”. I was forced on him, and he treated me as if I was forced on him. It was my first real experience of naked racism and that unpleasantness.
I started running a club for Asian women and children at home—the new immigrants at the time. I said to whoever would listen that we should have two hours every Saturday afternoon in a town hall or somewhere where the whole family could come and we could teach them how to cope with the weather, some English and some of the things available to them that they could access. At that time it was, “No, it will all go away by itself. The next generation will be totally British. We do not need to do anything. They will speak English and everything will be all right”. Of course that never happened, partly because the marriages were always being made in the home country, particularly in the Asian community. If you have one partner constantly coming from the village you take two steps forward and then one back. This is still going on, particularly in the Mirpuri and some other Pakistani communities. I am sorry about that because it holds the children back.
I would be remiss not to mention that we have suffered from the 1960s. In the 1960s everything went, such as respect for people and for property. That was nothing to do with the immigrants. This country should recognise how the 1960s destroyed the normal social behaviour of people. I am sorry about that. Children started behaving badly. Altogether the country became quite different after the 1960s. There was a certain amount of self-control and proper behaviour which just went. Somehow it has got tied up with immigration; people feel it was somehow connected with immigration. It was not. Immigration was starting to add vibrancy to British culture, which was extraordinarily dreary and dull in many respects. We came and brought new things such as food and clothes. There was a huge renaissance of enjoyment of different cultures and different foods. That has continued constantly to grow.
Sadly, we went down the road of multiculturalism in education. Multiculturalism can only work if each culture is given equal status so that you respect each other’s culture to the point where you say, “It is as good as mine”. It is not easy for a monocultural society to say to other cultures, “You are as good as my culture although you have come here from somewhere else”. That is why multiculturalism failed and will continue to fail. I am sure some noble Lords remember the samosa, sari and steel band phase of education—the three Ss. That was what became of multiculturalism.
I believe that two other things have damaged relationships, the first being political correctness, which seems to be growing. I think that stops people talking openly and frankly to each other. I do not mean that we can insult and be rude to each other, but it is important that we discuss things and talk to each other.
My time is running out faster than I had expected so I want to talk about what Britishness means to me. It is a value system. The noble Lord, Lord Parekh, focused on that. I am sure that some noble Lords will remember Lord Whitelaw. To me he represented the best of Britishness because, at a very difficult time, he set up the Scarman inquiry. It was the first time that such an inquiry had been set up and he firmly believed in what, to me, is the most important value of the British: fairness. You treat people fairly; you do not treat some this way and others another way. Society will change if we treat people fairly and everything will work out. For me, Lord Whitelaw will always represent that.
I value other things but one thing that has not been mentioned, sadly, is the common law and the rule of law of this country. Which country has such a defined rule of law as this country? It is one of the greatest British institutions and not one noble Lord has mentioned it. Perhaps it is important to me because I studied law. The system of common law sits side by side with the rule of law. It is an incredible system; it is pragmatic; it changes according to need and I hope that the various Governments will not stratify it to the point where it stops evolving.
I admire the Royal Family. To me that is British. It is wonderful not to have a president but to have the Royal Family who care and who try to do their best. I admire the Church because it represents certain basic values. I am not a Christian, but I do not find my value system in conflict with the values of the Anglican Church—not the Catholic Church. All these sorts of things make it very easy for me to live in this country; it is easy to accept this country and to admire it. I think it is the best country to live in. Anyone who does not think so is wrong.
We are fragmenting our society by paying so much attention to the few Muslims who are disaffected. I agree totally with my noble friend Lady Afshar that we should focus on education and achievement and should not throw money at the disaffected. We should separate in our minds the disaffected from all the other Muslims who, as she so correctly said, contribute and who can contribute more, as I hope to see. I do not want Sharia to be part of my system of law. I think it is negative. Faith schools are also negative and they fragment society. The fragmentation which comes from focusing on appeasing the Muslims who are difficult to appease will hurt the basic nature of society.
I am bicultural: I am British and I am Indian. I have an in-depth understanding of both cultures and I am all the better for it.
My Lords, I too am very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Taylor, not only for initiating this important debate, but for what he has said. I have listened with great pleasure and interest to all the speeches. If there is a problem, we need to clarify exactly what it is, which is not difficult. It has been brought about by the very profound changes that have taken place in our society over the past 60 years which have radically questioned all the assumptions and presuppositions of people who were brought up then. When I was brought up—perhaps there is at least one other person in the Chamber who might be as old as that—to be British, to be English and to be at the hub of the great British Empire, which covered two-thirds of the world, meant all those identities being fused into one. Of course, that has all gone.
One of the interesting results is that the English are now discovering what it is to be English. There has been the rise of nationalism, with the establishment of the Welsh Assembly and the Scottish Parliament. There has also been a significant change in the role of religion in our society. When I grew up, nonconformists had a very respected place, as did Jews and Roman Catholics, but nevertheless the vast majority of the population defined themselves as members of the Church of England. It was assumed that the Church of England undergirded and sustained the values of our national life in so many ways.
Perhaps more important is the entry into and establishment in our society of so many people from other cultures and backgrounds, who have so greatly contributed to and enriched our society. Therefore, I ask: in the light of these very significant changes which have radically questioned all our previous assumptions and presuppositions, what, if anything, now binds us together? It is very important to make some careful distinctions to avoid the confusions that so often arise on this debate. Society as a whole is extremely confused on this. We need to distinguish very clearly civic identity from other forms of identity, such as national, ethnic, cultural, religious, moral and linguistic identity. Sometimes those different identities overlap with civic identity and at many other times they do not.
There is no escaping the fact, as has been brought out so clearly by so many of your Lordships, that we live in a society where we rejoice in multiple identities. My civic identity is British; my national identity is Welsh; my cultural identity is European—I regard myself as fundamentally shaped by the architecture and literature of Europe, going back to the Romans and Greeks, including Byzantium—and my religious identity is, of course, as an Anglican Christian. We need to separate civic identity clearly from these other kinds of identity which may overlap. I have indicated some of those other identities, but it can be much more subtle than that. Although my identity is Welsh, I live mainly in London and I support a west Yorkshire football team.
If we use those kinds of distinctions, we can be quite clear on the role of government. The role of government is to focus on civic identity. That is to encourage, as the noble Baroness, Lady Flather, has rightly emphasised, respect for the rule of law, for the sovereign as the symbol which binds our society together and for the Queen in Parliament, which is how we express our democratic way of life. More accurately, it should be the Queen in Parliament under God, but that might take us down a road we do not want to go along this afternoon.
An interesting divide appears to have opened up. The leader of the Opposition in the other place came up with an interesting and useful phrase, “inclusive civic nationalism”. At the same time, he criticised the Prime Minister for laying all his stress in this debate on values such as tolerance, freedom of speech, fair-mindedness and so on, which, it was suggested, belong to any society and not just to our own. I suggest that the criticism ignores the integral relationship between institutions and certain sets of values. Institutions are now one of the main carriers of value in our society. When a person becomes part of an institution—whether of the Civil Service or a professional association that they join when they become a doctor, for example—they become part of an ethos. That ethos and its values become part of them and they in turn pass on this ethos and its values to people who come into the institution after them.
I suggest that certain civic values are integral to the civic identity that it is the proper role and responsibility of Government to encourage. I think, for instance, of the traditional civic values of the Civil Service; impartiality and probity. I think of the great ethic of service that used to drive so many people to serve this country, either in the Civil Service or the foreign service, or by going into politics in order to change life for the better. We have to ask whether some of these civic values have declined in recent years. Shortly after I became Bishop of Oxford in 1987, I visited one of the great schools of this country and said to the headmaster, “This school used to produce so many good ordinands for the Church of England, but now it produces virtually none”. He said, “Richard, the whole concept of service has gone”. Sadly, I think that there is some truth in that. Civic values that are bound up with the civic institutions of this country make it what it is. It is part of the proper role and responsibility of government to encourage not just those civic institutions—our democratic way of life, respect for the rule of law—but also the civic values that are so closely bound up with them. That is why I strongly support all that the Government have done in terms of education for citizenship, citizenship ceremonies and so on.
As we know, and as has been made clear in this debate—obviously, humorously and in some cases very movingly—civic identity may or may not overlap with other forms of identity. A key point that is too easy to ignore is that the fusion of these other identities with our civic identity cannot be forced or imposed, because these other identities are matters of deep personal loyalty that either you were imbued with from your early upbringing and have since made your own, or grew into later and made your own.
With due respect, we have to be careful in taking up the point of the noble Lord, Lord Taylor of Warwick, who cited America as a society that has succeeded in fusing identities. It has indeed succeeded, but its history is very different from ours. American history is based on people who wanted to escape a state-imposed religion, who wanted a land of freedom of opportunity. Their constitution and respect for the flag reflect this. As we know, people in America are bound together by their civic identity. Ethnic and national identities have a place; there are great parades down the streets of New York and national days such as Thanksgiving. However, their civic identity has come about as a result of their history. Our history is very different and much more organic. I suggest that bringing together these multiple identities with our civic identity will be a matter of time and organic growth. We have to be very careful about imposing it.
I have valued recent reports on this subject. However, as the noble Lord, Lord Taylor of Warwick, mentioned, in areas such as citizenship education, we are not yet achieving what we want to achieve. I wonder whether there is a case for setting up a House of Lords Select Committee to look into this subject, both to monitor what is going on in different areas and to try to hold them together. It seems to me that the House of Lords is a better place than any other institution in our society to look at this subject in a measured and long-term way.
Finally, this issue of identity has changed, is changing and will change again. Historians have brought home to us how much it has changed in the past. We know when the concept of Britishness came in and we know when it started to be eroded. Those of us who have lived for the past 60 years have experienced that change in a dramatic way. The future is still to some extent what the noble Lord, Lord Parekh, called a “political project” in which the Government have a key role in promoting civic institutions and values, but in which we all have a key role as we negotiate our different identities, teach history and impart culture, in order that that identity of the future may be deepened and enriched.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Taylor, for initiating this debate and I congratulate him on the wit and style of his opening speech. The noble Lord, Lord Taylor, invited us to consider the concept of Britishness, particularly with reference to the historical, cultural and constitutional aspects as they affect the people of these islands. That is what I propose to do.
I am the first speaker in the debate who considers himself to be both British and Irish. That immediately creates a difficulty and an ambiguity. Even though my right so to consider myself is protected by the Good Friday agreement, I am also aware that the greatest failure of what the noble Lord, Lord Parekh, calls the “project of Britishness” has been the loss of what is now the Republic of Ireland from the United Kingdom state in 1921. That is the single greatest failure of that project. I am also aware of a more positive development. Perhaps one of the great successes of the project of Britishness is the absorption of the Irish community in Britain into British political culture. If we look at the names of Ministers in the other place who have, over recent months, dealt with many of the sensitive issues that we are discussing here, what do we find? We find Kelly, Murphy, Byrne and so on. It is mainly, but not entirely, through the institutions of the Labour movement that the remarkable absorption of the Irish community into the political culture of Britain has occurred. As noble Lords, including the noble Lord, Lord Taylor, have said, it is not simply hostility to other immigrants but also to Irish immigrants that we in this House can recall in our lifetimes. That is a dramatic, positive and very hopeful sign.
Speaking as one who considers himself British and Irish, and since the concept of Britishness is intimately linked to the concept of the United Kingdom, I remind noble Lords of the words of Sir Patrick Mayhew—now the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mayhew—in 1994 in Dublin. He spoke of his belief that all of the people of these islands—English, Welsh, Scots and Irish—share far more than divides them: a belief that in a democratically established union there is more strength to be found in the sum of its constituent parts. Although Sir Patrick Mayhew has long since left government, the Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, used these words only in the past few days. It is important to note them.
The noble Lord, Lord Parekh, correctly reminded us of the ambiguous and in some ways unattractive concept of Britishness as it emerged in the 1830s and 1840s. I agree with everything that he said. I add only the gloss that I was reminded as he spoke of the words of Sir Emerson Tennent in the other place in 1835 when he talked about his membership of this Parliament allowing him to add to the distinction of being an Irishman the glory of being a Briton, although one might ask whether that is not slightly bombastic. He went on to say that the glory of being a Briton was that you could struggle against the slave trade all over the world and that this was the most effective place to do it in. I quite agree that right from the start that definition of Britishness has unattractive aspects, but it has a progressive aspect as well.
It is clear that I fundamentally sympathise with the efforts of Gordon Brown and the Government in recent months to promote a debate on Britishness, and perhaps above all with the Prime Minister’s suggestion that the home international soccer tournament should be restarted. On behalf of the people of Northern Ireland, whose team actually holds that championship, may I say that we would be delighted to see it restarted? I am absolutely with the Prime Minister on that. However, there are aspects of the way in which the debate is proceeding that make me slightly uncomfortable. I am perhaps not so bothered by the proposal for a national day but by the concept that people should be encouraged to fly flags in their gardens. I grew up in Northern Ireland in the 1950s when that was very common behaviour, but even in Northern Ireland it is now passé. I cannot see it catching on in the rest of the United Kingdom.
I was also uncomfortable when I read the Prime Minister’s article a few weeks ago in the Daily Telegraph, in which he defined the Britishness of the United Kingdom solely in terms of being English, Scottish and Welsh. That undermines a fundamental principle of the Good Friday agreement. Even in the valuable and important report from the noble and learned Lord, Lord Goldsmith, entitled Citizenship: Our Common Bond, which appeared this May, there is one difficulty at least: the reference to the possible restriction of Irish citizens’ right to vote in Westminster elections. Again, the role of Irish citizens in our political culture is one of our great success stories. It has been built on many anomalies, which are creative. Part of the genius of our political system is that it knows how to tolerate creative anomalies when things work out best for everyone.
There are perhaps two underlying problems for the Government as they try to define and advance the concept of Britishness. As I say, I fully sympathise with the impulse, if not certain details, that underlies what they are trying to do. One of the problems lies in my own trade: the writing of British history and how it has changed, sometimes in brilliant currently fashionable books in recent years. In this view, British identity in the 18th century is defined not by a positive Protestantism but by negative reactions against hostile overseas enemies, the Catholic other. The xenophobic British developed a militarily driven, aristocratic imperialism in the 19th century that collapsed after 1945, leaving behind a frosty Eurosceptic culture of narrow insularity. Now, when new Labour wants to define positive Britishness and turns to its natural historical intelligentsia, it does not receive much help. In fact, the most relevant academic interventions may now come from the community of political science—the noble Lord, Lord Parekh, being a striking example in his fine speech earlier today, the work of the Constitution Unit, Professor Arthur Aughey’s important work in Belfast, and even old hands such as Professor Sir Bernard Crick.
Devolution is also part of our current strangulated thinking about Britishness. The recent Dod polling of your Lordships’ House demonstrated that 80 per cent of your Lordships’ House—75 per cent of those on the Labour Benches—consider that devolution has weakened the union. That demonstrates the difficulty of the problem. I speak as a supporter of devolution, but as a concept it has always basked in the eternal sunshine of the liberal mind without examination as Gladstone’s right answer to the Irish question—it should have been applied, and if it had been applied, everything would be right. The truth is that even if Gladstone had been successful in pursuing that policy, which I very much wish he had been—on the basis that by the second Home Rule Bill we would come to understand that there would have to be two devolved settlements in Ireland, not one—there would still have been difficulties and the possibility of Irish nationalism reaching a level as it left the United Kingdom. We now see in Scotland that devolution does not settle old problems. It does not mean that the United Kingdom is finished; none the less, a certain sentimentality on that subject has now reached its limits and is making the debate about Britishness difficult. It is at the heart of our problems.
I conclude with more positive observations about Britishness. The truth is that, while our theorists spill a lot of ink trying to define civic nationality, the United Kingdom has achieved it in practice. As far as the constituent nations—the national communities—of the United Kingdom are concerned, it is based above all on a sophisticated modern doctrine of consent. That underpins the Good Friday agreement but frankly now also underpins Scotland’s relationship to the rest of the United Kingdom. Let us step back for a moment from last week’s debate, which had us all agog, and the political excitement in the Palace of Westminster at the resignation of David Davis. My remarks are in no way affected by whether anyone thinks that that was a wise course or a stunt. Simply, the whole political atmosphere of the place was caught up in the context of that resignation, because it revealed our language of political drama: not Britain in 2008—in blood sacrifice and ethnic cleansing but issues concerning parliamentary government and the rule of law. That is what was so striking and so absolutely comforting about last week’s excitement; it went beyond the temporary circumstances.
I have one final observation. If Britishness is to be reasserted, it can be done only in a way that is specifically defined—almost laid-back—as a political and legal culture. As Sir Bernard Crick has rightly put it, how right most immigrants are to call themselves, for example, British Asians, not English Asians. They do not have to be assimilated into a general culture; they have only to be integrated into the economic, legal and political culture. We have a remarkably absorbent, flexible political culture in the United Kingdom, and long may it survive.
My Lords, the debate has been a rather unusual experience for me, because I am one of a small minority of hereditary Peers and I am the only hereditary Peer who is speaking in the House today. When I first got here, who would have thought that that would ever occur?
Everyone seems to have a very individualistic idea not only of Britishness but of the problems associated with it based on personal experience and interaction with their own communities. The noble Baroness, Lady Verma, got a hold on this when she said that it is more a feeling than a reality. There are realities—mention was made of the passport—but it must be more than that to mean something. The noble Lord, Lord Taylor, started by talking about the problem of how people come together and feel their way into a situation. This was always Britain. He implied that you bring that with you to your new home. You are sitting in the middle of this.
I thought that I would have something original to say when it came to my contribution, but the noble Lord, Lord Bew, has rather ruined that. I thought about the idea of Britishness and one of the decisive things about Britishness in much of our history. We should remember that the idea of Britishness goes back only to the Union of the Crowns in modern history. Much Britishness was defined as not being a Catholic, as far as I can see.
Does your personal background have a bearing? My mother’s family are west coast Scots, Protestants and Orange in their ethnic background. My mother was banned from going to a Church of England school because they had nuns there. When she moved down from Glasgow with her parents to East Anglia and my grandfather saw the nuns, he was not having “anything that Papist”. The idea of religious difference, which has been rightly touched on by many noble Lords, is nothing unusual in our society. It is much stronger north of the border, but in northern England it still has a resonance. My wife was written out of a family will because she knew too many Catholics. She comes from Lancashire. It is not the case that we are coming up against something totally new in having disaffected religious groups.
The experience of Northern Ireland is also true of Scotland. We do not need to go into any detail about the songs of Rangers Football Club, but once again they define you as a Protestant. Our society has to address this. One First Minister of Scotland—I forget his name—said of sectarianism that it is a hate that dare not speak its name but is still very much alive. So we must not allow ourselves to feel smug that we have dealt with all the problems of the past or that our current problems are totally new. They are not. The fact that people feel excluded and look to their own communities comes from an unpleasantly familiar historical line of development.
Those of Irish background may be very well assimilated into certain facets of our society now but then we have the Scots, who basically bought into the deal, for the most part, after a few little internal differences with the English in the history of Britishness. It is worth remembering that probably as many Scots were fighting against Bonnie Prince Charlie at Culloden as were on his side. How have the Scots brought this matter to the fore? The old joke about the deal between Scotland and England is that England dominates Scotland and the Scots run England. I hope the noble Baroness, Lady Warsi, will not object to me mentioning that David Cameron, the leader of the Conservative Party, says that the Scots are fairly integrated into parts of English society.
Where does the idea of Britishness come from? Where does it go? It comes from historical accident. It is going we know not where. It is changing as we speak. Is it a good or a bad thing that Afro-Caribbean youth culture is currently dominant? It is a reality. How will that new culture develop in the future? The minute we start talking about issues like this, I feel we are out of date, because things are developing and changing in ways we would never have suspected in our youth.
The level of integration in certain areas is incredibly high and in others it is not. Is that not the same as the class differences we all felt so much more confident talking about a few years ago? I do not know. The two issues clearly cross over. Certain people from certain ethnic backgrounds have found themselves to be slightly more successful at integrating into the middle classes than others.
My own take on Britishness is historically influenced. The noble Lord, Lord Bew, has dealt with this with rather more expertise than I can ever hope to muster. One thing we must not do when we look at our historical background is cherry-pick, and as the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, said, we must not pick the thorns, either. We must try and look at this as a whole.
I thought that last year’s celebration of banning the slave trade was a good thing. We did not celebrate the industrialisation of the transporting of slaves from one continent across the world to another. I do not know whether the British were totally dominant but we were certainly very big players. Which of those two aspects do we celebrate? Which was more important in the historical whole? Which has done more to create our current society? I do not know. They were both players. The fact that we now have accepted rules of law and constitutional settlements is good, but remember how many of them were made. The Magna Carta was forced through by barons flexing their muscles over an over-mighty King, renewed three times and rescinded every now and again by monarchs. Americans set great store by the Magna Carta; the British do not tend to. Was Simon de Montfort’s first Parliament a step forward towards democracy or was it a reactive attempt to try to stop a centralising monarchy creating a modern state? The noble Lord, Lord Bew, is probably mentally marking my essays of 20 years ago. But these arguments will always go on.
Britishness is a current reality which is reinforced by our interpretation of the past reality. If we try to wrap it up as something we want it to be, we will make huge mistakes. We must react to the current problems to try to make our society better and more accessible to those in it. We will not always get it right and we might too often try to impose our own values on people. As the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Norwich pointed out—I did not know that he was Cornish—we have done it in the past. Strangers’ Hall, that wonderful old hall in the middle of Norwich where I grew up, one of the great medieval cities in England, is testimony to a group that arrived, that was different and that was successful at becoming part of the whole. I hope that we will manage to do that slightly better in the future. It will never be easy but it always is possible.
My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend Lord Taylor of Warwick on an important and interesting debate and on his humour. The definition of Britishness has vexed historians, commentators and politicians, not just in recent years but, as the noble Lord, Lord Parekh, explained, as far back as the 1840s. The debate today has focused on many personal stories, with many noble Lords defining their identity with reference to their stories. In that spirit, I offer some characteristics that define me.
Born and raised in Dewsbury, I am a Yorkshirewoman. My working-class parents came from Pakistan but were of Kashmiri extraction. I am also a lawyer, a single mum and a Conservative, who enjoys her saris as much as her skirts and Yorkshire pudding as much as chicken masala. The noble Baroness, Lady Afshar, when talking about Muslim women in your Lordships’ House, even described me in a generic way as “uppity”. More recently I seem to be defined by my religion. I am a Muslim and find it quite disturbing in recent times to be asked the question, “Are you British first or Muslim first?”. I am sure many Members of your Lordships’ House watch the programme “Stars in their Eyes”, where people who want to be a certain superstar come out and say, “Matthew, today I will be…”. I question whether I should be having those moments every morning and saying, “Today I shall be one or the other”.
When this question is framed, it is about defining loyalty. At a time when there is a sense of unease in some of our communities, it may be a question that we need to ask, but it is one that I find very un-British. Like the noble Lord, Lord Taylor, my family has served in the British Army. Loyalty was shown by both by my maternal and paternal grandfathers to the British Army long before my parents arrived on these shores, so I am sure your Lordships’ House will forgive me if I find this question uncomfortable and very un-British.
I accept that there are concerns. In September 2007 the Commission for Racial Equality’s paper A Lot Done, a Lot to Do stated that that segregation—
“residentially, socially and in the workplace”—
was growing and that political and religious extremism was on the rise. The Department for Communities and Local Government’s 2007 Citizenship Survey found that perceptions of cohesion were least positive among our young—those aged 25 to 34. Some 77 per cent had a negative perception of cohesion, and more than half, 56 per cent, felt that there was more racial prejudice in Britain now than there was five years ago. In the words of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Norwich, the Church has muddled its way through, but I argue that for the past decade this Government too have muddled their way through on creating cohesion in our communities and a comfortable sense of Britishness.
The Government and the Prime Minister have floated a number of initiatives: noble Lords may recall that one was a national motto—six words to encapsulate our nation—or a statement of values, as it was later referred to. To find these it was suggested that we would have citizens’ summits or citizens’ juries. I would be interested if the Minister could tell your Lordships’ House what progress has been made on creating that statement of values and how many citizens’ summits have actually taken place.
A national British day was also proposed. Can the Minister confirm whether the Government still intend to have this national holiday and, if so, whether it will continue to be the August bank holiday, as Liam Byrne, the Minister for Immigration, suggested until it was discovered that it was not a holiday in Scotland, which undermined the Britishness of the whole plan? Is that proposal to fail too? There were also issues about St George’s Day. The Prime Minister encouraged us to fly the flag, but there was a complete lack of funding for celebrating St George’s Day. I would also be interested in the Minister’s response regarding the removal of Britannia from British coins.
I could go on, but time does not permit that. However, I make one generic point that has been a feature of the Government’s state multiculturalism approach to minority communities. It has been clunking, headline-driven on many occasions, and unsophisticated in its homogenous approach. As my noble friend Lord Taylor said, they have been seen as monolithic blocks.
I completely agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Verma, who raised concerns on segregation and said that we must look for a way forward. She said that opportunity and access to creating a better understanding were essential. That is why I commend the announcement by the right honourable David Cameron of a six-week national school-leavers’ programme, the national citizen service. That will help to unite our young. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Haskel, who said that the definition of Britishness must be inclusive and aspirational. We cannot bully people into belonging.
A number of noble Lords mooted the question of what binds us together. Let me suggest a few answers. First, access to the learning of the English language must be essential. In recent times, I have had concerns about the reduction of funding through the Learning and Skills Council for English as a second language, the obsessional focus on targets and qualifications rather than the skills to live in Britain, and the number of women who say, “I do not need an NVQ level 1 or 2; I need to know how to speak to my doctor and my children’s teachers. I need skills, not qualifications”. I take issue with the comments of the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, who described the concept of education as the “western liberal tradition of education”. When as a child I was taught about the value and privilege of a free education in Britain, I was also taught about my duty as a Muslim to seek and acquire knowledge. That is why I am proud to say that this is a universal value. To suggest otherwise does not assist understanding.
I also suggest a return to the equality of opportunity agenda, which is about treating members of British minority-ethnic communities as individuals rather than as monolithic blocs, robustly tackling racism and other barriers to equality, and honestly tackling those issues that leave communities behind. I cite forced marriages as an example, which in the past we have stepped away from dealing with by saying that it is a cultural issue. We must not hide behind the screen or excuse of cultural sensitivity. If a young girl who is brown goes missing from school and we do not inquire about it because she has Bengali roots, but if a white girl goes missing we send social services around, we are not providing the equality of opportunity agenda, because two girls in this country are being treated differently because of their colour. This is not cultural sensitivity; this is wrong.
There should be a proper teaching of our history, rooted in our institutions and how they came about, an understanding of the challenges that we have historically faced on identity and the ways in which we have overcome them. That is because we will truly move forward with depth of understanding only if we have a depth of understanding of where we came from.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Taylor, on securing this debate. As we have heard, this is a complex and fascinating subject and we are all grateful to him for allowing us to have what has been a fine debate. When he mentioned paradise, I thought that he was referring to God’s own city and, indeed, he was. He, too, is a Warwickshire supporter but, alas, he went wrong by turning left towards Villa Park instead of St Andrews.
It was interesting to hear the noble Lord’s description of his father’s experiences on the streets of Birmingham, which he found paved not with gold, but with cold, and of the struggles of immigrants such as his father and the racism that they encountered. Fortunately, he and his family decided to stay and the noble Lord is with us. He would agree that much has changed in the city of Birmingham for the better, although challenges remain. Towards the end of his speech, he mentioned those challenges and the CRE report on the risks of separatism and segregation. I am sure that noble Lords would acknowledge that those are very real challenges, which have to be faced in some parts of the city.
The noble Baroness, Lady Flather, described the experiences of racism that she, too, encountered in getting accommodation and in the classroom. I would say to the noble Baroness, Lady Warsi, who was critical of government policy, that we should not underestimate the advances and improvements that have been made in our society or the contribution that the law has made by underpinning those improvements and changes.
The noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, spoke eloquently of a number of forces and changes that have led to the questioning of many of our assumptions about who and what we are as people in Britain and what binds us together. We have heard described the principles of liberty, democracy, tolerance, free speech, pluralism, fair play, civic duty, probity, ethos of service, politics and our democracy, as is found in this Palace of Westminster. The noble and right reverend Lord hoped that civic duty, one of the most important values, was not completely lost; I think that those were his words. I am not as pessimistic as that, given my experience in the National Health Service and given the number of volunteers who are prepared to get involved. I am thinking of school governors, for example. Once upon a time, that duty could be discharged by turning up three times a year to hear the head give his report and to have a cup of tea, but anyone who has anything to do with education now knows the huge corporate responsibility that people take on as school governors. There are many other examples. In my new role in visiting prisons, I have come across the members of independent monitoring boards. They are quite remarkable people. They are entirely voluntary and give up huge amounts of time to visit prisons and make themselves available to prisoners.
I echo the sentiments expressed by the noble and right reverend Lord. He put forward the interesting idea that this concept of civic duty is one of the key elements of Britishness. I agree with him that it is still very much alive and kicking; indeed, it is often kicking the Government about what we need to do to change the services in which people are so intimately involved. One of the points of this debate is that, in discussing these values, which have often been seen to be a great asset of our society, we must recognise that they are perhaps not fully articulated or codified in a way that helps to define who we are in a way that British people can understand.
Some noble Lords have argued that, for a nation known for its understatement, an explicit statement of values is unnecessary and somehow un-British and that our rather pragmatic approach, which is to be commended now as in the past, sets out the course for us in the future. I have a great deal of sympathy with that view. I will come to the right reverend Prelate in a minute, but anyone who understands the Labour Party would understand that I very much recognise elements of the tension in the Church of England in my own political party; I suspect that they exist in the party opposite, too. Indeed, the riveting debates on Europe over the past week have reflected that.
While pragmatism has its place, there is an appetite among the British people for tracing the roots of individual identity that together make up the collective story of the nation. My noble friend Lord Parekh, in an extraordinary academic tour de force, outlined well the tensions and problems that arise because we are now an individualistic society. Some have religion and some have faith, whereas some do not. There are different cultures, different types of ethos, different views of history and perhaps different attitudes to class. He mentioned many other differences. How do we create some kind of unity out of these differences?
My noble friend helpfully described national self-identification as being made up of three elements. The first is democracy and respect for the rule of law. The second is our unique rights and values. He said that, although other countries share our rights and values, ours are unique because we fought for them and we have defined them differently. The third important element that he mentioned is respecting and making room for those differences. He described a moral covenant between the majority and the minority. I found that very helpful.
Who we are is one of the most fundamental questions that we can ask ourselves. That is what this process is about. I say to the noble Baroness, Lady Warsi, who was, as ever, very articulate in what she said, that of course I accept that if any statement of values emerges from this work it will not take root unless it is brought forward and owned by the British people themselves. That is why we have developed the kind of process that she referred to. The aim is to have a citizens’ summit, a broadly representative group of around 500 people who will be asked to decide the framework for the statement of values and make recommendations on its uses. The test of this project will be not whether we get a predefined notion of a statement of values, but whether we can hold what might be thought of as an inclusive discussion in which people in Britain come together to discuss what binds us, rather in the nature of the debate that we have had this afternoon. I must say that, at the end of this debate, I feel rather proud to be a citizen of this country.
I take the right reverend Prelate’s point about the benefit of pragmatism and muddling through, in relation to the Church of England being both Catholic and reformed and the unresolved tensions within that. I understand the point that he is making about the need to avoid hard boundaries. If you have hard boundaries, you push people against them and you get a reaction. Perhaps I may be so bold as to observe that, in the current challenges in the Church of England, we see that where some members have sought to make the boundaries harder, it becomes difficult for a tolerant, pragmatic and in many ways widely admired institution to deal with that.
I agree with the interesting points made by the noble Baroness, Lady Afshar, about the risk of railroading uniformity. She was right to talk about the different experiences of Muslim women. It is very risky when we define a group with a set of characteristics and then say that all people within that group are implicated in those characteristics. The noble Baroness was absolutely right in paying tribute to the freedoms and rights in Britain. There is no question of people being asked to choose between being British and being Muslim. I reiterate that very clearly. I also agree with her about the potential to look at education and opportunities for young people. I was taken with the important point that she made about young women who go away to higher education and then return to their own communities and contribute their experiences there. My noble friend Lord Haskel, too, emphasised the importance of understanding that this can be taken forward only with the involvement and consent of the British people. It cannot be undertaken by diktat.
My noble friend Lord Haskel gave us an interesting analysis—the historical context, perhaps—for this debate. There is no question but that, since the Second World War, we have been living through a period of profound global change. At the beginning of the period, this country was coming to terms with the rapid dissolution of the British Empire; it was removing many of its institutions and perhaps losing its sense of power. The apparent certainties of the past that bound the nation together through times of crisis are now a distant memory for many people in this country. We have always been a trading nation, but in recent years the impact of globalisation has turned the economics of developed nations outwards, supported by a significant increase in the movement and flow of capital and people. We have seen an increasingly interdependent world, which has meant a growing national reliance on multilateral institutions such as the European Union, as we debated yesterday, or NATO.
All these changes have to be countered or balanced by changes in the opposite direction. A new politics, perhaps, of identity deriving from individual characteristics such as gender and sexuality has seen an increasing trend towards looking inwards to the individual and away from our collective sense of the nation state. These kinds of changes have brought significant economic and social benefits but, as with all change, a number of uncertainties as well. As the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, suggested, it has led people increasingly to ask how, in a diverse nation, we can find enough in common to enable us to share experiences and live together harmoniously with a common purpose.
This change also leads to fears. The noble Baroness, Lady Cox, spoke about some of those fears and described a devaluation of Britishness in relation to academic freedoms. Of course, academic freedom is one of the critical values that perhaps we should have added to the list at the beginning. My experience of my children attending comprehensive schools in Birmingham is different from her experience. I realise that she was talking about a particularly interesting period in a particularly interesting borough in London, but we need to recognise that there has been a huge improvement in our schools. If the noble Lord, Lord Baker, were here, he would berate me about the need for history to be given rather more attention in schools—a point with which I am very sympathetic. However, notwithstanding all the challenges that they face, schools are recognising the need to ensure that all young people have a better grasp of our history, diverse as it is, as noble Lords have said. My noble friend Lord Prys-Davies said that Britishness flows from history but he acknowledged that it is difficult to define.
We come to the question of the union, which my noble friend Lord Haskel and the noble Lord, Lord Bew, raised and developed. I have no doubt that, as an institution, the union has been critical in shaping and defining much of what is important about being British. The union of nations of hundreds of years has demanded a tolerance and an openness towards others, accustoming us to plural identities that lie at the heart of being British. I believe that it is intrinsic to the nature of the union that we have plural allegiances; indeed, research suggests that the British are comfortable with that. Our British identity is different from our English, Scottish, Bengali or Cornish identities, because it is plural and therefore inherently inclusive.
My noble friend Lord Prys-Davies referred to the late and much missed Lord Gareth Williams, who said in this House that he thought that devolution would strengthen the United Kingdom. He quoted evidence of how the concept of Britishness resonates among young people and he was optimistic that, notwithstanding the challenges that devolution has undoubtedly brought, the belief held by Lord Gareth Williams will come out in practice, although certainly, as the noble Lord, Lord Bew, said, it does not settle the problem of Britishness.
We believe that devolution strengthens the union, and devolution and the union are developing together. Devolution was never intended to be, and never could be, a once-and-for-all change to a static system of governance. For example, in England we are seeing the development of the idea of regional Ministers, which in the case of the West Midlands is having an interesting and dramatic impact. The Government of Wales Act set a path for the extension of legislative powers to the Welsh Assembly. There is much that we could say on Scotland, but the Commission on Scottish Devolution under Ken Calman has started its work. Important choices are pending with regard to further devolution for Northern Ireland, as the noble Lord, Lord Bew, suggested. As someone who is both British and Irish, he said that one of the remarkable achievements has been the absorption of the Irish community in Britain. I very much echo that. Indeed, when I was a councillor in Birmingham representing Sparkbrook, there was an extraordinary fusion of Irish and Pakistani politics. It is remarkable how similar some of the characteristics of that political liveliness are—I know that noble Lords will know what I mean by that. I noted the noble Lord’s comments about my noble and learned friend Lord Goldsmith and the question of votes by Irish citizens. I understand that there is a much wider context in which that matter has to be carefully considered.
The right reverend Prelate touched on religion, as I have done. As he suggested, Christianity has a central historical and cultural significance in our nation’s story and it continues to play an important role. At the last census, 72 per cent of the UK population said that they were from the Christian faith. Alongside that, many areas of the UK are now very religiously diverse, particularly in the major cities. People from all the world’s great faith traditions live in the UK. That is something to rejoice about. Yet, as the noble Lord, Lord Addington, suggested, there are, and historically have been, great differences and conflicts. However, as the noble Baroness, Lady Flather, said, there is a remarkable similarity in the values of all major religions and we must have confidence that that can form a basis for a shared citizenship, which we very much need to build on.
The noble Lord, Lord Addington, made some interesting comments about the bicentenary of the abolition of the slave trade. I would also refer to the British Library’s recent Sacred exhibition, which took a shared space to show the common links between Muslims, Jews and Christians.
In my last minute, I shall refer briefly to the question of segregation and separation. First, we should not underestimate the cohesion that we see in our society. Great advances have been made. Equally, coming from Birmingham, I see and understand some of the concerns that exist about segregation and separatism, which we must do everything that we can to tackle. However, as the noble Baroness suggested, one way to tackle it is to focus on opportunity and education, which can help people in all communities to improve and enhance their lives. For all the challenges and for all the tensions that noble Lords have brought to our attention today, I believe that we have a society of which we can be proud. The very fact that we can have such a tolerant, wide-ranging debate today is a reflection of that value. That is what we want to build on in the future.
Rule of Law
rose to call attention to the case for maintaining the rule of law and ensuring that respect for other cultures does not infringe upon the right of United Kingdom citizens to protection under the law, particularly in the field of education and marriage; and to move for Papers.
The noble Baroness said: My Lords, earlier this year, thanks to the efforts of that admirable Peer, the noble Lord, Lord Lester of Herne Hill, the Forced Marriage (Civil Protection) Act was passed and is to come into effect this November. It is not my intention today to address the deeply serious issues of honour killings, forced, rather than arranged, marriage and genital mutilation. My concern is with the effects on civil society and community relations arising from the existence of two parallel legal systems: Sharia law with its own courts, and our own civil law, the law of the land. We are, however, tacitly accepting the formal Muslim view that Sharia itself must be regarded as the ultimate criterion of justice when measured against the law of the land. That has practical consequences. We are, by not challenging that out of respect for another culture, failing women and children in particular. We are tacitly accepting a parallel legal structure.
Muslim women who are British citizens are being deprived of their rights—property rights, for example. Women marrying in the mosque, a ceremony which is not a civil contract, forfeit their claim to compensation in a divorce. In a country which fought for votes for women and for the Married Women’s Property Act, numbers of British women are excluded from their rights, although under Sharia law women do have the right to own and inherit property.
This situation exists because we have for some years been more concerned to respect other cultures than actively to protect the interests of citizens of this country—women and children, who are part of that culture. That policy has not only allowed injustice, it has deprived the country of much talent. As Principal of Somerville, I met many remarkable young women such as Mayy Yamani, or Humeira Khan—one of our Rhodes scholars—and a number of doctors, lawyers and academics from that world. There should be many more, and my objective today is to remind us that there are aspects of Sharia law which do active harm in terms of the national interest, in particular, in the increasingly combustible area of civil society. When we condone the practice of allowing girls to be withdrawn from school from 12 years old onwards so that they may be sent to Pakistan to marry and thus facilitate the entry of a young husband who may be illiterate and innumerate, we are not only allowing her to be unlawfully deprived of education, when she is required by law to be educated up to the age of 16, but the country is losing a potentially skilled and valuable citizen. This is being done with the connivance of the schools on the grounds—as I was told when I visited a school in Bradford—that the council believes we must respect the culture of the Muslim community.
Some schools continue to put this first today when they are asked to display notices advising young Muslim girls threatened with forced marriage where to go for help. When I raised the issue of early withdrawal of Muslim girls from schools during Committee stage of the Forced Marriage (Civil Protection) Act 2007, I was told that they might just be going off for a family holiday in Pakistan in order to renew ties with their culture. That is entirely desirable. My problem is: do the schools inquire about them after the holidays? My late and much admired friend Lady Faithfull used to raise this issue too. She and I were both concerned that girls whose education ended at 12 and whose husbands often allowed them little freedom in society, would have much less to offer their children, who in turn come to school ill-prepared. A well-educated mother can and will make a significant contribution to the skills of her children. Equally, we should be insisting that those entering the UK on the basis of marriage to a British citizen should be required to take steps to become literate and numerate before they are accorded citizenship. It is in our interest, as well as theirs, to make them qualified to get work, and it would be much better for civil society and race relations. Education opens windows. We should not allow our own female citizens to be deprived of access to the world of ideas and action by tacitly accepting their situation.
If there were more action in the UK on this issue, the admirable Foreign Office team which helps young women who are in Pakistan against their will might have less to do. I am concerned that, in failing to enforce the law, we are not only failing these girls, we are losing valuable citizens with the ability to make a serious contribution to the life of the country. Fortunately, I know a number of honourable and wise Muslim fathers who are proud to support their daughters in securing university education and professional skills, but perhaps there are not enough of them. One final point on that issue, Her Majesty’s Government can do nothing but good in protecting women and children in the difficult area of forced, not arranged, marriage. It is sometimes thought that the girl in flight who comes to the police or a hospital for help should be directed to an Asian member of staff who will best understand the problem. Experience shows that he or she may put his Sharia duty first and inform the family.
I have a further concern which will be shared by many of the responsible and wise members of the Muslim community. Many British citizens are having a hard and increasingly difficult life with many economic pressures and tensions today. Such issues as the demand for housing and the availability of welfare have become very important. Polygamy, as the House knows, is recognised under Sharia law. In this country, however, it is illegal. I asked the following Question earlier this year:
“Whether there are any cases of receipt of housing or other benefits by second and subsequent wives of a polygamous marriage illegal under British law; and, if so, what is the legal authority for such payments”.
I received the reply,
“Because legislation does not provide entitlement to benefit payments to anyone in a polygamous marriage that is illegal under British law, there should be no such cases". —[Official Report, 20/3/08; col. WA 68.]
However, it is difficult to know how HMG reconcile this reply with the regulations in the Social Security Contributions and Benefits Act 1992. The guidance manual currently in use by local authorities gives the following provision:
“Polygamous marriages: If none of the members have reached 65, for the claimant and the other party to the marriage respectively, £174.05 and £181.79. For each additional member of the marriage, £60”.
That enables the husband to secure not only housing benefits for each of his wives, but, presumably, some entitlement to housing for each. It is already a cause of deep resentment in the community that housing has all too often had to be allocated in recent years, for instance, to refugees when the local man or woman has just reached the top of the list. But to know that a fellow citizen who is actually breaking the law can benefit by it causes bitter resentment. It is no way to bring about good relations between communities.
Equally, there is room for anger in the field of education arising from the politicisation of what may sometimes be taught in our schools. In 2006, a pilot teaching-pack on citizenship for children from 12 to 16 was sent to schools in a London borough. It was funded by the Government's Neighbourhood Renewal programme and entitled, 9/11: The Main Chance. It invited pupils to imagine organising a terrorist attack. What terrorist targets were there in the neighbourhood, and what weapons and methods should they use to achieve a good result? For good measure, it included links to websites alleging that Dick Cheney directed the attacks and that the US air force shot down United flight 93. There was also a link to a website on food terrorism and how fast-food chains could be attacked. The producers claimed—and I think believed—that these packs had been intended partly to enable pupils to,
“Get into the minds of the terrorists who carried out the 9/11 attacks”,
“How to teach pupils to bring impartial and unbiased information to a subject”.
I am glad to say that the pilot packs were withdrawn. The Higher Education Minister rightly said that citizenship classes should be used to give pupils a stronger sense of British identity and that teaching all children about British culture and traditions would allow all children, including Muslims, to integrate better into society. The makers of the pack believed they were teaching children to “see the other side” and to understand angry young Muslims. They forgot the honest anger of all British citizens, including the vast majority in Muslim communities who, while always putting Sharia first in many matters of conduct, wish to live at peace with their neighbours, hate terror as much as we do and do not wish to see it justified.
While absorbing what is good in other cultures, we should not confuse tolerance, a British virtue, with the condoning of wrong, nor should we be afraid to remember and celebrate our common past. I spoke to a class of boys in Bradford who, though they were “doing” slavery in their history lessons, had never heard of Wilberforce and knew nothing of the Royal Navy's part in arresting slavers. I spoke to them of the comradeship which existed between the British and their grandfathers when they fought side-by-side in Burma. They knew nothing of that. I told them to ask their grandfathers. One did so and wrote to me to say that he had learnt much.
We should support the peaceful majority in the community by taking energetic steps to act against those mosques which, often funded by Saudi money, allow their premises to be used to propagate hate literature. That is not what a mosque is for. We must ensure our universities are not used in the name of freedom of speech to promote active jihadist doctrines or, disgracefully, anti-Semitism. These measures, designed to counter the promotion of hate, represent no threat to Sharia but reassure both peaceful Muslims and ordinary Englishmen of every class and religion.
Respect for the right of the Muslim communities to conduct their lives according to Sharia law should be matched by equal respect for our own Christian religion. From the little I heard of the Minister’s statement on the previous debate, which I was sad to miss, that has already been said most strongly. I can only say it again. We should note the lack of support shown by many local authorities, and indeed by Government sometimes, to Christians of every denomination. If a useful enterprise, for instance, designed to keep deprived and unhappy children off the streets—and I know of such a case—is seen to be connected with a Christian entity, it will be refused support on the grounds that the eligibility criteria do not allow funding for groups which “promote religious beliefs”. When it comes to official funds to support charitable activities concerned with the needs of deprived youth groups from every background, the authorities are often reluctant to help any enterprise with Christian connections because of the message they believe it sends to the Muslim community. However, it does our relations with devout Muslims no good to be seen to reject our own Christian church, even when it is not proselytising but merely doing social good for a whole community.
Respect for the right of Muslims to conduct their lives according to Sharia law should be seen to be matched by equal respect for our own religion. We recognise that strong feeling over events in Iraq, Afghanistan and Palestine is genuinely felt by many Muslims as well as by many non-Muslims, but we say nothing about the widespread persecution of Christians in countries where Sharia law rules. We should not behave in our own Christian country as if Christianity were politically unacceptable, however good our motives.
We need to reassure the peaceful Muslims and the ordinary English men and women of every class and religion that all citizens will receive the protection of the law, that a distinction will be made between respect for other faiths and tolerance of people and ideas which are alien to our world and wish to destroy it. If the country at large cannot feel that we respect ourselves and that the priority is the common good and justice for all, slow to anger as our countrymen are, they too could become angry, and that would be a bad day.
I had not intended to do it, but I shall tell a story at the end. It is relevant to women. At one time when I was serving in Africa, in Zambia, I had occasion to go to a far part of the country. The governor of Zambia at that time—it was Northern Rhodesia then—asked me to take a letter to the paramount chief saying that Her Majesty had awarded him an MBE; this would be a very good introduction. He reminded me that I should not leave the presence of the paramount chief without having received a present from him; this would be grave discourtesy. I knew that because I had encountered the same rule in the Congo.
So I went and I presented the letter. We sat in great amity in a very hot hut surrounded by people, and we drank warm beer for what seemed to me like several days but it was probably several hours. The time went by but no present emerged. I thought, “Can I leave? Do I stay? Has it all changed?”, and then through the crowd there came a man wriggling on his tummy up to the paramount chief and holding something. He gave it to the paramount chief and the paramount chief turned to me with an expression of extreme relief on his face, clutching this object. He said, “As you well know, it is the custom that I should present you with a present before you can leave my presence on these ceremonial occasions”. I said, “Yes, paramount chief, I did know that”. He said, “The problem is that you are a woman”. Slightly huffily I said, “Well, you have two daughters who are chiefs”. “Oh”, he said, “that is not the problem! We had not got a suitable present. How could we give you a spear or a bow and arrow or something like that? We had to make a special present for you, and here it is”. It was a hoe. Women dig in Africa.
I used to tell my undergraduates that story when they were feeling rather uppity, and it was very salutary sometimes. I think perhaps it is salutary even today that we should remember that women sometimes get relegated to rather odd corners of society, but that in fact they have a very important part to play. I beg to move for Papers.
My Lords, I am particularly grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Park, for instituting this debate on subjects which are both timely and urgent and which gives me an opportunity to speak once more about that great wrong that has been done and is being done to womankind worldwide. It is being done to young United Kingdom citizens by those who flout the law, usually through ignorance of it but sometimes with contempt for it. I have spoken about it many times before but I know it is a subject that meets with great sympathy in your Lordships’ House and is not, I hope and believe, something with which listeners lose patience. But this afternoon I would like to say something also about the history of female genital mutilation and the traditions and rituals which surround it.
Deeply entrenched in social, economic and political structures, it is a blatant example of gender inequality and like the practice of dowry and child marriage and the now abandoned foot-binding in China, represents society’s control over women. In Africa it is an ancient procedure first observed, it is said, by the Crusaders. But it is older than that and may well predate the coming of Islam and even of Christianity. The explorer Richard Burton probably mentioned it in the vast work he wrote on sexual practices in the Middle East but we shall never know. His prudish wife Isabel read it after his death and, shocked to the core, burnt it lest such a work came to damage his reputation. Here, incidentally, may be the place to point out how a mealy-mouthed recoil from speaking about genital mutilation, and when it must be referred to, alluding to it by the euphemism “female circumcision”, has done much to maintain it.
In 1929 the Church of Scotland mission to the Kikuyu in Kenya attempted to break down the custom of clitoridectomy by demanding that all their followers and those who wanted their children to attend mission schools should pledge themselves not to support this initiation rite. Teachers too were asked to denounce the custom. The question was first raised here in another place and a committee of MPs, including the Duchess of Atholl, was appointed as early as 1930 to investigate. However, it was agreed that the best solution was to leave it to the people concerned to choose what custom most suited their changing conditions. Some European delegates to a conference in Geneva in 1931, held under the auspices of the Save the Children Fund, urged the abandonment of this, of what they called “a heathen custom”. But the general opinion was for the people to be left to choose. In the main they chose to retain it. Unfortunately, it is these decisions to adhere to a custom generally deplored that have contributed to widespread genital mutilation in Africa today.
So began respect for a culture which includes an appalling practice. Women suffer a lifetime of pain and degradation without ever speaking of what has caused their suffering. There can be no other procedure on earth, therapeutic or cosmetic, not only so harmful but so entirely pointless as FGM. How deformative it is may be deduced from the reaction of midwives in the 1970s when, on first seeing the results of FGM in African immigrants, believed that they were looking at a congenital malformation of the genitalia.
Many African countries have passed laws to ban it but making female genital mutilation illegal seems to have little effect. It is often practised in parts of Africa even when it is known to inflict harm on girls because the social benefits deriving from it are considered to be higher than its disadvantages. In spite of laws forbidding it and its disabling, painful and disfiguring results, in these societies FGM is thought necessary for the correct upbringing of a girl and as part of her preparation for adulthood and marriage. The practice may be part of coming-of-age rituals and the girls themselves may wish to undergo the procedure as a result of social pressure from peers and because of fear of stigmatisation and rejection. Girls are given rewards, take part in celebrations and receive gifts. So, however painful, however likely to store up pain and the disturbance of gynaecological function, it may confer a sense of pride and a feeling of community membership. Even here in London, among Horn of Africa communities, girls have been heard to ask each other, “Have you been cut yet?”. Those with enlightened parents absorbed into a United Kingdom culture may feel left out
Among the Kikuyu it was taboo for a man to have sexual relations with women who had not undergone FGM. And it is a desire for a good and successful marriage which may account for its persistence. It is believed that the practice ensures and preserves a woman’s virginity and, without going into anatomical details that would be inappropriate here, it probably does. Strangely, it is also thought to make girls “clean” and beautiful. No holy text prescribes it, yet most women who have suffered it are Muslim because Islam is the prevailing faith in the countries from which they or their parents have come. Many who have suffered it are Christian; so much for those Save the Children delegates who called it a “heathen custom”. Some are animists. Its practice is upheld by local structures of power and authority. Some doctors of medicine, and older women who have themselves been mutilated, support it and see efforts to combat it as an attack upon their culture and way of life.
Strong support for the protection of the rights of women to abandon FGM is found in international treaties including the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment; the Convention on Civil and Political Rights; the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women; and the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Female genital mutilation violates many human rights principles, including the right to life when the procedure results in death—as it does in 10 per cent of cases in certain parts of the Horn of Africa—and the right to freedom from torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.
Parents who decide to have their daughters genitally mutilated believe that the benefits outweigh the risks, but this perception cannot justify an irreversible and life-changing practice that violates a girl's human rights. Even when a girl herself desires the procedure, her decision is in fact the result of social pressures and community expectations. In this country, the culture embedded in our own culture supports this attitude in spite of all efforts to end it and in spite of two Acts of Parliament making it an offence punishable with up to 14 years’ imprisonment. I do not think that FGM has ever been mentioned in your Lordships’ House without some noble Lord asking if there have yet been any prosecutions under the 2003 Act. The answer is always no.
Though we may respect a culture, we must first respect human beings. People are of greater importance than tradition. More valuable than any custom or tradition, however enshrined in history and general acceptance, is one single small girl who is at risk of having her life and body ruined by this practice. The number of women calculated to have undergone female genital mutilation in the United Kingdom is almost 270,000, and 15,000 children living here are estimated to be at risk of joining them.
My Lords, I warmly thank the noble Baroness, Lady Park, for introducing this subject and providing us with the opportunity to consider one of the most challenging issues confronting our country today. I will focus on an important issue already highlighted by the noble Baroness: the creeping implementation of Sharia law in this county and the associated constellation of beliefs and values held by significant numbers of citizens.
I have no wish whatsoever to impute anything undesirable about the vast majority of Muslims, who are peaceable, hospitable and law-abiding citizens, or to generate any ill feeling towards them. However, this is an important subject because Sharia law is in many ways infringing the rights of UK citizens to protection under the law in the fields of marriage, freedom of religion and freedom of speech.
In the previous debate, the noble Lord, Lord Taylor of Warwick, referred to a report that said that a third of Muslims living in this country would like to live according to Sharia law. There are inherent problems with this, because aspects of Sharia law are fundamentally incompatible with the principles of our legal system, particularly those aspects which deny and run contrary to the fundamental values codified in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights—particularly equality before the law for each citizen and freedom to choose and change religion. In Sharia, equality before the law is denied, as between men and women and between Muslims and non-Muslims. Freedom to choose and change religion is forbidden or severely constrained. The first inequality is especially serious for women, and the second for Muslims who wish to leave Islam. They become apostates, for whom the penalty in many Islamic countries may be death.
There are many cases in Britain today where citizens have suffered as a result of these provisions and are not receiving adequate protection from the police or other authorities. Before giving examples, I should make one point clear. It is often argued that other religious minorities, especially the Jewish community, have been allowed to have distinctive legal provisions, particularly with regard to family law, in parallel with the law of this land. It has therefore been argued that the Muslim community should have the same rights to their own distinctive legal provisions, especially in family matters. However, there is a fundamental difference: in every country where the Jewish community has its special provisions, the Jewish authorities explicitly affirm that they respect the sovereignty of the secular law of the land. Disturbingly, however, there are many cases where those adhering to Sharia give precedence to its norms, even when they are in direct conflict with UK law.
In family law, some Sharia family councils are helpful in settling some cases of domestic disputes. However, the excellent report Crimes of the Community: Honour-based Violence in the UK by the Centre for Social Cohesion documents disturbing statistics of growing trends in domestic violence, including murder, in the name of so-called honour, and in forced marriages. These violations of human rights are mainly associated with Islamic beliefs, although they are also found to a lesser extent in some other communities. Moreover, women in Islamic communities may face a particular problem, as Sharia provisions allow imams to carry out marriages, in mosques, which are recognised by their community but do not bring the legal protection of a UK-recognised civil marriage. Women who subsequently wish to have a divorce, perhaps because of domestic violence, are thus not able to access the legal protection of British family law. There are also disturbing cases of community complicity in preventing access by women suffering from domestic violence to protection from the authorities to which they turn. For example, Crimes of the Community cites many cases of women who escape to the local police station and are put in the care of a culturally appropriate police officer who sends them back to their family or community, probably to punishment or retribution; or of a taxi driver who takes them home instead of to a safe place; or of women being given interpreters who deliberately distort the woman’s pleas for help.
For example, Zalkha Ahmed, director of Apna Haq, a women's support group in the north of England, says on page 105 of the report that some translators working for social services have deliberately blocked government attempts to help south Asian women who are fleeing violence and abuse:
“We have also had translators who would lie to the social services when women go to seek help. The translators would not reveal the extent of the story, and try to play down the extent that honour had to play in the problem to try and portray a positive image of the community”.
Moreover, several women's groups, particularly in the Midlands and northern England, say that they are often reluctant to go to the police with women who have run away to escape violence, because they cannot trust Asian police officers:
“According to some women’s groups such problems appear to be … common in the West Midlands police force”.
Also relevant in this context is the growing number of Muslim polygamous marriages in Britain, referred to by the noble Baroness, Lady Park. While such marriages are perfectly in line with the provisions of Sharia, they run counter to the very spirit of equality which underlies British law. As long ago as 1996, polygamous marriages in Britain were given media coverage on the TV programme “East”, which caused a brief ripple among those who saw it as significant for Britain's Muslim women citizens, but it quickly disappeared from view. Since then, the number of Muslim polygamous marriages has increased steadily, even to the point where the Government have felt the need to grapple with the question of family support payments being made for second, third and fourth wives, as reported in the media earlier this year. This development does no credit to Britain's long tradition of affirming equality in marriage. I hope that the Minister will say something about the Government’s latest position on payments for wives of polygamous marriages.
Last year I raised the question of the introduction of Sharia in Written Questions. The Government's reply affirmed the introduction of Sharia in the United Kingdom but gave an assurance that every citizen always has access to the protection of the law of the land. Clearly, this has not been the case for many Muslim women who have suffered domestic violence and/or been trapped in unhappy marriages.
Such protection has also not been available for Muslims who have wanted to change their religion. While there is always a welcome in the Muslim community for anyone to become a Muslim, the fate of Muslims who convert to another faith is very different. This is apostasy, which in traditional Islamic communities is punishable by death, in line with the provisions of the Islamic legal schools. There are many reports of citizens in this country who have wished to convert from Islam to another faith who have been threatened, whose families have been attacked and subject to severe intimidation, and who have not received sufficient protection from the police, so they have had to live in hiding. I give one example from a report, No Place to Call Home: Experiences of Apostates from Islam, recently published by Christian Solidarity Worldwide, which states:
“A British citizen who converted to Christianity from Islam and then complained to police when locals threatened to burn his house down, was told by officers to ‘stop being a crusader and move to another place’. A few days later, the unoccupied house next door was set on fire”.
In regard to the fundamental issue of freedom of speech, your Lordships will remember the amendments to the proposed legislation concerning incitement to religious hatred which were achieved in your Lordships’ House. Without those amendments it could have been a criminal offence, punishable by up to seven years’ imprisonment, to speak critically of a religion, to promote another religion or to joke about a religion. Those fundamental freedoms were given legal protection by those amendments, despite the determination in another place to remove them. But despite this legal protection, there are still cases where police have interfered in highly intimidating ways to prevent people exercising those fundamental freedoms.
A recent example, reported in the Sunday Telegraph on 8 June, describes how two Christians were stopped from exercising their right to distribute information about Christianity. They were told by police that they,
“were in a Muslim area and were not allowed to spread the Christian message”.
They were accused of committing a hate crime and were told that they would be taken to the police station. They were advised not to return to the area with the words:
“You have been warned. If you come back here and get beaten up—well, you have been warned”.
We now have in some of our communities in Britain twin-track systems of values and legal systems, which have certain fundamental, inherent incompatibilities. Her Majesty’s Government have given an assurance that every citizen ultimately has the right of recourse to the UK legal system and the protection it should provide. But, clearly, some citizens and communities are under the influence of the alternative, Sharia legal system, which does not recognise the fundamental freedoms which should be available to every citizen of this land. Some of these citizens are suffering infringements of fundamental human rights without the effective protection due to them. What steps are Her Majesty’s Government taking to ensure protection for all citizens from violations of the fundamental freedoms to which they are entitled under the law of this land?
Sharia law came into this country without parliamentary debate or public discussion. There can be no justification for the implementation of laws and policies which deny citizens of this land the protection which is their right. I am therefore very grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Park, for this opportunity to put some of these concerns on the record and, I hope, to open the way for full, constructive, appropriate parliamentary and public discussion of matters which are important to every citizen of this land and to the future of our nation.
My Lords, I, too, am very grateful indeed to the noble Baroness, Lady Park, for raising this important question and for concentrating our thoughts on human rights under the rule of law. Whatever culture or faith people come from or adopt, they have a basic right to freedom from domestic violence, abuse, forced marriage, female genital mutilation, as so powerfully described by the noble Baroness, Lady Rendell, and so-called honour crimes. Faith leaders have consistently made clear statements against all these practices and have affirmed the right of all our citizens to equality of education under the law and our own culture.
It is difficult to extricate this debate from the preceding one. I was grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Warsi, who spoke in the previous debate, for affirming the need for equal treatment by the police in these areas. That affirmation was made in this debate by the noble Baroness, Lady Cox. I am also grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Warsi, for her contribution to the report From Destitution to Contribution about the treatment of people in Leeds. It dealt specifically with asylum seekers but had much to teach us about the way in which people from different cultural backgrounds within our single British culture are able to relate to, listen to and care for each other.
We need to be careful about our assumptions as to who needs protection under the law. The toolkit for faith leaders and faith organisations produced by the Greater London Domestic Violence Project, which I commend to the House, states:
“Studies have shown that patterns of domestic violence do not vary significantly between different communities, cultures or religions. Domestic violence can manifest itself in any society where there is an unequal power imbalance between men and women”.
This is not just a problem for people in “other cultures”, to quote the Motion under debate, but affects the lives of people from all walks of life within the culture of which we are all a part.
Law plays its part but cannot solve the problem. It is the responsibility of all of us to help those suffering abuse, and to challenge those who use sacred texts and teachings to justify violence and abuse. Within that context we also need to affirm those cultural and religious communities that use their customs to defend human rights. The noble Baroness, Lady Cox, referred to the ways in which Islamic courts defend the rights of women when their husbands refuse to divorce them by granting the dissolution of the nikah, the religious marriage bond. There is much within the practices and legal systems of different communities and cultures within our land which we ought to welcome, as well as that which is against human rights which we need to condemn.
It is important that religious communities are not denied the right to uphold ethical and moral standards where they do not infringe basic human rights. The noble Baroness, Lady Park, spoke of the need to uphold Christian ethical standards. We have long been used to provision within the law for Christian ethics; hence, Church of England Ministers specifically retain the right not to solemnise the marriages of those who have been divorced because of Christian teaching on the lifelong nature of marriage. That does not create a lack of cohesion within our communities; rather, it upholds particular values and holds them in front of our society.
In the whole of this debate we need to reflect on the place of conscience as being crucial to our own society and to the ways in which we think. In that respect, I very much regret the recent decision to force Roman Catholic adoption agencies to place children with gay couples, overriding the conscientious rights of the Roman Catholics concerned. The result of that has been the loss of their skilled experience in placing some of our most damaged children for adoption. That is the very opposite of the affirmation of human rights that we seek to uphold.
Whatever we make of those examples in terms of Christian ethics, there is a need to listen to the conscientious arguments of those from various religions and cultures, not least Christianity, as we seek to find the right way forward under the provision of the rule of law. Our right defence of human rights must not blind us to the benefits of cultural law. The noble Baroness, Lady Cox, referred to the Jewish Beth Din courts, and one could also quote Somali customary law, as enabling disputes to be settled in the security of a particular cultural group without recourse to the secular courts. Many can accept the jurisdiction of those courts, and they present no threat to human rights; indeed the opposite. They provide a safe haven for independent adjudications.
In our right concern for the rights particularly of women under the law, and in our criticisms of certain provisions of Sharia, we also need to be careful not to condemn all that comes from that particular tradition. In Leeds, as elsewhere, we have welcomed in particular the provision of Sharia-compliant loans and mortgages as an example of multicultural inclusion that has enabled Muslim businessmen to play their part in the financial economy of our country. The arguments for and discussion about those loans and mortgages have provided a challenge to our own secular culture, where interest and debt are simply taken for granted. Since debt is a major cause of marital breakdown and of the denial of family rights to children in our culture, I welcome the challenge of another culture—a culture other than my own—to our whole attitude to money.
I thoroughly welcome the warning contained in this debate, and which the noble Baroness, Lady Park, expressed so strongly in her opening speech. Protection under the law is crucial to our society and must remain so. At the same time, we need to defend the rights of cultural and religious groups to affirm ethical and moral standards, not least the rights of Christian communities to do that. Indeed, we can learn from them to enhance the common good of the whole of our culture.
My Lords, I commend the noble Baroness, Lady Park, for her insight in initiating this debate and for drawing attention to such a timely and far-reaching issue. Much concern this afternoon may focus on the prerequisite regulation for enabling individuals from different cultures, particularly women, to have the same range of options as everyone else. The extreme cases of female circumcision or so-called honour killings are clearly unacceptable in our society, but the less obvious and more frequent instances also need to be discussed, where an individual may be physically unharmed but none the less every day is prevented from living as fulfilling a life as possible.
I agree that the first step is to ensure that respect for other cultures should not be an impediment, however passive, to the rights of UK citizens. But we should not mistake what is necessary for what will be sufficient. Collective respect next needs to be harnessed proactively as a prompt, even an inspiration, for those individuals to benefit in new ways from the unprecedented confluence of culture and contemporary UK society.
If we want to shift from mere protection from harm to promoting quality of life, education and marriage are good places to start. Those areas bear directly on the current problems, respectively, of the impact of science and female equality and hence, together, the issues highlighted are of women in science. It is from the perspective of a woman scientist that I shall comment.
The biotechnology of the 21st century is enabling those of us in the developed world to cherish realistic aspirations for living longer, healthier lives more than any other preceding generation. Meanwhile, advances in the physical sciences and engineering free up an ever increasing amount of time each day from the routine drudge that characterised the lives of so many in the previous century. The individual has more chance and more time than ever to realise their full potential. Brain science, which is my area, champions and attempts to understand the notion of the individual. Each human being is born a citizen of the world. Particular beliefs, lifestyle and culture are not embedded in the DNA, but subsequently they shape the connections of our brain cells after birth.
The Jesuits’ famous claim, “Give me a child until he is seven, and I shall give you the man”, is speaking for the power not of genes, but of the environment and its impact on the human brain. It is education that enables each of us to make sense of, understand and appreciate that environment, including the beliefs and agendas of different cultures, and to translate the ever-increasing bombardment of information into knowledge. The search for knowledge need not be at odds with tradition, nor specifically need science be at odds with religion; witness the large number of very talented scientists with strongly held beliefs. The difference is that, with education, the onus of interpretation and evaluation shifts to the individual, rather than residing in the passive, unconditional acceptance of a collective mindset. When a child is educated and allowed to realise their full intellectual potential, there is no reason to assume that they will not still respect and be an integral part of their culture; quite the opposite.
I shall give one example. The Asian Women of Achievement Awards is a scheme of which I have first- hand experience, having served on the panel of judges. The awards were set up in 1999 to recognise the immense accomplishments of women in the Asian community and to break the stereotypes that normally surround them. They aim to provide inspiration and role models for other women, but also to raise awareness in the wider community of the phenomenal achievement of Asian women and the journey that they make, frequently against the odds, to succeed in mainstream society.
The awards cover a range of categories and have given a platform to women from different fields, ranging from opera singers to CEOs and scientists. Dozens of the contestants have subsequently been invited to speak at large conferences and in the boardroom and to make media appearances. Most significantly, contestants have also said that being recognised for the awards has changed the perception of their status within their communities and families. Even those who do not feel that they need the recognition have commented on the raised energy levels among their co-workers as a result of the awards. Now a new initiative, the Ambassadors programme, is being launched to send some of the Asian women of achievement into schools as ambassadors, where they will inspire sixth-formers. There is an annual reception of 100 women of achievement, with 100 sixth-formers from 30 different schools, to let the young women interact directly with women in the working world.
Talk of women inevitably leads to the other subject mentioned in this afternoon’s debate: marriage. For many women, marriage leads to children, who can often complicate—and even be an impediment to—a career. This is particularly the case for a career in research, science, engineering and technology, or SET. As pinpointed in SET Fair, a report to the Government which I headed in 2002, one of the biggest single problems for young women scientists is balancing the demands of childcare with the long and irregular hours mandated by the early stages of a research career. This is characterised, in turn, by limited contractual tenure and no clear or secure structure.
There are ways of combating this sad state of affairs. Following the 2002 report, the UK Resource Centre for Women in Science, Engineering and Technology was introduced. It is the UK’s leading centre, providing information and advisory services to employers and organisations in the SET sectors. It supports women entering, returning to and progressing in these fields. The centre works to improve significantly the participation and position of women in SET in industry, research, academia and public service, in order to benefit the future productivity of the UK, and the lifetime earnings and career aspirations of women. The situation remains that half a million women in the UK are qualified in science, engineering and technology, but less than one-third work in those sectors, all of which are suffering a severe skills shortage that will worsen in the coming decades.
Women have always led complex lives with conflicting demands, women in science more so than many. In addition, the balance of a traditional culture with modern 21st-century life must present an even greater challenge. When looking at the percentage of women, compared to men, in science, of particular relevance to this debate is the fact that ethnic minority women scientists proportionately outnumber their white female counterparts, with 43.3 per cent compared to 37.4 per cent. This ratio does not hold for all other employment sectors combined. Women scientists from ethnic minorities are, therefore, a significant group. They need particular help in balancing a career that has, anyway, a precarious structure, with the cultural demands of their home and family. However, there is insufficient funding for the resource centre to reach out as it would like.
Meanwhile, charities and the private sector are doing what they can. There is the admirable Daphne Jackson Trust and another initiative sponsored by a major cosmetics company in combination with UNESCO, in which I have had the honour of being involved. Both are making some headway in helping female scientists to return from full-time childcare and assisting financially in diverse ways, from paying for childminders to paying for microscopes.
I endorse wholeheartedly the opening remarks of the noble Baroness, Lady Park, that we should not stand by passively with a well intentioned, but misplaced, sentiment that permits those from certain minority cultures to be disadvantaged. Yes, we should protect their rights, but should we not also do more? Schemes such as the Asian Women of Achievement, and the statistics showing the high representation of non-white women in science, show how traditional culture and values can, after all, synergise with our current society to their mutual benefit. Inevitably, there is currently just not enough money to level the playing field. Surely it is time for the Government to make a far more substantial investment in ensuring that all UK citizens, irrespective of race or gender, have an equal chance in making the most effective contribution—be it scientific or otherwise—to creating a society where there is not only an absence of fear and repression, but the active happiness of individual achievement.
My Lords, I apologise to the noble Baroness, Lady Park, for my late arrival; I had a crisis in locating both copies of my speech. I was rescued, not for the first time, by my noble friend Lord Addington and now have a copy. I congratulate the noble Baroness on her speech in introducing this debate. It is seldom that I can say this, but I do not think the noble Baroness said a single word with which I disagreed. Her speech was humane, wide in its approach, generous, and an example to us all.
When I started to think about this debate, I remembered that the British are frequently accused today of not respecting the customs of others during the period of empire. I have no objection to inward migration into this country and I do not believe that we could prevent it even if we tried. This is a restless period, when people seek to move to improve their future prospects, and easy means of travelling long distances are available. Those who come to live among us may be prompted by understandable ambitions and dreams but, equally, they will need to learn what is and is not acceptable behaviour in this country. In this respect, the Government have a duty to defend the lives of those they have allowed to live here, just as they have a duty, in this respect, to British citizens. This duty is one of the most basic elements of the unwritten contract between people and authority.
In this context, the well documented cases of young women from Muslim households who are forced into marriage, threatened, or even killed, by family members for the “honour” of their families, are a reproach to our society, as well as to the families involved. I appreciate that honour killing is not a defined crime, but we have to take on board the obvious fact that women are nowhere more vulnerable than behind locked doors in their own homes. Are the Government considering changing the criminal law in response to the special needs of all women trapped in violent marriages, irrespective of the origin and cultural attitudes of victims and their family members?
The report of the Muslim Arbitration Tribunal, Liberation from Forced Marriages, provides useful enlightenment on the differences between Islamic law and various cultural attitudes with respect to marriage. The report clearly differentiates between true Islamic law with respect to marriage and the illegality of forced, as opposed to arranged, marriage. The report provides an interesting and precise description of the various procedures that can lead to a marriage supported by Muslim law and those that are not so supported. Coerced marriages—whether by emotional blackmail, threats of disinheritance or insistence that the marriage goes ahead for the honour of the family—are not accepted. It is interesting that the tribunal’s report concludes that in more than 70 per cent of all marriages between an English spouse and one from another country there is an element of force or coercion before the marriage takes place.
The report further notes that in the immigration procedures for the foreign spouse, there is no obligation for the immigration officer to check the character of the marriage that is the basis for entry into the UK for the foreign spouse. Once the initial two-year period of residence is over, and the couple are reinterviewed by the Home Office, it will be too late to detect the false character of the marriage between the two people. The foreign national may also be forced into silence because the well-being of the family at his or her home of origin depends on the continuance of the family links in the UK. The MAT recommends a new immigration process to deal with incoming spouses that depends in part on the British citizen providing a voluntary submission to the MAT judges that the marriage he or she has entered into was not forced or coerced. That would result in a written declaration from the judges of the MAT that the marriage did not involve force or coercion and the UK citizen could use that declaration to support the application of the foreign spouse to settle in the UK. This would involve no change to current immigration legislation. Do the Government welcome this approach, which does not alter immigration itself or the current procedures of the Immigration Service, but might be an aid to understanding when couples are truly married, even under Muslim law, and when they have been coerced into marriage?
Another useful source is the recent report of the Home Affairs Committee of the House of Commons. I shall mention two of many witness statements: those from the Iranian and Kurdish Women's Rights Organisation and from the Southall Black Sisters. In its evidence, IKWRO describes what it calls “so-called family “honour” as,
“a patriarchal ideology of oppression”,
and “honour” killing as being,
“akin to lynching in the family's intent to maintain the oppression of women as a gender”.
It goes on to refer to the organised nature of so-called “honour” killings, as involving,
“a collective desire to kill”,
“a large conspiracy to evade justice”.
It is difficult to think of two more damning phrases than those. That is strong language indeed, but does the Minister appreciate that there are important issues of humans rights involved? What, if anything, do the Government feel can be done about these events, which are a real blot on the UK's reputation in this respect?
The evidence from the Southall Black Sisters points again to the no recourse system, by which abused spouses recently arrived in this country cannot obtain any funding if they have to flee the family home. I recently received a reply from Mr Vernon Coaker to a letter of mine on this matter in which he seems to be trying to do his best to improve the situation, but the progress he told me about seems to depend on the victim having already succeeded in obtaining indefinite leave to remain. Have I missed the point somewhere? Can the Minister give me any reassurance on this point? I doubt whether many people would think that immigration status should determine the life of a young woman who may have been brought into this country more or less by force and who has no place to go for shelter because she knows nobody but her spouse’s family in this country.
The recommendations of the House of Commons report amount to 111 paragraphs spread over 16 pages of single-spaced lines. It is impossible to refer to them all, or even any of them, in real detail, but I was struck by the emphasis placed on the collection and reporting of domestic violence data across all government departments on a comparable basis and on publishing those data. That seems to be an important first step in getting a handle on the size and importance of this issue.
A concern was expressed by witnesses to the Home Affairs Committee that police staff sometimes think that reports brought to them by victims are simply not true. A recommendation that the Government commission a separate study on the prevalence of forced marriage in this country could be helpful in addressing that mutual misunderstanding, with benefit to victims.
A third series of recommendations concentrated on the need for an information campaign, including specific information on honour-based killing and forced marriage. The report also contains recommendations on the need for better education in schools, not just about forced marriage as such but on sex and relationships in general. Clearly these subjects are of immense importance to young people. Some victims have found immense support within their school. With an increasing level of violence among young people in intimate relationships, to which the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Ripon and Leeds referred, such teaching could have benefits for the wider school population whatever their religion. Does the Minister recognise the role that education could play in tackling these problems? Will commitment be given to trying to find an acceptable way of promoting such education in schools?
This is an enormous subject which impinges on our consciences—or should do so. It must be a matter of satisfaction that real efforts are being made to understand and tackle the problems we have been discussing. I am sure we will be returning to it on other occasions. Meanwhile I look forward to the Minister’s response.
My Lords, I too add my congratulations to my noble friend Lady Park of Monmouth for securing this important debate. I know of her deep passion and commitment in ensuring that this debate remains at the heart of our public debate here. It neatly follows on from the previous debate. My noble friend has raised a number of serious questions and I look forward to the Minister’s response. I will pick up on some of the points already raised by my noble friend and other noble Lords.
We are aware that each year children, predominantly girls from south Asian families, are taken out of education in the context of a family holiday or similar, and then disappear from the system. While everyone recognises that there is a problem, there still appears a great reluctance on the part of local authorities and other agencies to intervene, or to be proactive in seeking out these young people. I will listen with great interest to the Minister’s comments on what the Government are doing to ensure that their guidelines are being properly followed. They must recognise the need to ensure that while we respect cultural sensitivities, it must not be at the expense of young people reliant on those agencies to protect them.
I start by addressing forced marriage. As has been recognised by this House, and as required by the Forced Marriage (Civil Protection) Act 2007, we must distinguish between arranged marriages and forced marriages. The former are accepted and often successful cultural practices where both partners willingly consent. In contrast, forced marriages are an unjustified and unacceptable human rights violation. Physical and emotional abuse remain at the heart of coercion. Often young people find themselves in places where they are alone and friendless. Submission is usually the only option. However, there is sometimes a fine line between arranged and forced marriages. We must be aware of that.
Let me quote from Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet”:
“Oh, bid me leap, rather than marry Paris,
From off the battlements of yonder tower”.
Forced marriage is an age-old phenomenon. While it is uncommon among many cultures, sadly it remains high in others. Statistics from the Forced Marriage Unit highlight that 15 per cent of the 400 cases a year they deal with involve young men. The ages of victims range from as young as 13 to adulthood. Their family backgrounds range from African and European to Asian descent.
I wish to highlight the practical problems associated with tackling forced marriage. The work of the Forced Marriage Unit is to be commended since its success in helping those who have been through this ordeal is tremendous. However, it must be noted that on top of the 400 cases a year which the Forced Marriage Unit deals with, those at Southall Black Sisters state that they see another 150 extra cases a year.
Southall Black Sisters provides phenomenal support within the heart of the community and it would be devastating to see its funding cut, as was suggested to me recently by a friend. More alarmingly, Dr Nazia Khanum, OBE, in her research into the prevalence of this problem within the UK, estimated that there are, in fact, 3,000 cases of forced marriage a year. Why is there such a disparity between the 400 cases reported to the FMU and the estimate given in Dr Khanum’s report? It seems that the gap is led by fear: fear on the part of the victim who does not know to whom or how to report their concerns and fear on the part of public bodies to get involved. For that reason, to ensure that the Forced Marriage Act is effective in protecting both existing and potential victims, I urge that the guidelines to professionals on dealing with the issue are rigorously enforced and monitored.
How will the Minister monitor whether appropriate mandatory training for police officers, social workers, health workers and teachers is taking place? As I am sure he will agree, only that will ensure that the victims will feel competent to deal confidently with the problem, and it will also increase the victim’s faith in the system. The role of teachers in ensuring the success of the Act is vital, especially for the 12 to 18 year-olds, where the problem is most prevalent. If teachers are trained to recognise the warning signs of a forthcoming forced marriage or a removal from education, their ability to approach a child may overcome a child's fear of reporting their concerns. Training must be enforced, not only on recognition of the problem, but in discussing issues sensitively and competently, and on the procedure to follow and find support. Schools and colleges already have posters that they can put up, but some head teachers are reluctant in case they cause offence to local communities. We must take the issue as seriously as that of child protection. Will the Minister reassure noble Lords that schools and colleges which report young people not returning from long absences will be taken seriously and will he ensure that thorough investigations take place, as that may be the only lifeline that such young people may have?
In reference to points made by my noble friend, education and its availability to provide a basis on which young people of all backgrounds can learn of the history and cultural values of the country in which they reside is important. They can then relate to the difficulties that they face when they undergo the onslaught of cultural responsibilities from the culture into which they are born.
The second issue is female genital mutilation, which has recently been discussed at length in the House. I do not wish to repeat the ways in which genital mutilation can occur as the noble Baroness, Lady Rendell, has expressed it with much greater knowledge than I could ever possibly do. It is a horrific custom—a vile procedure. It is carried out on girls who are mainly between the ages of four and 10 and the lasting trauma impacts on their innocent lives for the rest of their lives. The World Health Organisation outlined the four ways in which it may occur, and each one is more barbaric than the last. I urge all noble Lords to go on to the website and read the foul, vile, obscene violation of young girls’ lives. Whatever reasons are used to justify the practice of mutilation of female genitalia, it is a criminal offence and the utmost protection to potential and existing victims must be provided. Forward UK estimates that 279,500 women currently residing in England and Wales are likely to have undergone FGM, while 22,000 children under the age of 15 are likely to be at risk of undergoing the procedure. Yet despite these staggering numbers, this House has noted that not one prosecution has occurred under the Female Genital Mutilation Act 2003. It is obviously a sensitive and difficult subject and the role of health professionals is vital to prevent the continuation of this abuse of human rights. The noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, has stated:
“When FGM comes to the attention of any professional, consideration needs to be given to any child protection implications … and a referral made to social services or the police if appropriate”.—[Official Report, 5/6/08; col. 260.]
Are there any statistics evidencing that disclosures have been made or that information has been followed through? As with forced marriage, I highlight the need for clear guidance in order to protect vulnerable individuals from practices that cannot be justified by cultural context. No doubt these issues will be discussed many times over—that is right. Those who have the protection of our legal system must always be assured that when they feel voiceless, there will be many fighting hard for the rights that they should enjoy, regardless of what community they belong to. We must make it clear to those who support these practices that they have nowhere to hide.
I had an arranged marriage nearly 31 years ago. My husband won me over with Crunchie bars and fruit cake. There are many successful stories, but some, unfortunately, are heartbreaking; of young people married against their will and of communities building walls of silence or colluding with parents to unleash vile measures in order to sustain and maintain these cultural practices. I belong to a community that still prefers boys to girls; where different standards apply depending on whether you are a boy or a girl; and where, in the name of family honour, particular practices continue, allowing torture, beatings and the removal of all rights and liberties, especially if you are female. Let us remove the label of “honour” from those disgraceful practices. There is no honour in actions that defile, belittle and degrade other human beings.
I understand the reasoning behind proposals in the Education and Skills Bill to make education or training compulsory to the age of 18, but I urge noble Lords to look closely at the unintended consequences that may arise. I hope that we do not see children going absent from education at an even earlier age.
While I had an arranged marriage, my children would find it very difficult to accept that concept. It is fortunate that we live in a country that upholds and supports the decision to choose. Therefore I would be very wary of the slow creep of Sharia law into our legal system. I support the right to uphold one’s culture, but it must be done within the boundaries of the British legal system, where one law applies to all, regardless of religion, gender, ethnicity or social background. The noble Baroness, Lady Cox, is absolutely right to point that out. We have a twin-track system developing in this country. It is crucial that all citizens speak English so that they can confidently access the rights and protections that all citizens of this country deserve. I have spent all but nine months of my life in this country. I fear that after some movement forward, there is now a lot of movement backwards. I have fought very hard to highlight the rights of women, particularly from my community. It is a long battle that will need the support and help of your Lordships’ House.
My Lords, it is with some trepidation that I step into this debate as the Minister. I have listened to seven strong-minded and powerful women debate issues that are particularly challenging for us—I also pay tribute to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Ripon and Leeds. I shall not go any further on that one. My point is that the women who have spoken have all brought unique contributions to your Lordships’ House and spoken powerfully and with passion on issues that are sensitive to our culture and the nature of our multicultural society.
I was particularly impressed, as I always am, by the noble Baroness, Lady Park, and her well balanced speech, touching as it did on the need for respect for diverse cultures but warning us of the passive acceptance of some aspects of Sharia law in particular into our culture and the dangers of ignoring the adverse consequences of that. Her warning was extremely important, particularly when she drew attention to the part that some aspects of Sharia law can play in justifying cultural practices that, as we have heard this afternoon, can have an absolutely appalling impact, particularly on women.
I very much welcome the debate, because it enables me on behalf of the Government to set the record straight on a number of issues. I listened with tremendous interest to the words of the noble Baroness, Lady Greenfield, who spoke from the perspective of a woman scientist. The understanding of the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, and her description of Sharia law and its potential impact were also enlightening. I was also enormously impressed, as I always am, by the authority and passion with which the noble Baroness, Lady Rendell, spoke about female genital mutilation. The noble Baroness, Lady Thomas of Walliswood, made it apparent to all of us that we have a duty to protect all our citizens, regardless of their ethnic origin, their ethnic background and how they came to be here. I also listened with great care to the words of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Ripon and Leeds.
I make it clear to noble Lords that, in this country, the rule of law has absolute primacy. While we respect other cultures and greatly value the diversity of the many different people who live and work in this country, that respect should in no way infringe the rights of UK citizens to full protection under UK law. The rule of law is more than just the sum total of national and international law. As the former Attorney-General, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Goldsmith, said,
“it is not simply about rule by law … it … comprehends some statement of values which are universal and ought to be respected as the basis of a free society … there are some rights so fundamental that there can be no compromise on them”.
I absolutely agree. As this debate has made clear, those values may occasionally conflict with values of other cultures. The heritage of certain cultures gives rise to challenges in ensuring that the rule of law in this country is respected and upheld. However, the Government have the necessary tools in place to address these challenges. I will set out the challenges in turn, because they need to be dealt with full on.
This is plainly a timely debate in relation to forced marriage, given the publication of the report by the Home Affairs Committee of the other place, Domestic Violence, Forced Marriage and “Honour”-Based Violence. The Government have welcomed the committee’s report and we will respond fully in due course. We particularly welcome the acknowledgement in the report that significant steps have been taken to tackle these issues.
The Government have taken a proactive approach to addressing forced marriage. First, we have strengthened the legislation through the implementation of the Forced Marriage (Civil Protection) Act 2007. In constructing that Act, the Government listened carefully to stakeholders, who warned us that making forced marriage a criminal offence would deter victims from seeking police assistance, as they would not wish to criminalise members of their family. However, the Act offers civil remedies to protect victims or potential victims of forced marriage and it protects those who are already in such marriages. I listened with great care to the noble Baroness, Lady Verma, on forced marriage. I was entranced by her description of her own marriage. A particular problem has been highlighted. Fortunately, things turned out well for the noble Baroness, but that is clearly not always the case.
Courts can make a forced marriage protection order to prevent a forced marriage from occurring or pre-empt it. The order can contain prohibitions or restrictions on those who would force the victim into marriage. It may be applied for by a third party, if the victim is not able to protect themselves. A person in breach or contempt of an order made under the Act can then be dealt with under contempt of court powers, which could ultimately include sending them to prison for two years. An order can be made to protect the victim even where the police conclude that there is insufficient evidence to bring a criminal prosecution. Where a forced marriage has already taken place, courts can make orders to protect the victim and help to remove them from that situation. The court can add a power of arrest where violence is threatened or used and the court considers that there will be inadequate protection without it.
In addition to this legislative measure, we are working to raise awareness and understanding of the issues among practitioners, communities and potential victims, including children and young people. We are putting together new statutory guidance for police, social services and health and education professionals, as the noble Baroness, Lady Verma, was keen for us to do. We are improving our data collection in this area and we continue to take up individual cases through our Forced Marriage Unit. Again, I was grateful for the tribute that the noble Baroness paid to the unit, which was established in January 2005 to act as the United Kingdom’s one-stop shop for providing support and information to those at risk and undertaking extensive outreach work to raise awareness of the issue. It dealt with around 400 cases last year and I expect that number to increase.
We are working particularly hard to ensure that children and young people are aware of the issues around forced marriage. About a third of the cases that the Forced Marriage Unit deals with involve minors—people under 18 and, in some cases, children as young as 13. These are clearly cases of child abuse. The guidance that we published for schools in January 2007, Safeguarding Children and Safer Recruitment in Education, contains information about forced marriage. In April this year, we wrote to all local authorities and schools to remind them of their responsibilities in relation to forced marriage. We will shortly be sending all secondary schools awareness-raising materials designed for schools and young people, which we will encourage schools to use. In February 2007, we introduced a new statutory duty for local authorities to identify any children who go missing from schools and to follow up these cases to ensure that the children have not come to harm, such as being forced into marriage. Clearly there is more work to do to sharpen and raise awareness.
The noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, cited some chilling cases of honour-based violence and the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, usefully drew attention to the issue of honour-based violence in the context of Sharia law. There are few crimes more grievous than violence carried out in the name of honour. So-called honour killings and beatings have no place in a civilised society. They bring dishonour on those who plan and commit them, dishonour on the customs and religions that those people follow and dishonour on the communities that those people come from.
In this country we are rightly proud of our ethnic, religious and cultural diversity. We are proud also of our strong defence of fundamental freedoms, which include the freedom of people to interact with whom they wish and to court, marry and have children with whom they wish. There are those who would have otherwise—those who wish to see interaction only between people of the same background and only then in the most tightly governed circumstances. However, we will never accept this. We will do everything that we can to protect those in danger of being victims of so-called honour crimes and to investigate and prosecute the perpetrators of them.
We are also working hard to educate communities about these dreadful crimes. We are currently sponsoring a series of regional roadshows and seminars to this effect. Communities are important. People often fail to prevent such crimes and protect the planners and perpetrators or help them to leave the country. They, too, need educating and they, too, may be guilty of serious criminal offences that carry heavy penalties. In those cases, we will pursue them vigorously. I am grateful that examples of this have recently been reported in the national press.
The noble Baroness, Lady Rendell, spoke, as one would expect, with her usual measured passion against the practice of female genital mutilation. We are doing everything that we can to deal with FGM. Noble Lords will know that we used to refer to this practice as female circumcision, but it bears no resemblance at all to its male equivalent. It has no medical, hygiene or health benefits in any form. It is a cruel and brutal practice, often undertaken, as the noble Baroness said, on very young girls who are in no position to defend themselves from it and for whom the devastating consequences can last a lifetime.
The Government have made it absolutely clear that we will pander to no cultural sensitivities whatever in relation to FGM. We have brought in specific offences to deter UK residents from practising FGM either at home or abroad. The Female Genital Mutilation Act 2003 made it an offence for UK nationals or permanent UK residents to carry out FGM abroad or to aid, abet, counsel or procure the carrying out of FGM abroad, even in countries where the practice is legal. The Act also reflected the serious harm that FGM causes by increasing the maximum penalty from five to 14 years’ imprisonment.
Noble Lords will realise that prosecuting cases of FGM is extremely difficult. At the time of mutilation, victims may be young and vulnerable. They may be too afraid to report offences or to give evidence in court, and there are evidential and other difficulties if cases are reported many years after the event. However, the FGM Act 2003 sends the clearest possible message that FGM, wherever and whenever it occurs, is a wholly unacceptable practice. We have good evidence to suggest that the Act is already preventing FGM in specific cases.
In addition to legislation, the Government have issued guidance to all professionals dealing with children and a training DVD specifically aimed at health professionals. There is also specific guidance from the Association of Chief Police Officers. In London, the Metropolitan Police Service has offered a £20,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and prosecution of anyone carrying out FGM in the capital. We are also supporting work in a large number of countries, particularly in Africa, aimed at eradicating the practice and providing healthcare for girls and women affected by it in those countries. As with so-called honour-based violence, we are working hard with the communities involved to ensure that family and wider community members do not protect those who commit these crimes.
The noble Baroness, Lady Cox, drew attention to the impact and extent of domestic violence in ethnic minority communities—although the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Ripon and Leeds said that there was no evidence to suggest that domestic violence was more prevalent in those communities. There is an issue and a debate to be had on this. Domestic violence is a devastating crime that impacts across all communities and the Government are fully committed to improving our response. It is estimated that domestic violence will affect as many as one in four women in this country at some point in their lives. It will affect as many as one in six men, although such incidents are typically less severe and less often repeated.
Our national delivery plan provides the framework through which we are delivering change. Key pivotal planks have been the ongoing expansion of specialist domestic violence courts, the introduction of independent domestic violence advisers and multi-agency risk assessment conferences. As at April this year, 98 specialist domestic violence courts across England and Wales were accredited, including at least one in every region. We plan to embed and expand the programme to have 128 systems in place by 2011. Independent domestic violence advisers guide victims through the criminal justice process and provide specialist advice and practical and emotional support. Involvement with victims of domestic violence has been shown to decrease victimisation and reduce victim withdrawal. We are also rolling out multi-agency risk assessment conferences to protect victims at high risk of serious harm or homicide. That programme will be completed by 2011. Further, we have committed £6.5 million this year for rolling out multi-agency risk assessment conferences and independent domestic violence advisers. These plans are underpinned by the Government’s new public service agreements, which, for the first time, prioritise serious violence, including domestic violence.
We are also working through the health service to better detect and intervene early in cases that come to its attention. For example, we know that 30 per cent of domestic violence either starts or escalates during pregnancy, so we now routinely inquire about this, confidentially and safely, as part of antenatal provision. There has to be a cultural dimension to this, which informs and is a critical part of our work.
In 2003, the Government announced a major investment in refuge provision in England. Over £34 million of capital was allocated and, as a result, approximately 511 units of new and refurbished accommodation are being provided. These are in addition to considerable existing provision. For example, housing associations have around 3,200 units of accommodation across the country for women at risk of domestic violence. This is clearly a welcome improvement.
A number of questions have been asked today. Answering them all would be an impossible task and I have no intention of doing so. However, I will put together a compendium letter picking up the important and various points that were raised. I have made a note of some of them and will try to respond to them as the debate draws to a close.
The noble Baronesses, Lady Park and Lady Cox, both made the point that Sharia law infringes the rights of women. That is an important argument, as it is clear that Sharia law can infringe women’s rights in education, marriage and other areas. As I made plain, Sharia law has no jurisdiction in England and Wales and there are no plans to change that. Moreover, it should be noted that domestic and honour-based violence are in no way condoned under Sharia law and that we must continue to pursue those who commit these crimes through the criminal justice system.
The noble Baroness, Lady Park, made some points about polygamous marriages. We do not support polygamous marriages, although the United Kingdom is a receiver of polygamous marriages conducted in other countries and cultures. We support the law that prohibits parties from contracting polygamous marriages in this jurisdiction. We have to recognise that those marriages have been lawfully made in other jurisdictions by citizens of other countries, but we believe that there are probably fewer than 1,000 such marriages in existence in the United Kingdom. Some of the issues surrounding polygamous marriage obviously spill over into issues relating to the benefits system. They are many and complex and I do not think that I have time to go through them this afternoon, much as it might provide some interesting arguments and debates, but I will try to address the subject in correspondence.
The noble Baroness, Lady Greenfield, valuably, as ever, drew attention to the importance of women in science and in particular the Asian Women of Achievement Awards and the BME women in science awards. The Government obviously strongly support the Asian Women of Achievement Awards and we have helped to sponsor the event. We wish to continue to see it flourish and I commend it to all noble Lords. I also commend the efforts of the noble Baroness, Lady Greenfield, to get more well qualified women from all backgrounds to stay in science and related careers. We very much share that objective. I am sure that she will not blush when I say that she has played a fantastic role in advancing the cause of women in science.
The noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, asked about changes in forced marriage law and visa applications. We have just completed a consultation exercise on a range of issues related to visa applications in marriage cases, including on whether to increase the age requirement from 18 to 21 for sponsored visas. We are giving careful consideration to all the contributions and we will be reporting on that issue shortly. I recognise how important it is. It is obviously a complicated matter but I think that we can feasibly make some improvements and changes that may begin to tackle some of the issues relating to forced marriage and the bringing of spouses into the United Kingdom.
The noble Baroness, Lady Verma, referred to the value of the work of the Southall Black Sisters and to possible threats to their funding, which surprised me. Like the noble Baroness, I respect their work greatly and we would be very concerned if that were the case. However, I understand that they have been invited to apply for further funding alongside other such groups, so I think that one should be hopeful that funding will continue in the future.
My time is up. I apologise for not having covered all the points but, as I said, I shall make sure that we pick those up and respond to them directly. I shall ensure that all Members of your Lordships’ House who have contributed to the debate receive a copy of my letter.
This has been an extremely valuable debate. We take this issue seriously: the rule of law must remain paramount. The Government will pander to no cultural or other consideration in dealing with these important issues and the sensitivities that arise from them. I pay tribute to the noble Baroness for raising this matter in the way she did, naturally following on from the earlier debate, which certainly in its conclusion was also valuable.
My Lords, I had serious doubts when I realised what a splendid debate had preceded this one and how many things had been said that were probably extremely relevant to our discussion. However, I do not regret introducing this debate, because all the speakers today have been fascinating in their completely different ways. I am deeply grateful and I think that the House owes a great debt of gratitude to them.
A very great Ghanaian called Robert Gardiner once said that the British left a major legacy in their former colonial countries—the language of English and the rule of law. I think that that is still true in this country today. English matters because everyone can communicate and, as many speakers have said today, communication is one of the great issues. The rule of law is the other and it is deeply important.
I am extremely grateful to everyone, not least the Minister. I look forward to his answers to some of my questions. I beg leave to withdraw the Motion for Papers.
Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.
London Local Authorities and Transport for London Bill
Read a third time.
My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill do now pass. I hope not to detain your Lordships for too long. I need to declare an interest as joint president of London Councils, the representative body of the 33 London borough councils—that is, the 32 boroughs and the City. I am delighted to see in his place my fellow joint president—or co-joint president; I am not sure how to express it—the noble Lord, Lord Graham of Edmonton. I know that the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin of Roding, would have been here but he has to be abroad. On this occasion, I am also speaking on behalf of Transport for London, which, with Westminster City Council, is the joint promoter of the Bill. All the 33 authorities have passed the necessary resolutions, and the mayoral consent needed to get to this stage has been given.
The Bill contains a number of important measures for the councils and for Transport for London in their roles as highway, street and traffic authorities. I know that the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, has made a valuable contribution to the penalty-charge provisions of the Bill from his questioning of that issue.
First, however, I should like to mention one other topic—that is, filming in London. The promoters of the Bill have worked closely with Film London, the capital’s film and media agency funded by the UK Film Council and the London Development Agency, and have come forward with clauses which will enable the London authorities to close streets for the purposes of filming. The provisions take up and modify existing legislation which was originally introduced to enable the Tour de France to take place in England last year. Unfortunately, the provisions were not drafted widely enough to enable closures to take place for filming. Your Lordships will appreciate the importance of the film industry to London and to the country as an income generator. Huge expertise is concentrated here and we have already made films set in the centre of London. It would be nice if the outskirts of London were used a bit more. When I was a member of the London Assembly we looked at the constraints on filming and we heard what a difference a supportive local authority can make. I am delighted this Bill will assist.
The main area of discussion today and the largest part of the Bill is Part 5, the provisions proposed to deal with the problem of those who persistently evade parking and other penalty charges. The problem is serious. There is a hard core of persistent evaders who rack up thousands of pounds-worth of penalty charges which are never paid. They do this in not only the parking regime, but congestion charging, bus lane infringement and other traffic regimes. There is evidence to show that those responsible are quite often involved in criminal activity as well; I have heard tell of that on a number of occasions. I do not understand why some people will fail to pay their car tax, which is quite easily noticed, since being stopped for this apparently leads to their being discovered to be responsible for a whole raft of other crimes—non-driving ones as well—but it seems that there is a mindset about evading every rule rather than being smart about the ones evaded.
Part 5 provides what is, unavoidably, a complex framework for enabling the London authorities to recover outstanding penalty charges. In summary, the authorities would ultimately be able to immobilise and remove offending vehicles to the pound if three or more outstanding penalty charges have been incurred and remain unpaid—“outstanding” is defined in the Bill. Based on the experience of the congestion charging regime, which has similar provisions, the authorities have every reason to believe that it is unlikely that innocent motorists will be caught up in these procedures. However, they recognise that there may be the very occasional case where, through no fault of his own, an owner of a vehicle finds that action has been taken against it under Part 5. The obvious example is where someone buys a vehicle second-hand and charges were incurred by the previous owner. To deal with this, at every stage of the procedure, the authorities have introduced a provision which would entitle the person claiming the release of the impounded vehicle to pay a bond rather than the full amount of the outstanding penalty charges. Those, in extreme cases, could amount to thousands of pounds. The bond would be recoverable by a claimant if, through the representations and appeals provisions in the Bill, he were able to establish that he was not responsible for incurring the penalty charges. While the representations and appeal process is ongoing, he would be able to continue to use the vehicle without fear of it being removed to the pound again, because the authorities will issue a certificate of immunity to be displayed on the dashboard.
Your Lordships will not be surprised that the actual level at which the bond will be set is not set out in the Bill. It will be decided jointly by the London borough councils and Transport for London once the Bill attains Royal Assent. The promoters have assured me that, on introduction of the scheme, the level of the bond will be less than the total cost of three outstanding penalty charges. The view is that the figure will be in the region of £250, an amount which anyone who can afford to drive is likely to be able to access without too much difficulty.
The other issue which has been raised with the promoters by the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, is the clarity of information given to claimants of vehicles who have discovered that their car has been impounded. In particular, I believe he is understandably concerned about information given about how representations and appeals can be made. I entirely agree with him about the importance of ensuring that people—in this case, drivers—know their rights and are not baffled by legalese.
Where a bond is paid and the vehicle is released the claimant will be entitled to make representations to the authority and subsequently, if necessary, appeal to an independent adjudicator on a number of grounds. For example, this will enable somebody who has bought a vehicle second-hand to allege that it was the person from whom he bought the vehicle who is responsible for the debts. The promoters will take particular care to ensure that the rights to make representations are clearly explained. The wording used on penalty charge notices under the existing regimes was revised recently to give more clarity in this respect. The promoters will ensure that the complex procedure in Part 5 will be set out in a form that can be readily understood by those who fall within its scope.
I hope that will serve to alleviate any concerns about the Bill, particularly those of the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, and I hope the Bill can be passed this afternoon.
Moved, That the Bill do now pass.—(Baroness Hamwee.)
My Lords, I am extremely grateful to the Bill’s promoters and to their advisers for the trouble that they have taken to address the concerns that I had with the Bill, and I am delighted to tell the noble Baroness that they have succeeded in that.
Two things get my goat about traffic enforcement: one is when the regulations are enforced unreasonably and the other is when they are not enforced at all. As far as the unreasonable enforcement is concerned, all the promoters of the Bill are my regular opponents. I chair an organisation called the London Motorists Action Group and we spend a lot of our time trying to deal, for instance, with Camden, which makes a vast surplus—tens of millions of pounds every year—on its traffic enforcement account by being completely unreasonable in the way that it enforces the regulations, and with my own borough of Wandsworth, which chooses to send people round on mopeds on Boxing Day to ticket people who are picking up supplies of groceries from backstreet convenience stores. So I am politically neutral in my targets in this matter: both the former Labour Camden and the present Liberal Camden and the Conservative Wandsworth all reap my ire. Indeed Transport for London, in its former practices in collecting the congestion charge, made the terms so unreasonable to begin with that if you were a minute past midnight in paying your congestion charge you were fined 50 quid, and it has never made it possible to pay by direct debit or any convenient means. I am very hopeful that our new mayor will remedy some of these deficiencies. I believe he has promised to do so.
However, on the subject of this Bill and dealing with people who persistently evade their parking fines, I am entirely at one with all the promoters of the Bill that something effective should be done, and I believe that they have come up with something that is in essence an effective way of doing it. But there are problems with that. If it is just Transport for London chasing people who have three or more outstanding congestion charges, and it takes a car, sticks it in the pound and you turn up there at midnight to deal with it, you have only one organisation—a reasonably efficient organisation—at the back end of that, and you are likely to be able to sort out problems reasonably quickly. But where you have all the London boroughs involved—some whose back offices are in a state of chaos, and where you will find when you are appealing a parking ticket that it suddenly goes live again because of the mistakes made in the back office—and if you travelled round London a good deal and perhaps collected your three tickets from three different authorities, none of which is maintaining a 24-hour helpline and a couple of which may have lost paperwork or take a long time to deal with the outstanding problem, which is typical, it is just not right for a motorist to find that they have been deprived of their car with no easy way of getting it back. They cannot just pay the fines. If you are appealing a fine and you pay it, you lose your right to appeal. So you cannot pay the fines to get your car out of jug. It is quite unreasonable to ask someone who has been wrongly towed to pay the full amount.
I am grateful that the promoters of the Bill have settled on what I consider to be a reasonable amount. It is important that £250 is a figure to which people have ready access, the sort of amount which you would expect them to be able to get on their debit or credit card in a single transaction. It must enable people to get their car out without doing their arguments over the correctness of their parking fines any damage, and for them to have the use of their car while they are pursuing their legal rights. The promoters of the Bill have achieved this, and I am grateful to them for their concessions.
My Lords, it gives me pleasure to follow my co-president of London Councils, the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, in warmly welcoming the Bill. Those of us who have worked on a Bill of this kind—I have done so only once—can be satisfied that the committee on the Bill did a proper job. It dealt with a topic affecting not only those who drive around and have businesses in London, but every citizen. It is right and proper that the 32 London boroughs, and others who are affected, take this matter seriously.
In 2008, we live in a society that is heavily dependent on access to a car and reasonable provision for it. I live in Loughton in the middle of Epping Forest, and frequently travel through London. I first congratulate the powers that be on the congestion charge. We all have experiences, but I am convinced that the situation for those who need and wish to pay the charge and drive in London is much more satisfactory than it was 10 years ago.
The noble Lord, Lord Lucas, said that he had a problem with enforcement being carried out “unreasonably” or “not at all”. That is true of the application of any legislation. One hears horrifying tales of road rage or car-parking rage, increasingly involving not only anger but violence and worse. We are dealing with an emotional subject for many. I do not envy the 32 London councils and others who must apply this legislation. Some of the caveats mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, may turn out to be well founded and worthy of reconsideration in some form. In my experience of working with the 32 London councils, I am satisfied that there will be a genuine desire to ensure that the law is applied fairly and evenly.
Some offenders are persistent in not paying their charges and, often, not paying their road tax and insurance; in other words, they are a bad lot. They must be dealt with seriously. I do not have a reputation for being hard on people, but anyone who seeks to drive a car—a weapon that can kill—and does not take the proper steps to ensure that they abide by the law, and this is the law, ought to be dealt with harshly.
My two pennyworth consists of congratulating the London boroughs and others involved in the Bill. I especially congratulate those who were involved with the proceedings in the committee. They deliberated for a long time and dealt fairly with it. I am satisfied that the Bill was substantially improved by the committee. I am very glad to have the chance to take part in this debate.
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, for her explanation of the Bill. I wish to make a few observations. I share some of the anxieties expressed by my noble friend Lord Lucas. I listened carefully to the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Graham of Edmonton, in which he said nothing with which I disagreed. I am always surprised that the measures in such a Bill are not already provided for somewhere else. Clearly, its passing will not make the “News at Ten” this evening but it covers important details. I pay tribute to all those who have worked on it, including your Lordships and officials outside the House who put a lot of effort into getting it right.
My Lords, I shall be brief. I pay tribute to the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, who took the Bill through the House. I am an impostor as this is my first appearance on the Bill. I also pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, for the points he raised. Before I turn to the detail of those matters, I reiterate the importance of the measures in the Bill that the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, mentioned.
Parking enforcement both nationally and in London is no trivial matter. I share the view of the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, that it should be enforced fairly and proportionately, but it should also be enforced properly. TfL claims that there are in the region of 165,000 persistent evaders, and that they account for about 1.3 million unpaid penalty charge notices, which is not a good situation.
When the Bill first entered the legislative process, the Government initially had some concerns about some of its provisions. However, I am glad to say that, following careful negotiation and some amendment of the text, these concerns have now been resolved. The negotiations have led to a Bill which is now aligned with, and will usefully supplement, the Traffic Management Act regime for parking in London, which came into force here, as in the rest of the country, at the end of March this year.
The Government’s concerns about the rights of motorists to a proper representation and appeals process have also been addressed and I commend the Bill to noble Lords on that point. An issue that caused considerable concern was that of the payment of bonds. The noble Lord, Lord Lucas, has been persuaded by the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, on this point. A figure of £250 has been mentioned as a reasonable amount that is neither too high as to be unaffordable nor too low to ensure that drivers made some effort to recover their bond. These points have been recorded and I fully expect the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, to be happy with that. I shall be glad if that is the case. The noble Lord also had concerns about rights of appeal. I believe that there are now sufficient safeguards in place to protect the interests of innocent motorists.
This is timely legislation. It may not make “News at Ten” but it will allow Transport for London and the London boroughs to carry out their highway responsibilities. It will allow them to take effective action against habitual offenders against the parking regime and will enable them to focus their efforts on those offenders who make a habit of breaking the law and expect to get away with it. It should also enable them to fulfil their duty to keep the roads free flowing and safe to use for honest motorists. I am therefore happy to commend the Bill and to congratulate all those, including officials in TfL and the Department for Transport, who have brought the Bill to fruition and ensured that it is workable.
My Lords, I share with the House that I, too, am something of an impostor, as I came to the Bill very recently as well. I am grateful to the Minister, whose head must be spinning from the variety of topics that he has had to cover this week. I have shared some of them with him.
I thank the noble Lord, Lord Graham of Edmonton, for his support. The noble Lord said that the adjudication process has to be dealt with fairly. It has been in place for some years dealing with other matters, so I hope that we can rely on it for this. I thank the noble Earl, Lord Attlee. This might not make “News at Ten”, but I guess it will make quite a lot of technical journals.
I thank the noble Lord, Lord Lucas. I remembered as he was speaking that the two of us have in the past discussed in this Chamber the congestion charge scheme. When there is new technology, I hope that methods of payment such as direct debit will be easily incorporated. That is not for now. The noble Lord referred to the danger of there being different regimes in different authorities and he made some disparaging comments about council back offices. The noble Lord ought to become a councillor and get stuck in, in whichever local authority he would like to reform. He is right about the £250, and it is right that we take the opportunity to put that amount on the record as what is in view as the amount that will initially apply.
On Question, Bill passed, and returned to the Commons with amendments.
Freedom of Information (Additional Public Authorities) Order 2008
rose to move, That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty praying that the order, laid before the House on 8 May, be annulled (SI 2008/1271).
The noble Lord said: My Lords, it may seem rather curious for a Liberal Democrat who has campaigned for freedom of information over many years to have tabled a Prayer that would annul additions to the Freedom of Information Act. I hope to explain to your Lordships’ House why I feel that this is a good opportunity to look at these additions, not to oppose them—bring them on—but to highlight the panoply of organisations providing a public service that are not in the order. To that extent, it is an inadequate order, updating what I fear is becoming a rather inadequate Act.
Let us first think about the value and categorisation that we apply to different public services. There are great institutions on which elections are fought and lost and on which our country relies to keep going, such as schools, hospitals and public transport. Perhaps Members of your Lordships’ House will be surprised to learn that in all three of those key areas there are companies and organisations that provide just such a public function whose actions, priorities, successes and failures still hide behind a cloak of secrecy.
There are some examples, such as the new academy schools, the Government’s big wheeze in education; the contractors who keep our hospitals clean or who carry out operations when the NHS cannot offer a quick service; the train operating companies, many of which effectively operate monopoly services and, of course, Network Rail. All those are outwith the terms of the Act.
There is a further area of concern, which is another issue that turns elections; our crime-fighting agencies. Whole chunks of the justice system remain enclaves of secrecy in a nascent culture of transparency. The operation of the court escort service, private prisons, immigration detention centres and even the Serious and Organised Crime Agency are outside the remit of the Act. It may seem curious to your Lordships’ House that included in the Act are such organisations as the Potato Council. I defy the Minister to explain why potatoes have to be more transparent than prisons; I find that really quite extraordinary.
Members of your Lordships’ House will also recall the curious anomaly that we encountered over the public accountability of Northern Rock when it was nationalised. The Government made strenuous efforts to exclude the bank from freedom of information legislation, even though it is wholly owned by the Treasury and therefore by the nation of taxpayers. As the order and the Explanatory Memorandum make all too clear, freedom of information legislation follows form, not function. Our right to know is predicated not on what somebody or something is doing, but on who is doing it. That is totally illogical.
I take another example. A key government contractor such as Capita carries out public functions in relation to the Criminal Records Bureau, the Driving Standards Agency, the teachers’ pensions agency, television licensing, BBC information lines and—infamously, in the context of the previous debate—congestion charging on behalf of Transport for London. All are subject to no more scrutiny than if that company were running a grocery store. These companies handle public money in pursuit of public functions. Indeed, Capita handles millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money every year, yet it has complete secrecy. I hope the Minister will be able to indicate whether the Government are now minded to bring such contractors within the purview of the Act. If they are so minded, how far have they got in deciding between the options that were enumerated in the Ministry of Justice consultation exercise that closed at the beginning of February?
For example, have the Government now ruled out the quite extraordinary prospect, suggested in Option 3 of the consultation, of simply securing contractual obligations in each case? There are surely serious questions about whether such obligations could even be investigated by the Information Commissioner. It sounds like the worst of all worlds: complexity for that contractor, which would not know where it stood, and great opacity for the public. What of the choice between Options 4 and 5 in the consultation process? Surely a single Section 5 order could never future-proof the Act, since the trend in public policy is to contract out provision of ever more services.
I suspect that when the freedom of information legislation went through this House and the other place, we did not anticipate such an extension of privatisation of services as has occurred under this Government. It was really quite unexpected. Had it been a different sort of Government, perhaps it would have been easier to anticipate this need. The Minister may not be able, this afternoon, to commit the Government to one outcome from the options put forward in the consultation, but I hope he will be able to indicate the direction in which they are heading and, crucially, that he will be able to tell noble Lords when the Ministry expects to publish its response to the consultation. After all, this has now been closed for more than four months.
The main locus of the debate on extending freedom of information is, understandably and rightly, on contractors providing public services. I hope the Minister may also be able to consider private companies which provide essential services to the public, sometimes in a monopoly situation. I take, as an example, the water industry. In Cornwall, my part of the world, people feel the pinch of their water bills more acutely than pretty much any of their other essential outgoings, except perhaps council tax. Indeed, any Member of your Lordships’ House from the south-west—and there are too few of us—knows that we pay the highest water bills in the country.
Whether one’s bills are the highest or the lowest, the local water company takes such decisions as whether to renew ageing pipe work, introduce hosepipe bans or, crucially, change how water is treated and cleaned. These are important issues about vital public services provided, practically, on a monopoly basis. All remain completely opaque, outwith the Freedom of Information Act. While electricity and gas companies are subject to some competition, there is no option to switch away from your water company if you are dissatisfied with the public service it provides. There should surely be a general principle that, if the public relies on a service and has no option to go elsewhere to obtain it, the administration of that service should be subject to full public scrutiny.
I believe in giving credit where credit is due, so there is some good news for the Government. The Freedom of Information Act has proved popular with the public. It has shone a spotlight of public scrutiny on many public bodies, and many a media story has been written as a result. That is good for democracy, even if it is a scandal that some MPs have been so reluctant to embrace the freedom of information culture themselves. Their sensitivities notwithstanding, the Information Commissioner's office found at the beginning of this year that some 80 per cent of the public felt that being able to access information held by public authorities promotes accountability and transparency. Not many government policies get 80 per cent support, so FOI has been a success, and all who campaigned for it, inside and outside Government—and we should give particular credit to Maurice Frankel and the Campaign for Freedom of Information—have every right to be proud of its achievement.
However, I hope the Minister will agree that we should not be complacent. Ministers must surely move swiftly now to close the loopholes and to make the system still more accessible to the public. After all, the third annual report on the operation of the FOI Act, which, by remarkable and delightful coincidence, came out yesterday, makes it clear that a third of requests are partially or wholly withheld. In the light of those figures, is the Minister convinced that the departmental default position, which appears to be non-disclosure, should always be to try to disclose unless there are overriding issues to be faced?
Since the number of requests fully withheld has increased steadily, if slightly, in each year since the Act was implemented, departments must be careful not to pull up the information drawbridge any further. I am thankful that the Government have consigned to the dustbin the absurd proposals we saw last year to limit FOI requests by increasing the cost of making a request. I hope the Minister will agree that this is a good opportunity to build on that constructive approach by committing unequivocally this afternoon to include, for example, the Serious Organised Crime Agency, within the provision of the Act. There cannot be any logic to its exclusion since the police and even Special Branch are already covered. Similarly, unless the Minister can think of an adequate defence for leaving academy schools outside the terms of the Act, it is surely reasonable that he should be asked to tell your Lordships' House when they will be subject to proper scrutiny.
More broadly, I wonder whether the Minister would like to touch on why the public interest test here in England is weaker than that north of the border in Scotland. Why do the Scots have a privilege that we are denied? Will the Minister consider bringing the Act into line with its Scottish counterpart? Perhaps the Minister can also take this opportunity to clarify whether the very successful present Information Commissioner is eligible for reappointment next year, when his appointment comes up for review. If he is not, why not? We know that the present commissioner's office is drastically overstretched—of course, if the Government were more open at the outset, fewer appeals would need to reach his desk. The Minister should be concerned that of the 222 appeals last year, 186—more than four in every five—were in relation to his colleagues in other departments of state.
Members of the public can wait months for their cases to be dealt with. Indeed, parliamentarians, as I know to my cost, can wait months when they put in a request on behalf of their constituents or their labours, and there is a real risk that those delays could put the hard-won public confidence in serious jeopardy. It is clearly important that the commissioner's office is properly resourced, and it is surely time to make the commissioner accountable not to Ministers, but to Parliament. I hope the Minister can touch on whether it would be appropriate to take the model of the Comptroller and Auditor-General for that purpose. Most crucially of all, I hope he will accept that it is important that the commissioner should be allowed to investigate not just bodies owned by the public through their Government but any organisation that provides a public service. If it is a public service, there is demonstrably a public interest in transparency. That is clearly a challenge to this Government and to any possible future Government. I hope that the noble Lord who will speak from the Conservative Front Bench will be able to commit his party to maintaining, not diluting, the freedom of information legislation. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response.
We have come a long way along the freedom of information road. As public confidence in politics and political institutions has tended to wane, this is clearly no moment to stall on that movement or to turn back. We must surely press on and prove that none of our public services has anything to hide. I beg to move.
Moved, That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty praying that the order, laid before the House on 8 May, be annulled (SI 2008/1271).—(Lord Tyler.)
My Lords, many years ago when the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, was in another place and I was where the Minister sits now, answering questions on agriculture, I was aware of the noble Lord as a thorough-going and extremely effective nuisance. He asked difficult questions on subjects such as TSE and organophosphates. It is a pleasure to find him now on the same side as me, at least on this subject.
I remember the Freedom of Information Bill coming through this House. I am delighted that this Government took it through in their first year in office; had they left it until six months later they would never have done it. Certainly they have been slow to pursue its implications and reinforce its coverage ever since. I hope that when we see the results of their review it will tend in the direction that the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, suggests. Certainly it is illogical that schools should be covered and academies should not. Their independence is merely a matter of words rather than function.
From personal experience I would also include in this such bodies as UCAS and the Higher Education Statistics Agency. They are clearly within the public sector. I have had personal experience of this and my appeals to the Information Commissioner against some universities’ refusals to provide me with information took two years to resolve—a long time—because the commissioner is underresourced. The information I was asking for, and which I have now obtained from all English universities at a cost to the public purse which must be around £10,000, has all the time been available from either UCAS or the Higher Education Statistics Agency. I have expressed myself willing to pay for it and they have refused.
This is a great waste of public money on the amour propre of some minor government agencies, just because they happen to have been left out of the Freedom of Information Act. The idea that one should have to go round schools to obtain information which the Department for Children, Schools and Families has is ridiculous. It does not happen; the DCSF is extremely helpful and responsive to freedom of information requests. Yet these outlying bits cause great cost to the public sector and great delay to me for no good reason. I hope that when we come to tidy up the Freedom of Information Act and its scope we will find that these agencies and obvious parts of the public sector are included in it.
I do not go as far as the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, in saying that the scope should go out to the fringes of privatised activity, but we should certainly think about it. I am going to listen carefully to what my noble friend on the Front Bench says, if he chooses to cover this subject. The Act should include everything that the clearly public sector does. It has been a great innovation of this Government. I am delighted that they have done it. I am grateful to them for the use I have made for it and the use I have seen made of it, and most of all in the difference it has made to the relationship between the Government and the governed. I hope they will polish it a bit.
My Lords, I very much appreciate the observation of my noble friend Lord Lucas, of Crudwell and Dingwall, that he is waiting keenly to hear what I have to say to your Lordships’ House this afternoon. However, the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, and my noble friend have covered this topic so admirably and thoroughly that they have left me very little to add.
The Opposition are entirely content with the order, as far as it goes. Should the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, choose to put this Prayer to the test, we would not support him in the Lobbies. Nevertheless, we have considerable sympathy with the concerns that he raised in his speech; indeed, they are concerns that we have raised from these Benches over the previous two or three years. I would like to hear from the Minister an explanation of the considerations that he takes into account in deciding whether to bring a matter within the scope of the Act. The order gives us an opportunity to probe him on this matter.
My noble friend Lord Lucas and the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, have mentioned the plain illogicality between the treatment of schools and the treatment of academies. I note that an organisation like the TB Advisory Group is included in the latest list, whereas there is no mention of Northern Rock. The noble Lord, Lord Tyler, quite rightly drew the Minister’s attention to the fact that a great deal of the justice sector does not fall within the scope of the Act. Equally, he drew our attention to the extremely limited way in which the Act is concerned with the public and private finance initiative.
All those matters are of great public interest; and if the Government are to exclude some of them from the Freedom of Information Act, I believe that Parliament is entitled to have a very clear explanation of the reasons why a particular matter falls within or without the scope of the Act.
My Lords, we are all deeply indebted to the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, for enabling us to have a short but, I hope, illuminating debate about the operation of the freedom of information legislation. He asked a number of fair questions about the criteria in relation to the order and went through an interesting list of organisations which he suggested ought to be included in the Act. He will know that we are undertaking a review at the moment and that, although that means I shall not answer directly some of the specific suggestions that he has made, we will be able to take account of what noble Lords have said this afternoon when considering the outcome of the consultation. The questions raised by noble Lords are perfectly reasonable.
The beauty of the framework of the legislation is that it allows for flexibility and for bodies to be added to the list covered by the legislation. That was extremely sensible and it means that one can move with the times and with new situations. While not all the organisations listed in the order might seem the most exciting of organisations, none the less, it is an example of how there is flexibility to add organisations to the list.
The noble Lord, Lord Tyler, has long been interested in—and a doughty campaigner for—freedom of information. I pay tribute to him and assure him that the Government are proud of the freedom of information legislation. We see it as a far-reaching reform to which we continue to be committed. There is no let-up in our enthusiasm for its operation. Of course there will always be legitimate reasons why some information should not be released by the Government. These matters have received a great deal of attention in relation to the Information Commissioner, the tribunal and more generally. There will continue to be cases that provoke argument and disagreement. However, the fact that this Government will find circumstances where they do not believe that information should be released does not mean that they are not committed to the principle of freedom of information. It is important that I make that clear to your Lordships this afternoon.
I have used freedom of information legislation myself. The statistics in the report published yesterday, and in previous annual reports, show clearly that many thousands of requests have been made, many have been acceded to and many members of the public, media organisations and interested bodies have benefited. It is important that we celebrate the success of freedom of information. Sometimes the controversies and the publicity have tended to obscure the success of what has been achieved.
I understand the issue raised by the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, about backlog and the role of the Information Commissioner, to whom I pay tribute. We are aware that the Information Commissioner is focusing on the backlog of cases. We have responded to his request for additional resources by increasing his funding to £5.5 million—an increase of £800,000 on the 2007-08 baseline figure. In response to the commissioner’s request for people as well as money, we have also established a scheme of secondments from central government to his office. This is already under way and it is a good thing because it is a two-way process. Staff from my department and other departments can be of assistance to the commissioner and there is also the beneficial impact, when they come back to their departments, that they help to imbue the philosophy of freedom of information more widely within government.
We are debating Section 4 of the Act. It is through Section 4 that bodies that should be subject to the Act are added to Schedule 1. Schedule 1 lists the bodies, persons and office holders that are “public authorities” under the Act. Publicly owned companies—that is, companies wholly owned by the Crown or by a Schedule 1 public authority—are also subject to the freedom of information regime. Section 5 consultation is relevant to a number of organisations to which noble Lords have referred.
However, I will start with Section 4, in response to the noble Lord, Lord Kingsland. Section 4 provides an order-making power to add bodies and office holders to the list of public authorities in Schedule 1. To be added to Schedule 1 by a Section 4 order, a body or office holder must meet both conditions set out in subsections (2) and (3) of Section 4. The first condition is that the body must be set up by the prerogative, an Act of Parliament or subordinate legislation, or by a Minister of the Crown, a government department, the Welsh Ministers, the First Minister for Wales or the Welsh Assembly Government’s Counsel General. The second condition is that bodies must have been wholly or partially constituted by appointment made by the Crown, a Minister of the Crown, a government department, the Welsh Ministers, the First Minister for Wales or the Welsh Assembly Government’s Counsel General. Similar provisions exist in respect of appointments to an office.
What are the criteria for adding or deleting? Inevitably, new bodies and offices come into existence or become defunct with the passage of time. It is therefore important that the Act is kept up to date. Between 2002 and 2005, the Government made several Section 4 orders and we intend to make more in the future to ensure that Schedule 1 remains up to date. There is no reluctance on the part of the Government to add to the number of organisations that are covered by Section 4 when those organisations meet the criteria. The simple answer to the question posed is that, if new organisations come along that meet the criteria, we will consider them and add them to the list.
Section 5 allows the Secretary of State to designate by order persons who appear to him either to exercise functions of a public nature or to provide under contract to a public authority services that are a function of that public authority. The Government published a consultation paper in October 2007 seeking views on whether this power should be used. The noble Lord, Lord Tyler, is right to say that the consultation has now closed. We received 130 responses. They are being analysed and we will present our response and proposals as soon as possible. I know that the noble Lord is tempted to ask me to define “as soon as possible”. He will know that my department is energetic and will produce the response and proposals as quickly as we possibly can, but there are issues that will need to be considered. Lots of organisations could be involved. The fact that we have not published yet means that today’s debate can be fed into the consultation. The speeches of the noble Lord and other noble Lords have proved to be of such great value that they are a bonus to the full consideration that my department is giving to these matters.
I completely understand the point that the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, makes about academy schools and some of the organisations that have been listed. These are the very matters that will be considered as a result of that work. As I said, we will consider them very carefully.
On the organisations involved in criminal investigations, my understanding is that SOCA, which the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, mentioned, is exempt from coverage as a security body. That is consistent with Parliament’s treatment of the security services, secret intelligence services and GCHQ. I understand, although I was not involved, that this matter was debated when the Bill went through both Houses. Information provided by security bodies is exempt under Section 23 of the Act. The noble Lord probably does not agree with the philosophy behind it, but that explains why such organisations are not covered.
The noble Lord, Lord Tyler, asked me about Network Rail. I have two answers. If one looks at its structure, one sees that it is a privately owned company that operates on commercial principles. Its main customers are not public authorities but train operating companies and freight operating companies. Interestingly, in July 2007 the Information Commissioner found that the structure, functions and accountability of Network Rail were unusual. The tribunal disagreed, however, with the Information Commissioner’s view that Network Rail was a public authority for this purpose on the basis that its functions were not functions of public administration. Because of that it is much more appropriate to consider whether bodies such as Network Rail should be subject to the provisions of the Act and embraced within the current consideration of Section 5. I would not like the noble Lord to think that Network Rail has simply been swept aside. Consideration is being given to it. I understand the point the noble Lord is making and we had an interesting discussion in Oral Questions this afternoon on the remuneration of directors when Members of your Lordships’ House were able to ask questions in relation to the structure of that organisation.
As for Northern Rock, the Freedom of Information Act applies to publicly owned companies by virtue of Sections 3 and 6. Under the Northern Rock plc Transfer Order 2008 made under the Banking (Special Provisions) Act 2008, Northern Rock is expressly removed from the scope of the Freedom of Information Act. The noble Lord may ask why. Bodies covered by the Freedom of Information Act generally discharge functions of a public nature. Criteria which might be taken into account in determining this include the extent to which a body’s activities are underpinned by statute and whether the body exercises extensive or monopolistic powers. Northern Rock fulfils neither of these criteria and will not be carrying out public functions. Northern Rock will remain a commercial bank. The Act was not intended to apply to purely commercial concerns and therefore it is considered inappropriate for Northern Rock to be within the scope of the Act. Government Statements have made it clear that nationalisation would be only temporary and we think it would therefore be perverse for Northern Rock to be subject to the Act for a limited period of time only for it to be removed on reprivatisation.
As the noble Lord agonises as to whether he is going to pursue this matter to a vote, I say to him that there will always be debate and argument about organisations which do not comfortably fit into Section 4 but come more into Section 5, and the extent to which they should be covered. When we see the outcome of the consultation, noble Lords will have a better understanding of the criteria we are adopting. I assure the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, that we see the Freedom of Information Act as a living, breathing organism which is subject to amendment by having organisations to be covered added to it. I hope that he will accept that, although he is disappointed that the outcome of the consultation is not yet apparent, we are enthusiastic in what we do, as the Prime Minister very clearly signalled when he announced the consultation last autumn, and that the points raised by noble Lords, all of which were entirely legitimate, will be very carefully considered.
My Lords, I am very grateful to the Minister and to other noble Lords for their contributions to this short debate. I am in the unaccustomed position of reeling from the compliments paid. I never had any compliments paid at the other end of this building, except when I left. Being told by the Minister that I am a doughty campaigner is only outshone by being accused by the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, of being a thorough-going and effective nuisance. I take that as the greatest possible compliment and I am very grateful to him.
It will not surprise noble Lords to hear that this is, if I may use the term, a probing Prayer. That does not sound very proper in liturgical terms but I think it is all right in this House. I do not intend, the noble Lord, Lord Kingsland, may be surprised to hear, to push this to a Division, but I am genuinely grateful to the Minister because I think this has proved timely. In his amazingly emollient way, he gives the impression that the Government have deliberately postponed the outcome of the review that was referred to until we had the opportunity of this debate. I take that at face value, knowing how well he can present any case in this House.
The Minister has been very helpful to your Lordships’ House, not least in his reference to monopolistic public services, because a number of the issues that we have addressed fall into that category. If that moves the Government towards considering function rather than form, that would be extremely helpful. The reference to the two sections of the Act was also helpful in that respect.
This has been a useful debate. I am extremely grateful to the Minister and to both noble Lords who have contributed. I take pride in the fact that many of us on all sides of this House and the other place, as well as others, in particular Maurice Frankel of the Campaign for Freedom of Information, who was for a long period a voice crying in the wilderness, were able to achieve success. On that basis, I beg leave to withdraw the Motion.
Motion, by leave, withdrawn.
House adjourned at 5.01 pm.